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China could block GoDaddy’s $120 million MMX swoop

GoDaddy’s proposed $120 million acquisition of essentially all the meaningful assets of portfolio gTLD player MMX will be subject to Chinese government approval, it emerged this morning.

Following GoDaddy’s bare-bones press release announcing the deal last night, this morning MMX added a whole bunch of flesh, including a list of closing conditions, in its statement to shareholders.

GoDaddy is proposing to buy essentially MMX’s entire operating business — the 28 gTLD registry agreements with ICANN, including the four porn-related strings belonging to subsidiary ICM Registry.

Not only do MMX shareholders have to approve the deal — and holders of 64% of the shares have already promised they will — but ICANN approval will be required for the registry contracts to be reassigned.

This may prove a hurdle or delay if third parties raise competition concerns, but ICANN’s pretty opaque approval process generally doesn’t frown too much on industry consolidation.

Another known unknown is China.

MMX told shareholders that it needs: “Approval of Chinese authorities for the change of control of MMX China (including change of control in respect of relevant licenses held by MMX China permitting it to distribute TLDs in China).”

The reason for this is quite straightforward: in volume terms, quite a lot of MMX’s business has been in China in recent years. Popular sellers such as .vip, with over 800,000 names today, have been driven primarily by Chinese investors.

A local presence (in this case MMX China) and approval from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is required to legally sell a TLD to Chinese registrants via Chinese registrars.

I’ve no particular reason to believe MIIT will withhold its approval for MMX China to move into GoDaddy’s ownership, but a failure to get the nod from China appears to be a deal-breaker.

MMX’s statement to the markets this morning also provided some clarity on what exactly it is that GoDaddy is proposing to buy.

The gTLDs to be acquired are: .vip,.nrw, .casa, .vodka, .xxx, .fit, .miami, .fishing, .porn, .beer, .surf, .boston, .adult, .yoga, .garden, .abogado, .work, .fashion, .horse, .rodeo, .sex, .wedding, .luxe, .dds, .law, .bayern, .cooking, and .country.

It seems that when Tony Farrow took over as MMX CEO last year, after his predecessor left due to an accounting snafu, he had the portfolio audited and came to the conclusion that it could expect only pretty crappy growth over the coming years.

It had banked on selling expensive defensive trademark blocks in its four porn-themed gTLDs to big brands to make up the shortfall, but then GoDaddy approached in December brandishing its rather large checkbook.

MMX reckons the deal values the company at a 92% premium over its closing share price Tuesday, and 87% and 78% premiums over its 20-day and 90-day average selling price.

.bayern, .nrw and the four porn gTLDs belong to subsidiaries that GoDaddy will acquire outright, but GoDaddy is not proposing to buy MMX itself.

Rather, MMX will likely stay alive and publicly traded long enough to redistribute its cash windfall to investors and sell or wind down about a dozen non-operating subsidiaries.

It has a transition services agreement to manage certain business functions of the registry until January next year, which sounds a bit like what fellow GoDaddy acquisition .CLUB Domains explained to me last night.

After that, London’s Alternative Investment Market rules will treat MMX as a “cash shell”, and it will either have to acquire an operating business from somewhere or make itself the subject of a reverse takeover by a company looking for a quick way to the public markets.

GoDaddy buys 30 new gTLDs for over $120 million

GoDaddy Registry has just announced it is acquiring 28 new gTLDs from rival MMX, along with the TLDs .club and .design.

The MMX deal is worth at least $120 million; the value of the other two deals was not disclosed.

GoDaddy is also taking over the back-ends for .rugby and .basketball, which had been contracted to MMX, and said it has won the back-end deal for the dot-brand, .ally.

It’s the most significant pieces of registry consolidation since Donuts and Afilias hooked up in December.

GoDaddy Registry will wind up being the contract holder or back-end for over 240 TLDs, with over 14 million domains under management, the company said.

It’s not entirely clear which gTLDs GoDaddy is acquiring right now, but it appears to be all of those listed on the MMX web site.

It’s currently listed by IANA as the sponsor for 21 gTLDs: .cooking, .fishing, .horse, .miami, .rodeo, .vodka, .beer, .luxe, .surf, .nrw, .work, .budapest, .casa, .abogado, .wedding, .yoga, .fashion, .garden, .fit, .vip and .dds.

MMX subsidiary ICM Registry runs .xxx, .porn, .adult and .sex, not an easy fit with the family-friendly image GoDaddy has attempted to cultivate in recent years.

MMX also manages geographic gTLDs .boston, .london and .bayern on behalf of their respective local governments.

The company hinted in January that it was considering selling off some of its under-performing registries, after a crappy 2020 that saw it forced to restate revenues, lay off staff and can its top executives.

MMX, which is publicly traded in London, has yet to make a statement on the deal but we should no doubt expect something in the morning before the markets open.

The deal appears to be bad news for Nominet, which runs the back-end for most MMX gTLDs. GoDaddy will very likely migrate them over to its own platform eventually.

MMX aside, GoDaddy is also buying .club from .CLUB Domains, according to its press release.

.CLUB is a bit of a rarity — a single-string new gTLD registry that done really rather well for itself without tarnishing its brand by becoming synonymous with cheap domains and spam.

.design, the other GoDaddy acquisition today, is run by Top Level Design, which also runs .ink, .wiki and .gay.

.design has over 120,000 domains in its zone file today, while .club has over 1 million. Both have been on a growth trajectory recently.

GoDaddy also said as part of the same announcement that it has signed Ally Financial’s dot-brand business for .ally, but as Ally was already a client of Neustar (which GoDaddy owns) I’m not entirely sure what it’s getting excited about.

End of the road for Neustar as GoDaddy U-turns again and buys out its registry biz

GoDaddy has changed its mind about the registry side of the industry yet again, and has acquired the business of Neustar, one of the largest and oldest registries.

The deal will see GoDaddy purchase, for an undisclosed sum, all of Neustar’s registry assets, amounting to 215 TLDs and about 12 million domains.

It means the gTLD .biz is now under the new GoDaddy Registry umbrella, as are the contracts to run the ccTLDs .us, .in, and .co, 130 dot-brand gTLDs and 70 open gTLDs.

Neustar’s registry staff are also being taken on.

“We’re bringing the whole team aboard. One of the things we’re very excited about is bringing the team aboard,” Andrew Low Ah Kee, GoDaddy’s chief operating officer, told DI today.

He added that, due to coronavirus job insecurities wracking many minds right now, GoDaddy has promised its entire workforce that there will be no layoffs in the second quarter.

Nicolai Bezsonoff, currently senior VP of Neustar’s registry business, will run the new unit. He said for him the opportunity for “innovation” was at the heart of the deal.

“We’ve always been one step removed from the customer, so it can be hard to understand what customer wants to do,” he said. “This gives us huge customer insight into what customers want and how they want to use domains.”

Pressed for hypothetical examples of innovation, Bezsonoff floated ideas about selling domains for partial-year periods, or doing more to crack down on DNS abuse.

The deal is an example of “vertical integration”, which has been controversial due to the potential risk of a dominant registry playing favorites with its in-house registrar, or vice versa.

While registries such as Donuts, CentralNic and until recently Uniregistry vertically integrated with little complaint, the industry is currently nervous about Verisign’s newfound ability under its ICANN contract to own and run a registrar.

Because GoDaddy is the Verisign — the runaway market leader — of the registrar side of the industry, one might expect this deal (expected to close this quarter) to get more scrutiny than most.

But the company says it’s going to “strictly adhere to a governance model that maintains independence between the GoDaddy registry and registrar businesses”.

Low Ah Kee said that this means the registry and registrar “won’t share any information that gives or appears to given any unfair advantage” to the GoDaddy registrar, that their business performance will be assessed separately, and that they’ll be audited to make sure they’re not breaking this separation.

If GoDaddy appears to be preemptively expecting criticism, there’s a good reason why: the proposed acquisition of .org manager PIR by private equity group Ethos Capital has caused huge upset in recent months, and there are some parallels here.

First, like .org, pricing restrictions were lifted in Neustar’s .biz under a contract renewal with ICANN last year. It fell under the radar a little as .biz is substantially smaller, not a legacy gTLD as such, and not widely used.

Like the .org deal, the transfer of control of .biz will also be subject to ICANN’s approval before GoDaddy and Neustar can seal the deal.

Could we be looking at another big public fight over a gTLD acquisition?

But unlike Ethos with .org, GoDaddy says it has no intention of raising prices with .biz.

“We will not be raising prices, in fact we will look into reducing prices for some TLDs,” Bezsonoff said.

One TLD where one assumes prices won’t be going down is .co, where Neustar has just had its margins massively slashed by the Colombian government.

The acquisition was announced just days after the Colombian government announced that it has renewed its contract with Neustar to run .co for another five years, but under financial terms hugely more favorable to itself.

Whereas the initial 10-year term saw the government being paid 6% to 7% of the .co take, that number has soared to 81%, making .co — arguably Neustar’s registry crown jewel — a substantially less-attractive TLD to manage.

One assumes that the acquisition price would have fluctuated wildly based on the outcome of the .co renegotiation, but the GoDaddy/Neustar execs I talked to today didn’t want to talk about terms.

GoDaddy’s history with the registry side of the business has been changeable.

As far as ICANN contract is concerned, it is already a registry because it owns the .godaddy dot-brand. But that’s currently unused, with the registry functions outsourced to — cough — Neustar’s arch-rival Afilias.

Given Neustar’s religious devotion to the dot-brand concept, and the weirdness of using one of your primary competitors for a key function, one might expect both of those situations to change.

GoDaddy did also apply for .casa and .home back in 2012, but changed its mind and abandoned both bids fairly early in the process.

The sudden excitement about the registry business today begs the question of why GoDaddy didn’t buy Uniregistry’s registry business at the same time as it bought its secondary market and registrar earlier this year, but apparently it was not for sale.

Following the acquisition, Neustar is keeping its DNS resolution services and GoDaddy will continue to use them, so Neustar is not entirely out of the domain game, but it looks like the end of the road for Neustar as a brand I regularly report on.

The registry started life in 2000 as “NeuLevel”, a joint-venture between Neustar and Aussie registrar Melbourne IT formed to apply to ICANN for new gTLDs. It wanted .web, but got .biz, which now has about 1.7 million names under management, down from a 2014 peak of 2.7 million.