February 27, 2009

Betting industry to keep a central role in shirt sponsorship

Fifteen top European soccer clubs are under pressure to renew their shirt sponsorships by next season as their contracts expire amid the economic downturn.

Shirt sponsorships, the backbone of clubs' commercial revenues, have commonly been considered immune to the financial crisis because of their long duration and large media exposure.

However, analysts expect tough times ahead for clubs with troubled owners or smaller appeal as companies trim budgets.

"In times of financial hardship, firms will naturally look for ways to cut costs, and sponsorship of sporting events, including football shirts, seems a natural and easy target," Chris Brooks, professor of finance and director of research at ICMA Centre, University of Reading, told Reuters.

Although many experts consider it unlikely that top clubs such as Manchester United will be unable to sign lucrative new deals, smaller clubs may have to accept lower income.

Several companies, including Malaysian budget airline AirAsia and Saudi Telecom, have been linked in the media to Premier League leaders United as potential sponsors, after U.S. insurance giant AIG said it would not extend its deal beyond 2010.

"Even if football clubs continue to attract some degree of sponsorship it is most likely that future arrangements will be less lucrative for the clubs," Joe McLean, a soccer finance expert with accountants Grant Thornton, told Reuters.

West Ham United -- who played for three months without a shirt sponsor after holiday firm XL collapsed last year -- signed an 18-month contract with online betting company SBOBET that has half the value of their previous deal.

Their Premier League rivals West Bromwich Albion have not been able to agree a shirt deal this term, while six Primera Liga clubs started the season with no shirt sponsor.

"Outside the upper echelons of the game, clubs are in for a bumpy ride over the next 18 months and will have to adjust their expectations if they are to successfully secure shirt sponsorship deals," Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Business Strategy and Marketing at Coventry University, told Reuters.

Shirt sponsorships also highlight the increasing gap between small and large clubs.

Bundesliga leaders Hamburg SV have renewed their deal with Dubai-based Emirates Airlines for three years.

Manchester City, whose 2.3-million-pound ($3.29-million) per year deal with Thomas Cook expires this season, were also in a position to clinch a valuable deal, analysts said.

Despite the slowdown, analysts expect finance and insurance groups to keep a central role in sponsorship, along with the betting industry.

More than 30 financial or insurance companies are on the shirts of clubs across Europe's six top leagues - only four fewer than last season, according to German sports consultancy group Sport+Markt.

Total shirt sponsorship revenue across the six biggest European leagues has fallen by about three percent to 393.2 million euros this season, according to Sport+Markt.

The reasons for the decline were lower sums generated in Spain and England and the reduced strength of the British pound.

However, the sector should stay afloat, experts said.

"It is difficult to generalise," said Chris Gratton, sports economics professor at Sheffield Hallam University.

"Once the pound recovers, numbers will look different again," said Harmut Zastrow, executive director at Sport+Markt.

US could reap billions taxing Web gambling

The United States could raise nearly $52 billion in revenue over the next decade by lifting a three-year-old ban on Internet gambling and taxing the activity instead, according to a study.

Gambling supporters hope the new analysis prepared by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers will help propel efforts in Congress this year to repeal the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

"There is a dramatic need to have a regulated system that protects American consumers. Right now, it's the Wild West," Jeffrey Sandman, a spokesman for the Safe and Secure Internet Gambling Initiative, told Reuters on Wednesday.

That group includes the London-based Remote Gambling Association, which represents European online companies that lost billions in market value after Congress passed the 2006 law and they withdrew from the U.S. market.

The legislation attempted to squash online gambling in the United States by barring businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with unlawful Internet gambling, including payments made through credit cards, electronic fund transfers and checks.

But PricewaterhouseCoopers' latest estimate of how much the United States could raise from regulating and taxing Internet gambling is about 22 percent higher than it was in 2007 because U.S. online gambling has grown despite the ban, Sandman said.

The accounting firm's study was specifically done for UC Group, an online payment service company that would benefit from U.S. action to legalize Internet gambling.

House of Representatives Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank plans to reintroduce a bill this year to overturn the 2006 ban, which was approved when Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress and Republican George W. Bush was in the White House.

Gambling advocates hope the U.S. government's need for new revenue in the aftermath of huge bailout and stimulus packages will boost chances for Congress to replace the ban with new measures to regulate and tax online gambling.

The threat of a possible European Union trade challenge also could improve the bill's prospects this year.

The Remote Gambling Association accuses the U.S. Justice Department of singling out European online gambling companies like PartyGaming and 888.com for prosecution while allowing U.S. companies to operate freely.

The European Commission, acting on industry petition, began a formal investigation into that issue last year and is expected to release a report next month saying it has grounds to take action at the World Trade Organization.

Anurag Dikshit, a founder of PartyGaming, pleaded guilty in December to Internet gambling charges and agreed to pay $300 million in fines. He still faces possible jail time under a deferred sentencing arrangement.

EU industry officials said the pressure on Dikshit to make a deal showed the Justice Department had crossed a major line in its prosecution of cases.

AC Milan in firing line for displaying Bwin logo in Bremen

The Federal State of Bremen is set to fine Italian football club AC Milan for violating terms of the German State Treaty on Gaming, after the club displayed the bwin logo on players' shirts in a UEFA Cup game against Germany's SV Werder Bremen earlier this month.

February 26, 2009

Crime victim asked to poker night

A man who went to Oxfordshire's police headquarters to report a burglary said he was stunned when he was asked if he was there to play poker.

Graham Hall, 68, went to the Kidlington offices after his home was broken in to and was asked by a security guard if he was there to play cards. He said the guard told him there was no-one there to deal with his report.

A police statement said Mr Hall's visit coincided with a poker night at the HQ, which is not an operational station. Mr Hall discovered thieves had broken into his home in the Kidlington area at about 1830 GMT last Thursday. They had stolen snooker equipment and an electric fan.

"When I went to report it, I was greeted at the desk by a security guard who said 'good evening sir, are you here for the poker?'," Mr Hall said.

"I said I thought I had come to a police station and not a casino and told him that I'd like to report a theft.

"He said I couldn't do it there because there was not anyone there who could deal with my problem."

Mr Hall then found out he could not report the burglary at nearby Kidlington Police Station because it closes at 1700 GMT during the week. He then phoned the police non-emergency crime helpline, reported the incident and was given a crime number. However, Mr Hall said he had no further contact from the police until this week.

"I had no contact at all from the police until yesterday and today an inspector came to my house to apologise," he added.

A statement from Thames Valley Police said: "Police HQ is not an operational police station so the gentleman was unable to report the crime at this building, and was advised to call our single non-emergency number 0845 8 505 505 which is the quickest and most effective way to report a crime.

"The gentleman's visit to HQ coincided with a poker evening organised by the Thames Valley Police Sports and Social Club which was attended by off-duty staff. "The evenings are limited to a maximum of 20 staff, with a top stake of £2.50 a game and small cash prizes, and are intended to raise money for the Sports and Social Club. The nights operate fully in compliance with the licence held by Thames Valley Police HQ."

February 25, 2009

Rafael Benitez's future in doubt at Liverpool after bookmakers suspend betting

Rafael Benitez's future as manager of Liverpool looks more uncertain than ever after leading bookmakers suspended all bets on him leaving the club.

The news comes hours before his team take on Real Madrid in the last-16 of the Champions League in the Bernabeu with rumours in the Spanish capital suggesting the Liverpool manager will leave Anfield.

The Spaniard has been locked in talks over a new contract in recent months and surprised the club’s hierarchy by rejecting a fifth draft of the deal over the weekend. Benitez has less than 18 months left on his contract at Anfield and believes that if he reaches the end of the season without a commitment from Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the Liverpool owners, he would be forced to look for a new job.

The Americans agreed to offer Benitez a new contract before Christmas but the document remains unsigned. Sources close to Benitez have suggested that the Spaniard has reached agreement with the club on a number of occasions, only to find that, when the written contract arrived, it contained different terms than had been agreed verbally.

The owners have bowed to his requests for more control over transfer policy and the youth academy, however, sticking points remain about the job security of his backroom staff and his concern at the delays in the decision-making process, given the dysfunctional relationship between the owners.

Benitez began his career in coaching at the Bernabeu in 1986 and the Liverpool manager has been linked with a return to Madrid, where Juande Ramos is the incumbent. However, Ramos is a short-term appointment and is likely to be replaced in the summer.

Speculation has suggested that Kenny Dalglish, the former manager, has been approached to act in a caretaker capacity in the event of Benitez leaving, but the Scot remains a strong supporter of the Spaniard and would be unlikely to countenance the dismissal of a man who has brought the European Cup to Anfield.

The internal politics of Liverpool have been tortuous since the American owners took over and Benitez has endured a difficult relationship with Rick Parry, the chief executive. The pair have been enbroiled in a power struggle which has worn down the manager. However, Benitez believes he is right and will not depart without a fight.

Rupert Adams, a spokesman for William Hill, said: "We are slightly jumpy after being turned over by the recent Weymouth coup but the level of interest on Rafa getting the sack is unprecedented with over 300 calls logged today alone.

"We would be very surprised if he is still the Liverpool boss by midnight on Sunday."

Robbie Williams swaps life in LA for poker in Swindon

As a super-rich pop star, you would expect Robbie Williams to indulge his passion for poker at the world’s most luxurious gambling resorts. He could go all in at Monte Carlo or Vegas — but instead he is choosing to hit the tables in not-so-glamorous Swindon.

Now I’m sure there is nothing wrong with the facilities at the town’s Premier Club. But it’s not quite where you expect to find the world’s high-rollers.

But The Robster — during breaks from gazing up at the sky searching for flying saucers — has become a regular at the club’s poker nights close to his multi-million pound Wiltshire mansion. And pal Jonathan Wilkes often joins him for the five-card stud sessions.

My mole said: "Robbie has been in frequently over the last few weeks. He plays to a very high standard and has been having fun with Jonathan. He’s getting a reputation as a serious adversary around the poker tables here."

The former Take That star signalled the end of his five-year exile in LA last December when he splashed out 7 million pounds on his new pad.

He moved in a month ago and has been beavering away on his comeback album.

Robbie — who released No1 album Swing When You’re Winning in 2001 — has a reputation for being a demon card shark.

When he was living in LA, he hosted a card school and once begged veteran Welsh crooner Tom Jones to join. In 2002, Tom said: "Robbie’s started a poker circle. He’s bought a house up the street from me and has been asking me to join in but I can’t play."

Robbie might also have the chance to get his football boots back on, having left his beloved LA Vale amateur side behind. Wilkes plays for the Premier Club members side KC FC.

He explained: "Me and my wife moved to the area about a year ago and my brother-in-law is the captain. We’ve got a decent side and are having a pretty good season."

Sounds like Rob’s got everything his heart desires. Now he just has to persuade his LA-born actress girlfriend Ayda Field to settle over here.

February 24, 2009

Bookmakers lose £1m in betting coup

For fans of financially troubled Weymouth Football Club, the chance of a humiliating defeat usually only adds to their woes. But when the entire squad went on strike, leaving only the youth team available for the next match, supporters cashed in on one of the biggest betting coups in non-league football.

More than £1 million was paid out after punters placed huge bets on Weymouth losing against Rushden & Diamonds.

As the match became the hottest betting prospect in the country many bewildered bookmakers were forced to cut odds before suspending betting entirely.

The regular team, which has not been paid at all this year because of the club’s debts, walked out after discovering that there was no medical insurance for the game.

Despite a valiant attempt by the Weymouth teenage team, when the final whistle blew they had been trounced 9-0.

One punter, who wanted to remain anonymous, told how he had earlier raced from one Devon bookmaker to the next to place thousands of pounds in bets.

He said: “As soon as word began leaking out on Friday night that it might be the entire youth team playing the next day we began putting on bets. We put on money at all the local bookmakers and then started driving to all the surrounding towns to get more bets on.

“We then began ringing friends around the country to get them to put on money for us. Even as the price began shortening we kept putting on thousands because there was no way a team of 17-year-olds was going to win that game.”

About £680,000 was traded on a Rushden win on the Betfair exchange alone. At first the odds were 15-8. By kick-off at 3pm on Saturday the odds on Rushden winning were just 4-6 and some bookmakers had stopped taking bets.

The 1,000 Weymouth supporters, some of whom felt mixed emotions at having made money from their team’s loss, gave the young squad a standing ovation.

Keith Avant, 30, said he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry after winning £237 from his team’s defeat. “I put £100 on and got £237 back. I heard all the players were walking away so I went out to make the bet.

“It was a bit emotional as a Weymouth fan as you don’t want to bet against your own team. But it was a good investment.”

A Coral spokesman said: “Normally £30,000 to £40,000 would be paid out on a match like this across the whole industry. But we paid out in the region of £100,000 and we are 20 per cent of the industry.”

He added that Coral changed the odds after learning that the public was aware the club was fielding its youth team.

A Ladbrokes spokesman said: “We got wind of it on Saturday morning after we noticed an unexpected number of people placing bets. We were able to slash the odds and fortunately it was not too bad.”

Steve Palmer, deputy sports editor at theRacing Post, said that the match had become “the centre of the betting universe” before the game.

“Nonleague football is one of the few sports where punters can get an edge on the bookmakers,” he said. “They can have superior knowledge and the bookmakers can get caught with their trousers down.”

George Primarolo, spokesman for Totesport, which was one of the first bookmakers to suspend betting on the game, said: “We took it down once it appeared people knew more than us. We are quite used to this sort of thing happening in the lower leagues because teams can struggle financially and all of a sudden a couple of players cannot play.

“It’s not like the Premier League where all the team news is broadcast everywhere. I am sure there are some people who did very well out of it.”

February 10, 2009

New evidence revealed in Polish football scandal

New evidence has been revealed in connection to the Polish football scandal that remains under investigation. Thanks to Przeglad Sportowy, a member of the investigative team, a list of calls made by Arka Gdynia suspects has joined the case. According to Polskie Radio, the latest evidence shows how detailed the criminal portion of the operation was, which coincides with statements that suggested members of the scandal were acting like part of a “real mafia”.

With the prosecutor’s office now sporting more evidence, the defendants may have a harder time prevailing. Identified as members of the scandal are Ryszard F., (known as 'Fryzjer'), referee head Marian D. and former Polish Football Association board member Henryk Klocek, who allegedly bribed referees using money provided by Arka Gdynia representatives. As indicated by the data on file, the individuals attempted to avoid police involvement by frequently changing their mobile phone cards.

Further data shows phone calls made by various members of the group during one of the fixed matches in question, which resulted in a EUR 1200 bribe provided to the referee by team leader Wiselaw K. Arka Gdynia advanced to the Premier League during the 2008 season, although the investigation has been underway since 2005.