Ever since it was created in the early 1990s, the English Premier League (EPL) has had a seedy underbelly wherein black money from Russia and Asia intermingles with betting and cryptocurrency. In this investigative piece, legendary football journalist Philippe Auclair (formerly of The Guardian) digs into the links between the EPL, money laundering, crypto and big ticket betting from Asia (via the Isle of Man and the Philippines).
At the outset, Auclair makes it clear the sums of money involved are colossal: “Far Eastern gambling operators of whom almost nothing is known have become ubiquitous presences in the English game over the past decade. Mysterious brands invest millions in shirt sponsorships and commercial partnerships each season, often for a year or two before disappearing and being replaced by other operators which are just as mysterious. The opacity of these companies, predominantly operating from the Philippines, is such that they are widely suspected to be used for money-laundering schemes on a bewildering scale: it is estimated that 1 trillion US dollars of untraceable money is bet through unregulated bookmakers annually.” (Note: US$1 trillion is around 40% of India’s GDP.)
In order to gain credibility, the Far Eastern betting syndicates cut sponsorship deals with EPL clubs: “Eight Premier League clubs had gambling companies as their main shirt sponsors in 2020-21 (Burnley, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Leeds, Newcastle, Southampton, West Ham and Wolves). It will be nine in 2021-22. Norwich City, who won the Championship and were promoted, decided to cancel their agreement with Malaysian betting platform BK8 after a public outcry. Norwich, having come to the end of a ‘record deal’ with Dafabet, provoked a social media storm in England when it was discovered that BK8 used quasi-pornographic images of young female models to promote its brand in Asia. Interestingly, no questions had been asked about the mysterious ownership of BK8. But then, these types of questions are not asked in English football. There certainly were none, either from fans or the governing bodies, when Watford, another promoted club, closed yet another ‘record deal’ with Sportsbet.io, a subsidiary of the Coingaming Group which is already Southampton’s main sponsor. In July of this year, Watford moved on to yet another e-Gambling platform, Stake.com, “the leading crypto casino and sports betting platform worldwide.””
So how does the financial model work? How exactly do the betting companies based outside the UK make money? Step 1 as mentioned are the shirt sponsorship deals wherein the Asian betting companies pay the British clubs euro 4-10 million per season. Step 2 – the cash counter starts ringing as fans watch the matches and see the name of the betting company on players’ T-shirts: “Regarding Sportsbet.io, it is striking, highly revealing, too, how their non-UK websites differ from the British version. The ‘foreign’ websites, which drive most of the traffic, allow their customers to remain anonymous when they make deposits in cryptocurrencies and place their bets, something which is illegal in the United Kingdom.”
Just in case that you are thinking that this sort of murky business is only done by the smaller clubs and by unknown betting companies, think again: “Manchester United is thought to have earned 3.5 million euro a year from its deal with Yabo Sports, a Chinese betting company which has also counted Leicester City as a ‘global partner’. Remarkably, Yabo, a company which was registered in 2018, managed to build a quite extraordinary portfolio of such partnerships within a year of its creation, signing deals with the Argentina National Football Team, Hertha BSC, AS Monaco, Serie A, Copa América, and FC Bayern Munich ‘amongst others’. AC Milan followed in October 2020. Just as remarkably, Yabo Sports does not appear to have any presence on social media, which begs the question: who is using their platform?”
In a telling indication of how Europe is gradually becoming a little more than a playground for the Asian and Russian elite, the revenues of legitimate bookmakers in Europe are puny compared to the murky outfits operating from Asia: “It must be noted that this vertigo-inducing figure dwarves the revenues of household names in the European gambling industry. To draw a parallel, the two giants from the British Isles, Bet365 and the rapidly-expanding Flutter Entertainment, an Irish consortium which controls Paddy Power, Betfair, Skybet, Adjarabet, TVG and other subsidiaries, generate an annual combined revenue of 10.5 billion US dollars, from wagers totalling over 100 billion pounds. This sounds huge, and is, but only represents roughly 1/10th of the amount which is bet through unregulated operators.
The profits are colossal. Major European bookmakers generate operating incomes which range from 14 to 26% of their turnover, and there is every reason to believe that unregulated Asian companies, all of which are registered in a variety of tax havens, are even more profitable. As to where the money ends, nobody knows, as nobody knows who owns those companies…”
Spotting the opportunity, a range of “white label” companies have sprung up in the tax havens around the UK. These companies basically act as an intermediary between the EPL clubs and the Asian betting syndicates: “Yet those – predominantly Chinese – gambling giants are allowed to operate freely, in full public view, in the United Kingdom, home of the world’s most popular league, without adhering to the regulatory framework which British companies must abide by. How can that be?
The answer is simple: through using so-called ‘white label’ companies/agents, most often based in the British Crown dependency of the Isle of Man, thanks to agents such as Douglas-based TGP Europe Limited. All they need to do is fill in some paperwork and pay their fees – which are modest in comparison with the profits to be made. Then what was already a murky business turns even murkier.” The article goes on to then detail all sorts of dodgy structuring done by these Isle of Man companies. The Board of Directors of many of these companies are now – unsurprisingly – controlled by Asians.
With Isle of Man serving as the European beachhead, the corresponding function in Asia is fulfilled by the Philippines: “Most of the Asian online gambling entities have brought their operations to the Philippines, where they cannot offer their services to Filipinos, but are free to propose them to anyone else. Setting up there, in the so-called “Cagayan Special Economic Zone and Freeport”, requires the payment of an application fee of 40,000 US dollars, which is topped up by another fee of 48,000 dollars once the application has been approved by the Filipino authorities, after which the licence will be renewed at a cost of 60,000 dollars a year. Despite opposition by local politicians, safeguards are virtually non-existent in the Philippines, perhaps a reflection of the contribution of gambling to the country’s finances : the gambling boom is said to have created 470,000 jobs and to contribute 11 billion dollars annually to the Filipino economy.”
In the Philippines that the Chinese syndicates run the show: “Data gathered by the Filipino Bureau of Customs evaluate that 390 million US dollars were laundered in the Philippines through e-Gambling by Chinese criminal syndicates in 2019 – to which must be added 633 million US dollars of ‘suspicious’ cash which was brought into the country from September 2019 to March 2020. Isolated raids have been conducted (277 Chinese online scammers were arrested in one of these last year), but this constitutes a mere drop in the ocean. 56 predominantly Chinese POGOs (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators) have been granted a licence in the country since they acquired legal status in 2016, which employ an estimated 250,000 Chinese nationals.”
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