International Policy Digest

English Premier League
Business /24 Jul 2020
07.24.20

Opaque Asian Gambling Firms Linked to Criminality Benefit from Premier League Ties

As the English Premier League nears its frenetic conclusion after months of delay caused by the global pandemic, there were always going to be winners and losers. Due to the global nature of the game, the relegation of Norwich City FC will be felt much further afield than East Anglia – indeed, possibly as far away as the Philippines, where Dafabet, the club’s main shirt sponsor, is based.

However, despite Norwich’s relegation, Dafabet will no doubt feel that the season has been a great success. It has raised its profile around the world and grown its business on the back of its association with the Premier League.

Fans of English football are used to seeing previously unknown gambling companies like Dafabet and Fun88 appearing on their favourite club’s shirts. Sponsorship money supports their clubs, so fans generally accept anyone who arrives with a cheque.

But Dafabet, along with other businesses like Newcastle United sponsor Fun88, is just one of a series of opaque Asian gaming companies benefitting from weak oversight in the UK and vested interests in the Philippines to advertise gambling sites mired in controversy and allegations of criminality.

Unfortunately, the UK’s Gambling Commission, which regulates and must approve of the involvement of any overseas gaming company as a sponsor, often also has little idea about the activities of these businesses.

In reality, Dafabet and Fun88 are Philippine in name only. Both are Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs), companies which offer gambling services to markets outside of the Philippines. Typically licensed by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), POGO entities do not need to register with the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission, like ordinary businesses. Instead, these companies may be found registered in offshore hubs that are notoriously secretive where, critics argue, the opaque laws serve to protect criminality and money laundering.

The favoured offshore destination for Asian gaming firms like Dafabet and Fun88 is the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA). Foreign investors are offered tax incentives to set up there, and the gambling industry has thrived in the loosely-regulated offshore zone. Meanwhile, the sheer amount of money flowing into the zone has removed any incentive the government had to crack down on any illicit activities.

Allegations of illegality and links to organised crime swirl around both Dafabet and Fun88, as both companies remain intent on breaking local laws. As recently as January 2020, Thai police announced that five Thai nationals, one Singaporean national and several supporting staff were charged for the violation of the Gambling Act and the Computer Crime Act after the group was caught running local operation for Dafabet in central Bangkok. In April 2019, the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security arrested 22 individuals suspected of involvement in one of the largest online gambling rings in the country, with simultaneous raids carried out across several cities including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Using sites linking back to Fun88, Agency France Presse reported that the total wagering transactions were a staggering $1.28 billion.

This is not a new phenomenon. In June 2010 Chinese police in Jiang Su province cracked a $735 million online gambling racket and detained a gang of 30 members. The illegal betting scheme was orchestrated through Fun88’s website, which had over 400 agents and enrolled more than 22,000 gamblers through three affiliates.

The behaviour of these companies affects normal people. Users from across the companies’ main Asian markets like Thailand, Vietnam, and China have repeatedly complained about obstacles to withdrawing money from their accounts with both companies. Locked accounts, non-payment of jackpots, and extended waiting periods were common complaints on online gambling forums, while other casino discussion forums reveal complaints about how Fun88 canceled bets without notice, offered unprofessional customer service, and a difficult refund/withdrawal process.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented opportunities of its own, with Fun88 accused of targeting pre-teen and teenagers in one of its major markets by the Children and Youth Council of Thailand, which noted an increase in advertisements aimed at children after the country went into lockdown in March 2020. This is unlikely to be an isolated event.

The UK’s Gambling Commission evidently pays little attention to allegations against these firms, nor to their apparent links to organised criminal gangs. There is little clarity as to the identity of the companies’ ultimate beneficial owners, a startling lack of transparency in an industry known for shady connections. For example, Dafabet’s corporate ties lead back to Hong Kong-based businessman Tom Hall, relative of late Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho. ‘Hong Kong Tom’ – the man who put the colour in colourful – has a series of legal battles in his wake, and was even found guilty of the misappropriation of over £9.8 million relating to an investment in a failed sporting venture.

As a result of the Gambling Commission’s lack of oversight, the real winners in the Premier League are not the clubs nor the fans, but opaque gaming companies preying on vulnerable customers with little or no protection. Next season, Norwich City will be in the Championship – but expect to see Dafabet secure its position on another team’s shirt before too long.