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Advertisements by overseas online betting companies were abundant during streaming platform SonyLIV’s broadcast of the fifth Test between England and India

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Good Evening [%first_name |Dear Reader%],

Did you watch the final Test match between England and India earlier this week? What a game, eh? Test cricket at its finest. I’m sure Ravi Shastri must’ve wondered sitting in the commentary box what might have been had he not organised a book launch two days before the match was originally scheduled in the summer of 2021.

As for me, I was wondering something completely different while watching the match. And it didn’t have much to do with the actual cricket on the field.

SonyLIV and India’s sports betting sham

If you were watching the fifth England-India Test on streaming platform SonyLIV in India, you couldn’t have missed them. I counted four, and I wasn’t exactly glued to the screen for the entire five-day match, so I might have missed some. I’m talking about ads by betting companies.

The four that I saw were from Betway, 1xBet, Parimatch, and BetWinner.

And they came in different forms and shapes.

While Betway, 1xBet, and BetWinner had actual video commercials that were shown during the ad breaks between overs, the Parimatch logo appeared on the top left corner of the screen during replays.

Betway also had L-shaped bands on the screen during the live broadcast. In fact, Betway was the so-called “co-presented by” sponsor of the broadcast, along with PokerBaazi.com, an online poker platform. And when I opened the SonyLIV website on my laptop during the match, this was the first thing that popped up:

The first item on SonyLIV’s homepage carousel was actually a Betway ad, rather than a link to the live-stream of the match.

Why is this a problem?

Well, for one, India’s Public Gambling Act, a 155-year-old colonial-era law, prohibits gambling. However, it distinguishes between games of skill and games of chance. And sports betting or gambling is a game of chance, which means it’s illegal. But the added complication is that gambling has also been categorised as a state subject. Which means it’s up to the states how they wish to act upon it.

And two, just last month, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory to print, electronic, and digital media to refrain from advertising online betting platforms. “Betting and gambling, illegal in most parts of the country, pose significant financial and socio-economic risk for the consumers, especially youth and children,” the advisory stated. It was issued after a number of advertisements in the media from online betting platforms were brought to the government’s notice.

In fact, I had written about this phenomenon a year ago in The Ken’s now discontinued newsletter Beyond the First Order, when I noticed ads of betting companies during SonyLIV’s broadcast of the Euro 2020 football tournament. The ads had first cropped up during India’s cricket tour of Australia in 2020-21, again on SonyLIV.

When I was researching for that piece, I had signed up on a couple of these betting platforms. Here’s what I noticed:

The payment options included online banking, cards, and even UPI, India’s real-time payments system. And there were some other payment gateways I had never even heard of.

Now, here’s where things got interesting. I clicked on the UPI option. It took me to a page that had details of the UPI ID I had to transfer the money to. The name “Betway” was nowhere to be found. The UPI ID was [email protected] I logged into Google Pay and entered the ID. It was an ICICI Bank account registered under the name of JAI AMBE AGRO TRADERS. A quick Google search reveals several companies in various cities like Jalgaon, Vadodara, and Nashik with similar names.

A few days later, yesterday, while writing this piece, I tried it again. This time, there was a different ICICI Bank UPI ID: [email protected] It was registered under the name of SK ENTERPRISES. The account was set up in June 2021. The process was similar on other platforms like Dafabet and Bet365.

A year later, things don’t seem to have changed much. In fact, I think there are even more payment options for Indian users now.

How are these platforms getting away with it?

Well, for one, they’ve put the onus on the users. If you go to their “Terms and Conditions” page and read the fine print, you’ll see that these companies are registered in countries that are either tax havens or where online gambling is permitted, or both. Like Malta, Curaçao, and Cyprus.

And they have disclaimers like this:

Source: Screenshot from Betway website

Basically, we’re letting you gamble on our platform but it’s totally on you to check whether gambling is actually allowed in your country. If you get caught by the authorities, don’t come running to us for help. And don’t worry about us; even though we operate in your country, we’re registered overseas, so your authorities can’t do much in terms of litigation. As for your money, we’re trying to make it as difficult as possible to trace it back to us by using random UPI accounts that keep changing frequently.

Source: Screenshot from Betway website

There are two things that baffle me the most about this whole affair. One, that things have hardly changed in the last 18 months. If anything, it has become more rampant.

It’s very clear that anyone with an internet connection in India can access these websites. That’s a privilege that even some fantasy sports and online real-money gaming platforms don’t have, since certain state governments have banned them. The state governments, and even India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), can block these betting websites if they wish to, but that hasn’t happened yet. And it can’t be that they’re not aware of these platforms. Especially when they’re being advertised so brazenly.

Which brings me to the second thing that baffles me the most—Sony Pictures Networks India’s blasé attitude when it comes to carrying ads of these betting platforms. The broadcaster is a serial offender and has shown no signs of stopping, even after the advisory from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting last month—which is the most stringent step the government has taken so far in terms of reeling in these platforms. And that’s not saying much.

I wonder if Sony even did any basic research about these platforms before signing a deal with them. Because if it had, it would have found out that some of these platforms are pretty shady and have done some rather dubious things.

For instance, the United Kingdom and Russia have both previously suspended 1xBet following breaches of gambling regulations and other illegal activities. In 2019, an investigation by The Sunday Times claimed that 1xBet advertised on illegal streaming websites. The operator has also reportedly offered odds on youth football, which isn’t allowed.

These controversies led to 1xBet losing sponsorship deals with Premier League clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur. However, it continues to be the official betting partner of FC Barcelona in a deal that’s reportedly worth US$9 million a season.

In September 2021, 1xBet even signed its first brand ambassador for India—Dwayne Bravo. The Trinidadian cricketer is quite popular in India thanks to his time at Indian Premier League team Chennai Super Kings. It was Bravo who featured in the commercial that aired on SonyLIV during the England-India Test.

And earlier this year, 1xBet even brought on board former India cricketer Suresh Raina, although he endorses the platform’s sports blog. A lot of these betting platforms have set up sports news websites to aid them in surrogate advertising—just like what alcohol brands do with mineral water and soda. Another former India cricketer, Harbhajan Singh, endorses BetWinner News, which is associated with BetWinner.

Even Betway, the most prominent sponsor on SonyLIV, was fined £11.6 million (US$14 million) by the UK’s Gambling Commission in 2020 for customer-protection failures and insufficient checks to counter money-laundering. However, Betway hasn’t been suspended in the UK and continues to sponsor Premier League clubs like West Ham United, and former cricketer Kevin Pietersen.

Of course, it shouldn’t matter whether these platforms are banned in other countries. The fact is they’re supposed to be banned in India, but it still seems to be a free for all. And the only people who stand to lose, given what’s been happening over the last 18 months or so, are the users.

I reached out to SonyLIV with some questions about their nonchalance with respect to carrying such ads, but didn’t get a response. A senior official from the online gaming industry told me that there’s not much that can be done right now since the government has only issued an advisory against publishing ads by online betting companies.

Quote
“They are guidelines and not a regulation, which means it’s not mandatory that the advisory has to be followed. Of course, good sense would indicate that you follow it. But my understanding is the guidelines won’t be legally liable.

I would assume that Sony has legal advice stating that they’re in the clear. It would be difficult to imagine that they don’t know the difference between games of skill and games of chance, and the fact that one is legal in India and the other isn’t.”
A senior official from the online gaming industry

This is why the various self-regulatory bodies that claim to represent the interests of fantasy sports and online gaming companies in India have been pushing for some sort of formal regulation from the central government. Indian courts around the country have ruled in favour of skill gaming, so there is some clarity at the judicial level. But it’s still missing at the legislative level.

There have been some suggestions that the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a quasi-government body that has taken action against misleading advertisements, should step in. However, ASCI has so far issued guidelines only regarding online gaming. It has previously refused to step in when it comes to online betting companies because gambling is a state subject. Whether that will change now, given the central government’s advisory for online betting ads, remains to be seen.

So, for now, it’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. “It’s a question of someone constantly monitoring what’s going on, finding out the companies that are overstepping boundaries, and bringing it to the notice of the powers that be,” said the senior online gaming industry official. “Hopefully, once it comes under the spotlight, it should slow down or reduce dramatically. But monitoring digital media is tough because there are so many different places where it could be happening.”

So, until the Indian government decides to wake up, it seems like online betting companies are free to squeeze as much money as they can from gullible Indian sports watchers. Broadcasters like Sony are only enabling them, but it appears that no one really gives a hoot. 🤷‍♂️

Quick singles

🏏🇳🇿🤝 New Zealand Cricket has worked out a landmark deal that will see its women players earn the same as their male counterparts on a per-day basis across all formats and competitions. This means, starting 1 August, a top-tier female cricketer will now earn up to NZ$163,246 (US$100,700) a year, almost double the current NZ$83,432 (US$51,460). That’s still lower than what a top-tier male cricketer will earn (up to NZ$523,396 or US$322,800), though, since the men play more matches. [The Guardian]

⚽️🦁🎲 The Premier League has requested its clubs to phase out gambling brands from its shirt sponsorship deals to avoid a possible government-enforced ban in the UK. The organisation would need the support of 14 out of the 20 Premier League clubs to adopt the new measures immediately. This won’t be easy, considering almost half of the 20 clubs had deals with gambling companies last season. [SportsPro]

⚽️🇨🇭🧑‍⚖️ A Swiss court has acquitted Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, the former presidents of FIFA and UEFA respectively, of fraud. The two men were on trial for corruption, following an investigation by the United States government which revealed that Blatter had transferred 2 million Swiss Francs (~US$2 million) to Platini in 2011. Blatter had reportedly approved the transfer while campaigning to be re-elected as FIFA president. Both men, however, denied any wrongdoing and said the transfer was belated payment for Platini’s advisory work for FIFA. [BBC]

That’s all from this edition of Moneyball. Please write to me at [email protected] with any feedback, good or bad, you may have. Feel free to also suggest topics that you’d like to read about.

Take care.

Best,
Jaideep

This newsletter has been discontinued. But you can read The Stack which includes our newsletters around cleantech, fintech, personal finance and e-commerce in India!