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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2007, 22:58 GMT 23:58 UK
New frontiers for online gaming
By Helen Soteriou
Costa Rica

Calvin Ayre is extremely likable. He is down-to-earth, funny, and has a certain cheeky charm about him.

Calvin Ayre
Calvin Ayre sees branding as the way forward

He thinks like Richard Branson - but behaves like a young Hugh Hefner.

"I throw wild parties," he says. "I have lots of incredibly beautiful people around me, and I love travelling, but I am able to do that because I worked hard for many many years and made a lot of good decisions."

His billionaire lifestyle could be lifted straight out of a James Bond film.

His multimillion dollar home in Costa Rica is complete with guard house, high-tech surveillance, and secret panic room. He is flanked by servants, and burly security guards drive him around in bullet-proof Hummers.

Troubled times

Calvin Ayre is able to live this way because he is the founder of Bodog.com - one of the world's most lucrative online gambling sites.

Except Mr Ayre is a billionaire no more - at least according to Forbes magazine's most recent "rich list". His wealth was dragged down by new US laws prohibiting transactions between American financial institutions and online gambling sites.

Gambling websites and their owners have fallen on hard times.

One of the largest online gambling sites, Betonsports, has shut down its US market operations, and the US Department of Justice has charged its executive David Carruthers with criminal racketeering and wire fraud.

Peter Dicks, a non-executive director of another British company Sportingbet, was also arrested as he touched down on US soil - although all the warrants against him and his company have now been cancelled.

Gamblers will gamble, and the internet allows for the highest levels of access to that desired form of entertainment... It is never going away. Ever
Calvin Ayre

With the US being the largest online gambling market in the world, many companies lost more than half their business, with some losing 80%.

The results meant dismal reading for investors in the companies. PartyGaming, one of the industry's bigger players, saw pretax profits fall 57% in 2006 to $138.9m as a result of its reorganisation following the US crackdown - although revenues were up 13% to $1.1bn.

Calvin Ayre refuses to disclose the revenues currently generated by his online gambling arm. He will only say that across all his entertainment products across the world, total revenues are about $300m a year.

New shores

The gambling industry, meanwhile, seeks new markets - although replacing the US could take a while.

"I don't know how long it would take for a territory, a set of territories to come close the kind of contribution the US system made," says Ed Barton from Screen Digest. "But we are talking years rather than months here."

Bruce Gamble, CEO of the online gambling recruitment consultancy Pentasia, said that the market is still very buoyant in Europe and Asia.

"Some companies with major US exposure have restructured their companies, which have caused some redundancies," he says. "But they have re-hired staff with skills to enter new emerging territories."

Publicity-hungry

Calvin Ayre argues that Bodog's brand - which includes an international music label, a publishing division and a television production unit - will differentiate his firm from competitors.

Cards and chips
Online gambling is seeking new markets

Ceaseless attention to publicity and media savvy, he insists, is also part of the plan.

"Once you know Bodog, you know me and what I represent," he says, "so there is a bold concept about what Bodog stands for."

He is not worried about the current downturn - or by whispers in the industry that the next big thing will be interactive TV and mobile phone gaming.

"Gamblers will gamble, and the Internet allows for the highest levels of access to that desired form of entertainment," he says.

"It is never going away. Ever.

"I think people like us are going to be combining that entertainment opportunity with other forms of entertainment and I think that is the model of the future, but it is not going away."




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