Antanas ‘Tony G’ Guoga is happy to support the national team.
VILNIUS - Dealing into some grey areas of Lithuanian gambling legislation, poker champ and founder of sportsbook organization TonyBet, Lithuanian-Australian Antanas “Tony G” Guoga, could be staking his chips on a hefty risk, amid one of the company’s largest current ventures.
As main sponsor for the Lithuanian national basketball team, a role which TonyBet took the reins of in 2010, for the tune of nearly 500,000 euros, in Guoga’s words because, “no one else wanted it,” the company may need to start searching for loopholes to avoid being disenfranchised due to the country’s stringent advertising regulations.
Though entering September’s European Championships Basketball, the EuroBasket, to be held in Lithuania, as the home team’s primary patron, the company remains blocked from displaying marketing during affiliated events, or operating betting-stalls within competition arenas.
“It’s a sad situation, but we can’t change anything,” confirmed TonyBet CEO, Vytautas Kacerauskas.
Even decals set to be plastered over team singlets were met with skepticism from state-run gaming control institutions, who questioned the validity of such branding due to a nationwide ban of gambling advertising.
“The issue is under consideration. We have been in discussions with the Lithuanian Basketball Federation as to its legality, and these will continue,” chairman of the state gaming control commission Robertas Kvietkovskis told The Baltic Times.
Whether an intentional play by TonyBet for bringing branding into the game or not, taking the sponsorship was seen by some as a shrewd move to manifest advertising rights in an otherwise hobbled market.
“We have spoken with the company. They must show us the T-shirts with the brands, and we have to assess the size of the brand on the shirts, where it will be placed, and so on. If we will allow it for this company, we will have to allow it for all companies without exceptions,” confirmed Kvietkovskis.
Aside from the advertising issue, the notion of a gambling organization, whose primary profits stem from bets placed on the outcomes of basketball games, acting as principal sponsor of the national team in the same sport, has raised speculation.
Though when chatting with TBT, if any pressure from private or public sectors was mounting on the company, Guoga appeared calm underneath it all. “We feel great about supporting the national team. Should there be the general public opinion that it’s a conflict of interest, we’re happy to step away as well,” conceded the one-time Lithuanian Rubik’s cube champion, Guoga.
“Sportsbooks sponsor a lot of teams. Like [football clubs] Inter Milan, Barcelona, and others. So I don’t think there is a big issue, in that sense. We’re pretty straight up. But, there are probably conflicts of interest everywhere that are difficult to juggle. And we feel that it’s a great marketing tool for us,” he affirmed.
Despite the legality of circumstances such as this, the gaming control commission remained dubious as to the integrity of marrying gambling with sporting outlets for sponsorship deals.
“There are no legal barriers to doing business like this, but sure, there are doubts on this operation, in my opinion,” spoke a wary Kvietkovskis. “Good business practice should not be like how it is in this case. It will be discussed in the near future, as to if such activity should be prohibited by law.”
Legalized just ten years ago, Lithuania’s fledgling gambling industry resides as a harshly competitive market, with multiple sportsbooks operating within a populace of only three million people. “It’s a tough market in which to make a lot of money. All in all, I think it’s barely making a few million litas’ profit a year, for the whole industry. So it’s pretty small. Our view is to develop [TonyBet] for overseas,” declared Guoga.
As growth and usage of online gambling intensifies, added, illegal competition has wriggled its way into operation in the Lithuanian market. Due to their internationally registered status, companies occupying this black space remain difficult for regulators to curtail.
“We have online companies, operating from abroad without a licence. Such operators, such as [online casino] Unibet, are illegal in this country,” said Kvietkovskis.
Within the nation’s licensed industry, the sports-bet sector reels in a majority of its profits from bets placed on basketball matches, an anomaly within a continent as varied in betting cultures as Europe.
“It’s a huge thing in Lithuania. Basketball is everything, and most of the bets are on basketball. It’s pretty weird… it’s very specific,” said Guoga, who announced his expectations for a “significant” turnover for TonyBet during the EuroBasket.
“I think it will grow about 300 to 600 percent, during the EuroBasket. There’s just a huge amount of interest in all the EuroBasket games. It’s enormous. And then even more when Lithuania plays,” he predicted.
Coveted advertising space for the championships has been all but divvied out by the International Basketball Federation, FIBA, and will, for “the first time in basketball history,” as EuroBasket PR manager Rytis Sabas put it, be disseminated through channels of the North American organization, the NBA. According to Sabas, “the Lithuanian Basketball Federation has become a bridge between the [world’s] two largest basketball organizations.”
A flood of international support will be expected to back up Lithuanian sponsors, including those already engaged in nation-wide campaigns, such as brewer Svyturys and oil and gas company Statoil, throughout the competition.
“We will be utilizing NBA legends, NBA mascots, and NBA coaches to do a variety of activities to promote the event. They will conduct different clinics and different fan events just to create simple excitement around the EuroBasket 2011,” claimed senior vice president of NBA Europe, Sophia Goldschmidt.
Brand shots for TonyBet may be near to non-existent during telecast championship games, as FIBA’s global sportsbook partner, BWIN, holds the rights for its brand to appear during official publications and broadcast events.
“No other sportsbooks can be involved,” said Sabas, with BWIN apparently proof of a corporation slipping through the loopholes of Lithuanian advertising bylaws.