From Carrow Road to Curacao - Who are BK8, Norwich City's new sponsor?
- Credit: Norwich City/Matthew Usher
In a shock U-turn this morning Norwich City FC ditched their new shirt sponsor after just three days, following outrage from fans over sexualised marketing by the Asian betting firm. But fans are still asking: just who are BK8?
Investigations reporter Joel Adams tried to find out.
Who are BK8, the Asian betting firm whose sexualised marketing outraged Norwich fans and ruined a multi-million-pound sponsorship deal?
Where are they based? Who owns them? How big is the company? Who runs it? How are they allowed to trade in the UK? Are they regulated? Have they broken the law?
And how did a family-values football club in East Anglia end up in bed with a murky multinational from the other side of the world?
The hunt for answers to these questions leads from Carrow Road to Curacao in the Caribbean, via Malta and Cyprus, Singapore and Malaysia.
It reveals how clubs in the English Premier League are now used as nothing but advertising billboards by companies with no interest in English fans, how little clubs know about their far Eastern business partners, and the toothlessness of British regulators to intervene.
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Who are they, where are they?
On its website, BK8 explains: “BK8 is an online casino in Asia where you can get a whole lot of bang for your dough. It operates in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, among other countries.”
But online gambling is illegal in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, so the firm cannot be headquartered in those countries.
We asked Norwich City FC for contact details for BK8, and for details about BK8, without reply.
We submitted questions via the Contact Us form on BK8’s UK website. It redirected to a different domain, but elicited no answers.
We called and emailed Outlast Sports and Entertainment, the Singaporean firm which brokered the deal between the Canaries and BK8. No-one replied.
Former international football stars John Terry and Robin Van Persie are brand ambassadors for the bookmaker, as is Canaries legend Darren Eadie - so we reached out to them and their representatives. No reply.
Then finally a clue - at the foot of BK8’s UK gambling site is a disclaimer: it is operated by ProgressPlay, a limited company headquartered and licenced in Malta.
Documents filed at the Maltese Business Registry reveal that ProgressPlay is a fairly tiny company, with profits of just 15,000 euros last year and debts of nearly half a million.
It is owned by Godric Investments Ltd, which is based in British Virgin Islands, a tax haven. There the trail runs cold.
ProgressPlay is also licensed by the UK Gambling Commission, which believes its head office is in a pretty seaside town in Cyprus.
We asked the Gambling Commission whether it had done its own due diligence, since this is the only instance, out of hundreds of webpages of research, of BK8 being linked to Cyprus.
The Gambling Commission said it would not comment on individual operators, but insisted it investigated the suitability of all companies, including who is involved in the company, who are the shareholders, criminal record checks, and the sources of funding.
So nobody seems willing to say who owns BK8, where it operates, or how to contact them - nor do we know who owns ProgressPlay.
It is ProgressPlay’s UK gambling licence which allows BK8 to advertise on Norwich City shirts. It is a so-called “white label” gambling company, through which overseas companies can gain a toehold in the British market.
But more relevant is its other gambling licence - issued by the gambling authorities of the island of Curacao, in the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean, where a staggering 450 international gambling firms are licensed.
That licence is what allows BK8 to operate in the profitable Asian markets where such companies make their money.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, who runs Clean Up Gambling, told this paper: “Online gambling, and gambling advertising, is illegal in China and most of Asia but the Premier League has a global appeal.
“So what these companies do is attach themselves to these white label operators, which allows them to advertise in Britain through the white label’s Gambling Commission licence.
“They don’t really have a UK presence, not one they care about, they’re just part of it so they can advertise.”
Millions of football fans across Asia who watch Premier League matches then see the logo of gambling firms which they would otherwise be banned from encountering, and break the law by going online to bet with companies licenced in Curacao and Malta.
Safety campaigners point out that most of these Asian countries have no infrastructure to support problem gamblers and issue fines or even jail time to those caught breaking the law.
And unlike British gambling firms, who are supposed to donate some of their profits to gambling addiction charities, no contribution is made to support those whose lives can be ruined by problem betting.
The many degrees of separation mean clubs often know little about the firms they are doing business with - as was evidenced this week when it emerged BK8 used sexualised imagery and “influencers” with links to hardcore porn sites to advertise their brand.
The revelation led to swift apologies from the club and a slew of deletions and removals from the bookie.
Mr Zarb-Cousin explained: “Clearly the clubs don’t know much about the companies they’re getting into bed with.
“You’ve got commercial directors trying to get as much value as they can and due diligence seems to be a secondary concern.
“The problem the BK8 partnership has thrown up is, yes, it might have been the most lucrative option on the table, but with the backlash, clubs have really got to decide whether this is worth it.”
This paper understands the deal with BK8 is worth in the region of £5m for a one-year shirt sponsorship, almost half of NCFC’s entire sponsorship income last year and more than many deals arranged by other clubs of its size.
A club which prides itself on a self-sustaining business model, facing a £25m hole in the accounts caused by the pandemic, may have felt it could ill afford to turn down such a lucrative offer.
Ben Tunnell, head of commercial development, said the club was aware of concerns over betting companies sponsoring football clubs, but said: “As a self-funded club, we have to do all we can to support the efforts on the pitch by generating as much revenue as possible.”
But Dr Rob Wilson, a specialist in football finance at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “The core values of the clubs are being eroded by the sheer amount of money coming into the game.
“Success on the pitch is crucial especially for a ‘yo-yo’ club like Norwich which has to try as hard as it can to stay up when it goes up, and the more you have to spend on players the better chance you have.
“It’s been happening for years, and when clubs like Norwich are taking big money from gambling firms it shows it’s, 'if you can’t beat them, join them'.”
The UK’s Advertising Standards Agency insists that marketing communications must not “link gambling to seduction, sexual success or enhanced attractiveness”.
The BK8 images unearthed this week, including a video of young women engaged in a suggestive-hotdog-swallowing contest, clearly fall foul of that line.
But adverts by UK-licenced gambling firms that are targeted at consumers outside the UK are not covered by ASA rules.
The Gambling Commission has the power to fine companies - or even suspend or revoke their licences - if they break its or the ASA’s rules, but experts aren’t holding their breath.
Carolyn Harris MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Gambling Related Harm, said: “This is a classic case of the Gambling Commission issuing a licence without having done its homework.
“I’ve said for a long time the Gambling Commission is not fit for purpose - they’ve never done the job they’ve been given to do.”
A spokesman for the Commission said it disagreed with any such assertion, and that the Commission was committed to making gambling safer and was making good progress.
Ms Harris went on: “This is the worst case I’ve seen. It should never have happened. Is the women’s team going to wear the shirts too? How degrading for them.
“The only thing Norwich can do now to redeem themselves is to reject this deal immediately.”
Ms Harris will now join the legions of fans gratified by the club's swift U-turn, despite questions remaining over how this could have been allowed to happen in the first place.