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Over Seas Odds

Offshore Bookies Offer Sports Gamblers a New Arena, But Buyer Beware
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 1)

Years before Antigua rolled out the welcome mat, Ronald Sacco, a mob bookie known as "The Cigar," took his business to the Dominican Republic. Trying to outrun a series of felony convictions in the States, Sacco opened shop in the Caribbean country in the late 1980s, connecting to his old stable of clients via toll-free telephone lines. While the weather was hot, the pressure from law enforcement officials was not. Sacco thought he had found the perfect haven. But "The Cigar" was an old-time bookie who used old-fashioned methods for paying and collecting: a network of runners and clerks who made cash money transfers back in America. (The new breed relies on electronic or mail transactions.) Sacco was convicted of money laundering in 1994.

But his cronies had seen the light--or at least a reflection of the light. A substantial number of operators with organized crime ties (as well as prior convictions) transferred their businesses to the sunny Caribbean, where licensing fees cost as little as $5,000 (they now go for closer to $100,000) and background checks were nonexistent. They kept their wise-guy clientele and shadowy practices--no advertising, no publicity, no customer service--but took care not to make the same mistakes as Sacco.

While some offshore operations are still "mobbed up," in the past few years many international sports betting shops have become more corporate. Run by former (legal) Nevada bookmakers and backed by venture capitalists and marketing wizards, these sports books advertise heavily in such mainstream outlets as airline in-flight magazines (as well as Cigar Aficionado) and issue quarterly earnings statements. Some are even publicly traded companies.

Which leads to an obvious question: Will the offshore bookies put the corner bookies out of business? Will they take a bite out of Nevada's legal sports betting market?

"I think this is definitely the wave of the future," one major professional sports bettor tells me. "Everything is going to depend on this new Federal Gambling Commission"--which was set up this year to examine the ramifications of gambling and make recommendations--"and Congress and the Justice Department. If they all want to get involved, things could get messy. But if everything remains status quo--it's like it might as well be legal. Why would anyone want to deal with some goon with a paper bag full of cash when he can do it so clean over the phone?"

The man who makes the odds doesn't necessarily agree. "I don't think the illegal corner bookies will disappear," Roxy says. "The offshore bookies will hurt the illegal guys, but not put them out of business. Because the illegal bookies still offer credit, and they probably have lower minimums." Roxy thinks the offshore operations will have even less impact on legal sports books. "The offshore operations definitely won't affect Nevada, unless someone suddenly puts 100,000 hotel rooms in Antigua. Vegas sports betting is done mostly by tourists. The offshore bookie is going after a different customer."

Indeed, Roxy thinks that rather than eroding the existing market in sports gambling, the offshore bookies are expanding it. "We're seeing a whole new segment of sports gamblers," Roxy says. "We're seeing professionals, successful people who like the security and discretion of the offshore bookies, people who might not be comfortable dealing with a mob bookie. For these players, the kind of gambler who reads Cigar Aficionado, doing business with an offshore bookie is like calling their stockbroker."

Since no money changes hands on U.S. soil, you have about as much chance of getting harassed for making an overseas sports bet as you do for smoking a Cuban cigar. This is why Scott Kaminsky, odds manager for Bowman International out of Mauritius, says his business can only get bigger. "I don't know a single person who has ever been charged with as much as a misdemeanor for betting. The American government won't say it's illegal to bet with an organization such as ours, so you can almost assume they're implying it's legal."

Kaminsky, whose office employs up to 100 clerks during the heart of football season, says offshore bookies are serving an enormous market. "We're helping make a billion dollar industry become legal. It seems like two new offshore shops open every week. This isn't necessarily gambling's future but it is definitely the present."

Offshore bookies offer American sports bettors several appealing improvements over the mob-connected bookies operating out of your corner bar such as:

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