On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Bet you the bookies are making big bucks

Over 4,000 passionate Real Madrid – or Beckham – fans
used umbrellas and tents to queue outside the Hong Kong Stadium to buy tickets
costing between RM243 and RM729. Some die-hard fans camped outside the stadium
for four days to make sure they got their seats.

In China, the eight-time European champion club was paid RM148mil to play a
game against China XI to a 60,000-strong crowd. The marketing potential is
certainly massive in a country with 1.3 billion people.

In Tokyo, some 54,000 fans attended the match between Real Madrid and FC Tokyo.
Tickets were sold out a week in mid-June, even before Beckham signed on with
the Spanish club.

The team would have played in Bukit Jalil if Malaysia was prepared to pay
RM11mil as appearance fee and a total cost of RM16mil for a 90-minute match.
Luckily, someone had the common sense to turn the club down.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons for the club to demand the sky. After
all, it cost RM157mil for the club to sign on Beckham. Real had broken the
world transfer record twice in the last three years, signing first Portuguese
player Luis Figo and then Frenchman Zinedine Zidane for RM273mil. And last
year, they spent RM171mil on Brazilian Ronaldo.

Real Madrid is well aware that it needs to fight hard against Manchester
United, which has a fan base of 50 million Asians, if it wants to sell its
merchandise in the region.

Manchester United, meanwhile, was turning to the US to turn up the heat.
Football may still be alien to most rednecks but three of the four games were
sold out and reports indicate that United may have doubled its North American
base from 3.5 million to seven million in the lucrative American market.

United certainly means business. After all, it is a business concern listed on
the London Stock Exchange.

As the richest and most profitable soccer team in the world, it must keep its
fans and, more importantly, make its shareholders happy. The balance sheet is
as important as the score line.

Less talked about is a group of Malaysians making bigger money than these
soccer players. In December, the Singapore Straits Times reported that illegal
football syndicates took more than RM12mil every week.

These illegal bets involve syndicates with links in Singapore, Hong Kong and
Britain, and bets are collected on games in the English, Spanish and Italian
football leagues. The newspaper report estimated that RM100mil in bets was
placed with illegal bookmakers every weekend.

According to Kuala Lumpur police, in one raid the syndicate had accepted bets
of up to RM3mil on just one game – Chelsea versus Sunderland. Last December,
Johor police detained 12 bookies for accepting bets of up to RM24mil on
football matches.

Operating an illegal betting syndicate is an offence under the Betting Act 1953
which carries a fine of between RM20,000 and RM200,000 and a maximum jail term
of five years but the risk seems worth taking when the fine is such a paltry

One way to beat these illegal bookies, who have caused a dent in the coffers of
our Inland Revenue Department, is to legalise betting. The Hong Kong government
has legalised football betting and the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has been
handed a five-year licence to run the gaming activity, is expected to rake in
RM695mil for the government.

Singapore was the first Asian country to legalise football betting on its
domestic league in 1999 but started accepting bets on the English premier
league last May at 210 outlets. Suffice to say, a large chunk of Malaysian
money has gone there.

While legalised booking is relatively new in Asia, bookmakers in the United
Kingdom have long accepted bets on sporting events, such as basketball, boxing,
golf and motor racing, and even election results.

A regulated form of betting on sports, especially football, would provide
bigger revenue for the government. It would also stop rogue enforcement
officers from closing an eye to these illegal activities.

If existing gaming outlets could be used to accept these bets, particularly on
foreign soccer matches, then gaming could be restricted. This would include
allowing only non-Muslims from placing bets.

Besides taxation, revenue from gaming operators could be channelled to promote
sports, including motor racing.

The fact is that gaming has long been a way of life, particularly among the
Chinese community, and illegal bookies have long existed. Much as we say that
gaming should not be promoted, the only way to fight it, in a rather
paradoxical way, is to institutionalise it with certain restrictions.

I bet the bookies will have their hands full tonight when Manchester United
takes on Arsenal.