On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Sure bet betting frenzy will hit World Cup

Just days before, the former Manchester United big man was
in China, Asia's biggest market, to talk about developing the sport and
boosting Chelsea's appeal in the region.

The English Premier League's top teams – Chelsea, Manchester
United, Liverpool and Arsenal – have a huge following in
Asia and these clubs recognise the importance of
countries which are economically strong.

It is about making billions of dollars from television
rights, product endorsements, appearance fees, merchandising and sponsorship.
In the past, marketing football was merely restricted to sportswear but now,
even credit cards, watches and cars are carrying the names and logos of these

Airlines and telephone operators also recognise the appeal
of these football stars in helping to drive their products. They are prepared
to pay these clubs to have their products endorsed.

Two years ago, Real Madrid flew into Japan
to play against FC Tokyo, and 54,000 fans attended the match because they
wanted to watch English player David Beckham. The tickets were sold out even
before Beckham signed on with the club.

missed the chance of seeing Real Madrid here because the club wanted RM11mil as
appearance fee. Well, Real Madrid did pay RM157mil to sign Beckham then, even
if many of us now ask if he was worth it.

But it is the English football teams that command the
biggest following. Manchester United, for example, has a fan base of 50 million
people in Asia. Even in the United
States, where football is regarded as a
sissy's game by some rednecks, the base is growing.

Manchester United is a serious business concern that is
listed in the London Stock Exchange and is regarded as the most profitable
football team in the world. While it must keep its fans happy, more importantly
it must keep the shareholders happier.

Arsenal, another rich club, takes the Asian base so
seriously that its official website has the Chinese and Thai versions. The club
also hired Chinese-speaking staff to run its business section with China,
Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In Malaysia,
the people making the biggest buck are the illegal bookies, unfortunately. Last
week, it was reported that a 27-year-old bookie in Penang
had a worldwide clientele. He received bets up to RM10mil for weekend matches
and all transactions were carried out via e-mail and online booking. He was
waiting for the biggest killing – the World Cup finals in Germany
in June – but unluckily for him, the police nabbed him.

Two years ago, the Singapore Straits Times reported that
RM100mil in bets were placed with illegal bookmakers every weekend although it
was the first Asian country to legalise football betting on its domestic league
in 1999 and, in 2002, it started accepting bets on English premier. In Hong
Kong, the government has also legalised football betting.

Gaming is regarded as a sensitive issue in Malaysia
with most of the existing gaming licences issued decades ago. No politician
would want to be seen to take the first step to propose that sports betting be
legalised, even after considering the financial possibilities.

If couples holding hands is regarded as a delicate matter,
what more gaming? But the fact is that many Malaysians are big gamblers,
especially the Chinese community.

We have lost huge sums of money to illegal bookies,
especially when it comes to sports. Unless the Government is prepared to impose
a regulated form of betting on sports, the Government would end up losing such
possible revenue. Legalised betting for sports events would also cut down on
corruption as rogue enforcement officers are said to be profiting from illegal

If existing gaming outlets could be used to accept these
bets, particularly on foreign soccer matches, then gaming could be controlled.
The Finance Ministry can even restrict the betting only to states with huge
Chinese population such as Penang, Selangor, Kuala
Lumpur, Johor Baru, Ipoh,
Negri Sembilan, Sabah and Sarawak.

That would surely take away the political and religious
factors from such a move. Revenue from gaming operators could be channelled to
promote sports, including motor racing.

We can debate at length about the merits and demerits of
such a move but the reality is that gaming would continue to be a way of life
for many non-Muslims and that bookies would make huge sums of money while the
Government would not get a single sen.

Except maybe some dirty cops, who want to turn the other

When Arsenal clashes with Barcelona
in Paris on May 17, we can bet that
the illegal bookies would grow richer.