While the United States has largely been distracted by the 2012 Election Cycle, economic hardship, and political strife, the online gambling world has continued to cook along, slowly edging its way to USA soil.
Last week we chronicled the story of PokerStars and its recent bid to buy an Atlantic City Casino in New Jersey. The poker giant has placed a bid on the Atlantic Club Casino, perhaps as a way to diversify its investments. Industry experts think otherwise: PokerStars is quietly asserting its formidable brand and finances into the troubled New Jersey gambling market, with the long term goal of eventually being the first online poker and/or online casino operator in the state. Governor Chris Christie is already causing quite a stir with his push to legalize brick and mortar sports betting, once a taboo subject even for New Jersey. Now, it’s a legitimate possibility.
That brings us to Calvin Ayre, a Canadian national and one of the most influential and successful individuals in the offshore gambling industry. Before going live, Ayre worked a pig farm in rural Canada. When that got old he decided to start an online business. Ayre tapped into internet gold in 1994 when he and some business associates founded Bodog.com. Initially, the website was first and foremost an online sportsbook accepting players from the United States, Canada and elsewhere. It slowly evolved into a full service online gambling site, offering sports betting, casino games, poker, a horse race book, and other forms of wagering. By 2006, Forbes Magazine proclaimed him to be a billionaire. He was featured on the cover of their magazine as a pioneer of offshore internet gambling.
Unfortunately for Ayre, American law enforcement felt otherwise about his success. The 2006 UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) was initially considered a death knell for offshore gambling businesses largely based in Costa Rica, Panama, Curacao, and other Caribbean jurisdictions. The UIGEA prohibited United States banks from processing financial transactions to offshore gambling sites. Despite this obstacle, internet gaming continued to thrive, taking advantage of 3rd party payment processing companies that sometimes resorted to crooked means to get money through the door. These dubious practices only further emboldened USA law enforcement, who started unsealing indictments against major operators and payment processors in the ensuing years.
Ayre wisely decided it was time for a break from the limelight. Gracing the cover of Forbes is a fairly blatant b*tch slap to the United States government, and he knew they had him in their crosshairs. Ayre quietly began breaking the company into various different enterprises, allowing different individuals and investors to blur his public persona as a big time offshore gambling operator. The name “Bodog” itself became an intellectual property company licensing its brand to other business ventures. Bodog lent its name to Bodog Fights, Bodog Music, Bodog Coffee, Bodog Poker, and Bodog UK. It also started operating in the lucrative Asian market under the name Haydock Sports/Bodog Asia.
The Morris Mohawk Gaming Group, regulated by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission continued to offer sports betting, casino, poker, and horse betting to the United States through 2011 until it let its licensing agreement with BodogBrand.com expire. Industry insiders felt this was a preemptive action on MMGG’s part to avoid trouble with United States law enforcement and domain name seizures.
Shortly afterwards, United States law enforcement in Maryland seized the Bodog.com domain name on February 26, 2012, in addition to indicting Ayre himself for money laundering, operating an illegal offshore gambling site, and various violations of the UIGEA. Morris Mohawk quickly regrouped and rebranded as Bovada.lv. The odd name is a play on the state name of Nevada, with the domain extension of .lv meant to abbreviate Las Vegas. Domain name and branding changes for any internet business are logistical nightmares, but in the end, “Bovada” and the MMGG prevailed: it’s new domain name was memorable despite the awkward .lv extension. Fortunately, .lv domain names are assigned by NIC Latvia, virtually untouchable by any United States legal action. To date, Morris Mohawk Gaming Group never actually relinquished its ownership of the erstwhile Bodog sportsbook and its millions of players, but instead reopened under a different name. Bodog Affiliates became BettingPartners.com, and preexisting affiliates’ players were all migrated to a new tracking software platform. It continues to be “business as usual” for MMGG.
Life for Ayre is now much like the famous 2002 movie, “Catch Me If You Can”, except in his view, he’s being chased for being a successful internet entrepreneur, NOT like the movie’s character Frank Abagnale portrayed by Leonard Dicaprio as an unscrupulous conman. Whether or not you believe Ayre is really guilty of anything other than being on the wrong side of shortsighted legislation is a matter of personal opinion. For most, his status as a wanted fugitive of the United States is the stuff of legends. Although his exact whereabouts are unknown, he does frequent Costa Rica, some European countries, and the Philippines where Bodog Asia is headquartered.
Ayre continues to fund the Calvin Ayre Foundation, a charity aimed at alleviating hunger, fixing social problems, and improving animal welfare. The foundation has been active since 2005 and isn’t a late effort to gain favor with the United States. Costa Rica has benefited from Ayre’s altruism greatly, and he remains a welcomed individual in their country. At one point Bodog had a major operations center in the capital city of San Jose, but it is unclear whether or not they continue to be a large local employer.
Calvin Ayre also started his own online gambling news blog, in part to promote his brand and to act as an informational resource for the offshore gaming industry. In the beginning the website was Ayre’s personal platform to the world, but now it is a major business of its own, with multiple editors, contributors, and support staff. Many people now get their gambling news from Ayre’s website, particularly his notes about investment opportunities and other emerging markets around the world.
What does the future hold for this self-described “megalomaniac”? First things first: get law enforcement off his back. PokerStars settled its Civil Case with the United States for an undisclosed sum of money, and now they’re glad-handing their way onto the Atlantic City boardwalk. Ayre might be wise to settle up with the government and begin anew. Many industry experts believe legalized online gambling in the USA – at the state or federal level – is just a few years off. Undoubtedly, if Ayre’s plate is clean, he’ll be one of the first to open up for business legally in the USA, even if its under the auspices of a holding company. His drive, intelligence, and innovation makes him a major player in any jurisdiction where online gambling is permissible, and the United States will be no different once it realizes a steady new form of tax revenue *might* be legal online gambling.