An IGN Q & A: Keith Oliver

21 February 2000
The U.K. online gaming industry is amid a massive upheaval; so much has happened lately that watchers need a playbook to keep up. The biggest story: Bookmakers are pleading with the government to lower the General Betting Duty, which tacks an extra 6.75 percent on each bet placed. As a result, many bookies including Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral have headed offshore, and onto the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Home Office has just released a laundry list of items to be considered during a review of British gambling legislation by the Gambling Review Board. The review board is expected to start work this spring, and hand in their report sometime next summer. So far, only the chairman of the review board has been named.

One of the biggest changes hit the U.K. industry this week when Ladbrokes, the gaming division of Hilton Group plc, announced the launch of two new Net betting sites and alliances with a slew of media outlets.

But, Ladbrokes isn't the only U.K. betting company with an eye on the future. Munching, crunching and snarling its way to the forefront of Internet betting is upstart Sports Internet Group. Not only has the company recently signed a pact to provide fixed odds betting content to the U.K.'s biggest Internet business, Freeserve, the company has also been courted by U.K. broadcasting companies to form new partnerships.

IGN recently caught up with Keith Oliver, marketing controller for Surrey Sports, Sports Internet's betting division, who provided some information about the company.

IGN:Can you explain a little about Sports Internet and how the company was started?

Keith Oliver: The company was established in spring 1999 with the strategy of combining top class sports editorial and statistics with an on-line gambling product. To do this it acquired Planetfootball, Optasoccer and then Surrey Sports, an existing brick and mortar and telephone betting business.

Surrey was purchased by the group with the specific intention of developing it into a web brand. It already has a land based heritage in the U.K. which we plan to build upon.

IGN: Will the be the only URL for online wagering with Sports Internet or are you setting up other sites?

KO: The URL for the stand-alone betting site is likely to be Surrey although this is still to be finalized. The various sports clubs and so on will have their own branded betting service within their existing site.

IGN: How did SI come up with Planetfootball?

Planetfootball was a brand of planet online, a company sold by our principal shareholder in 1998 to Energis. Obviously this sale did not include Planetfootball.

IGN: I understand that SI has partial ownership in several U.K. sports clubs. Which clubs are they and how do they fit into your company's plans?

KO: We do not have any ownership with sports clubs. What we do have is commercial contracts with 12 premier league soccer clubs and division 1 clubs plus various professional bodies, (i.e. the Soccer Managers Association).

What is different about our offering is that our betting product will be available through the soccer club Internet sites as well as via our stand-alone website. Each operation will be individually branded.

IGN:You said that you will offer betting on various club sites. How many sites will that be? Will the servers for these betting opportunities be in Alderney or elsewhere?

KO: Ideally, we would like to offer betting across all the club sites we run. At the moment we are in the process of agreeing on commercial terms with them all and it is anticipated that the majority will have signed the agreement within the next four to six weeks. The servers will be based in Alderney.

IGN: Surrey International will be an exclusive provider of betting services to Freeserve, the largest U.K. Internet portal. How will this work and how does your new relationship with Freeserve fit into your marketing plans?

KO: Our Freeserve deal is a commercial one and does not preclude us from similar arrangements with other non-competitive sites. The deal gives us access to nearly 2 million Freeserve customers. If 7 percent bet on sport that works out at a significant amount of potential business. We are actively seeking other partnership agreements.

IGN: Will you be accepting wagers from U.K. residents only? If not, will there be any nations from which you won't accept wagers?

KO: We will be offering betting facilities to customers worldwide. Obviously, different jurisdictions regard Internet wagering in differing light so it will be up to individuals to decide if they wish to bet with us.

IGN:On what sports will SI be taking bets?

We will be offering odds on all major worldwide sports including American sports.

IGN:Once you get your sports betting site online, will you only offer it in English or will there be any other languages offered?

KO: Initially, the site will only be available in English. We plan to add additional languages as the year progresses. The exact languages and the order in which we add them will be governed by customer demand.

IGN: British broadcasting companies, namely NTN and BskyB, are said to be dueling each other to form an alliance with Sports Internet. What's in it for them and what's in it for SI?

KO: Taking betting onto an interactive TV platform is the goal of such discussions enabling customers to open accounts and bet via their remote control. It is possible that such a move will witness an increase in betting activity for existing bettors and also help to demystify the process for new bettors.

IGN:You mentioned that SI was looking to start an online casino, possibly this summer. Can you supply any details, such as who will provide the software or where it would be licensed?

KO: We are currently drawing up a short list of software suppliers for our proposed casino, which we aim to open by late summer/early autumn. We are looking to license the casino in a non-Caribbean location, but I cannot say more at this stage.

Obviously, once developed, we will look to offer the casino across all our platforms which we hope will include the sports clubs, Freeserve and any other deals in force at the time.

IGN:Do you think the U.K. government will crackdown on offshore betting operators, making it either illegal or very expensive to offer your betting services to U.K. punters?

KO: It is very difficult to predict the actions/motivations of any government, including the British one. We sincerely hope that instead of cracking down they will see the opportunity of making the U.K a center for tightly regulated but professionally managed gambling operations, which will afford customers worldwide a level of security not currently in existence. We will have to wait and see the outcome of our Budget speech in March for an indication of their chosen direction.

IGN:Where are your offices located?

KO: Our U.K head office is based in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Our offshore office is in Alderney.

IGN:How large of a staff does Sports Internet employ?

KO: We currently employ in excess of 200 people throughout the group. This will expand during the next 12 months, the degree to which will be determined by how successful we are in achieving our business plan.

Vicky Nolan joined the IGN staff in October 1999. She's best known for inventing fire, the wheel and swiss cheese. She can be reached at