Plenty of sports-betting insiders continue to take a skeptical approach to the United Kingdom's newest horse betting venture, but officials with attheraces continue to move ahead with aggressive partnerships and agreements.
The latest development for the company, which operates a Web site featuring streaming video and betting options from 49 of the United Kingdom's 59 tracks, was announced Thursday when three bookmakers were tabbed as official fixed-odds partners for the site.
Leading the trio is the world's largest bookmaker, Ladbrokes, which is joined by Sportech and Surrey Sports. Sportech owns Littlewoods Bet Direct.
As part of the deal, the bookmakers will provide fixed odds betting for two years from the date of the launch of attheraces' iDTV channel. The company hopes to have the interactive TV channel up and running by May.
The channel will first be operated on a 12-hour broadcast schedule, but attheraces is hoping to secure other global partners that would allow for 24-hour broadcasting of racing events.
Many industry experts are skeptical of such a one-dimensional channel, but that isn't stopping attheraces from moving forward. Nor is it deterring bookmakers from aligning themselves with the operation. Ciaran O'Brien, a spokesman for Ladbrokes, said it is important for the company to continue its leadership role in the sports betting world.
"As the only High Street-established brand in the deal, we are in a good position," he said. "It will be an excellent service for horse racing fans and it is good to be a part of that right from the beginning."
The deal doesn't come with any guarantees of the channel being a success, O'Brien said, but he feels that is part of doing business.
"It is innovative, and therefore, an element of risk, I guess," he said. "But our feeling is that they have a good product and we want to be associated with it. We think that interactive TV is gradually gaining interest as the months go by. With the content that they have got it will be a powerful combination."
Chris Stoddart, CEO of attheraces, said he is excited to be working with three of Britain's leading bookmakers and that having a fixed odds option with the service will give it broader appeal.
"While we are a pool betting platform, fixed odds betting is the most popular form of wagering in the U.K. at present," he said. "These strategic alliances will complement our pari-mutuel income."
A tender to appoint a total of three fixed-odds providers for attheraces was opened in September 2001. The three highest bids at the close of the tender in December were required to issue a guarantee to secure appointment. All three bookmakers have met the requirements, Stoddart said.
John O'Reilly, managing director of Ladbrokes' eGaming division, sees the deal as a major move for the bookmaker to continue its push in the interactive TV sector.
"Betting via interactive television has vast potential," he said. "attheraces offers a great service for horseracing fans--and as the big High Street betting brand offering fixed odds betting on the attheraces Web and TV services, Ladbrokes is well placed to benefit."
Sportech's managing director, Colin McGill, said his company bid to be a fixed odds partner in order to spread the Bet Direct brand to another corner of the interactive gaming arena. He said it is part of Littlewoods' strategy to distribute its gaming and betting products "into the home across the widest possible range of channels."
For Surrey Sports, interactive TV is nothing new. The bookmaker has been offering live betting for viewers during sporting events for more than a year on Sky digital. Keith Oliver, deputy managing director at Surrey Sports, said the company is thrilled to be able to extend the service from traditional sports like football and cricket to horse racing.
The real winner of the trio though, may be Ladbrokes, in which it will be a case of the rich getting richer. While still the world's largest bookmaker, the company still has room for growth. O'Brien feels that if the TV network has the long-term appeal that officials are hoping for, Ladbrokes could end up with the biggest gains.
"The international markets are becoming more and more important," he said. "The numbers for international turnover on the Internet are very, very significant. A large portion of it is from outside the U.K. and it is growing all the time. It is good for us to be involved in interactive TV ventures that have potential for moving on to the global stage."
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