Belgium Receives Latest EC Warning in Unibet Cycling Saga

16 May 2007

The European Commission (EC) has issued Belgium a warning regarding exclusionary action taken against the cycling team in early April.

Today's announcement by the commission is the latest move in an ongoing, tit for tat scrap between the sport's governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), and the organizers of marquee events like the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia.

The EC, executive arm for the EU, expressed concern that Unibet's cycling team was prevented from competing in two Belgian races--La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège--because it is sponsored by a Malta-based online gambling company.

"The commission understands that the Green Cycle Associates cycling team (Unibet), a Swedish company, has been refused entry to two races in the Belgian UCI," Reuters quotes a letter from the EC as saying.

The EC is reportedly questioning Belgium over how its law, which prevents online betting companies from advertising in the country, remains in-line with EU provisions governing the free movement of services.

The commission is especially curious as to how Belgium's advertising restrictions ground the country's decision to ban a company and a team that are legally established in the European bloc.

The EC has also warned France over the same issue, after the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), which organizes the Tour de France, in January turned down Unibet's application to enter the race.

In a letter to Unibet, cited May 4 by the Times, Charlie McCreevy, the EU Internal Market Commissioner, wrote: "The consistency of the French approach is highly questionable, given that other teams sponsored by gaming operators in France, such as the Française des Jeux, are permitted to participate. Given that the main sponsor of the event is in fact a gaming operator, the PMU, all this is in breach of internal market rules."

The EC may also plan a similar move against Italy.

On May 11, various news sources reported that a Milan court would not issue a decision on Unibet's participation in the 2007 Giro d'Italia until after the race had concluded.

"Even if we win, we lose," said Unibet director Jacques Hanegraaf in response to the announcement. "What difference will it make at this point?"

Chris Krafcik is the editor of IGamingNews. He lives in St. Louis, Mo.