Betfair.com wants to be licensed and regulated in Asia, and representatives from the company have contacted Singapore Pools in an effort to make it happen.
Although talks are in the early stages, representatives from both Singapore Pools and Betfair confirmed this week that a line of communication has been opened.
Singapore Pools and the Singapore Turf Club are the only legalized betting houses in the small but influential port city-state. The talks mark the first step in Betfair's strategy to strengthen ties with companies and governments in Asian markets.
Tim Levene, managing director in Asia for Betfair, told the Standard in Asia that striking a deal with Singapore Pools would create win-win situation. Without the blessing of Singapore Pools, Levene said, it is unlikely that Betfair could enter into the local market.
"I think we can enhance their existing products and help take on illegal gambling because the prices on our Web site are comparable to those offered by illegal bookmakers," Levene told the Standard.
Illegal bookmaking is big business in the country, as it is throughout much of Asia. Anyone placing a bet with an operator not exempted from the Betting Act and Common Gaming Houses Act could face up to six months in jail and a fine of as much as $5,000. Nevertheless, punters sink millions into the black market.
Levene estimates figures that at least $1 billion is bet illegally in Asia on football alone.
"I think for every $1 that goes to legal betting, $1,000 goes to illegal channels," he said.
Betfair's competitive business model, he said, could help level the playing field.
"We want to work legitimately with governments and be allowed to market our product and grow to our full potential," he explained
A representative from Singapore Pools acknowledged to the Standard that Betfair paid his company a "courtesy call," but added that the talks were nothing more than cursory.
"There are no specific plans at the moment," the representative said, "and it would be premature for us to comment on what they are doing."
Levene said the betting exchange model, which allows punters to place and accept bets from other uses, could be successful in Asia. The site is already popular with Asians, with nearly 20 percent of the $200 million turnover expected on the Euro 2004 football tournament coming from Asian punters.
In addition to football, Betfair facilitates wagering on a wide array of sports, including cycling, basketball, ice hockey, tennis, golf, auto racing and others.
Levene said Betfair is willing to compromise with Singapore Pools and offer only football betting for its Singapore users. Asians have become football mad over the last couple of years, as the growth of the English Premiere League has spread throughout Asia.
Levene said the negotiations are all part of his work as the new director for Asia. He said the Asian market is the most "sophisticated gambling market in the world" and that his work is only beginning.
"My remit. . . is to start to lobby governments and existing operators, to talk to them about what a betting exchange is and how it could help them and, two, how Betfair could potentially be a solution in their fight against illegal gambling," he said.
Betfair is in ongoing talks with government officials in Australia as it tries to get approval to be a licensed operator there. In the meantime, the company continues to accept wagers from customers in both Australia and Singapore.
The site boasts a user base of 250,000 registered customers from more than 85 countries, but the company isn't saying how many of its registered users come from Singapore.
The P2P betting industry is growing in leaps and bounds. Betfair boasts weekly turnover of more than £50 million and claims to have more than 90 percent of the P2P market share.
Levene said he will also be talking to, or already has made contact with, officials in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.
Betfair would also like to work its way into the Chinese market, but Levene said that will be a much tougher nut to crack.
He also said he doesn't expect any major developments in Asia in the short term.
"The greatest challenge for us in Asia is to get the go-ahead from governments," he said, "and that could take two to four years."