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Ghost in the machine

By Lars

Mystery surrounds 8XBet, Manchester City’s new Asian betting partner. Open-source intelligence points to the UAE.

By Jack Kerr, Philippe Auclair, Andy Brown and Steve Menary

Its ‘global ambassador’ Teddy Sheringham calls it “the place where trust and fun go together”. 

Tom Boyle, Vice-President, Global Partnerships Marketing and Operations, City Football Group, said in July:
“We are delighted to welcome 8Xbet as a regional partner of Manchester City today. 8Xbet shares our commitment to entertaining and providing great experiences to customers and fans alike. The new partnership provides the club an opportunity to further increase our presence across the region and we look forward to working with 8Xbet.”

But it would be hard to find a more opaque bookmaker than 8XBet, the Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese-facing operation that Manchester City recently announced as its Asian betting partner.

It has many of the hallmarks of a company keeping its cards close to its chest: a founder who doesn’t seem to exist online; a CEO appearing to hide behind a stolen avatar; a backstory that doesn’t align with publicly available records. 

It also has a ghostly presence on social media. 8XBet’s LinkedIn account lists just two employees, for example. Neither of them appear legitimate. 

Its primary English language Twitter account has never had a single retweet and is followed by just 10 other accounts, while the company has never been mentioned by the Manchester City account. 

8Xbet’s official YouTube channel has a grand total of 360 subscribers, and Sheringham’s weekly home-made analysis videos typically get less than 100 views. Sometimes it’s as few as 17. 

It’s a similar story on Instagram, where the 8XBetOfficial account has just 42 followers – and hasn’t tagged Sheringham once. 

Its Facebook accounts do have around 10,000 followers each, though this is a small number compared to what its competitors have. 

How could a company that can afford to partner with one of the biggest clubs in the world and a Premier League legend be so unpopular? 

Managed from the United Arab Emirates
Facebook Page Transparency data shows that 8XBet’s primary English-language Facebook account is run from the United Arab Emirates. 

Other 8Xbet accounts are also shown as being managed or co-managed from the UAE. 

Data obtained through the Twitter API shows that posting times to the bookmaker’s primary English-language account on that platform line up with UAE office hours.

This stands out for two reasons.

Firstly, the bookmaker specifically targets south-east Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. 

Secondly, it’s a country with a strong connection to Manchester City.

Club owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, brother of the current Head of State, is UAE’s vice-prime minister and minister of presidential affairs, for example. 

While this connection might invite speculation, Josimar is not aware of any relationship between the bookmaker and club beyond what is on the public record.

Some pages also had a co-manager in Indonesia or Vietnam.

Facebook’s Page Transparency feature was introduced after scandals like Cambridge Analytica to help identify who is really behind pages on the platform.

It also shows that another account was previously known as EAgrosia Store and AZ Dealz Pakistan. 

These two names have no obvious relation to the bookmaker.

Who is QOO Global?
Through a maze of social media posts, Josimar was able to establish that 8XBet has a strong connection with a Dubai-based marketing company almost as opaque as the bookmaker itself, QOO Global DMCC.

8XBet appears to be QOO Global’s primary client, if not its only one, and the two entities seem to be very tightly woven together.

For example, a to-do list scribbled on the whiteboard of its office in November last year, three months after it was incorporated in Dubai, lists jobs for only one client, 8XBet (which was operating under the name 978Bet at the time). 

This is a view supported by posts from other employees – on the rare occasions they exist. 

Whether it’s a film shoot with Teddy Sheringham in South London, a charity event at an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City or a cheerleading effort at a Vietnamese Under 23 football game in Dubai, every recorded activity for the marketing agency that we could find relates to 8XBet. 

Then there’s this post, from July.

“After 4 months of hard work, frustrations and stress, I’m proud to announce the partnership with Manchester City. My school days dream,” writes QOO Global’s director of operations.

“For those who wonder why you can’t see it, we have blocked viewing content coming from Sg [Singapore] and China.”

Consider the language she uses. Has she secured the deal for her employee or her client?  And why is she, a marketer, geo-blocking a bookmaker’s visitors?

“On balance, I would bet 20-to-1 that she works for 8XBet,” said Dr John Newman, a linguistics expert from Australia’s Monash University when shown the post.

“The use of the plural ‘we’ certainly invites the inference, as I would put it, that the writer views herself as part of the group responsible for the blocking.

“The first sentence is also worth deconstructing.

“If the writer says she is proud to announce a new business partnership with the soccer club, surely she would have to have some official position within the partnering organisation (the bookmaker company)?”

Even if she misspoke, does it not seem equally strange that a deal with one of the world’s biggest football clubs, worth millions of pounds, would be organised through a marketing company with few staff, little history and almost no presence? 

QOO Global’s own social media accounts make no mention of its connection to the club – something many other marketing firms would be singing from the rooftops. 

In fact, they are so devoid of content they barely exist. 

Its website has been similarly quiet. An overhaul this month means it does now feature pictures on Manchester City and Teddy Sheringham, but the site makes no mention of why these are there and has no hints of it having other clients.

There are more oddities around QOO Global’s relationship with 8XBet.

QOO Global is listed as the creator of the 8X Live Score app in the French version of the Apple App store.

The original version of 8x.com – a sport news website that promotes the bookmaker’s distinctive 8X branding – lists QOO Global as managing the site.

It’s a relationship that seems unusually close.

Anyone there?
At a minimum, the 8XBet story raises questions about the actual commercial value of a deal with Manchester City.

Fewer than 170 people per day visited 8XBet.com and 8xbet5.com, one of its primary “mirror” sites, last month, according to data from Similar Web. 

Taking their three main websites into account, Newcastle United’s shirt sponsor Fun 88 had 7.4 million visits for the 3 months of May to July – over 77,000 every day.

Stake.com had 36 million visits to its main site in that period – an average of 391,000 per day.

Dafabet had 43 million. 

Bet365 had 725 million – 7.9 million people each and every day, without taking into account the visitors to bet365’s thousands of mirror websites. 

Of the thirty-two 8XBet sites we looked at, only one had more than a couple of hundred visits per day. 

The most popular iteration of the elusive operator, 8Xbetth.com, had 760,000 visitors in the May-July period. But most of those visitors did not stick around: the site’s “bounce rate” – when visitors, who might well be bots, leave the page as soon as they’ve landed on it – was over 70 per cent, double that of fun88king.com.

This means that the number of actual daily visitors was around just 2,500.

In any case, it would seem that this site is operating outside of 8XBet’s license, as it is not listed as a “registered website” with its  licencee in Curaçao, something which was observed with many other sites it uses.

It’s also worth nothing that the 8XBetThai Twitter account has just three followers

Its Vietnamese 8XBetvn account has a few thousand followers, but when we used botometer to check through dozens of them, most were flagged as likely bots or were empty accounts with no history of posting. 

Its Vietnamese Instagram account has over 8000 followers – but we could not find one that appeared genuine. Instead, we saw hundreds of avatars of bikini models, whose accounts had few followers and few posts.

Another Instagram account, 8XAngels, posts photos of bikini-wearing models promoting 8X.com.

8x.com has also used a Vietnamese orphanage to hold a promotional event early this year, where they presented the charitable organisation with a cheque for a little under 5,000 US dollars.

A company with little history
Manchester City’s website claims that 8XBet was founded in 2018 by one ‘Ryan Li’. 

Yet the 8xbet.com domain was for sale as of November last year, as the Wayback Machine shows. 

The .com domain for 978bet, the bookmaker’s previous name, was for sale in 2019 and blank in November 2020.

There are a number of mirror sites associated with each of these brands: but the ones that we checked were either registered in 2020 (for 978Bet) or around Christmas last year (for 8XBet).

This means that, if it was operating in 2018 as claimed, it may well have been doing so illegally: the bookmaker is licensed in Curacao through a company called 978 Tech NV, and Open Corporates shows that this was only registered in March 2021

As for its founder, when we searched for “Ryan Li” “978Bet” on Google, the solitary result was Josimar’s previous article on the bookmaker.

A search for “Ryan Li” “8XBet” returns no results prior to March 2022, when he began to be named in promotional-style news articles announcing a partnership between 8XBet and Teddy Sheringham.

At least two journalists who quoted ‘Ryan Li’ did not speak to him but received quotes via email from a British public relations company they were not at liberty to name. 

We were unable to find any other online history for a Ryan Li involved with 8XBet or 978Bet. 

As previously reported, a deleted LinkedIn account for Trịnh Thu Trang claimed that she was the bookmaker’s CEO.

But her profile picture is the same picture used in an advertisement for an “Employee of the month photo frame” by lazerdesigns, a company selling all sorts of gifts based in Broomfield, Colorado. Yours for 44.99 US dollars.

Untrustworthy developer
The developer of its iPhone betting app is listed as the ‘Nigerian Meteorological Agency’, which the App Store deemed to be untrustworthy. 

An attempt to install the 8XBet App on Android resulted in similar issues. The app was not available in the Google Play store but had to be downloaded from a private website.

There are a number of other red flags around the bookmaker, including that:

  • Its European Customer Support Line does not appear operational;
  • No parent company is listed on its websites, aside from on its external license page;
  • Its online customer support staff would not say where it was based;
  • Its “About” page refers to the Philippine Gaming Commission while its front page has a license authentication seal from Curaçao;

We have also seen various street addresses listed in Vietnam for the bookmaker. 

One is in an office block, but in other cases, Google Street View shows what appears to be a small mobile phone shop in Da Nang, a shack in Da Can, near Hanoi, and a Marriott hotel in Ho Chi Minh Ville.

(8XBet purported head office in Da Nang.)

Lastly, and possibly most bizarrely, 8XBet has taken over the URL of a small Ontario wilderness kayaking company, which is baffled by the appropriation of their domain name. As they told Josimar, they lost control of the domain name after their manager fell sick and forgot to renew their lease of the address.

Visitors to muskokapaddlingexperience.com are now automatically redirected to 8xbet.life

What’s more, 8Xbet is also using the Muskoka name as part of an email address which customers can supposedly use to engage with the bookmaker. 

Josimar used it, requesting an interview with ‘Ryan Li’, but no reply was forthcoming. Neither did we receive any response to the other emails we sent to a variety of addresses mentioned on 8XBet-branded websites.

No response from Manchester City
Any combination of the issues could have raised eyebrows..

Josimar approached Manchester City with a list of detailed questions about their process of due diligence and other issues, including the location of 8XBet’s social media operation in the United Arab Emirates.

Manchester City did not respond to this request for clarification.

Requests to QOO Global also went unanswered.

• The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.

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