President of World Athletics and member of the International Olympic Committee, Sebastian Coe, is a director of a company which has significant control over Fifa’s first official betting partner Betano.
By Philippe Auclair
The appointment of double Olympic champion Sebastian Coe as director of Czech ‘lottery operator’ Sazka Entertainment AG in September 2021 was understandably seen as a major coup for that group, which was vying for a licence to operate the British National Lottery at the time. Coe, a key figure behind London’s successful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, was and remains one of the most influential personalities in global sport, to the extent that his name is often mentioned in connection with a possible bid for the presidency of the International Olympic Committee when the mandate of incumbent Thomas Bach expires in two years’ time.
He is also a former Conservative British MP and was still a sitting peer at the House of Lords at the time of his appointment (*), with enviable connections within the British establishment, something which Sazka, which already operated similar operations in Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic, must have thought would come in handy when trying to convince the UK Gambling Commission that they were the right people to take over from Camelot next year. The stake was considerable: the British National Lottery had a turnover of just under 10 billion US dollars in 2021, the last year for which accounts are available.
Official notice of Sebastian Coe’s appointment as director of Sazka AG
At the time his appointment as an ‘Independent Non-Executive Director’ was made public, in September 2021, two months after the paperwork was completed in Switzerland, where Sazka was registered, Coe himself said: “Over the years I’ve seen the tremendous benefit lottery funds have brought to grassroots and elite sport across the globe. I’m looking forward to joining a team with a proven track record of supporting sport at all levels in the countries where it operates. My role will be to ensure that we develop our support of sport further and ensure that SAZKA Entertainment is a powerful driving force behind grassroots and elite sport funding across Europe and beyond”. The Telegraph quoted him at the time as saying that his role would be “to help advise the company on its wider commercial ambitions”.
Sazka’s choice proved a shrewd one. In September 2022, the company, now rebranded as Allwyn, announced that their bid had been successful and that they would run the UK National Lottery from February 2024 onwards. In parallel, Allwyn moved to take control of its predecessor Camelot, which became one of its ‘wholly-owned subsidiaries’ at the beginning of February 2023.
This is the story as it’s been told so far. But Josimar found out that Allwyn’s business activities extend far beyond the relatively innocuous if very lucrative operation of national lotteries.
Allwyn, thought not under that name, is also a bookmaker which offers odds in a growing number of countries (*) on a variety of sports, a number of which are Olympic disciplines, from handball to tennis and ice hockey to football – especially football. This it does through a brand which had gone through spectacular expansion since it was founded by Greek entrepreneur and former Bwin executive George Daskalakis in 2012: Betano.
Bonanza for bookmakers
That name might ring a bell. Betano became Fifa’s first official betting partner just before the 2022 World Cup and has extended its relationship with football’s governing body to the 2023 Fifa Club World Cup for Europe and South America. Sources close to the deal have told Josimar that there was strong opposition within Fifa to break with the organisation’s long-standing principle of not partnering with gambling. Those reserves were swept away. According to information received by Josimar, Fifa and Betano are set to strengthen these links even more in the years to come, when the 2026 Men’s World Cup promises to be a bonanza for bookmakers after the de-regulation of the huge US market. Betano, an official Fifa partner, should be ideally positioned to take maximum advantage from this.
Betano was originally a boutique operation which employed just 20 people in its Athens offices but has grown to such an extent that they now have over 1,500 people on their payroll. They are one of the two brands operated by the Kaizen Gaming group, and deal with the global sports betting market. The other brand, Stoiximan, caters specifically for the Greek and Cypriot markets and sponsors the best-known clubs in those two countries – clubs such as Olimpiacos, Panathinaïkos, PAOK, APOEL, Apollon Limassol and Omonia Limassol.
A key shareholder in the Kaizen Group is an investment fund of which Czech billionaire Jiri Šmejc is the majority shareholder, Emma Capital. This entity, which is registered in Cyprus, acquired 100 percent of Sazka, Allwyn’s previous incarnation and spent 622 million euro to buy into Betano and Stoiximan, acquiring the Greek government’s stake when the state operator OPAP was privatised. Allwyn, which re-located in Switzerland, not that far from Fifa headquarters, also has a majority interest in Croatian sports bookmaker SuperSport.
In other words, Lord Coe, president of World Athletics and member of the International Olympic Committee, sits on the board of a company which profits directly from bets placed on sporting events, including grassroots women’s football(*) and is currently engaged in an ultra-aggressive campaign of expansion which focuses on poorly-regulated Latin American markets. Brazil is a case in mind. Such is Betano’s drive that they not only sponsor or partner famous clubs (Fluminense and Clube Atlético Mineiro) and leagues (Campeonato Carioca, Campeonato Brasileiro, Copa and Supercopa do Brasil), but even the country’s most-watched news programme, Globo’s Jornal Nacional. The same goes for other South American countries: in Chile, Betano has signed deals with Deportes La Serena and Universidad de Chile.
Betano has not forgotten old Europe for that, since they have managed to convince Portugal’s three biggest clubs, Benfica, Porto and Sporting, to bear their name on the front of their shirts.
Josimar asked Lord Coe whether he was aware of his company’s involvement in sports betting or not, and if he considered it appropriate that he should be associated with that industry. A spokesperson for World Athletics responded to confirm that Lord Coe was still sitting on the board of Allwyn and was aware of its sports gambling activities. As to whether his presence on the board of a bookmaker was appropriate or not, Josimar was told that “all non-World Athletics’ positions and roles [were] disclosed to World Athletics’ Ethical Compliance Officer who in turn refers these to an independent vetting panel for review and approval“.
World Athletics, Allwyn and Kaizen Gaming had also been contacted for comment and clarification.
(*) Lord Coe resigned from the House of Lords in January 2022. This resignation was not related to his taking a role with Sazka.
(*) Twelve at the latest count: Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Germany, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Peru and Ecuador.
(*) Betano’s Canadian website, which is readily accessible via a VPN, offers odds on games from the FA Women’s National League, the third degree of the English women’s football pyramid, where most players are either amateurs or semi-professionals.