Barely 12 months ago, it promised Australia’s online gambling regulator not to target customers in that country. Now, Manchester City’s controversial betting partner, 8XBet, is injecting broadcasts of the A-League with “virtual” ads for its own brand and a type of betting outlawed in Australia.
By Jack Kerr
The A-League finds itself in a tricky situation, which might explain why its media office has been ignoring our daily emails for the last two weeks.
At the core of the issue is 8XBet, an illegal bookmaker linked to South East Asia’s cyber slavery industry – and which is also the betting partner of Manchester City.
Visit its websites any weekend and you might see Australia’s only professional men’s competition being live-streamed on its home page.
You don’t need to look closely to see something highly unusual: “virtual” for the bookmaker are superimposed on pitchside hoardings around the ground, as far as the eye can see. These run non-stop for the entire length of the match.
“Virtual” ads are superimposed somewhere between the game being filmed and it hitting our screens, and allow different in-play ads to be shown in different markets. As Josimar recently reported, Bundesliga clubs like Borussia Dortmund run ads for unlicensed offshore gamblers on their international broadcasts.
If this is something the A-League has endorsed, it would be more than bad optics. It would mean the A-League was working with an unlicensed bookmaker who was found to be breaching Australian law. It would also undercut the work of its clubs who last year pledged to reject gambling advertising.
But if 8XBet is pirating the games, then the situation is trickier still. Does the league protect its broadcast and commercial value from an illegitimate predator, or does it stay silent for fear of upsetting the partner of a very major stakeholder, the City Football Group?
“It is a blatant disregard of Australian law,” says Bonita Mersiades, a former official Head of Corporate and Public Affairs with the Football Federation Australia.
“The City Football Group is a powerful actor in world football and would have the power and capacity to stop this if requested. The test would be whether the A-League would actually demand it.”
“If the A-League has set-up this arrangement, they should be transparent about it. That is the least fans, sponsors, and investors deserve – and hopefully, expect and demand.”
8XBet was essentially banned from Australia in 2022.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority, the country’s internet watchdog, began to investigate 8XBet in August that year, following an enquiry by Josimar.
The company, which had little profile at the time, had just signed a partnership with Manchester City to become the Premier League champion’s betting partner. Star players like Kevin De Bruyne filmed social media content for the bookie. The club displayed its logo at matches.
In internal documents released to Josimar under the country’s Freedom of Information regime, ACMA noted at the time that the situation was “novel, as it involves one of the highest profile sporting teams in the world entering into a partnership with an offshore gambling provider”.
Manchester City is also a club of interest in Australia, not only because of its successes in England, but also because of its influence on the A-League. Since its purchase of the club now known as Melbourne City, the largesse and know-how of CFG has transformed the team into a local powerhouse, wrested control of the league from Football Australia, and lifted the standards of the women’s game.
An investigation by ACMA concluded that 8XBet was allowing Australian customers to register with it, putting the company in breach of two sections of Australia’s federal Interactive Gambling Act.
“It has not nor will be the intention to target the Australian market,” a person representing 8XBet via a Curaçaoan management company told ACMA, in response to the regulator’s complaint.
As a result of ACMA’s findings, it promised that “further measures were taken to prevent any Australian nationals from opening an account”, the contrite representative said, with Australian IP addresses geo-blocked and Australian phone numbers prevented from opening accounts. These measures remain in place.
A uniquely Australian dilemma
But if you wanted to mount a case that 8XBet was flagrantly undermining the Australian regulator that dared to take it on, there is ample evidence to do so.
In livestreams seen by Josimar via 8XBet and associated sites in recent weeks, “virtual” ads for the bookmaker were superimposed around the entirety of the pitch, and ran non-stop throughout the match. Its “virtual” ads were also placed on the ground behind the goal lines.
While 8XBet live-streams matches from all around the world, taken from multiple broadcasters, Josimar was unable to find any example of its branding being superimposed on matches from any other competition.
A-League games seen by Josimar via 8XBet included Melbourne Victory’s home clash against Adelaide United on the first Saturday of November. Both teams last year signed up to a government-backed anti-gambling initiative called Love the Game, which compels them to not promote gambling products.
But on 8XBet, the livestream of the match was injected with pitchside enticing viewers to “Live Bet”, a form of online gambling otherwise known as “in-play betting” that is specifically outlawed in Australia under the federal Interactive Gambling Act.
The ads promoted a web address with .cc suffix – which belongs to the Australian territory of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.1
“Gambling and sports have increasingly developed relationships due to marketing and sponsorship deals,” Sally Gainsbury, a professor at the University of Sydney who specialises in gambling research.
She warns that offshore operators are “highly associated” with match-fixing and other lawbreaking.
“Offshore gambling companies are often providing services illegally and typically do not have strong consumer protection policies, leaving customers at risk for fraud, identity theft, and financial losses,”
“They may also be associated with money laundering and subsequently significant crime including harms to vulnerable people around the world.”
A broadcast security expert said he believed that every game “is hacked”, with illegal bookmakers always the culprit. “Security [of broadcasts] is next to useless … It’s like saying I have a bike lock and expecting your bike won’t be stolen.”
ACMA says the unauthorised use of A-League streams “is not within [its] remit”. 8XBet had kept its word and remains geo-blocked in Australia, it also noted.
Smoke and mirrors
These 8XBet-branded streams are not just being screened on 8XBet but also on rebranded versions of the site, plus their numerous “mirrors” (or clones).
This means the streams have been shared on dozens of websites – nearly all of which are using elite football as their primary marketing avenue.
As Josimar has previously reported, the websites of bookmakers like 6686.com, 8868.com, 1919.com, 2121.com and 678.hk are rebadged versions of the 8XBet site.
Between them, they sponsor the likes of AS Monaco, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wolfsburg, SS Lazio, Roma, Athletic Club Bilbao and Torino. 6686 filmed an advertisement for Leicester City in April, but have since been relegated (and are now sponsored by 8XBet instead).
Along with Manchester City, it means the 8XBet stable has or has recently had a partnership with almost one in 10 clubs from Europe’s five biggest leagues. Between them, they could fill half a competition.
Not a single one of these brands’ websites show a licence in their imprint section at the bottom of their landing page. This also goes for 8XBet, which originally had a licence from Curaçao, but now operates outside of the law.2
Some of 8XBet’s sister brands also allow Australian phone numbers to be used to sign up (even if the sites are geo-blocked in the country).
As for the provenance of its A-League broadcasts, it appears they are being taken from wherever they can. While one match came direct from the satellite, half-time content of another showed the broadcast was being taken from Malaysian television giant Astro.
“Astro’s feed is geo-locked and shouldn’t be able to be accessed elsewhere,” a member of the television network’s technical team said.
“Nevertheless, it’s an obvious piracy and if you can do anything to stop it, please do.”
1 The .cc top-level domain is one of the world’s leading havens for malicious websites, and has made headlines in Australia due to the large number of sites promoting child abuse material that are under its umbrella. While it essentially operates as a generic TLD rather than a geographic one (like a .com rather than a .de, in other words) and is operated by a major US tech firm, ultimate ownership and responsibility does still lie with the local shire council of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
2 A UK white label licence only covers the domain 8XBet.co.uk, which does not accept customers, and appears to exist entirely in order to allow the company to advertise at Manchester City matches. A similar situation exists for 6686.
This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.