July 14 2011
Calvin Ayre loves a good party. The Canadian-born online-gaming billionaire and owner of BodogBrand.com, which licenses out the Bodog name, favours ear studs, medallions and a sartorial look that could perhaps be described as biker chic. For his birthday last year he treated 300 guests to a Mad Max-style bash in a disused sewage works in Prague; and for his 50th last month, the setting was Dublin – and the budget a cool £1m.
Ayre is a natural showman and happy to be called a playboy. Indeed, Bodog Europe’s recent purchase of a five-storey Mayfair mansion, which will host visiting company VIPs such as Ayre and be a London HQ for the firm, has enhanced his reputation as a Hugh Hefner figure for the 21st century.
He has houses in Antigua (where his HQ is based) and Manila and, wherever he goes, likes to make a splash. One of his main pastimes is wakeboarding – an amalgam of water skiing, surfing and snowboarding that involves a rider on a board being towed behind a speedboat and riding or surfing its wake. As well as a cabin cruiser in Canada and a Sea Ray Sundancer that he uses for parties in Antigua, Ayre owns a 22ft professional wakeboarding boat, which is moored on Taal Lake outside Manila.
Behind the carefree lifestyle and the razzmatazz, Ayre is a shrewd operator who has made his fortune by catering to the insatiable global demand for online gambling. He founded Bodog in 1994, having set himself the task of devising a domain with fewer than six letters that would show up well in radio and TV advertising, and had connotations of sex and fun.
In 2000, he set up a Bodog website in Costa Rica, offering sports betting as well as online poker and casino games, and including US citizens among its clients. By March 2006, he was on the cover of an issue of Forbes magazine about the world’s newest billionaires.
Then along came the US government’s Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act. Many people would say that all forms of gambling should be a matter of personal choice. But, confronted with the online phenomenon, the US Congress opted for the Prohibition route that failed so spectacularly to restrict alcohol consumption during the Boardwalk Empire era of the 1920s.
Politicians complained that the new online craze was taking billions of dollars out of US pockets and rerouting them into the coffers of offshore companies that couldn’t be taxed. Not only was the US Treasury suffering, but the nation’s moral fibre was at risk. The act prohibits US banks and credit-card operators from processing payments to and from online gaming sites, and the US Justice Department aggressively pursues offshore bookmakers accepting bets from US citizens.
Ayre simply sold the Costa Rica operation to Alwyn Morris of Morris Mohawk Gaming Group, which offers gaming services worldwide from Mohawk territory near Montreal, and licensed him to use the Bodog brand for US-facing business.
Maybe one day US legislators will decide that their efforts to withstand internet gambling are tantamount to King Canute trying to hold back the tide. In the meantime, Ayre enjoys his wakeboarding and partying, while Bodog Europe offers perfectly legal online markets on British sports. It is already trading on the 42 rowing medals up for grabs at the 2012 Olympic Games, with odds of 10-11 that Britain will win seven or more.