News feature: March 8, 2007
Team Unibet.com is caught in the middle a political tug of war between the UCI and the Grand Tour organizers. Following Monday's meeting between the two dueling parties, the ProTour team called a press conference of its own Wednesday afternoon, to discuss the issues and its legal actions. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews met with the team's lawyer in Drongen, Belgium, home of the team's headquarters.
Present at the team's conference were General Manager Koen Terryn, Team Manager Jacques Hanegraaf, and the team's lawyer, Christoph De Preter, hired specifically for this battle. The team representatives spoke in front of a backdrop of the two team jerseys that fans have already seen this year - the normal Unibet.com jersey alongside the question mark "?" jersey, which they have been forced into using on French soil.
Developing laws in France have stated that no other gaming institutions can advertise in its country other than the state's selected institutions, like Française Des Jeux, which also happens to sponsor a French team. The team said at the conference to Cyclingnews that this is not entirely correct, in that a team like Française Des Jeux can race outside of France without facing similar legal problems that now face Unibet.com. It further stated that the team is suffering as a result of disagreements between the ASO and UCI.
In a previous press release, Unibet.com said, "The Unibet team is the victim of a battle between the organizers of the 'Grand Tours' (ASO, RCS and Unipublic) and the UCI (International Cycling Union)." The team pointed out resulting financial damages. "The Unibet Team has suffered serious damage as consequence of the attitude of ASO, RCS, Unipublic and UCI. Other stakeholders such as the sponsors, the staff and the riders of the Unibet Team are threatened to suffer collateral damage. ... These parties will therefore be asked to justify themselves before the competent courts."
MrBookmaker and Unibet.com
In 2005, the team existed as MrBookmaker, so what has changed? "That is a very good question; I don't think anything has changed," noted De Preter. "Over the last three years, the team was sponsored by an online bookmaker and suddenly this year, the organizers of the Grand Tours and the UCI have considered this to be a legal problem.
"We are of the opinion that this whole legal debate is actually just a cover-up for something much more fundamental, which is the struggle that is going on between the UCI and the organizers of the Grand Tours to gain control over the cycling community and of the ProTour system."
The team pointed out its commitment made to be able to join the ProTour in the press release. "The Unibet team joined the ProTour for the period 2007-2010," it read. The team "had at its disposal a total budget of €40 million for this period; the management was profoundly changed and a young and closely knit team was formed, whereby emphasis was laid on the growth and development of young talents and the importance of a 'clean' cycling sport."
De Preter affirmed the opinion that Unibet.com is a pawn in the game. "Yes, exactly. This supposedly 'legal issue' is actually a non-issue," continued De Preter at the Drongen Hotel. "The activities of the sponsor, Unibet, are actually under debate; there are uncertainties about the law in France. And for this reason the team has very clearly offered to ride in different jerseys so that there would not be this legal problem.
"There is a precedent, because in the beginning of the 1980s there was a similar problem with another Belgium team, the Boule d'OR team, a team that was sponsored by a cigarette brand. Publicity for cigarettes in France was prohibited, so the solution was that in the whole of Europe the team was riding in normal jerseys, with the cigarette brand on it, and in France the brand was lifted [they used the bike sponsor, Colnago - ed.]."
Like Ferrari does in Formula 1, not using Marlboro? "Yes. Also, in football you see the same thing, and clubs compete in neutral jerseys, which solve the problem."
Unibet.com faces two significant problems; they not allowed to race in the ProTour events promised by the UCI, and they are up against upset organizers, who wish to keep control over their historic races. But how much of this has to do with the late deadlines? The UCI extended the date to apply for a ProTour license but not before the organizers issued a statement saying they would only accept the, then current, 18 ProTour teams.
"The problem is on both sides," De Preter stated. "When the UCI grants you a ProTour license, it offers you the right and obligation to compete in every ProTour race; we see here that this is not the case, that this contractual promise has not been kept. That is one issue.
"The other issue is that whether powerful, dominant organizers, such as ASO, RCS and Unipublic, can control the market and decide at their own will who can and cannot participate in their races on the basis of very vague rules and very vague decision making.
"So there are two cases going on. One against the UCI, concerning the contractual promises that have not been kept. The cycling team will take the necessary steps before the court to obtain damages for that. On the other hand, there are proceedings going on in France, where Unibet has asked the French judge whether or not its exclusion in the Paris-Nice was justified or not." This will be the team's hope for entering the Race to the Sun. De Preter noted the process, "It is summary proceedings, in fast track proceedings, because this decision has to be made before the start of the race."
And is the team just as concerned about other races, such as Tirreno-Adriatico, which starts three days after Paris-Nice? "All of these races are important; in that case it is not a legal issue in Italy. [RCS Sport has chosen not to select Unibet.com, saying that it was only obligated to select the 18 ProTour teams that existed on December 12, 2006. - ed.] All of these races are organized by a dominant organizer and that issue needs to be addressed, and teams needed to be selected on a transparent basis."
A Lotto in Belgium
The team maybe facing other problems in Belgium. Lotto, of Predictor-Lotto, the national lottery, is making a similar claim in the courts. "We have a monopoly on Belgian gambling," a spokesperson for the national lottery told tuttobiciweb.com on Wednesday morning, March 7. "Unibet is not authorized to develop its business, nor publicize it in Belgium. From here begins the problems of Unibet.com."
De Preter responded, "Lotto is a stated-owned gaming operator, and it has indeed filed a complaint in Belgium, not against the team but against its cycling sponsor. This is an ongoing debate, for the last few months, and it is true it has been in the courts. There has been no decision stating that either the sponsor or the team would be illegal."
It is odd that a big gaming institution, like Unibet.com, would not have researched the French laws before taking on a new venture in cycling sponsorship. Cyclingnews asked De Preter how much legal issues were studied before the team decided to join the ProTour.
"These laws are old," De Preter said. "There has never been a legal issue with the team since its existence, this is the first time this sort of law has been evoked. Again, other companies, like Lotto, like Française des Jeux, when they ride outside of their home country they are also theoretically illegal, yet no one cares about that. It is again clear that this is not the real reason or the real issue, and even if it were the real issue the team has offered repeatedly in writing that it is willing to change its jersey, and take off any labelling of Unibet."
But the Grand Tour organizes are saying they are outside of the ProTour system and so they are therefore able to make their own decisions about which teams to invite to their events. De Preter responded, "The operators are dominant; which means they have a strong market position, and the European law is very clear on cartels and anti-trust behaviour. When someone is dominant, they are obligated to make transparent how they operate, how they choose teams. This is what we ask; Unibet does not as for an unconditional right to participate in every race, but a right to have a cycling world without cartels."
A decision is expected by Saturday from French courts regarding whether or not the teams exclusion in the Paris-Nice was justified or not.
Stay with Cyclingnews for more details on the decision and an upcoming feature about how the Unibet.com team situation fits into the larger, ongoing ProTour / Grand Tours conflict.