News Feature, March 12, 2007
With talk of being sold out by the IPCT, weakness on the part of the UCI, legal action, a cartel rivalling the ProTour and a monetary interest by Grand Tour organisers in preserving the wildcard system, Unibet's Koen Terryn was taking no prisoners when he talked to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes on two occasions last week. Unhappy with the way his squad has been treated, he, the team and its lawyers are now fighting for their place in ProTour events and their very future in the sport.
The Unibet.com team worked hard last season to get a ProTour licence, buying new riders, making changes to the management and increasing their annual budget from four to ten million euro per year. Speculation built last autumn that they were certain to get a licence and in the middle of December, that pass to the ProTour was issued by the UCI.
However, in spite of all that effort, the team has yet to see any return for its investment. The first race in the top-ranking series, the Paris-Nice, will begin on Sunday, but Unibet's fast-track court action ended in failure, and the Swedish-registered squad will miss the start. They have also been left off the start list for Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro d'Italia, although it remains to be seen whether that could change as a result of the recent UCI – Grand Tour organisers' agreement.
According to a team press release issued on Saturday, Friday's decision was taken due to a law passed in France back in 1836 which essentially protects a state monopoly on gambling. Unibet.com and the team's former backer MrBookmaker.com previously competed on French soil without any problems, but this year it has become an issue. To get around this, the team used non-branded jerseys – as did the Boule d'Or team over two decades ago - yet, despite being told by the police that these complied with the law, the latest court action has turned that situation around.
In a week when a similar monopoly in Italy was ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice, prompting speculation that such protectionism could soon be phased out due to actions being taken by the European Commission, the team was not impressed with the turn of events.
"At stake is our team's right to freely exercise its sporting business," said the Unibet.com squad in the press release. "Till now, it would have been unthinkable that the US Postal team would not have been entitled to race in Germany for not having a German postal license. It would have been unthinkable that Deutsche Telekom would not have been entitled to race in France for not being notified or licensed as a French telecoms operator. It would be unthinkable that Bayer Leverkusen could not play a Champions League game in Belgium because its "Bayer" sponsoring goes against the Belgian law on advertising of medicines."
"[The team] it is currently the victim of the discriminatory behaviour of Amaury Sport Organisation, ASO, organiser of Paris-Nice and the Tour de France, has found itself supported by the local Public Prosecutor. The Public Prosecutor did indeed decide to intervene in the court hearing of the 8th of March, and his argumentation denied the riders the right to participate, this even in neutral jerseys. This reasoning has been adopted in today's decision. For the President, it seems that the jersey without the Unibet brand is 'a pretence for clever and slanted publicity!'"
The release continued by claiming that Predictor-Lotto's participation in Paris-Nice will make ASO accomplices in breaking the same law. It points out that the Belgian National Lottery has no licence in France; something it says makes "its brand and advertising as such also illegal."
Team lawyer Richard Milchior said that Unibet.com has made sure that this apparent contradiction has been highlighted. "At the court hearing of March 8th, we have presented a bailiff's report documenting a possible breach of the 1836 law, consisting inter alia of the availability of the Internet site of the Belgian Lotto in France", he stated.
According to general manager Koen Terryn, this decision will have far-reaching implications for sport in the country.
"I am very disappointed, and what the judge has said has a lot of consequences," he told Cyclingnews on Friday. "Werder Bremen and AC Milan, the champions league football teams, are sponsored by Bwin. So now, is it the case that even with the neutral jersey they may not participate any more in the champions league if they are playing in France against French teams? If so, the decision of the judge has a very, very big impact.
"It was very strange to see that the Procureur de l'Etat [state prosecutor] was in the same room as the judge and came in two or three times with an intervention. Normally this person is only involved in big, big cases."
He's not giving up, though. "On the plus side, Jimmy Casper won another race [Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen], and today Baden Cooke took over the leader's jersey in Murcia. We need to fight with the Devil, but we have God's hands with us!" he added, showing humour despite his disappointment.
Koen and the team will continue to campaign to get into ASO's races, using whatever means they can to get the green light. Outside France, he believes that the chances of riding RCS Sport's events such as the Giro d'Italia may have improved after the team clarified to organiser Angelo Zomegnan that their sponsor is fully legal.
"We are working with the lawyer in Italy as well and there we have proved to the organiser of the Giro that we really have a license in that country. So our problems in Italy should be solved. We may miss Tirreno-Adriatico for organisational reasons, but Mr. Zomegnan was really helpful. He saw that we are not illegal so that will be to our advantage."
Apart from their licence in Italy, as mentioned by Cyclingnews on Thursday, a landmark ruling by the European court of justice has made it possible that laws preserving state gambling monopolies in countries like France could be ruled illegal. On Tuesday, the ECT found in favour of a claim by UK-licenced bookmaker Stanleybet International that Italian authorities were not complying with an existing EU law on freedom of businesses to provide services. A partial monopoly had existed there, but the ruling now makes this invalid.
Terryn says that he is hopeful that this could in time remove any question mark over the use of Unibet.com branded jerseys in France and other countries. "The case in Italy is something which has gone in our advantage," he said. "The European court has said that now all this needs to be completed, that each member state of Europe needs to find a solution that they stop with the monopolies. I believe the French state now needs to give some explanation to the European Court on the 27th of March.
"Perhaps this could all work in our favour because other member states like Italy have given up the monopoly and you can ask for a [gambling] license. In Sweden that will be the case around July or August. In Belgium they are working on the license system, so the only one that is causing a big problem is France."
He said that the team has been in regular contact with the UCI since Monday's agreement with the Grand Tour organisers over the ProTour. Terryn suggests that the governing body did not have fully accurate information at the meeting.
"The UCI were very surprised to see that, for example in Italy, we are not illegal at all. When they were in the meeting earlier in the week, the IPCT [International Professional Cycling Teams] told them we were illegal as did the three Grand Tours. But now we have given them the proof to show them that the sponsor is not illegal in every state."
Speaking before the court judgement, Terryn said that Unibet.com's exclusion from the races put on by the Grand Tour organisers has an ulterior motive. "Of course, what this is all about is that ASO don't like the ProTour. They like other teams to ask them if they can please take part in their races. That is the heart of the dispute between the UCI and ASO."
He confirmed last week that the team is taking a court action against the UCI. "We are attacking the UCI in the courts but that will take us one to three years. The reason for that is because the sum of money that we will ask from the UCI will be very big in damages.
"We are very frustrated by what has happened," he continued. "This is not the way of doing business, telling somebody you have a license, then we go and attract riders, cars, the bus and a lot of other stuff. Then once we give all the riders contracts etcetera, then they say, 'sorry, but you don't have your license anymore.'
"It is not the way of doing business, so we are going to court to attack the UCI and, at least, get a lot of money back."
Read part two of Coming out fighting, Unibet hits back.