Australian Pokies Link To Melbourne Storm Footy, by Greg Tingle - 2nd May 2010

Punters er readers, we told you the embattled Melbourne Storm had more hard news elements to come out, as is the case with a number of Australian Rugby League clubs.

We learn that that Storm had a significantly bigger connection with club pokies that most, if not all, of the NRL clubs. It's more than a connection, its a sponsorship deal. Storm put the 'Business' in 'Show Business', but legalities of deals are being questioned, and it extends well above NRL or News Limited level. Media Man and Gambling911 continue to probe...

The Melbourne Storm are now under investigation by Victoria's gambling watchdog!

It's $1.1 million in sponsorship payments made by a pokie venue owned by pokies king Bruce Mathieson and Woolworths aka "The Fast Food People aka "The Fast Buck People" (insider term). For those readers unacquainted, he is to Australian pokies and clubs what James Packer is to the Australia - Asia Pacific land based casino sector. It's only in recent years that Mathieson's name has often been referenced to pokies in Australian newspaper and online media report.

The deal is also being probed by Deloitte auditors and the NRL. Folks are concerned that the payments may have possibly been part of salary cap breaches.

Our research thus far, including figures obtained by Fairfax Media, has Aces Sporting Club paying $1,113,829 in "sport sponsorships" post 2003, but did not declare the recipient in five annual statements lodged with the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation. Mathiesons' Aces acknowledged for the first time in 2008-2009 that a payment of $165,000 had been made to Melbourne Storm.

Last week, NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert advised the Storm had broken the salary cap by $150,000 more than the original estimates that were given from the acting chief executive Matt Hanson, who has since been stood down.

The commission's executive commissioner, Peter Cohen, confirmed an investigation into the sponsorship payments had been launched.

"The VCGR is investigating the Aces Sporting Club and its relationship with the Melbourne Storm. [We] will examine the community benefit statements submitted by Aces Sporting Club to review the legitimacy of claims for payments made in statements, in particular payments made to Melbourne Storm," Cohen advised.

He told Fairfax Media that the relationship between Storm's former chief executive Brian Waldron and the gaming house located in Keysborough would also be put under the microscope.

News Limited chief executive John Hartigan claimed Waldron was the "chief architect" of the NRL club's salary cap scandal, linked in with unusual sports betting wagers. The strange wagers placed on Storm to win the "wooden spoon" (loosing team) were a major trigger of the investigation which until that time were heavy whispers in the NRL fraternity.

Under the commission's guidelines, all gaming venues are required to maintain a list of approved individuals and companies who hold a financial stake or beneficial interest. Waldron and his predecessor, John Ribot, both appear on the commission's list of approved associates of Aces Sporting Club.

Storm nor its owner, News Limited, was ever an "approved corporate entity", despite the considerable sponsorship deal with the pokies den. Holding company, Valimanda, was established to oversee the teams sponsorships and corporate agreements, also does not appear on the list of approved entities.

Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group chief executive Ross Blair-Holt provided clarification that Aces Sporting Club had in fact sponsored Melbourne Storm for about a decade. Sweet deal hey.

Probed why Aces had not declared the relationship until 2008, he said: "I don't know, but it is all above board." He said Aces' payments met the government definition of a "community benefit". Media Man and a host of insiders and other interested parties are trying to work out who is (or was) benefiting the most... Storm, Aces, the fans, pokie players (pretty much ruled out at this stage), pensioners getting cheap meals and drinks at the club, or some other x factor ala 'Casino Jack'.

At the time of publication Waldron's spokesman, Michael Smith, refused to ask Waldron about the issue. If silence can the louder than thunder, we hear alarm bells and a squad of fire trucks on the way. The industry and fans await to see if the storms fire is to be put out for good, or if its more a case of a phoenix to rise from the ashes, and have the scandals buried, facilitating Storm to get back some of their Thor like glory.

*Greg Tingle is a special contributor for Gambling911

*Media Man is primarily a media, publicity and internet portal development company

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