Wednesday, 20 October 2010

IMG Admits to Betting

Ninety minutes. That's all it took for IMG's damage control/smear campaign to get fully up and running.

It's how long it was from the time my column on the Roger Federer/IMG gambling lawsuit reached the web Friday until I heard from an IMG vice president defending his CEO, Theodore Forstmann, and referring to the man suing him, Jim Agate, as a "whackjob.''

"And you wrote that (Forstmann) bet against Roger Federer,'' the VP said. "That isn't true. He bet on Federer to beat Rafael Nadal (in the 2007 French Open final). He lost $40,000 on that match.''

I heard a similar thing from someone else representing IMG, which serves as Federer's agent. That's fine, but just one point, one serious, serious point:

It is a major breach of tennis rules, not to mention ethics, for Forstmann, who runs a company that owns several pro tournaments, to be betting on tennis at all.

This is about to become a major scandal for tennis. It extends beyond tennis, too, into the sports world in general.

Agate contends that Federer was providing inside information on tennis to Forstmann, who was then betting. Imagine Roy Halladay tipping off Bud Selig, and Selig betting on it.

Federer has denied involvement, and maybe I'm being gullible, but he just doesn't seem the type to do anything to harm tennis. I doubt he had anything to do with this, at least not knowingly.

But Forstmann's recklessness has brought Federer's gold-standard name into the mud. Not only that, but also Forstmann, according to his spokesperson, has bet on golfer Vijay Singh to win the Masters.

See, IMG is a huge player in sports, extending far beyond its image as a firm of sports agents. Still, plenty of the world's top athletes, including Tiger Woods, are represented by IMG.

So Forstmann, pictured below, has serious access to top athletes and is making bets? He has been risking the credibility of the world's most famous athletes.

Agate has claimed three things that matter here: 1) that Forstmann bet on sports 2) that Agate was the go-between with betting houses and 3) that Federer was providing info.

Ted ForstmannWell, we now know that No. 1 is true. And for Agate to have known about No. 1 suggests the very real possibility that No. 2 is true, too. If someone makes three claims, and the first two are true, then you have to investigate No. 3.
Tennis must investigate Federer.

To be clear, not one bit of evidence has been produced against him. But you can't just ignore this.

Credibility and conflict of interest are about perception, after all. And a sport can't allow questions about whether its most important moments are legit.

IMG owns several tournaments; manages several top players, including Federer, Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams is a part-owner of The Tennis Channel; and owns the famous IMG Bollettieri Academy. When Wimbledon considered charging websites to cover the tournament this summer -- something it later backed away from -- it was IMG who called me to say so.

Players, tournaments, media. IMG has power, influence, connections and access.

A few years ago, with tennis facing a fixing scandal, the sport's governing bodies endorsed the Tennis Integrity Unit to fight a growing gambling issue in the sport. The unit's spokesman Mark Harrison wouldn't comment on a particular case, but when I asked him if the owner of tennis tournaments can bet on other tournaments, he wrote this back in an email:

"The owner of a tournament would be a 'covered person' under the Uniform Tennis Anti-Corruption Program ... A covered person could be subject to financial penalty, suspension or a ban from involvement with professional tennis.''

He also forwarded several parts of the rulebook under the heading: Corruption Offenses.

Part A reads, "No Covered Person shall, directly or indirectly, wager or attempt to wager on the outcome or any other aspect of any event or any other tennis competition.''

But ban IMG from tennis? Hah! IMG all-but owns tennis.

Forstmann spoke with -- a story forwarded to me by the IMG machine -- and called Agate a stalker, shakedown artist and scumbag. He says he befriended Agate, who owns Agate Printing in Los Angeles, and tried to help him. Then, he said, Agate started making things up about Forstmann in an attempt to extort money.

But in the same story, Forstmann says he bets on sports, and also said this: "I might have called Roger (Federer) before the match in 2007, but Roger is a buddy of mine and all I would be doing is wishing him luck. How is that insider information?"

This gets uglier by the minute.

IMG officials seem to think it's not a big deal because Forstmann bet on Federer instead of against him. I guess that does suggest that Federer wasn't throwing the match. But someone with this much influence in the game, and access to private information, cannot be gambling on it.

IMG does make a compelling case against Agate's credibility. Jim Gallagher, the senior VP who contacted me, said that Agate had made similar claims in a lawsuit a couple years ago, and that the case was dropped. Afterward, Gallagher said, Agate sent a letter to Forstmann. IMG sent me a copy of what it said was the letter:

"I deeply regret falsely attacking your character and falsely describing your activities to many people,'' Agate had written. "I apologize for all my erratic and harassing e-mails. I did not intend to hurt you, but I was extremely frustrated. My energy has been misplaced for some time and I believe those days are over.''

IMG also says that Agate has had dozens of addresses over the past couple years. Do a Google search on Agate Printing, call the number that comes up and you get a message that says the number has changed or does not exist. Agate's lawyers did not return a call.

Agate says that Forstmann left him with tax liabilities based on the gambling losses.

The VP, and also a woman saying in an e-mail that she was from the law firm representing Forstmann, made the point several times that Forstmann is not Federer's agent. Tony Godsick of IMG is. Forstmann is the big boss.

I don't know how that matters. They also wanted it clear that Forstmann was betting on Federer, not against. Nadal won, so Forstmann lost the bet.

I guess IMG thinks this is proof Forstmann and Federer weren't fixing matches. Maybe it's shows somehow that Forstmann wasn't breaking the law.

But let's just say every word IMG says is 100 percent true. Still, the CEO with influence on tennis was betting on the game. A power player with access to the world's top athletes was betting on other sports, too.

It is such an unbelievable lack of judgment for a leader in a sport with a gambling problem.

I doubt anyone has the stomach to ban or suspend IMG, but I wonder whether some of its clients might consider running away. Whatever happens, it's time to dig deeper.

E-mail me at Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch

Courtesy: Fanhouse

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