Kick-off for online rugby betting

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The top dozen English rugby union teams have signed an exclusive deal with a subsidiary of spread-betting group, Sporting Index, to launch an online gaming service.

The top dozen English rugby union teams have signed an exclusive deal with a subsidiary of spread-betting group, Sporting Index, to launch an online gaming service.

The betting site will be up and running in a few weeks, once English First Division Rugby, the group that represents the teams, can launch its own website.

The deal is being announced this weekend to coincide with the new rugby season, which started yesterday.

It allows Sporting Odds, the fixed-odds betting arm of Sporting Index, to offer bets on the outcome of top rugby games: who will score the first try, and even who will be the first player to be sent to the "sin bin".

Lindsey McNeile, chief executive of Sporting Index, says the group is keen to build links with the owners of sporting rights. It already has a deal with Channel 4 to offer betting on cricket and ITV Sport for betting on games in the Uefa Champions League.

Mr McNeile believes that his group's core product - spread betting - does not lend itself well to the internet. This is because it is too complex and too fast-moving. And, because it is a financial product that can be sold only by companies regulated by the Financial Services Authority, it is difficult to handle all the regulatory issues over the internet.

"Fixed odds is more web friendly," says Mr McNiele.

Betting over the internet is growing and is expected to expand even more as digital TV and mobile communications, such as WAP phones that can access the internet proliferate. Mr McNeile expects growth to come as people discover they can make a bet while watching a game - either on the TV or live at the matches.

Betting on the site will initially be free of tax. Sporting Odds does have an offshore operation - in Malta - but the bets will go through the UK, and the group will absorb the 6.75 per cent betting tax. The deal with Sporting Odds also shows rugby getting to grips with the potential to make profits out of the game.

In recent years professional rugby union has been a licence to lose money. Earlier this year the top teams agreed a radical restructuring plan, proposed by former England fly-half Rob Andrew, which should see the game return to a sound financial footing.

His scheme, that includes salary caps to avoid wages in rugby spiralling like those in football, and a fairer distribution of the income from international games, has been seen as a way of turning round clubs such as Northampton and Saracens, that have been kept afloat by cash injections from their wealthy owners, Keith Barwell and Nigel Wray respectively.

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