SportPesa, Kenya’s iconic sports betting brand, set to re-launch as a bright new avatar this week, has been blocked in an 11th hour gambit by the East African nation’s Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB).
The brand’s new licence holder—Milestone Games Limited–does not have permission to use the SportPesa label, says BCLB Chairman Cyrus Maina.
And this adds further grist to the long-running dispute, principally over taxes, between the SportPesa brand and government authorities in Kenya.
SportPesa now say the latest block could be a major blow to Kenya’s coronavirus-raddled economy because the operator, which previously sponsored many of Kenya’s largest sports clubs, was also a big employer and contributor to national finances.
The SportPesa brand was pulled from the Kenya market a year ago, citing an “unfair operating environment” after the excise tax on betting stakes was doubled to 20 per cent.
Although the tax was later eliminated in Kenya’s June budget this year the dispute between Pevans East Africa, who own the SportPesa brand, and the government rumbles on.
The brand has since been licensed to Milestone for five-years, who tried to re-launch it in the market on October 30 with much fanfare.
“SportPesa is back,” exulted Chief Executive Ronald Karauri, “I’m happy to announce that the SportPesa brand is back under a new BCLB license holder.
“As market leaders, SportPesa will focus on upholding the highest standards of service and responsible gaming. We look forward to working closely with BCLB and all other stakeholders.”
Little is known about the new SportPesa brand holders, Milestone Games Limited – apart from them reportedly sharing common offices with Pevans East Africa.
As illustrated, Pevans East Africa and SportPesa are no strangers to controversy with the Kenyan tax regime.
In another previous long-running court case, SportPesa successfully fought off a massive tax claim for KES60.56bn (£483.7m/US$586.4m/€528.1m).
However, the BCLB’s Maina has now warned:
“According to information in our possession, the trading name SportPesa belongs to Pevans East Africa, a company which has filed an appeal in court over its gaming licence and the matter, case number 471 of 2019, will be heard on November 16, 2020.”
Crucially, “this prevents another licensee from using the brand,” argued Maina.
The Board has suspended Milestone’s purported SportPesa license with immediate effect and asked mobile payment providers, such as Safaricom, which owns the popular M-Pesa mobile payment service, to stop processing transactions for the site.
Milestone can, however, continue to operate in the Kenyan gaming market using its “Milestone Bet” brand.
“The known owners of the trading name SportPesa are not licensed to operate in the gaming business in Kenya,” cautioned Maina.
And, he warned, somewhat ominously, that this may “raise questions” over SportPesa’s market future — whatever the outcome of the upcoming court case.