Top Dog

November 1, 2007

This night, the Coliseum is on the Squamish First Nations reserve, just off the Lion's Gate Bridge in North Vancouver. Joe Mathias Hall has been turned into a television studio; in the centre is a klieg-lit combat ring. The gladiators have come from as far afield as Japan, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico, adrenaline-jazzed warriors with blurred ears and ripped bodies. The Romans, who've passed through tight security, are big on black clothing, shaved heads, muscles, implants, and tattoos.

The emperor, seated amid a knot of bodacious young women, is Calvin Ayre, 46, founder and chairman of the digital entertainment company Bodog. He's wearing black cowboy boots and blue jeans. His hair is jet black. On his right thumb is a silver ring; a chunky silver chain nestles in the salt-and-pepper hair sprouting from his open-necked grey shirt (the logo DANGEROUS appears prominently across the back). Over the past decade, riding the macho wave that gave us Maxim magazine and Spike TV, Ayre has built Bodog into a moneyspinner that last year landed him on the cover of Forbes. Is he a billionaire, as the magazine proclaimed? "Depends what multiple you put on the company," he replies. "Two years ago revenues were $200-million. Last year they hit $300-million." He's coy about the bottom line, but industry analysts put Bodog's profit margin in the area of 25 percent. "Of all the stuff we do," he adds, intent on the violence in the ring, "this is what I like best. Watch the guy in the red corner-he submits everybody."

The stuff Bodog does, besides mixed martial arts, includes digital music (one of Ayre's good friends is Vancouver rocker Bif Naked) and online casino gaming and sports betting. Because internet gambling is prohibited in the U.S., Ayre runs the business mainly out of Antigua, where he lives, and houses Bodog's servers at Kahnawake, the Mohawk reserve south of Montréal. In this way he has evaded the U.S. prohibition against using telephones or other communications devices "in interstate or foreign commerce" in order to take bets. Bodog pays no U.S. taxes, has no U.S. assets, and Ayre himself is not a U.S. citizen. Most of the gamblers who use the site are Americans, but that's not Ayre's concern. He's playing a cat-and-mouse game with the U.S. Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service; so far the mouse remains unscathed.

Ayre has returned to Vancouver to see the BodogFight taping, to meet with the folks at Riptown (the Vancouver company that markets Bodog in Canada), and to oversee progress on his Yaletown digs (he's merging two big penthouses atop a building near the Quayside Marina into "the ultimate bachelor pad," as his publicist puts it). In the past four days he's been in five countries. He will shortly head back to Antigua, then fly to Brazil. He works, he says, "all the time," executing a rolling two-year plan that now focusses on expansion in Europe and Asia. There's a huge, largely untapped market of online bettors beyond North America, and the gaming companies are scrambling to enlist them. Meanwhile, if the States does open up-a possibility, given the tax revenues the government stands to collect-Bodog would become a mainstream player rather than a maverick, and a sweet takeover target for one of the entertainment giants. Asked who he sees as Bodog's competition, Ayre doesn't name other cyber bookies like Full Tilt Poker and Party Poker; he mentions instead, with a sort of David and Goliath smile, the likes of Virgin and Sony.

Ayre himself is a careful personification of the Bodog image. In publicity materials he's depicted as a cross between Indiana Jones and a young Hugh Hefner, living on the edge in a macho world of expensive cars, money, adventure, and beautiful women-"my watchdogs," he calls them. Some of them, with headsets and BlackBerries, run his tight schedule; others, with trout-pout lips and silicone cleavage, are simply eye candy. His handout biography stresses the self-made virtues of hard work, thrift, and entrepreneurship. As a teenager, the story goes, he loaded a truck full of fruits and vegetables in Ontario and sold them en route to Saskatchewan, paying his way and learning valuable lessons in how to build a business from the ground up. (It makes no mention of the 20-year trading ban on the VSE he agreed to in 1996 after he was found to have used one of his early-days Howe Street companies in ways that displeased the securities commission). Throw in charitable causes and the philanthropic Calvin Ayre Foundation, and voila-a testosterone hero for the digital age, one who gets the importance of brand, the benefits of surrounding yourself with Diddy-like legions of babes, and the good-will value of being seen to "give back."

"If you don't mind," a watchdog whispers to a reporter who's overstayed his allotted time with Ayre, "we like Calvin to be surrounded by pretty women at these events."

The two dozen fights taped this weekend will be part of the seventh season of BodogFight, available next year on the internet and as free programming on the ION television network in the States and The Score in Canada. The penultimate bout of the evening features two heavyweights, an Australian and a Frenchman. The combat-punching, elbowing, grappling, kicking, kneeing, choking-is brutally intimate. At the end of two fierce, five-minute rounds, the Frenchman, struggling to regain his feet and return to his corner, collapses in a 235-pound heap. He's attended to by medics who, after 20 minutes of fruitless effort, will stretcher him into a waiting ambulance. Many in the crowd grow restive, using the break to grab drinks and hot dogs.

The Aussie gladiator, meantime, is declared the winner. Like most of the night's victors, he acknowledges the crowd's cheers, finally looking in Ayre's direction and raising his right arm in salute.

All hail Calvin.

 

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