138 Bet Closed: What Happened?
Many online betting sites do come and go, such is the competitiveness of the market, but few get up and vanish as suddenly as 138Bet. Their demise was so sudden, it is easy to forget that for a time, this was a genuinely successful brand. Founded back in 2005, with a large presence across Asia, they aimed big and looked to be delivering. Their initial promise, however, did not stop what turned out to be a dramatic and largely unexpected exit from the global market, not just the UK.
Who Were 138Bet?
The story of 138 dates back to the creation of Sun City Gaming Promotion Company Limited in 2005. At the time, the company was focused on loyalty player gaming rooms, launching its first in StarWorld in Macau. The company built more rooms in different countries and also established various websites, including one for the 138SunGame brand. Having firmly established the brand in Asia, the decision was taken to push into the European market.
Perhaps not wanting any connection with the Sun newspaper, 138SunGame was rebranded to simply 138 (or 138.com) in Europe. The website was operated by Xela Holdings Ltd and TGP Europe, based in the Isle of Man while the UK website (138.co.uk) was operated by Fesuge Limited. This latter site first appeared in 2012 and gave customers the ability to place online sports bets and online casino bets.
The UK market is a very tough nut to crack and business was limited to begin with. The main strategy for player recruitment was to target Asian ex-pats living in the UK but getting the name out there was a challenge. Due to this, 138 decided to become the main sponsor of then-Championship team Watford, something they announced at 1:38 pm on 7th June 2013. Part of the reason to pick Watford, specifically, was that Xela Holdings CEO Garth Kimber had been a Hornets supporter himself for 30 years.
An Increasing Presence
Bet138 continued to be the main front-of-shirt sponsor for Watford across the next two seasons. So, when the Hornets earned promotion to the Premier League for the 2016/17 campaign, the 138.com logo was seen by a worldwide audience. Given how many people tune in to watch England’s best division, 138 were a brand growing in recognition and thriving as a result.
With more and more players signing up, 138 made changes to their websites, increasing the range of bets available, improving the interface and offering a best odds guarantee on UK and Irish horse racing. While they began adding everything you would expect from a top UK bookie, they did not ignore their Asian connection. 138 was still one of the top sites to go for betting markets and fixtures on Asian sporting events, this being one of their more unique strengths.
As well as being an online success, 138 even turned to setting up a physical store. At a time when bookmakers were closing stores due to a lack of customers and rising costs, establishing a bricks-and-mortar store somewhere as pricey as London seemed to be a big risk. It was a calculated gamble though because the 138 branch was situated a matter of metres away from the Chinatown Gate in Soho. By being based in Chinatown, with its thriving east Asian community, it was hoped the store would generate enough bets to cover the expensive rent.
A Reality Check
— Andy Geraghty (@apgeraghty) April 1, 2016
Things were seemingly going very well for 138 and their operators but there was trouble behind the scenes. Both TGP Europe and Fesuge Ltd landed themselves in hot water with UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) following some promotions they ran for the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. Following their investigation, the UKGC issued a public statement saying that the operators “accept a number of failings relating to a Cheltenham Festival bonus offer.”
What had happened was that over 5,000 accounts at 138 were suspended due to alleged ‘bonus abuse’. This led to over 1,000 complaints to the Independent Betting Adjudication Service as many customers did not believe they had done anything wrong. Not only did 138 end up in trouble for their unclear terms and conditions, but also their inability to perform checks on the masses of new customers they were getting. The whole ordeal cost them a ‘substantial’ sum of money although this is not the attributed reason the brand disappeared.
138’s Sudden Disappearing Act
The trouble with the Gambling Commission was quite costly and damaged the reputation of 138 but it was not a killer blow by any means. Other brands have suffered similar failings in the past and survived, so this should not be seen as the reason why 138 no longer exists. The actual reason, however, remains something of a mystery. Almost out of nowhere, they told customers to withdraw their funds as they were shutting down and soon after the website went offline in 2020.
There was some initial speculation that this was simply a temporary stoppage following the restrictions put in place at the start of the global health crisis. At the time, 138 could not get their usual support staff because they were based in the Philippines and unable to go to work while the country tried to contain the virus. The fact that the website did not return when restrictions were eased, however, suggests that this is unlikely to be true.
One other theory was that the parent group of 138, SunCity Group, a dominant force in the casino junket game, was under pressure from stakeholders to move away from online gambling. This is because the group had caught the attention of the Chinese government for its alleged targeting of mainland Chinese customers. The accusation was that the brand was offering proxy betting from gaming rooms in the Philippines. The aftermath of this saw the SunCity group’s CEO, Alvin Chau, arrested, causing the share price to tumble. At the start of 2023, Chau was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his involvement with illegal betting activity.
We are unlikely to ever know the full truth but whatever the motivation, 138 very rapidly took themselves out of the online gambling business. All websites went offline, regardless of their operator. Owners of the UK site, Fesuge Limited, were officially dissolved on March 2021 and have not remerged. TGP Europe are still active though, as they are responsible for various other brands under white label agreements.
As for the 138 store near Leicester square, this has since been replaced by a slot machine arcade named Little Macau. This was the only shop of 138 to disappear as they did not open up any other outlets in the UK.