National

Venture that had backing of Malcolm Turnbull a gambling concern

A sports media venture backed by an elite of political, corporate and sport figures was spruiked as an international gambling platform at the time Malcolm Turnbull was a $1 million investor and shadow communications minister.

In August 2013, Mr Turnbull defended his investment in Revo Pty Ltd, trading as the mobile-based sports app PlayUP, and denied any conflict of interest.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sold his Revo shares in November 2013.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sold his Revo shares in November 2013. Photo: Bloomberg

He cited a written assurance from Revo chairman and former NSW premier Nick Greiner that PlayUp was not a gambling enterprise and did not intend to be.

Confidential company documents, and comments by company insiders and executives, appear to challenge this claim, especially about its international operations.

As revealed by the Sunday Age last week, PlayUP faces wind-up action in the Victorian Supreme Court by former employees who say they are owed $500,000 in back pay and superannuation. A hearing is scheduled for this week.

Founded in Melbourne in 2006, PlayUP's forecasts of $1 billion plus revenue from cutting-edge sport social media attracted a glitterati of investors including pub and pokies king Bruce Mathieson, Justin Ho, son of Hong Kong-based gaming magnate Stanley Ho, former test cricketers Adam Gilchrist and Steve Waugh, and Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull. The Turnbulls bought $1 million in shares in 2012.

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Questions have long hung over how, exactly, PlayUP would generate such money, with shareholders insisting that gambling was, from the outset, the drawcard for them.

While it is true PlayUP did not offer a gambling service in Australia in 2013, it had certainly aspired to. And it promoted itself as a gambling product internationally.

Both the Northern Territory and ACT governments confirmed they had granted PlayUP conditional approval for sports betting licences in 2008.

It is unclear why the company did not pursue the NT and ACT licences. But a business update from 2010 assures investors that "live, social gaming against sport, via mobile remains at the heart of the proposition".

Sophie Neary, a former chief executive of the European PlayUP subsidiary said PlayUP was always about gambling.

She was employed for 12 months from September 2013 and later had the company wound up over its failure to pay her wages. "Peer-to-peer gambling and gaming was always part of the plan," she said. "The idea was that you could bet a friend a pizza, a beer or cash over the outcome of a sporting event."

Commercial-in-confidence documents obtained by Fairfax also confirm that in 2013 executives in Europe promoted PlayUP as "real time, peer-to-peer social wagering".

The Turnbulls sold their Revo shares in November 2013 after an August Fairfax Media story highlighted potential conflicts, and after Mr Turnbull was made communications minister in the Abbott government.

He never publicly explained why he sold the shares. Nor did not respond to a series of questions from Fairfax Media on Friday.

But by 2013 the company was also in financial trouble, having burned through tens of millions of investor dollars.

Revo founder and chief executive George Tomeski has refused to speak to The Age about PlayUP.