Saturday, April 02, 2005

Fall of A Very Croatian Empire

Soviet Union isn't the only empire outlived by Pope John Paul II.

This week Croatian media also reported about the death of an institution which was widely perceived as undestructible only few years ago. And that institution also had distinctively Split flavour.

It all began half a decade ago when Sabor finally passed legislation legalising sports betting and allow private individuals to open bet shops. Until that time the only place in Croatia where you could make sports bets legally were small bet shops owned by Croatian state lottery and the only bet was known as "sports forecasting" – attempt to predict results of 13 soccer matches once a week.

What happened was a textbook example of former state monopoly being outclassed by private enterpreneurs. Almost immediately, two huge chains of privately owned bet shops opened all over Croatia.

First one was Prva Sportska Kladionica (PSK), where one of the owners was Marijan Primorac, Herzegovina tycoon, these days best known as father of "socially acceptable" teenage killer.

Another one, Sport Tip, was found few months later but it quickly compensated its lack of head start with their owners being some of the greatest sports celebrities in Croatia. The founders of Sport Tip in Croatia were three veteran players of Hajduk Split - Igor Štimac (Igor Stimac), Alen Bokšić (Alen Boksic) and Aljoša Asanović (Aljosa Asanovic) – joined by Goran Ivanišević (Goran Ivanisevic), tennis superstar that would enter history books by winning Wimbledon in July 2001. All four men were successful athletes, all came from Split, all apparently had plenty of money and all were close friends.

Igor Štimac, who, at the time, had some political aspirations and didn't hide his sympathies for Croatian right-wing, quickly established himself as unofficial leader of a pack. That was mixed blessing for Sport Tip – on one hand, new firm benefited from his tough leadership, on the other hand, it was harmed by negative publicity coming from media reports about his violent temper. Even more questionable was Štimac's official position within Hajduk, which created interesting situation whenever his shops offered betting on Hajduk games.

But it all had very little effect on masses of Croatians who embraced this new phenomenon with open heart. In first months bet shops were simply besieged by customers and on weekends, in hours before crucial soccer matches all over Europe, it wasn't uncommon to see hundreds people cueing on the streets in front of Sport Tip bet shops. Nobody can say for sure how much money Štimac and his friends made out of Sport Tip, but it was lot. Sport Tip was undoubtedly a successful commercial enterprise – something rare in early 21st Century Croatia, and even greater rarity in Split.

However, like all Croatian success stories, this one came to a end. Very soon PSK and Sport Tip were joined by rival bet shop chains, some of them British and German franchises. Their number quickly multiplied and it all had very interesting effect on PSK and Sport Tip.

First, after few months number of customers decreased. At first everyone believed that they can make money in bet shops, and they looked like very democratic institution, greeting homeless people and richest businessmen in same manner. This didn't last for long – the former quickly learned that they can't engage in betting as much as the latter.

Those who remained now had more options to spend their money and, more often than not, Sport Tip had to fight to keep their regular customers with more attractive odds. After few years, Sport Tip also had to deal with many of their customers gaining more experience and having more successful bets.

As a result, profits for Sport Tip began to slide. Croatian state also finally recognised sports betting as a source of income. Tax regulation was changed at bet shops' expense and Croatian state lottery finally introduced its own betting operation. All those developments, of course, were followed by internal divisions between former friends and colleagues.

Finally, in last few months, both Primorac and Štimac threw towels. PSK is offered for sale to Croatian state lottery while Sport Tip filed for bankruptcy. It is estimated that 250 employees of Sport Tip are going to join the growing ranks of Croatian unemployed.

They, however, aren't the only people who are going to react to this development with certain sadeness. Among all Sport Tip bet shops the most popular – at least judging by the way it was often portrayed in Croatian television – was the one situated in Split, in the buidling opposite the offices of Slobodna Dalmacija. Many reporters, editors, technicians and other members of Split daily newspaper's staff have spent a lot of time and money in that particular spot and their example was followed by other elements of Split media establishment.

So, I wasn't surpised when I found an interesting image in one of the recent issues of Slobodna Dalmacija – the image that could be interpreted as some sort of emotional tribute to the fallen empire.


Post a Comment

<< Home