The Last of the Famous International PlayboysGOM editor Chris Lines sat down with mega-rich Bodog frontman Calvin Ayre for an insight into his enviable playboy lifestyle. For a man who grew up in Canada working on a freezing cold Saskatchewan pig farm, he’s certainly come a long way.
It’s not every day that you’re down to have lunch with a billionaire in one of the classiest restaurants in Soho. The maître d' at the door of Incognico greets me as if I were nobility. He practically bows. Good start. “I’m here for lunch with Mr Ayre,” I announce, milking the moment as I’m walked to a discreet table in the corner where Bodog founder Calvin Ayre – once listed as one of the thousand wealthiest men in the world by Forbes magazine – is quietly sipping water.
Bodog were one of the main beneficiaries of the online gaming boom in the early part of the decade, before a change in the rules by the US government banning wager-related online payments made life a little more difficult. Ayre sold the rights to Bodog in the US to the Kahnawake-based Morris Mohawk Gaming Group in 2007, but cleverly retained the rights to the brand and the technology, meaning he can still license out the Bodog name everywhere else in the world, which he’s doing in all sorts of ways in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Ayre has agreed to meet me, through his PR firm, to discuss Bodog’s moves into Europe, but it immediately becomes apparent that he was a little tired of talking shop that week, and that he (and indeed I) would much rather discuss the extravagant lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. While his business affairs may make for interesting reading, it’s the man himself that we really want to know about. Looking youthful for his 48 years, he clearly still loves the limelight – the continual thirst for a party remains almost permanently unquenched.
GOM: So Calvin, what’s the best party you’ve ever thrown?
Calvin Ayre: It was during the last conference I threw in Vegas, at the Palms. We put such effort into having so much going on the entire time. It was like a sensory overload. We had midgets, jugglers, people running around doing stuff. There were Brazilian dancers on stilts, stuff falling out of the sky, and, of course, an open bar. It seemed like it was over so fast, and it was designed to have that impact on people. Like a steamroller had hit them.
Shame we couldn’t make that one. Any good gossip from the party?
Well, we had an after party too, and certain famous people who will remain unnamed were totally bombed. They took off all their clothes and jumped into the hot tub. I had a photo of it but it was on the phone which I lost; so I’m not sure they’re happy about that!
What’s the worst hangover of your life?
[Winces] My birthday last year. We had a three-day party. I slept for about another three days after that one. It was one of those times when you drink until you fall asleep, wake up the next day, there’s a drink put in your hand and you’re straight back on it.
Are there any celebrity anecdotes that you can share?
I once did this charity event with Jerry Buss [owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team]. To go to the party, which included a poker tournament and other things, you had to pay quite a lot of money, all of which went to charity. I’d topped this up with another $100,000. I was in this room where Jerry invites his guests and it was full of celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz. I noticed that Jack Nicholson was there and I’ve always been a big fan. So Jerry, who was bending over backwards to be nice to me because I’d supported his charity, said that he would introduce me to Jack. I said that would be great, but that I needed to go to the bathroom first. Last time I’d seen Jack he was over by the bar. The toilet was just a single cubicle where you locked the door when you went in, so I try the door and there’s somebody standing there taking a piss. The guy turns around, and it’s Jack Nicholson. He stares at me and says in perfect The Shining drawl: “I’m gonna be a while…”
So after that I go straight back to Jerry and say “Hey, scratch that offer to meet Jack, he’s going to think I’m some kind of weirdo!” So I never actually got to meet him properly.
I guess it wasn’t the best moment for a handshake. So what’s your most unusual business venture?
We actually have a Bodog submarine in Antigua. It does tours. I’m actually entertaining some people on it soon; we’re going to have a little party on board.
Even for you that’s pretty cool. It seems like you’re moving your business strategy to be more like the venture capitalist model so successfully used by Richard Branson – would that be fair?
Exactly. I always said I was much better at promoting the brand than I was at running the company, so I need to be sitting in a structure where that’s all I have to do – which is not dissimilar to what Richard Branson does. And actually if you look at some of the things that he’s done very successfully in the UK, its within striking distance of stuff that we’ve done in the US.
How about the Lingerie Bowl that you famously put on in the US to rival the half-time show at the Superbowl? Could that cross over the Pond?
Well the Lingerie Bowl might not work here, it’s hard to say. But I think you’re average English guy that fits our demographic probably wouldn’t mind watching that for a laugh. It got a lot of press. Maybe we should do a European football game with girls in underwear? But I think part of the reason it worked with NFL was because people enjoyed seeing those girls tackle each other – hard. That was pretty cool.
Have you ever thought about buying a European football team, and all the kudos and media attention that comes with it?
Not right now as I have a lot on my plate, but I would love to. I look forward to the day when Bodog has a professional football team somewhere in Europe wearing our logo on their shirts. I think that would be a very satisfying moment.
So how will the owners of the Bodog franchise for Europe tailor it for the market here?
We’re still working on that right now. There’s a lot of people that think what works well in North America will work here. I also like a lot of the stuff that Paddy Power do in their promotions. It reminds me of some of the things we used to do.
We’ve always targeted a very recreational market – regular guys who just want to get their £20 down on a football match and then watch the game. I always think that our branding is aimed towards people who think they’re 18-40 years old. It’s kind of a mental thing. We also have a lot of customers who are significantly older than that. If you’re a 45-year-old businessman, in your spare time you want to be a kid again. I think we appeal to the youth in everybody.
How would you cope if you had to go back to the pig farm you grew up on, and spend a week there working long days?
Oh [fidgets uncomfortably at the thought], I’m sure I could survive it. I love nostalgia and where I came from, the people, being able to leave your keys in the ignition and so on, but I just don’t do cold anymore. I think the weather would kill me. This is Saskatchewan, we’re not talking about the kind of cold you guys get here where when it’s minus 5C you’re all running for cover; we had minus 40C there sometimes. It’s cold. Like Siberia. Cold, cold, cold.
Ok, so what if Rupert Murdoch came to you and suggested doing it as a prime-time reality TV show, a bit like The Simple Life with Paris Hilton?
[Smiles at the idea] I’d probably do it; I’m game for a bit of fun. I was in minus 20C in Russia two years ago when I went to fly a B29 plane with a pilot and do some aerobatics. I wasn’t dressed for it though. The only warm thing I had was this Russian fur hat that I’d bought in Moscow as a souvenir. I ended up having to wear it because it was so bloody cold.
What do you like to spend your money on away from business?
My biggest expense without a doubt is definitely women.
Have you ever met your oldest Bodog customer, someone who’s been betting with you since the very start?
No, I’m afraid I haven’t, but I’d like to.
Would you buy them a drink?
[Grins] I’d send a limo!
Calvin Ayre’s Favourite Things
Food: Definitely Thai. I really like this spicy beef salad. It’s got garlic, onion, tomatoes, lemon and chillies in it. It also has celery leaves, which we normally cut off and throw away but the Thais use them as flavouring.
Drink: These days a vodka soda. If I’m happy about stuff I’ll have a gin martini – but those things are dangerous.
Car: I’ve got a 2004 bullet-proof Hummer, I’d have to say that.
Sport: I’ve been converted to American football as I’ve been around it so much, but my overall favourite would be watching the Canadian national hockey team playing in the Olympic Games. As a Canadian, that’s magic.
Holiday destination: Brazil. Rio’s great, but the island of Florianópolis is the place I’m most excited to visit in future.
Casino: The Palms in Vegas. The [Maloof] brothers that own it give it a good vibe.
Hotel: The Caravelle in downtown Saigon, Vietnam. It’s got a whole bunch of fun bars right nearby and a nice rooftop deck. I first stayed there in 1993 and I went back again in 2006.
Movie Star: Johnny Depp really jumps to the top. He’s quirky, he takes some strange roles; likewise Leonardo diCaprio.
Music: 50 Cent
Book: 1421: The Year China Discovered The World.
Thing about the UK: I just love the vibe in London. Actually, this trip is the first time I’ve started to think about owning a place in London. It would be pretty cool to have a flat here.