Disney’s ESPN Drops Poker Programming After Websites Charged

Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s ESPN sports cable channel will remove poker advertising and programming after the U.S. indicted gambling websites that sponsor televised tournaments and froze their bank accounts.

“We are aware of the indictment only through what has been announced publicly,” Bristol, Connecticut-based ESPN said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “For the immediate future, we are making efforts to remove related advertising and programming pending further review.”

The U.S. froze bank accounts in 14 countries and seized websites, sidelining online poker sites such as PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker -- major sponsors of televised tournaments. ESPN, NBC, Fox Sports Net and the Game Show Network have made online poker a viewing staple, with 47 programs, including reruns, scheduled this week, according to Cardplayer.com.

ESPN, the most-watched U.S. sports network, which airs the “World Series of Poker,” declined to elaborate beyond its statement, according to Chris LaPlaca, a spokesman.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan announced on April 15 a revised indictment against the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. PokerStars, based on the Isle of Man, Ireland’s Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker of Costa Rica are the leading online poker sites doing business with U.S. customers, according to prosecutors. Five sites displayed notices yesterday that the FBI had seized the domain names.

The indictment names two principals from each company and others who allegedly worked with them to illegally process payments. Five domains were seized, according to Carly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. They are: Pokerstars.com, Fulltiltpoker.com, Absolutepoker.com, Ultimatebet.com and UB.com.

Frozen Accounts

About 76 bank accounts have been frozen, preventing players from accessing balances held by the online betting companies, said Kelly Langmesser, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s New York office.

“We are looking at the funds and accounts to determine if they are the profits of an illegal enterprise,” Langmesser said. “The funds won’t be available until a determination has been made,” she said.

Disney, based in Burbank, California, fell 32 cents to $41.20 yesterday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The stock has climbed 9.8 percent this year.

News Corp. (NWSA)’s Fox Sports Net broadcasts “World Poker Tour.” Lou D’Ermilio, a spokesman for Fox Sports in New York, couldn’t immediately comment.

‘Poker After Dark’

Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s NBC airs “Poker After Dark” and the “National Heads Up Championship,” while the Game Show Network, owned by DirecTV (DTV) and Sony Corp. (6758), airs “High Stakes Poker.” Chris McCloskey, a spokesman for NBC Sports in New York, couldn’t immediately comment.

News Corp., based in New York, fell 42 cents to $16.98 yesterday in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. Philadelphia-based Comcast lost 53 cents to $23.96. DirecTV retreated $1.04 to $45.85, while Tokyo-based Sony’s U.S. traded stock declined 44 cents to $29.25.

The case is U.S. v. Scheinberg, 10-cr00336, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporter on this story: Andy Fixmer in Los Angeles at afixmer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Palazzo at apalazzo@bloomberg.net

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