Looks to Pro Racing

Online casino, best known for its controversial advertising tactics, is moving to a more mainstream form of sponsorship in signing up with a professional stock car racing team.

The Los Angeles-based firm, which operates a casino licensed out of Canada, will put up the funds to sponsor famed driver/owner Andy Belmont’s Automobile Racing Club of America team. At the wheel of the Ford Taurus V8 will be rookie driver Brian Winters, who will first compete on Saturday in the upcoming ARCA RE/MAX 200, at the Winchester Speedway in Winchester, Ind.

Financial terms of the sponsorship were not disclosed.

The effort emulates similar efforts by America Online, now a unit of AOL Time Warner . In the late 90’s, AOL sponsored Andy Belmont Motorsports’ Ford Taurus during a number of ARCA races, during which Belmont amassed an impressive trophy record.

For, the move comes as a change from the casino’s hotly debated efforts advertise its Web casino using temporary henna tattoos, bearing the site’s name, on the backs of professional boxers.

Last September, the company placed a tattoo on world middleweight champion boxer Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, who fought Felix Trinidad in a widely-watched televised bout. The move sparked a debate with athletic authorities over whether the ads were legal, respectful to the sport, and safe for the boxers.

In early 2002, the Nevada Athletic Commission banned the ads — for which paid somewhere between five- to six-figure sums — saying they were “demeaning” to the sport, distracting to the judges, and potentially hazardous to the health of the fighters.

The issue ultimately went before local courts, which in March levied an injunction against the NAC’s ban on wearing temporary ads in the ring. The court said it found “no evidence that temporary body markings, including temporary tattoos, are distracting, or would be distracting to boxing judges during a bout.” The judge also said that the ban potentially violated boxers’ First Amendment rights.

Television and cable networks also have expressed consternation at the fact that GoldenPalace seemed to be riding their broadcasts to national advertising. ESPN, for one, has banned the tattoos on fighters participating in bouts it organizes — in some cases, levying fines and threatening bans against boxers who break the rules. The argument spurred a number of boxers and the Boxing Organizing Committee to challenge ESPN’s stance, and talks between the network and the BOC continue this week.

Despite the controversy, dozens of boxers have been tattooed by the Internet casino, with the logos appearing on major cable and broadcast networks, as well as newspapers and sports magazines. The climax for the brand (or arguably, the low point) came in March, during Fox Television’s primetime broadcast of “Celebrity Boxing,” in which fighters including skater Tonya Harding, Danny Bonaduce (from TV’s “The Partridge Family”) and Todd Bridges (of “Diff’rent Strokes” fame) duked it out wearing tattoos.

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