The Irish online betting company backing Dennis Rodman’s latest round of “basketball diplomacy” in North Korea told The Daily Beast on Thursday that they were “not in bed with the regime” but believed that supporting the controversial initiative—Rodman training a North Korean team for a match with an as-yet unconfirmed NBA squad in January—may help promote dialog between North Korea and the West, which could “only be a good thing.”
Rodman first became involved after he helped promote another Paddy Power stunt earlier this year in the Vatican City, which offered a refund on all losing bets if the next pope was black.
Rory Scott, a spokesperson for the company, told The Daily Beast from his hotel room in Pyongyang how the project had first come into being, “The day doing interviews in Vatican City with Dennis went well and—literally over beers and pizzas afterwards—we were asking him what North Korea was like and Dennis said, ‘If you really want to know why don’t you come with me? I have got this wonderful idea, I want to put on a basketball match, something historic, that puts sport first. I want to put a US team up against a North Korean team and we will play it in the spirit of friendship.’ That was back in February and we have been working hard, working with Dennis since then, supporting him in this vision of basketball diplomacy. And come another three weeks we’ll be playing the game here in Pyongyang with a team of serious NBA players.
“We’ve taken a pretty pragmatic view on this. Obviously there are concerns about the DPRK, but we’ve spoken to experts, NGOs and North Korea watchers. The general and the sweeping consensus has been that this can only be a good thing. Anything that engages and promotes dialog and conversation, anything that introduces the DPRK to new cultures and ways of thinking can only be a good thing.”
Asked if the company had concerns about working with a repressive regime like North Korea, Scott said, “We are working with Dennis. There is a difference there.”
Did they not see any problems for the company in being associated with an unpopular, totalitarian regime?
“Let’s be clear, we don’t support the authoritarian regime whatsoever. We are here to support Dennis and if some good comes of that, then great. We are not diplomats, we are not politicians, neither is Dennis. We are not experts in that. For that you need to speak to the NGOs, to the UN. But if you want to know who is going to win the FA cup, come and speak to us.”
Are they worried things could get uncomfortable for them given the apparently somewhat changeable nature of the leader of the country’s affections?
“I’ve seen the press and read the papers like everyone else, especially my mother, but the reality is we are here on a sports exchange, we are playing basketball. I can only go back to the experts. There is a strong consensus that it is safe for us to be here, and that us being here is a positive.”
So, as a betting man, what odds would he offer on getting home safely? “It’s a no-brainer. 5000-1 on.”
Asked how their experience of North Korea had been so far, Scott said they had been impressed: “We arrived at 6pm, it was dark, but what I have seen of it is very interesting. It’s chilly, there’s a few inches of snow on the ground. Pyongyang is very high-rise with a lot of incredible lights.
“We had supper tonight with the sports minister which was great. He was very friendly. I think there’s going to be 15,000 people at the match in January so everyone is very excited about that.”
But one still can’t help thinking for a savvy company that has thrived on outrageous marketing stunts, are they not possibly being a bit naïve hooking up with North Korea?
“I think time will tell,” says Scott. “I don’t think so. We are in bed with Dennis—we are not in bed with the regime. Who knows what might happen. Who would have thought a game of ping-pong could have such huge ramifications in China in 1971? Sport does have this incredible power to supersede current affairs and politics. Look at the men playing football in the trenches in the First World War, the Thriller in Manila or the Rumble in the Jungle. Or the Big Bang in Pyongyang.”
So what’s planned for the rest of the trip?
“I think I’ve challenged the minster of sport to a game of table tennis tomorrow,” says Scott, somewhat uncertainly.
Might want to let him win that one.