My last post (Fresh Ayre) discussed the mixed messages that kept last year's Bodog Entertainment’s Ayre Force graphic novel from quite working on several levels. Most critics agreed the strongest aspect of the book was the work of artist Shawn Martinborough.
I became aware of Ayre Force after Shawn sent out a video preview of his book, How to Draw Noir Comics: the Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling. I was intrigued by the clever promotional work behind Shawn's books, most notably two prequel Ayre Force webisodes with limited animation. They’re still available on his company website, VergeEntertainment.com. The first has some very well thought out design and animation based of Martinborough’s designs and storyboard, while the second relies more on dialogue and re-use from the first episode.
The most notable thing about Ayre Force was its use of numerous real-life elements in its plotline. The book is named after Bodog CEO Calvin Ayre, a badass version of whom is featured inside as the head of an elite team of anti-eco terrorist, anti-child abuser, anti-animal abuser commandos. Ayre’s team is composed of various Bodog Entertainment figures; ultimate fight champs, rock and rap stars, and professional poker players. The real-life horror they combat is bear bile farming, one of Ayre’s personal charities. Proceeds from Ayre Force sales even went to combat the practice.
There was much confusion in the comic book online press over what Ayre Force was trying to accomplish Given the many elements blended together it's not surprising.
Bodog's Calvin Ayre and real-life executive assistant, Fawn Labrie, get a comic book makeover as international commandos. According to a 2008 Fast Company article, Ayre's publicist had informed writer Josh Dean "via email, that one of Labrie's skills was the ability "to pull hot girls out of her ass anywhere in the world." Labrie's childhood best friend, aspiring actress Zara Taylor, "played the part" of Ayre's girlfriend for Bodog events in Macau.
Is it a straight up adventure? Ayre Force doesn’t take advantage of its characters, plot nor even the art in my books. But reviewers like LOTRKing say it still passes muster as an action yarn.
Is it an ego trip for Ayre?
Of course it is! Come on… if I had a ton of money and my name lent itself to a cool title I’d totally set myself up as a super-commando with rock stars on my team! Why not? Most creators secretly imagine themselves as their protagonists anyway. At least Ayre Force is up-front about it. Although, technically, Calvin isn’t the creator here I suppose. He’s just the guy who cuts the checks.
Is it a charity fundraiser?
If it is, it’s likely a very ineffective one. Sales of Ayre Force were unlikely to be huge enough to match Calvin’s’ own personal contributions to the fight against bear bile farming. Heck, Alvin, Justin and Pete at Pulpsecret.com suggest you’re better contributing the cost of the book directly to the charity rather than buying it.
Is it a Bodog branding exercise?
Abso-friggin-lootly! There is plenty of overlap between comic book fans and Bodog’s base of poker, music and ultimate fighting fans. Some reviewers found this aspect repulsive, as if comics had never been used to promote a real-life person p before. But it’s not as simple as that. This is not a one-time thing. Bodog had been building its brand around Calvin Ayre for years before Ayre Force hit the stands and quite frankly, it was business as usual.
For a little perspective, remember that Bodog's gonzo marketing counterprogrammed The Lingerie Bowl against the Superbowl half-time t great effect. The event featured teams of Victorias leaving their secrets on the sidelines as they lined for a football game clad in the frilliest of undergarment uniforms.
Not surprisingly, the idea proved so popular that it has grown from a Superbowl tradition to a full-fledged Lingerie Football League kicking off in five US cities this September. Teams include the Seattle Mist, the Dallas Desire and the New York Euphoria (a name which 50% of LFL fans probably couldn’t spell without assistance).
As last March's thoroughly researched Globe and Mail article on Calvin Ayre notes, the thing that set Bodog Entertainment apart from its online gambling competitors was the branding. Bodog presented its customers with a chance to embrace a lifestyle... a lavish, adventurous lifestyle that was always on the cusp of big money.
In the article, reporter Timothy Taylor begins by asking Ayre to describe what he saw in one of Bodog’s extreme fighters, Ayre was careful to bring it all back to the brand.
"I like him because he's a brand ambassador for us," Ayre says, squinting up through cracking TV makeup. "He's everything Bodog stands for as a brand. Living life to the fullest. Me against him, right? The primeval challenge. Those are our brand values."But the truth of Bodog branding is Ayres himself. He is the brand. Ayre as ladies man. Ayre as adventurer. Ayre as the embodiment of the "work hard, play harder" ethos. And most importantly, Ayre as filthy, filthy, disgustingly rich.
That’s what people are playing for. Money, and lots of it.
All the things Bodog supported were designed to bring people to the online casinos. Bodog Fight’s television shows, Bodog Music’s Battle of the Bands series hosted by Johnny Rotten, even the Bodog protein powder and energy drink were there to spread the gospel to wannabe fighters and help poker players stay alert for longer periods of time as they played Bodog's online games.
We still have Calvin Ayre’s planned two-volume biography. Part one takes us up to his Forbes cover in 2007 while part two carries on with everything since. My bet is a volume two is unlikely even if volume one does hit the stands.
Everything Bodog and Ayre did was designed to raise the brand profile and guide potential customers back to the Bodog online gambling fold. So from Bodog's perspective, the comic is right in line with the company's branding strategy. In this Wizard Magazine preview interview about Ayre Force, writer Adam Slutsky admits as much.
WIZARD: When did the idea to start the comics division come about?
SLUTSKY: This is pretty wild. A good friend of mine by the name of Jamie Gold won the World Series of Poker Main Event back in 2006. At the time it was the biggest first prize of any sporting event in the world. Jamie beat out a field of 8,772 people and won $12 million. Jamie just happened to be represented by Bodog at the time. They put him into the World Series of Poker. They had a joint deal in terms of PR and marketing and that type of thing. So when he won and I was covering the event also for a magazine called Bluff, I started talking to Jamie about Bodog. I'd heard of them, and they were in my periphery, but I didn't know everything they were in, and I was looking at this huge multimedia conglomerate and thinking "My God, there has to be a way to incorporate everything and get it out there and do something fun."
I certainly am very new to the graphic novel and comic book world, but I had become a big fan recently, obviously because of things like 300 and Sin City and all the ones that were making the big Hollywood rounds. So I thought, "Wow, this would be a great medium to bring a fictional world and the factual world and sort of meld them together" with Calvin’s charities in there once I found out a little more about those things…”
Slutsky has established his own brand as a writer for hip men’s magazines like Maxim, Bluff and Fight! Magazine. The bio that accompanied the release of Ayre Force breathlessly lists some of his topics; “Bluewater hunting in shark-infested waters, off-road racing across the Baja Peninsula, working the pit at the 24 Hours of LeMans and much more.” A freelance article writer is constantly pitching ideas to fit a niche and Slutsky saw an opportunity (and money) in Bodog. He was also savvy enough to use that money to attract top comic book talent: writer and former Batman editor Joseph Phillip Illidge and illustrator Shawn Martinbrough, business partners in Verge Entertainment.
Slutsky is now back to build on his comic book cred with a new pirate series from Zenoscope, No Quarter. And in a display of typical Slutsky synergy, he’s teamed with artist Mark Sparacio (Captain Action and Civil War Heroes For Hire) and co-writer and Renaissance man Pat Croce, “world renowned motivational speaker, best-selling author, (and) pirate history expert” to do it! in addition to the press releases list of credits Croce is also a former sports physical therapist for the NHL's Philidelphia Flyers, co-owner and president of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and owner of the Pirate Soul Museum in Key West, Florida.
But enough of the bit players. For all the “authentic” elements between the covers of Ayre Force, it’s the real story behind Calvin Ayre and Bodog Entertainment that provides the true life thrills. Before peek behind the curtain, an exploration of Bodog’s incredible rise is in order.
This Mark Leong photograph of Ayre in Macau before his
"retirement" accompanies the Fast Company article.
"retirement" accompanies the Fast Company article.
According to Bodog’s biography of Calvin Ayre (Biography of a Billionaire) he was born on May 25, 1961 in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. That, and the fact that he started the company that would become Bodog with $10 000 in 1994 we can pretty much confirm. The Fast Company article relates how Ayre’s awful track record of internet start-up attempts turned around.
“…he read a story about a bookie named Ronald Sacco (aka the Cigar). The Cigar had done an end run around the law by setting up shop in the Dominican Republic, where he was taking bets by phone. The story served as Ayre's epiphany, as it did for many in the industry after the Cigar bragged of his lush life on 60 Minutes (an excess of candor that would later lead to his arrest). Ayre recognized that the nascent offshore betting scene was gravitating to the Web, and he saw an opportunity. He invested $10,000 to buy an existing software platform, then moved to Costa Rica in 1995 and began supplying software solutions to bookmakers before realizing he could make more money taking bets himself.”Ayre seems to have drawn inspiration from a variety of noted criminals in his rise to prominence (as you’ll see in part 3), so the fact that Sacco provided the inspiration for him to find a semi-legitimate to make money taking bets is no real surprise. But Ayre’s real strength has always been his people skills and ability to wrap himself in an impressive, personal story.
After setting up the complicated off-shore system that allowed Bodog to technically run out of countries where gambling was not illegal, Bodog grew by offering attractive odds, fast payment processing and a high level of customer service. Ayre also set out to make Bodog stand out form the crowd by building the company brand, tying it to his own, increasingly spectacular lifestyle. As Josh Dean writes:
“But what Ayre did best was marketing. Instead of lying low and counting his dollars quietly, he plastered his face all over Bodog's Web sites and tied the brand to his own lifestyle. Collaborating with his friend Christopher Costigan of Gambling911.com, a popular industry news site, he created a public alter ego, Cole Turner the CEO, and faked elaborate adventures that Bodog users could follow online. There was a 2003 party excursion to Cambodia pitched to the Web audience as an expedition gone awry, involving hookers, terrorists, opium smugglers, and, ultimately, Turner's kidnapping. Ayre dressed hotel employees as gun-toting rebels and posted the photos. At least one concerned customer phoned to plead for the release of Bodog's beloved faux CEO.
"I said, 'Man, it's kind of embarrassing, but I'll do it,' " Costigan recalls. "I remember people asking if it's really happening. I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? You actually believe this stuff?'
But Ayre soon got tired of faking the life of an alter ego and retired Cole Turner in favour of plastering his real name and face all over the website; always with gorgeous women, hot cars and celebrities by his side.
"[My customers] don't dream of being boring -- that's not who they want to be," Ayre explained. "I think of it like James Bond. You're soaking up a little of it. You're a voyeur. There's a bunch of people who know they'll never be me -- but that doesn't mean they don't dream about it."With that much money to spread around, Ayre diversified the Bodog brand into the entertainment and sports industries. Their first TV series, Calvin Ayre Wild Card Poker involved a mix of pro poker players; B and C list celebrities and a “wild card” player in every match. Bodog Fight, Ayre’s mixed-martial-arts series, despite some complaints of low production values (like the posters here at Cagetoday.com, who spent little time lamenting he demise of the organization), was broadcast across North America, Russia and sold on DVD.
Business boomed. Bodog showed 100% growth its first two years. By 2005, according to Ayre, the company was processing more than $7 billion a year in wagers, pulling revenue in excess of $200 million.
Ayre’s in-your-face personality and ability to garner heated reactions also served his purposes. When Ayre’s Vince McMahon-style bragging over Bodog Fight and dissing of the competition reached a fever pitch, Ultimate Fighting Championship president responded by calling Ayre (not entirely inaccurately) a criminal. Ayre garnered much press with his response. He offered to send his s private jet, loaded with lovely ladies, to pick up his competitor, fly him to the Bodog Championships and treat to him to a stay in a five-star hotel. As www.mmaopinion.com notes, “When you’re #1 you never mention #2!”
Ayre continued to build the Bodog brand. Bodog Music signed a stable of mostly mid-level acts led by Bif Naked, rapper DMX Neurosonic and the Wu Tang-Clan. And sponsored the million dollar Battle of the Bands competition that “drew over 7,000 bands its first season. Few of these properties even turned a profit, but they built the brand and led people right back to the gaming sites. For her part, Bif Naked felt well-served by her relationship with Bodog: accompanying Calvin to Russia to view the fruits of his foundations charitable work and remarking on their support during her well-publicized battle with breast cancer.
A booth of cards and Bodog babes in full Tomb Raideresque
Ayre Force gear make a splash at New York Comicon 2008.
In typical Bodog style, Ayre saw an opportunity to reach comic fans when Slutsky presented him with the idea for Ayre Force. After presenting himself as Bodog’s James Bond-style world adventurer, a comic book mercenary was not big leap. As the announcement at www.point-spreads.com said:
Bodog Entertainment Founder Calvin Ayre notes, "When Adam first presented the idea we were excited by its uniqueness and fit with the Bodog brand. As we developed the concept with him, it's taken on its own life and will be a fantastic addition to the Bodog Entertainment family, both as a graphic novel and in other formats to come. Plus, I've always wanted to be a comic book hero. Who hasn't?"As usual, Ayres didn’t scrimp. He hired a pro artist/writer/colouring team and got mostly excellent artwork and packaging. They also went all out on promotion with the help of promoter Greg Godden.
The blitz include interviews and previews at comic and poker sites around the net, the animated prequels I mentioned and a huge, splashy booth at the New York Comicon, designed to literally look like house of cards and the ever-present Bodog Babes. ComicsRelated.com discussed Ayre Force’s premiere in this 2008 podcast.
Ayre has also used his money to fund numerous, small charity initiatives around the world through the Calvin Ayre Foundation.
Bodog client and friend Bif Naked (Beth Torbert) accompanies
Ayre on a tour of the Lomonosovsky Dom Rebenka, a recipient
of Calvin's philanthropy.
To its credit, the foundation seems to focus on small, area-specific projects that have an immediate impact rather than focusing on larger blanket solutions that have little trickle down effect. A cynic could suggest that the foundation is doing very little overall to change things in the world but there is something to be said for stepping in and sponsoring the small, desperately needed initiatives that so often get overlooked.
Being the public face of Bodog served Ayre well for years, culminating in 2006 where he found himself a Forbes cover boy and one of People Magazine’s “Hottest Bachelors” (Friday, June 16, 2006 issue) in the same year.
You don’t make billions of dollars in a business designed to make the majority of its customers into losers without developing enemies along the way. And Ayre’s trail of ruined lives goes back to long before Bodog ever saw the light of day.
Next: Our final installment explores the shady underbelly of Ayre’s high flying, billionaire playboy image. Big hint... he doesn't fight crime in Gothan at night.