Progress? It’s hard to look back and find too much of it in Canadian sports in 2020. This after all was a year when our pro sports teams, much like the rest of us, tried and struggled to find a new normal. Our hockey teams, bless them, are still searching.
But late in the year there was progress of another kind. On the fringes of pro sports perhaps, but less and less so. Sports gambling, for oh so long a vexing subject in these parts, appears to finally be on the verge of being properly legalized and brought up to speed with much of the rest of the world.
With changes and updates to how Canadian sports fans can bet on their teams potentially coming early and often in 2021, it’s a fitting time to take stock, look at the current landscape, map out future terrain and weigh up what it might all mean …
- So where are we at? In truth, Canada has been stuck in the same place for a very long time now. As the sports betting industry revolutionized online and particularly in a mobile environment in its biggest global markets, Canada has stood still.
The country’s criminal code, which outlaws betting on single events, has stymied the industry here … but not lessened consumer demand. With parlays, like those available from Ontario’s Proline, often the extent of the regulated offering here, Canadian sports enthusiasts have instead turned to unregulated, and sometimes risky, avenues.
The grey market, represented by offshores firms like bet365.com and others, and the black market, unregulated bookies often backed by organized crime, combine to see as much as $14 billion wagered on sporting events here annually, according to the Canadian Gaming Association.
Successive governments have resisted attempts to strike down the ban on single-event betting. Paul Burns, the President and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, told the Star this week that the trade association’s sports betting project has been on the go since 2008. And in this year of all years, there has finally been progress.
In late November the Liberal government introduced Bill C-13, which would amend the legislation and open the door for the modernization of the industry here to at last get underway.
- And where are we (likely) headed? The bill had its first reading in early December and there had been hope it would wind its way through the House of Commons before the Christmas break. But, , after all this time, what’s the rush? Instead it will be picked up again in the new year and, without any hitches, could be passed into law in early spring. It will then be up to the provinces to create their own regulatory and licensed markets, plans that some provinces have already been busy plotting.
Ever since the U.S. opened up its sports gambling market with a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2018, change in Canada has felt more of a tangible possibility. Long seen as something to be kept at a distance, and preferably in the shadowed distance, betting and daily fantasy gatecrashed the North American sports mainstream.
Yet it does seem unlikely that Canada would have gone the final step without the major pro sports leagues being on board. This past summer NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the NHL’s Gary Bettman, MLB chief Rob Manfred, Major League Soccer’s Don Garber and the CFL’s Randy Ambrosie sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging the government to make the move. It’s likely that, by the time Silver and Bettman kick off their 2021-22 seasons, their words will have borne fruit.
“The hope is that by fall, even Labour Day, we will see expanded sports betting offerings out there,” the CGA’s Burns told the Star. “It shouldn’t have taken this long. But the finish line is in sight.
“I think it’s a recognition of how it’s changed in the United States and the [pro] leagues want to help create the right environment now for accessing that product [in Canada]. The consumers, they’re there. It was about catching up to them.”
- What are the rewards? For betting enthusiasts, the changes will be so welcome, particularly in Ontario where the government has signalled that a robust, diverse offering is the aim. As well as single-game betting, specific outcome bets are likely to be available from the get-go.
For example, if a Raptors fan is on his or her way to the Scotiabank Arena on game night and wants to back the home team, logging on to an app and betting $5 on the Raps to win and another $5 on Pascal Siakam to score 30-plus points (the kind of bets that gamblers in Europe have been able to do for years) is likely to be possible. Live, in-game betting too. Think Mitch Marner will score the winner in the third period? Place that bet as the Leafs get the period underway.
The financial implications for the leagues themselves, through partnerships, sponsorship deals and increased engagement at a time when bringing in new fans has been such a priority, are obvious. “Sports betting gives fans another exciting way to engage with the sports they love,” the leagues said in their letter to the PM.
It’s perhaps no coincidence either that the Liberals have embraced such a legislative move after a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has pillaged federal and provincial coffers. Casinos across the country have been particularly hard hit by the shutdowns. Provinces being able to bring a big chunk of that $14 billion from the black and grey market back into their regulated space through online operators and casino sportsbooks will be a welcome financial boost for all.
- And the risks? With the potential opening of the Canadian market resembling not so much a loosening of the knot as an untying — particularly so in Ontario — there are of course possible pitfalls too.
While a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in October found that problem gambling had decreased in the country in recent years, the opening up of the market to this degree is sure to have addiction experts concerned. And with justification.
In the U.K., where gambling regulation is similar to the model likely to be explored by Ontario with mobile betting offerings plentiful, there has been an explosion in youth gambling addictions. Over 55,000 children are among the nation’s 300,000 problem gamblers, a British House of Lords report found this summer.
In arriving later to the marketplace, Canada, both federally and provincially, is in a better place to learn from mistakes elsewhere. In short, it needs to. Strict limits on advertising would be a good start. As recently as last season, fully 10 of the 20 clubs in the English Premier League had gambling companies emblazoned across the front of their jerseys as primary sponsors. This season, in spite of concerns raised, eight clubs have gambling sponsors.
From the industry’s perspective, Burns counters that Canada is already a world leader when it comes to responsible gambling initiatives and supports for problem bettors.
“Part of this is capturing that grey market back into a regulated market where all those tools are available and promoted to players,” he told the Star. “As I’ve often said, the Hell’s Angels don’t have a responsible gaming program or a plan to protect players.”
In terms of other risks, there have also been warnings that the federal government should use this moment to tighten laws on match-fixing in sports, which are puzzlingly unspecific at present. Semi-professional Canadian soccer leagues in particular have been labelled a hotbed of matches fixed for profits.
There is, of course, still time for such risks to be evaluated and tackled. But not too much time. Canada’s sports betting revolution is steadily, finally, approaching.