Canada’s sports betting scene is out of bounds.
At least according to the Alberta Problem Gambling Resources Network, which urges better safeguards against sports betting advertisements.
Despite legal single-event betting being less than two years old, critics across the country say it is already time for significant reform.
Excessive advertisements, celebrity endorsements, youth protection and not enough focus on responsible gambling are some of the biggest concerns.
Today, billions flow into Canada through legal sports bets. Accounting firm Deloitte estimates that within the next five years, Canada’s sports betting market could swell to nearly $30 billion.
Given that pace, PGRN executive director Ray Reshke said, via The Calgary Herald, it is time to pause and reflect.
Player health and safety are already compromised, he commented.
“People are phoning for help from online betting and sports gambling…they’re inundated with commercials for sporting bets.”
Gambling sees few restrictions compared to other vices
Unlike other societal vices, gambling advertisements receive few limits.
For instance, in 1989, Canada enacted the Tobacco Products Control Act — known today as the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act. The landmark legislation prohibited tobacco advertising and required health warnings on tobacco packaging.
However, in February 2020, the country took it a step further. That was when the federal government – following Australia’s lead in 2012 – mandated plain tobacco packaging on all cigarette packs.
Meanwhile, alcohol — while not as restrictive — must also adhere to a regulatory standard.
University of Lethbridge Prof. Robert Williams — a gaming expert — says that is not the case with gambling.
“It’s anything goes as far as gambling, and that really does seem quite different. It’s the new kid on the block and governments haven’t seen the inconsistency… it was a long, long time until we had restrictive restraints placed on alcohol.”
Gamblers, everyday people note the increase in ads
Beyond the experts, laypeople have also noticed the surge in sports gambling ads.
PlayCanada reached out to multiple people from all walks of life. Nearly every interviewee commented on a noticeable change.
Consider Raul Suarez.
The 32-year is a biologist, wholly removed from the sports and gambling scene. Yet he told PlayCanada that escaping the advertisements is near impossible.
“I’m glad I don’t watch TV often and block a lot of ads on my streams. But when I do see them, I feel like they are pushing it as something great and without harm. You don’t see that with alcohol and cigarettes.”
Veteran gambler: Gambling is 100% easier to get into a tailspin than other vices
Patrick (name changed per their request) is another example.
Opposite to Suarez, Patrick is an avid gambler of 10+ years who has mostly benefitted from wagering. He told PlayCanada that a large portion of his annual income comes via sports bets (futures).
Nonetheless, he worries about what is unfolding.
“Gambling is 100% easier to get into a tailspin because you don’t feel $50 bucks like you do two drinks at the bar. But it adds up quickly.”
CBC radio documentary puts sports gambling ads in the spotlight
On a larger scale, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently shed light on the topic.
Via its White Coat, Black Art podcast, CBC showed sports gambling’s pitfalls, including the excessive ads. In it, listeners followed the heart-wrenching journey of recovering gambling addict Noah Vineberg.
The 48-year-old loathed the contradiction in government restrictions.
“What bothers me is as a government — as a society — we said, ‘OK you can’t do that anymore with cigarettes — you can’t make it look good when we know it’s bad.’ Yet with this vice we’re going to full bore shove it down your throats.”
Sports personalities aplenty in sports gambling advertisements
Sports personalities increase the odds.
Today, it is not uncommon for professional athletes — across multiple sports — to endorse high-profile sportsbooks. Some even become brand ambassadors.
Critics argue this practice serves as a form of grooming to ensure operators have a future supply of gamblers. According to them, professional athlete endorsements increase gambling’s appeal, desensitizing users to the potential dangers. And endorsements expose youth to an implied nod of approval to bet like their heroes.
In Canada, the most obvious example is Wayne Gretzky. In 2021, The Great One inked a deal with BetMGM Canada. Since then, Gretzky has appeared in multiple advertisement campaigns promoting the BetMGM brand.
Unsurprisingly, given Gretzky’s unparalleled status in the country, the online backlash from some has been swift and harsh. Despite that, he has forged ahead with the partnership.
McDavid’s, Gretzky’s association with gambling draws concerns
Following in Gretzky’s footsteps is Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid. In 2022, the two-time MVP also inked a deal with BetMGM.
However, unlike Gretzky — retired for two-plus decades — McDavid, 25, is in his career prime.
In a mid-December Tweet, Canadian children’s entertainer Raffi Cavoukian condemned both players.
“(Wayne) Gretzky and (Connor) McDavid in an ad for sports betting sets a bad example for fans, especially kids. Especially during games. When will pundits speak up?
“Promoting addictive habits should be offside. It’s nuts.”
Amanda Laprade – a problem gambling counsellor at Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services in Ottawa – echoed those sentiments in the CBC piece.
“When we see celebrities who look like they have it all, it’s like ‘well, if they can do it, then I can do it.’ I think that’s really misleading and dangerous.”
PGRN: Excessive ads and lack of safeguards fuel grey markets
From a logistical standpoint, PGNR says one could make another argument.
According to them, Canadians are often unaware of what is and isn’t a legal bet in their province due to the excessive ads running across the nation.
Instead, they end up betting at illegal casinos and sportsbooks without realizing it. Thus, millions that could otherwise benefit provinces winds up profit for offshore operators.
“A lot of it isn’t legal in Alberta as it is in Ontario, but if you have a tablet you can have access to it, it’s wide open – there’s not much anyone can do about it.”
As a result, multiple provinces banded together for a new pan-Canadian coalition to educate Canadians to combat those misconceptions.
Alberta has taken it a step further.
Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis is currently running an anti-offshore betting campaign. Dubbed “A Better Way to Play,” the public service announcements are meant to ensure players wager through the regulated provincial lottery.
Gaming expert: Problem needs perspective
Nonetheless, some remain largely unmoved by the anti-sport ad arguments.
Professor Williams is one.
The scholar says the impacts of heavy sports betting promotions need context and perspective given the timeline of the industry.
“It doesn’t have the impact on the large majority who are recreational players – it might shift their preference.”
AGLC previously echoed those sentiments in its 2020 – 2021 annual report. In that document, the Crown corporation stated 96% of gamblers do so responsibly (97% is their goal).
Williams also said ad volume and frequency would likely decrease over time as companies become more established in the Canadian marketplace.
However, he stopped short of entirely absolving the practice.
“But for those addicts who are trying to give it up, it could trigger cravings, and for underage people, it’s creating an image that it’s exciting and benign. It does increase problems down the road.”
Canada’s sports betting market evolving fast
Sports betting isn’t a recent revelation in Canada.
In fact, for years, provincial lotteries held monopolies, with the Crown corporations being the sole (legal) provider of sports betting.
At the time, that only included parlays as single-game wagers were prohibited.
However, that changed forever on August 27, 2021. On that date, Bill C-218 granted provinces the right to offer single-event wagers.
The move proved pivotal as the added options helped attract millions of new (legal) users.
But, of all the provinces, Ontario is the unquestioned leader. After its Ontario online sports betting and casino expansion launched last April, Canada’s most populated region has attracted many new operators.
It is now one of North America’s largest betting markets.
To that end, operators have grown increasingly bolder, bombarding users with advertisements.
Sports betting’s future in Canada
Both sides agree on at least one thing: Sports betting will continue to grow and evolve.
To that end, many are concerned about health and wellness resources beyond the troubling advertising volume.
More gambling will inevitably bring about more addiction and problems – especially if the proper infrastructure isn’t in place.
Laprade references the United Kingdom as an example to follow. They ban sports betting ads until 9 pm.
Educational ad campaigns similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving could also help.
However, in the end, problem gamblers remain a small population. A Statistics Canada data collection (2018) shows only 1.6% of gamblers were considered at-risk. That number has undoubtedly since grown, but it is still likely relatively low.
Nonetheless, it remains a deadly habit for those impacted, said Laprade.
“People who struggle with problem gambling are the highest risk of suicide, [more] than any other addiction.”