OPINION: CBC Misses The Mark With Latest Sports Betting Documentary

Written By Robyn McNeil on January 23, 2023

Imitation, it has been said, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Supposing the cliche holds some truth; the New York Times should feel rather chuffed. In the wake of its damning sports betting investigation, a sea of reports similarly panning the fledgling industry followed.

The most recent and notable echo on our side of the border, “The Gamblification of Canada,” made its CBC debut last week. According to the national broadcaster, the recent The Fifth Estate investigative documentary “explores the sudden spike in sports gambling ads and whether Canada’s rush to get into the game is a bad bet.”

My takeaway after watching CBC’s go at gambling: it was more of a hit-piece than nuanced reporting.

And that’s a shame because plenty about the industry needs scrutiny.

The media, as a watchdog, plays an important role.

But, when it comes to gambling, mainstream media often seems more interested in stirring the pot than accuracy.

Full disclosure

First, let’s get this out of the way: I have a dog in this race.

I work for Catena Media, one of the global gambling industry’s top marketing affiliates.

But the truth is, I’ve never been one to trade ethics for dollars. I couldn’t do this job without believing that regulating gambling is the right thing to do. Besides, gambling is already here. And it’s been here a long while. Regulated or not, it’s not going further than offshore.

For that reason, I believe the future of gambling is regulation. Strong regulation and regular enforcement are the best way to protect people and share in the economic benefits. And I work for Catena because they champion the same.

For my money, The Fifth Estate chose to present sports betting in a negative light.

You might disagree, and that’s OK. But there’s more than one side to every story.

Doc focuses on negatives of online sports betting

“For decades betting on a single sports event in Canada was against the law — not anymore.”

So begins The Fifth Estate’s examination of gambling in Canada. The voiceover, delivered by CBC’s Bob McKeown, appears as visuals of players in action on the court, field and ice rink, transitioning to clips of sportsbooks and snippets of sports betting ads.

If I thought sports betting might get a fair shake in the 45-minute doc, I knew otherwise by the intro’s end.

For 1:53, it’s all negative soundbites and imagery.

McKeown, in voiceover, says the “firestorm” of sports betting advertising is “irresistible” to gamblers most at risk. We meet a pair of UK gambling critics, and a grieving parent, with dire warnings of extreme harm. Then McKeown confronts Auston Matthews in the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ locker room over his deal with Bet99.

Very quickly, it became clear that what would follow would not be a nuanced portrayal of a complex industry.

Which is too bad; CBC missed a real opportunity.

Granted, some issues, like the advertising, match-fixing and responsible gambling, made the CBC doc. But, besides match-fixing, CBC’s sports betting treatment lacked balance.

I was hoping for more. Unfortunately, that’s not what was delivered.

Report only looks to the UK for comparison

It’s only wise to consider the available data when trying to get a handle on something new. So, I understand CBC turning to the UK for evidence of what might happen on Canadian soil.

The problem is thinking Canada will replicate the UK’s gambling journey.

Canada and Britain are not an apples-to-apples comparison. Differences in regulations, culture and more lend to differences in how gambling evolves in each case.

While the UK provides one example, treating Britain’s experience as Canada’s crystal ball is a mistake.

Plus, overall, CBC’s UK sources offered a noticeably negative outlook.

The first, Darragh McGee, studies the impact of sports gambling on young men at the University of Bath.

Once a Canadian university soccer all-star, McGee attributed his first perceptions of gambling to his gran’s early warnings.

Other sources included the parents of a gambler with addiction who took his own life. Another, Will Prochaska, is a director of the UK-based charity Gambling With Lives. GWL speaks for family members grieving loved ones lost to gambling addiction and suicide.

There’s no argument: losing someone to suicide is a tragedy.

Unfortunately, according to a study just released by OHID, the extent that gambling contributes to the UK’s suicide rate is no longer clear.

Regardless, we must do more as an industry to protect customers from gambling harm. And there needs to be more robust support for gamblers who wind up underwater.

But including only biased, cautionary tales cheat us of an accurate view of the gambling industry. CBC had to share the negatives, but they could have told more of the story.

Canadian experts largely MIA

Besides the Canadian Gaming Association’s Paul Burns and match-fixing expert Declan Hill, CBC’s deep dive came up short on Canadian expertise.

Hill, a former Fifth Estate reporter, is now a professor at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. With his focus on sports integrity and Burn’s decades of gambling industry experience, why CBC reached out is clear.

Less obvious is why CBC overlooked other prominent Canadian voices.

Particularly glaring is the omission of the Responsible Gaming Council.

For over 35 years, the RGC has dedicated itself to problem gambling prevention. The non-profit organization, based in Toronto, works globally to reduce gambling risks and provides information and resources to those seeking support.

I was surprised to get to the end of the report before any mention of the RGC. Even then, it wasn’t much of a nod.

The doc simply ended on a screen that read, “For help with gambling addiction, visit: www.responsiblegambling.org.”

It’s hard to believe an organization focused on responsible gambling for nearly four decades wouldn’t have more to say.

Otherwise, Canada is home to academics and organizations that could have contributed more of a Canadian perspective.

It feels like a mistake to bypass homegrown expertise in such a far-reaching investigative report.

Ontario regulations glazed over despite International recognition

Another quibble: the doc only skims over Ontario’s existing laws. And when it does, the tone is skeptical, at best.

How is it fair and balanced reporting when you gloss over the legal framework of the only province to introduce commercial gaming? That’s like doing a story on the Toronto Maple Leafs and focusing on the Edmonton Oilers.

It’s like CBC went in with a thesis crafted and found evidence to support it.

I’m not arguing Ontario’s gaming regulations shouldn’t change and evolve.

For one, on the advertising side, there’s an argument for banning active athletes or youth-focused celebrities from acting as sportsbook ambassadors, as the UK has.

But in Canada, that conversation, among others, is far from over.

Plus, it’s worth noting: Ontario’s regulations already ban the advertising of gambling promotions and bonuses.

That’s a step further than many North American and European jurisdictions.

AGCO’s online gaming standards even received an International Award of Excellence, And it feels like something the program should have made clear.

statement from agco
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario issued a written statement to PlayCanada.

Source slams’ responsible gambling’ as industry cop-out

Honestly, I’m still shaking my head. But perhaps this explains CBC snubbing the RGC?

Heading into its first commercial break, McGee dropped this bombshell:

“There is growing recognition that responsible gambling discourse unfairly imposes responsibility on individuals rather than on very powerful corporations. It’s unquestionably an industry-friendly framework, and I think that’s why we’ve seen it so popularly adopted from the UK to the US, and, I think, now also in Canada.”

<record scratch>

The driving reasons for regulating gambling are often similar: increasing consumer protection, minimizing harm and boosting tax revenue.

However, just because a jurisdiction is unregulated doesn’t mean people aren’t gambling. It just means they’re betting on sites run by illegal, grey-market vendors.

That’s why regulations are needed. By regulating, we hold operators to a standard, minimize player harm, and communities benefit from gambling tax rakes.

That’s not to say the industry has it all figured out or there’s no room to improve.

Unquestionably, we don’t, and there’s a lot of room — on many fronts.

But having gambling operators agree to standards that prioritize responsible play, harm reduction, and entertainment over vice seems a no-brainer.

Responsible gambling and harm reduction, a shared responsibility

I always find it funny (suspect, not haha) how society shifts its take on personal responsibility.

In some cases, we expect folks to bootstrap their way up. In others, we treat people like they’re incapable of autonomy. It’s the height of hypocrisy.

Globally, the estimated prevalence of serious problem gambling ranges from 0.1% to 5.8%.

Comparatively, 3 million people die from alcohol abuse globally each year. That’s 5.3% of human mortality. And we’re only just starting to hear about alcohol’s cancer link.

Then there’s tobacco, which kills up to 50% of those who partake. In 2020, that was 22.3% of the world’s population.

That’s three addictions with implications that go well beyond those struggling, yet how we treat them socially is dramatically different.

Granted, at least in North America, tobacco has a bad rep. But, you’d be hard-pressed to find a holiday party or corporate event where ‘having a few’ is all but expected.

I’m not suggesting those with addictions (gambling or otherwise) should be left alone with their struggle. Nor are they incapable of taking control of their vice. Every situation is unique.

My point is we are not islands.

Keeping gambling fun and entertaining for everyone requires widespread buy-in from players, industry, regulators, authorities and society.

Addiction doesn’t take hold in a vacuum

Always devastating, addiction is not always our only struggle. Often battles compound until molehills become mountains.

For gamblers experiencing addiction, added stress may come with social expectations. Admitting failure, or seeking help, is often seen as a weakness, particularly for men. For folks struggling, that may keep them from reaching out until rock bottom, if they do at all.

Similarly, the argument for limiting youth exposure to sports betting ads is worth exploring. But I also believe it’s up to parents, communities and society to educate youth about things that may cause harm.

And that’s something we could all do a lot better.

Because even after thousands of words on the dark side of sports betting, NYT sites serve ads for Canadian sportsbooks.

NYT screenshot, January 17, 1:59 pm ET

I think it’s up to the gambling industry to take the lead. But we must work together (industry, governments, media, communities) to develop and share the knowledge that aids in protecting people. And we need to build and provide the tools and support needed to fix things when sh*t goes sideways.

Ideally, legal gambling jurisdiction will combine robust regulation and enforcement with comprehensive responsible gaming strategies, tools and support. And all of that would be backed by an educated, engaged population untethered by outdated social norms.

Whether or not we get there depends on our commitment to the work.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor. She lives in Halifax in an empty nest with a mischievous cat and a penchant for good stories, strong tea, cheeseburgers, yoga, graveyards, hammocks, gardening, games, herb, and hoppy beer.

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