Serious Bettors Give Mixed Reviews Of Ontario’s Online Gambling Sector

Written By Dave Briggs on April 3, 2023 - Last Updated on April 6, 2023
Ontario bettors

As the Ontario online casino, poker and sports betting industry gets set to celebrate its first birthday on Tuesday (April 4), a group of professional or serious bettors — that spoke exclusively to PlayCanada — are less in the mood to celebrate.

Toronto-based pro bettor and gaming law professor Harley Redlick, for one, sees a lot of room for improvement. Redlick is known for his blunt and honest assessments.

Naturally, he didn’t hold back when speaking about how gambling’s regulators —  the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and its subsidiary, iGaming Ontario — handled bringing long-time illegal “grey market” operators into the regulated industry. By some estimates, grey market operators have been illegally taking bets from Ontarians for as long as 20 years.

Yet, the AGCO and iGO gave those illegal operators until Oct. 31, 2022 to make the transition to the regulated market. They were also allowed to take their customers with then.

“Basically, the grey market people won huge,” Redlick said. “They had a huge leg up in terms of mailer lists. They had a huge leg up in terms of profiles. And nothing was done for any of the more honest operators. So, basically, the lesson you learned from Ontario was, be illegal, break the rules and you’ll benefit… I thought that was unfair to the honest operators and everybody else involved in the system.”

The AGCO declined to comment to PlayCanada.

More grey market blues

Transitioning grey market operators to the legal sector has also had other negative consequences for Ontario bettors, especially those that travel frequently.

Veteran Toronto Sun sports reporter Rob Longley is the beat reporter for the Toronto Blue Jays. Now that Ontario has legalized online gambling, he is unable to place bets with his favourite sportsbooks when outside the province. Rules require bettors to be in Ontario to legally bet. He understands that regulating is good policy, but wishes something could be done to allow himself and others to legally bet when outside the province.

“As someone who spends a fair bit of time in the US for work assignments, the inability to get action down while out of province is frustrating, especially considering it was a possibility in the grey market,” Longley said. “Understanding that this is a legislative issue, I don’t understand why this isn’t something that can be enabled, albeit with restrictions, over time.”

The advantages of incredible consumer choice

Though, Longley said he has taken advantage of signing up for many accounts.

“The primary reason though, was to take advantage of something that every bettor, be it casual or serious, should do and that is line shop,” he said. “This is particularly valuable in the Ontario market where line shading was often frustratingly obvious on the side of the local teams. Of course, that creates opportunity if you were willing to back the non-public side, but it was clearly an attempt to reel in the naive casual fan/bettor.”

Veteran horseplayer and sports bettor John Siscos agreed with Longley that, “One should have as many books as possible.  The odds swings are dramatic. The bettor can have a favourite or two, but getting 100-1 on a golfer in an outright market is obviously so much better than having a 60-1 ticket.  You’ll have more opportunity if many books.”

Some see lots to love about the regulated market

Not every bettor had criticism.

Siscos said he’s happy the market is regulated. And, he said there is plenty to like about it.

“The breadth of operators in the space is stunning,” Siscos said. “There’s something for everybody. Those that don’t care about odds and just want something for recreational play, there are clearly plenty of those. But the serious player can also bet with the lower margin operators. Some books have sophisticated in-game infrastructure and some push same-game parlay bets heavily. All have different appeal for the for the sports fan and bettor.

“A viable commercial iGaming industry is critical for both the player and the operator. The societal normalcy of sports betting, though around forever in Ontario through the grey market, is useful to me.  The content is through the roof and I value a lot of it. And many bettors do.”

Serious bettor and pro horse racing handicapper Garnet Barnsdale said he’s taken advantage of the many “good promos, comping and pricing.” He added, “One of the main reasons I have been able to stay in the black has been by taking advantage of bets that refund free bets if you lose, odds ‘boosts’ and other promos. I have also found the sites’ customer service to be quick to respond and eager to help resolve issues. Hopefully that will continue. Some of the sites’ interfaces are more user-friendly than others, so I guess that could be improved.”

Competition is key

Pro bettor Dawn Lupul said she likes the competition in Ontario’s market.

“Someone who takes the time can use several books to maximize signup bonuses,” she said. “It takes real effort, though, and isn’t something the casual player would worry about.”

Longley said he likes, “the fairly regular bonus structure from many of the providers. Although the obtuse wording was often difficult to navigate, even for someone who has been in the game for more decades than I’d care to admit.”

Some believe Ontario stumbled out of the gate

That said, some felt there were some major hiccups around launch.

Lupul said she found the weeks and months after the April 4, 2022 launch date chaotic.

“The implementation was rough, especially for customers of [former grey-market operator] bet365 who they had been betting with before legalization,” Lupul said. “It didn’t take long, though, for everything to settle down. It seemed like the big-name sportsbooks, who were early to the startup, fared well, but the market quickly became saturated. And it will sort out as time goes by.”

Longley said the glut of marketing around launch — and the mainstream media’s scramble to take advantage of this new media stream — was almost laughable.

“The first months seemed a little too much like the wild west with a flurry of competition for what many of the big betting companies clearly felt would be a new and rich market to claim,” he said. “So many books scrambling to get in on the action and doing so under the broad assumption that the public would come betting with both fists, was a little much.

“The marketing campaigns were laughable at times, but nothing compared to the way the mainstream media handled the new ‘content.’ Commentary — particularly on television — was shockingly poor and lacking in insight for those new to the wagering world.

Redlick on terrible betting broadcast content, harmful ads and bad rules

Redlick said both operator ads and sports broadcasts suddenly trying to incorporate betting content left a lot to be desired. He said he’s also frustrated with the AGCO’s rules banning operators from advertising bonuses, inducements or credits. The operators can have them, they just can’t advertise them.

“The ads, in my opinion, we need to do a better job of protecting kids,” Redlick said. “I don’t know what inspired them to decide that we shouldn’t be allowed to advertise bonuses or commissions or how much you actually pay. Caesars charges more vig, Pinnacle and PointsBet charge less vig. Nobody can advertise that, but we’re allowed to have Connor McDavid doing ads [for BetMGM]. The Connor McDavid ads are clearly targeted to children. No adult is taking gambling advice from a man who can’t grow a beard. I think we’re just a little bit off.”

As for the broadcasters, Redlick has long advocated for separate streams — one for the regular sports content and one for betting.

“TSN and Rogers have got to do a better job of just providing two broadcasts, because the betting talk is superficial and just ticks the box,” Redlick said. “The non-bettors don’t want to hear it and the bettors don’t find it useful or helpful.

“It’s not that hard, there’s five TSN [channels]. Have a station TSN Bets, like what theScore was. That’s where you went if you were interested in sports betting. That way you even solve the problem of how you can restrict certain channels. If your kid wants to watch sports on TV and you don’t want them watching betting, no problem, just shut off TSN Bets and you’ve just solved the problem.”

More emphasis on the consumer, less on operators

Redlick also said the regulator needs to focus more on consumers and less on the operators. As it stands, when a consumer has a complaint about an operator, navigating the iGO system is too complicated for the average bettor, he said.

“Manage the operators that are trying to kind of cheat consumers out of bonuses and complex things by inciting terms and conditions,” Redlick said. “There needs to be accountability. I want a site that shows how many complaints have been registered against an operator by consumers and how many times iGO stepped in and helped the consumer when the operator did something sketchy or some misunderstanding occurred. And if it doesn’t happen, and soon, this business is starting to develop the same reputation as the [Canadian] airline industry where we have regulators but everybody’s saying, ‘What the f – – –  are the regulators doing?’ Everybody hates the airlines and nobody feels protected.”

More should be done to protect bettors from operators leaving the market

Redlick also thinks iGO needs to do more for consumers when an operator leaves the market, as Coolbet did recently.

“I have futures tickets on the Boston Bruins that I bet before the season started to win the Cup. I bet those in Las Vegas. When I bet those in Las Vegas, I know if the Bruins are winning the Cup, I’m cashing my tickets 100% of the time.

“We can no longer say that about operators in Ontario. So what does that mean? You get a refund? I have the Bruins to win the Cup. My ticket is worth five times what I bought it for.

“Do we want the consumers in Ontario to now evaluate the credit worthiness [of operators]? It’s almost like a banking liquidation mess. What’s the credit worthiness like? theScore seems like they’re likely to be around in a year from now. But, should I evaluate before I make a futures bet? Are these people going to be around when my futures are supposed to pay out? It’s a big problem because now there’s a lack of trust in the system.”

What does the future hold for Ontario’s online gambling sector?

Asked to predict what the Ontario online gambling market will look like two years from now, Siscos said he believes it will be, “robust. Many of the big companies involved in the space in Ontario realize there will always be customers for betting on sports. The economics appear decent for them, so why not compete for new fans or long-time players in a dense marketplace of 14 or 15 million people here?  We’re just getting started.”

Barnsdale said he believes Ontario’s market, “will condense to the bigger operators — Draftkings, FanDuel, MGM, Caesar’s etc. Smaller operators can’t compete for too long, I don’t think. The bigger sites have the advantage of being hooked up with teams/leagues as sponsors.”

Longley said his hunch is that the sector will become, “a survival of the fittest as the market settles. We’ve already seen CoolBet exit Ontario and it wouldn’t surprise me if more did the same. From afar, based on the marketing campaigns, it seemed like new players were counting on an initial rush of bettors to their virtual storefronts. Now that the rush is over, the competition will become even more stout, hopefully handing an edge to those who provide top service and competitive betting lines.”

Lupul said it’s difficult to predict.

“The big players will always be around,” she said. “But some of the niche operators may fall by the wayside. It depends on the customers, as does any business… The next big push will be for more retail sportsbooks to be opened.”

Will other provinces follow Ontario’s lead?

Barnsdale said the common theme is online gambling is here to stay and will, eventually, be everywhere.

“It’s amazing to me when I am sitting at Bills games how many people I hear talking about certain bets they have riding, such as first TD scorer — which is also one of my favorite bets,” said Barnsdale.

Longley said he expects open online gambling markets will come to other provinces, as soon as they, “evaluate the good and the bad of Ontario. It will be interesting to see how the legislative ground that has been cleared in Ontario helps operators get clearance to do the same in other jurisdictions.”

Siscos said expansion won’t happen until other provinces truly understand that they are losing revenue to the grey market.

“A number of Ontario regulated books are still available in other parts of the country via the grey market and their governments aren’t seeing a dime one from them,” Siscos said. “The provinces might be comfortable with the province-owned and controlled outlet and a player base that is a fit for their infrastructure. It’s just growth will be a challenge.”

Lupul said finances will ultimately win out.

“It probably won’t take long for other provinces to legalize sportsbook wagering,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of the money it can provide.”

Final thoughts: “this market is a disappointment”

With only the first nine months of numbers to go on, Ontario is doing well, but still has a long way to go to match comparable US jurisdictions that have both online casinos and sportsbooks.

Through the first three fiscal quarters, Ontario ranked a very distant fourth on the list, despite having the highest population (approx. 15 million) of any of the jurisdictions and the highest number of gaming operators.

Here’s how Ontario’s April-December revenue compares to that of the more established gaming jurisdictions in 2022:

  1. New Jersey: $1.86 billion
  2. Pennsylvania: $1.74 billion
  3. Michigan: $1.53 billion
  4. Ontario: $661.5 million (USD)
  5. Connecticut: $332 million
  6. West Virginia: $129 million
  7. Delaware: $21 million

Combining all three quarters:

  • New Jersey’s revenue was nearly three times higher than Ontario’s.
  • Pennsylvania’s revenue was more than 2.5 times higher than Ontario’s.
  • Michigan’s revenue was more than double Ontario’s.

It’s one of many reasons Redlick believes Ontario’s online sector isn’t quite the shining light some believe it is.

“The truth is that this market is a disappointment,” Redlick said. “And I know everybody wants to pat themselves on the back, but our numbers are a fraction of Michigan’s and Pennsylvania’s even though we’re a way bigger market.”

Photo by Jenn Montgomery / PlayCanada
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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in Canada with emphasis on the casino, sports betting and horse racing sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Canada and Michigan.

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