National Post (Latest Edition)
Legal sports-betting industry in Canada remains on the brink
IT DOES SEEM THIS TIME THAT EXPANDED WAGERING IS ON ITS WAY
In May of 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a federal law that prohibited sports betting outside of Nevada was unconstitutional. Three months later, New Jersey was taking wagers, and dozens more states have followed its path in the years since.
Canada is moving in the same direction, but as is familiar to anyone following, say, vaccination progress, sometimes things move more slowly here. A private-member’s bill was introduced in February of last year that would legalize single-event sports betting in this country. It was just the latest legislative kick at this particular can, with several previous attempts having failed at various stages of the process, but this one — introduced by a Conservative MP and supported by one from the NDP — looked like it might have legs. By last November, the Trudeau government was in play with a bill of its own that would accomplish the same slight alteration to the line in the Criminal Code that prevents betting on a single sporting event in this country. Being a government bill, it was assumed that Canada was on the brink of a fully legal sports-betting industry.
And, months later it remains on the brink. That government bill, despite being blessed by Justice Minister David Lametti, ran into just enough opposition to be prevented from a fasttracked approval process. In the meantime, like a horse picking up steam on the closing stretch, it is the private-member’s bill introduced 14 months ago — Bill C-218, An act to amend the Criminal Code — that has nosed in front in the race to rewrite the country’s gaming laws. It passed second reading in the House of Commons earlier this year, went to committee, came out of committee with amendments, and awaits a third and final reading in the House. There also remains the delicate matter of the busy hands of the Senate, which effectively killed similar legislation five years ago, but given the support for the bill this time around, with provinces, tourism boards and the country’s professional sports leagues all clamouring for expanded wagering, it seems a safe bet (ahem) that change is at hand.
The big question remains how much a liberated betting environment will change the sports landscape in Canada. And again, the experience in the United States is instructive. Leagues that used to pretend that gambling did not exist, for fear of integrity issues, now routinely announce new partnerships and sponsorship arrangements with gambling companies. Broadcasters that were not long ago afraid to utter the words “point spread” on air during a game are now using gambling terminology as a regular part of game coverage, as well as on highlight shows. ESPN this week provided two separate feeds of a Philadelphia 76ers-brooklyn Nets game: the normal one, and one with gambling-specific content, with hosts analyzing both the bets that could have been made prior to tip-off as well as in-game betting opportunities. It is a wholesale change in attitude, one driven almost entirely by the fact that the parties all the see the money to be made on the back of gamblers. In Canada, TSN and Sportsnet have introduced gambling-specific content on their platforms, with much more expected should single-sports betting indeed become legal here.
It promises to be a transformative change, although just how transformative would depend largely on how provinces would choose to operate in a legal-betting world. In Ontario, for example, there is much interest in having sportsbooks at existing casino operations in places like Windsor, Niagara and Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, but if internet and smartphone betting is legalized at the same time, there would less benefit to those businesses already operating in the gambling industry and more to would-be newcomers like The Score, the popular sports app that has launched a successful sister app, Scorebet, in certain U.S. states. Allowing smartphone betting would of course make a significant difference to consumers, too. The ability to place a bet anywhere there is access to a cellular signal theoretically increases the likelihood that users will place bets.
As we wait to see what governments federal and provincial will do on the sports-betting file, I will confess to mixed feelings. Expanded legalization has seemed inevitable for ages, especially when sports betting already exists via provincial lottery corporations, grey-market websites and black-market bookies who know a guy who will break your thumbs if you don’t pay up already. But the examples in the U.S., where legalized betting has had explosive growth in some markets, suggest that the growth might be faster than is healthy. All of that money spent on wagers naturally means that a lot of it has been lost by bettors. Is there a risk Canada will open the gates and realize later it went too far and too fast?
Nigel Turner, an independent scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says there is a general link between the availability of something like sports betting and the number of people who do it.
“From a public health point of view, there’s a general view that the easier it is to access an addictive product, the more people that are going to take part in that product,” Dr. Turner said in an interview.
But he also notes that sometimes demand spikes when such a product comes to market, only to fade over time. As an example, Ontario’s casino business, even pre-pandemic, had dropped significantly in recent years from its early highs.
“There’s definitely a short term availability impact, but whether it’s a long-term issue is questionable.”
That availability question has become central to the discussion in the United Kingdom, where sports betting has become such a key part of its soccer leagues since gambling was largely deregulated 15 years ago that authorities now wonder if they have created a monster.
The Tory government there is reviewing its gaming laws, and its expected new restrictions will be put in place to decrease the risk of gambling’s associated harms.
“Most people who gamble don’t have severe problems, but a disproportionate amount of the money that comes from gambling comes from problem gamblers,” Dr. Turner said.
Indeed, a U.K. parliamentary report said 60 per cent of the industry’s profits come from the five per cent of gamblers who are “problem” gamblers.
There are sound reasons for expanding a business that already exists in a grey area and making it properly taxed and regulated. But can that be done while still protecting those most at risk of addiction? “That’s the balancing act,” Dr. Turner said.
Canada is on the verge of unleashing a growth industry. We should soon see just how much it wants to unleash it.
IS THERE A RISK CANADA WILL OPEN THE GATES AND REALIZE LATER IT WENT TOO FAR ... ?