Betting-app overkill is leading to pushback against their proliferation

Last updated on Jun 01, 23

Posted on Jun 01, 23

4 min read

Watch any sporting events – or just about anything else on TV – and you’ll be inundated with ads for online gaming, particularly sports betting.

In fact, those taking in Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff games earlier this spring were subjected to almost nine minutes of betting ads.

While I’ve no moral objections to gambling, these ads are not only vapid, they represent a step too far in normalizing gambling, especially among young people. Kids are often among those watching sporting events, and as much as the gaming industry says it does not target children, there’s bound to be more than a little influence.

It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a growing pushback against the explosion of online betting.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health last week called on the province to ban gambling ads during sports broadcasts.

Such ads “are normalizing sports gambling,” said Nigel Turner, an independent scientist with CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. CAMH had made a submission to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which is currently reviewing its policies on such gaming.

“They’re making sports gambling look fun and exciting, and a sure thing for winning, and big thrills. It can be big thrills, but they don’t go into the fact that losing is the norm,” said Turner.

Likewise, The Ban Ads For Gambling campaign, for instance, has Karl Subban, a hockey coach and the father of three NHL players, speaking out.

“It’s a big problem. Gambling is very addictive,” Subban, who’s also a school principal, told the CBC. “A lot of the marketing is focusing on grabbing the attention of the most vulnerable, the youngest of our population.”

“Kids should not be exposed to this at a young age. It’s just the wrong messaging to be imprinting on them. It’s not healthy for their long-term growth,” added Lesley Oliva, an elementary school teacher and parent.

Given the iniquitousness of such ads, it’s hard to believe betting on individual sports is a new thing. In Ontario, that’s only been legal since April of last year.

While regulated by the province, the government has allowed private companies to flourish. There are now more than 70 sites providing online sports betting and casino-style gambling. In the last quarter of 2022, those companies handled some $11.5 billion in wagers. Revenues amounted to more than $450 million, of which the province takes about 20 per cent.

As we’ve seen with other forms of gaming, the province loves the revenues, and is never particularly interested in scaling back.

Still, there’s a considerable difference between, say, slots at raceways and the pervasive, 24/7 applications of online gaming.

More pernicious still is how quickly betting odds and gambling-related “information” has entered into what purports to be sportscasting. It’s essentially an extension of advertising for betting apps.

We’ve come a long way from taking the occasional flutter on a lottery ticket. Even that practice was illegal for years, with early provincial dabblings starting in just the 1970s following a change to Canada’s Criminal Code in 1969. In Ontario, the first instance was Wintario, introduced on Apr. 3, 1975.

Growth has been meteoric. Since that time, OLG has generated about $56.7 billion for the province. In the last fiscal year, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation generated some $7.1 billion in total proceeds, leading to a $1.6-billion net profit for provincial coffers.

Much of the money goes back into communities through the likes of hospitals, local sports and a host of donations by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

That’s the part that’s supposed to make us feel OK about the gaming revenues.

Gambling is big business in the province. OLG runs a variety of lotteries, charity and aboriginal casinos, commercial casinos, and slot machines at horse-racing tracks. You can make the argument that the provincial stance on gambling is bad policy: taking the easy way out in its bid to increase revenues without raising taxes. Gambling is essentially a voluntary tax – or a stupidity tax from some people’s perspectives – that we pay with hope of getting something in return. A hope that does not exist with our regular taxes, which we often see being squandered to the benefit of wasteful bureaucrats, greedy politicians and their friends and supporters.

Gambling is still a controversial issue despite the fact many of us indulge in some form of it, even something as innocuous as buying a raffle ticket. Yes, there are those who are problem gamblers, but that’s a small minority – about 2.1 per cent of total gamblers, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

At the heart of the debate is the morality issue: some see gambling as immoral, from religious grounds to the stigma of money-for-nothing. Aside from the revenues to be made, governments have legalized gambling because they know it will happen illegally anyway. Providing an outlet allows governments some measure of control, though the boundaries are blurring in the online age.

It’s the same rationale at play with the drug issue, harkening back to the era of prohibition of alcohol. Similar arguments are made about the criminality of prostitution. Government decree against something doesn’t mean it won’t happen, especially if the regulations are based on moral grounds not shared by a good chunk – often a majority – of citizens.

The real dilemma is the possibility governments will become addicted to gambling revenues, to ever-expanding gaming options designed to stock the coffers at a time of falling revenues and public tax fatigue.

Any changes to the proliferation of betting ads – the kind hyped by the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Wayne Gretzky, for instance – is likely to come from public backlash, not from governments as happy to take your money as the companies running the gambling sites.

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