Bruce Kidd is a professor emeritus of sports policy at the University of Toronto, and a former Canadian Olympian.
Ever since the federal government officially lifted its ban on single-game sports betting in 2021, enabling provinces to legalize it in their own jurisdictions, watching sports on TV has felt like being in a casino. It’s not just the wall-to-wall ads; it’s also the sense that the entire sports media complex has become an enabler.
Professional leagues, such as the NBA and the NHL, now support betting, even making formal agreements with “official sports betting partners.” Team ownership groups such as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) and media outlets such as The Sports Network (TSN) have also partnered with sportsbooks. Current stars such as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and iconic legends like Wayne Gretzky have been paid to advertise with betting companies, and on-air broadcasters discuss their selections and share other gambling information. Even the small-print reminders to bet “responsibly” reinforce the message that sports have primarily become a vehicle for gambling.
It’s as if athletes and coaches are now training, strategizing and competing for the sole purpose of providing options for the global gambling industry – with corporate profit trumping people’s mental health. It’s horribly wrong.
It’s too early to have hard data on the number of Canadians who have developed addiction disorders from betting on sports since its legalization and the advent of advertising in the industry. But we do know that gambling more broadly can be harmful. Last year, Statistics Canada reported that 1.6 per cent of Canadians 15 and older who had gambled in 2017 – that is, about 304,400 Canadians – were at moderate to high risk of gambling disorders, including mental health issues, losing money to the point of falling into debt and jeopardizing close relationships.
What I most worry about is how television advertising is inculcating young Canadians into sports betting, rather than nurturing an appreciation of sports through the beauty of skilled athletes playing at their best, the drama of a closely fought game and the communal joy of being amidst fellow fans. It is estimated that 10 per cent of the audience for sports on television is made up of youth under 18, and the Australian Gambling Research Centre has reported that “research into the advertising of other harmful products suggests advertising increases uptake and consumption, especially in the adolescent starter market.”
And at a time when Canada is already facing increased challenges in providing accessible and rewarding sports opportunities for children and youth to participate in, highly publicized sports betting poisons the meaning of sports. The message, today, is that the joy of sports only comes from placing a winning bet, not from actually playing.
The industry itself can’t be re-criminalized, of course; that would only drive it back underground. But Canada should strictly regulate all advertising for sports betting on television and other media, just as it does for liquor and tobacco advertising. Doing so would discourage further growth in gambling for the same reasons that past governments wisely restricted advertising of the other substances: promoting it contributes to harmful addictions and severe health and social problems.
Canada should also increase the regulation of sports teams’ association with gambling corporations, in order to protect the integrity of sports. Given the increasingly fluid connections between teams, players, game officials, fans alongside the court, media companies and betting organizations, there are endless possibilities for insider influencing, especially when a significant number of bets are not on the final score, but on certain events and specific achievements within the game, or prop betting. Players, such as the NFL’s Calvin Ridley, have already been found in violation of rules, throwing game integrity into question. Indeed, the Canadian political scientist Declan Hill, who has studied match-fixing in soccer and tennis, has argued that even with league scrutiny and impenetrable firewalls, match fixing is almost impossible to stop. What happens when there’s no apparent distance between the gamblers and the game?
Many European countries ban advertising sports betting to minors, which usually means that ads cannot be shown at venues regularly attended by children, or on television until late at night. In Italy, advertising for sports betting is banned from TV altogether. In Australia, there’s a national office charged with the responsibility of overseeing sports wagering.
But businesses, too, should be stepping up. Several years ago, Bell Canada initiated a “Let’s Talk” campaign to promote mental health awareness. Yet today, through its ownership stake in MLSE and its specialty channel TSN, Bell is nurturing gambling among our children – a practice that demonstrably increases the risk of mental health challenges. For the sake of Canadians, Bell, among others with similar conflicts, should divest from its gambling interests if it wants to participate in the sports world.
The Globe and Mail, January 16, 2023