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Ontario market growing two years on, shifting focus to consumer protections

| By Jill R. Dorson
In the two years since single-event wagering was legalised in Ontario, Canada, one thing has become clear: consumers are sick of gambling ads. The most recent proof of that is a Maru Public Opinion poll, taken 7-8 February, of 1,534 Canadians who are also Maru Public Opinion panelists.
ontario skyline from water

Of those surveyed, 59 percent said they favour a total ban on wagering advertising. Most also believe that operators are not acting responsibly and that there should be more government regulation.

While polls are often designed and taken to get a certain result, and a significant percentage of those polled by Maru were in the over-55 category, the sentiment matches the hue and cry that has been echoing through Canada since wagering went live on 4 April 2022. Since its launch, televised hockey games were flooded with advertisements for sportsbooks and have been since.

There is similar sentiment in some parts of the US. In 2023, for example, Senator Paul Tonko proposed a federal wagering advertising ban. To date, no US state legislature has voted for a complete ban on wagering advertising on TV. There have, however, been some have very strict regulations around it.

Two years in, Ontario regulators continue to evolve and respond to what consumers want. The market is vibrant, but has required some massaging of rules. The regulator has also elevated problem gambling and responsible gaming issues.

“No celebrity” rule in gambling ads in place from February

The Maru poll was taken about three weeks before the latest Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario advertising regulations went into place. The new regulations ban sportsbooks from using celebrities for promotional activities. They also ban sportsbook billboard advertising near schools, or other places where youth or vulnerable populations congregate.

The regulations do not dictate how much advertising can be done on television however. Nor do they call for a ban on wagering advertising. The only exception to the celebrity rule is the use of influencers in responsible gambling messages.

Since its launch, Ontario has systematically clamped down on advertising. This makes it one of the toughest jurisdictions for betting advertising in North America. The newest advertising guidelines went into effect on 28 Feburary.

“There has been very public pushback and the regulator has acted on it,” Covers’ Geoff Zochodne said on a Gaming News Canada podcast of the advertising change. “The advertising piece was something that regulators heard and tried to strike a balance.”

McDavid now the face of responsible gaming

In the US, Maine and Massachusetts have tough advertising rules that all but ban sportsbook ads at sports venues. They also keep sportsbooks from partnering with local colleges. It is also prohibited to target anyone underage or in an at-risk group.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission at one point considered banning sports betting advertising during live-event broadcasts. However, it soon discovered that it wasn’t practical. In short, because companies like ESPN or Fox either weren’t likely to honour the ban, or would not be able to during national games.

Multiple major operators used well-known celebrities in sportsbook advertising in Ontario prior to 28 February. Zochodne said those advertisements “served a purpose” and were to “alert people to the presence” of new operators. BetMGM featured two of the country’s most recognisable sports faces – Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid – as ambassadors.

Now, neither can be used to pitch for the sportsbook. Although, McDavid has pivoted to be the face of BetMGM’s responsible gaming television campaigns.

While a McDavid representative told CBC that responsible gaming is a “priority” for the Edmonton Oilers centre, others say the change is a bit ironic.

“I go back to something that (Sharp Edge Picks founder) Harley Redlick told me a while back about celebrities representing sportsbooks. His take was that anyone who is gambling even just a little isn’t going to be attracted to a sportsbook just by Connor McDavid,” David Briggs of PlayCanada said on a Gaming News Canada podcast.

“That’s clearly an attempt by sportsbooks to groom kids to one day to pick their sportsbook brand based on who they might have had a poster of up on the wall of their bedroom.”

McDavid’s new role: “It doesn’t look right”

“I was a little surprised that BetMGM spent the money to have him be a responsible gaming representative,” Briggs continued. “But kudos to them.

“There probably is a positive, like Geoff said, that at the end there is probably more RG messaging. But that’s within the rules,” he finished.

Others in Canada say the swap from straight-up pitchman to responsible gambling spokesman is an uncomfortable look.

“You associate Connor McDavid with their site,” Andrew Kim, assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Calgary, told CBC.

The new McDavid ads have been airing on television and on social media since the beginning of March. These include live fixtures during sporting events.

Ontario increases investment in PG/RG

Beyond the new advertising guidelines, in late March the Ontario Gaming and Lottery announced that it increased its contribution the Community Investment Programme that supports problem and responsible gaming initiatives, according to CDC Gaming. It is seeking to create a centralised self-exclusion “solution” that will not only help players to easily self-exclude, but make it so that the regulator and every operator have access to the same information across Ontario. The current deadline for submission is 8 May.

The Community Investment Programme has received a two-year total of CA$760,000 (US$559,000). In FY2022-23, CA$22m (US$16m) was sent to problem and responsible gambling programmes around the province.

In the two years since launch, Ontario regulators have continued to evolve and respond to calls for consumer protection, in a province slightly bigger by population than Illinois or Pennsylvania and one that has 45+ wagering platforms along with 70+ online gambling platforms. No US state has that number of operators.

Vibrant sports scene drives handle

Ontario is the biggest province in Canada and its 14 million people include those in the country’s biggest city, Toronto. That city is home to seven professional sports teams, including three CFL teams and the province borders Michigan, Minnesota and New York.

In its first full year, iGaming Ontario (iGO) reported total online gambling handle of CA$35.5bn (US$26.3bn) and CA$1.26bn (US$93.4m) in total gaming revenue. According to the report, online gambling brought in CA$230m (US$170.5m) in new revenue to the province.

There are seven professional sports teams, including three CFL teams, in ToronTo, the biggest city in ontario. Single-event wagering has been live in the province for two years.

For the first three quarters of FY 2023-24, iGO has reported that CA$45.4bn (US$33.7bn) in total gambling wagers have been placed.

“When talking about Ontario’s igaming market, the numbers tell us a lot,” Heidi Reinhart, the iGO board chair said via press release on Thursday. “But what I’m most proud of are the countless ways that our government partners, operators, responsible gambling experts, players and employees have worked together to help us create a world-class market that is Ontario-made for Ontarians.”

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