Sports gambling: fun for the whole family?

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With odds this jacked up, what could go wrong? Lee Lim

Advertisements appear to claim so, yet public health outcomes beg to differ

In August of 2021, single-game wagering across Canada became legalized, increasing the number of provincial gambling agencies within Canada. Ontario was the first province to open the industry to private corporations interested in sports gambling. This comes after many U.S. states began legalizing betting during sports events.

Since the legalization of sports betting in Canada, many Canadian athletes have been endorsing betting by partnering with sports gambling companies. Some Canadian athletes involved include NHL superstar Connor McDavid and “the great one” Wayne Gretzky. It is reported that Connor McDavid and Wayne Gretzky’s brand deal with BetMGM is worth several million dollars.

The recent ban by the United Kingdom on sports gambling ads that feature sports stars and celebrities as a way to appeal to children is what sparked the Fifth Estate’s investigation into sports gambling in Canada. According to a study conducted by YouGov, the United Kingdom had 1.4 million people addicted to gambling in 2021. In a 2019 survey conducted by the United Kingdom’s Gambling Commission, 55,000 children ages 11-16 were considered to have a problem with gambling.

The mass number of individuals affected by sports gambling – particularly within the youth population – is what led to the banning of celebrity endorsements of sports betting in the United Kingdom. The Fifth Estate began toinvestigate the issues surrounding sports gambling and how advertisements by sports gambling companies have a way of appealing to children. During their investigation, McDavid and Gretzky declined to comment on their involvement in endorsing sports gambling within Canada. When the Fifth Estate asked a question to Auston Matthews about his endorsement of sports gambling, he said “I appreciate the question, but after all of that I don’t think I’m going to get into it much, honestly.”

The nonresponse by endorsing athletes begs the question why athletes are unwilling to talk about a company that they are currently endorsing. NDP MP for Windsor West Brain Masse told CBC that he believes athletes aren’t talking because they know that they are compromised, and believes that they should have known better. Masse was for the legalization of sports gambling in Canada as a way to stop illicit activity surrounding sports betting. However, this MP is frustrated with the implementation of sport gambling within Canada, especially with the use of celebrity brand ambassadors to promote sports betting.

Masse told CBC “I think about the fact that you have kids that sit down with the parents and their other family members, and they’re inundated during the game about betting on the people that they’re watching on the screen… common sense should stop some of this, but unfortunately it doesn’t appear that that’s the case at the moment.”

The Canadian Gambling Association estimates the industry to be worth over $14 billion per year. However, gambling not in moderation is considered an addiction that needs to be addressed, and it is mainly problem gambling that contributes to that surplus. A 2021 study conducted by Public Health England found that, on average, 409 people per year commit suicide for reasons related to problems from gambling. Canada should look closely at the concerns and statistics coming out of the United Kingdom; as sports betting permeates more through Canada, similar results may start to take shape here.

Lecturer Darragh McGee with the Department for Health at the University of Bath studies the impact of gambling on young men, and he also spoke with CBC. “If you consider the Gretzky case, much like so many other athletes, what you end up here with is a message that gambling is not just acceptable, but desirable for an entire generation.” When talking about gambling addicts, McGee said “a lot of them struggle to get through 90 minutes without having to bet on a game. It speaks to the way in which gambling has hardwired itself into sport in ways that have altered our very experience of sport.”

In an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail, Bruce Kidd, a former Canadian Olympian and professor emeritus of sports and public policy at the University of Toronto, highlighted that it’s too early to determine the number of Canadians who have developed addictions as a result of gambling. Kidd believes that Canada should have strict regulations for all advertising for sports betting that is displayed on TV and through other media sources, similar to that of current tobacco and alcohol advertisements. Many European countries have already banned advertising of sports betting in places where minors regularly attend. Italy has already banned sports betting on TV altogether.

However, the evolving formal agreements between professional sports leagues such as the NBA and NHL have made implementing restrictions more complex in Canada. Corporations also play a role when it comes to sports betting, especially those who have conflicting interests. In the Globe and Mail opinion piece, Kidd highlights how Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign’s focus on mental health is a contradiction, as the telecommunications company owns stakes in companies such as TSN who promote gambling through advertising.

Canadian corporations are pivotal players when it comes to the endorsement of sports betting, which means that cooperation among the private and public sectors should be considered moving forward as a way of minimizing the harmful effects associated with celebrity endorsement of betting in sports. As sports betting becomes more prominent in Canada, the need to take proactive measures to limit children’s exposure to sports gambling pressure becomes more vital, as seen in the responses of other countries across the globe.

Although the estimated revenue opportunities projected in Canada may be appealing, the risk of increasing the number of people addicted to gambling is an undeniable reality. Therefore, some form of balance in advertising and promotion must exist in order to prevent future crises as seen in the U.K. with regards to gambling.

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