Ontario bans use of pro athletes to advertise, market online sports betting

Ontario announced Tuesday that the province will ban the use of athletes in advertising for online gambling, while also strengthening standards to restrict the use of celebrities who the government says might appeal to minors. 

But advocates, the Opposition NDP and a Canadian senator who has called for stricter regulations in the sector say that while the ban is welcome, it doesn’t go far enough to protect those who are most vulnerable to gambling addictions. 

Advocates and academics have raised concerns about the inundation of sports betting advertising seen in the province since Ontario opened up to independent online gambling sites last year, and decried the impact those advertisements could have on the health of young people.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) announced Tuesday it updated the Registrar’s Standards for Internet Gaming to prohibit the use of athletes and said new restrictions will come into effect Feb. 28, 2024.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and current NHL stars Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are among the athletes who have appeared in ads for gambling sites.

“Children and youth are heavily influenced by the athletes and celebrities they look up to,” Tom Mungham, the AGCO’s registrar and CEO, said in a statement. “We’re therefore increasing measures to protect Ontario’s youth by disallowing the use of these influential figures to promote online betting in Ontario.”

Change comes after consultations with public, experts

In April, the AGCO held consultations on its proposal for the ban and received submissions from a host of stakeholders, including mental-health organizations, gambling experts, gaming operations and the public.

In its report Tuesday, the AGCO said its proposal “comes after significant criticism from advocates, experts and parents about the notable rise of online gambling advertisements, especially during live sports.

“For example, during a 2023 playoff series game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers, nearly eight and a half minutes of advertisements were dedicated to online sport gambling.”

Sports betting became legal in Canada in August, 2021. On April 4, 2022, Ontario became the first province in Canada to expand its sports betting market by officially opening up the industry for single-event bets.

The AGCO said in a statement that following the first year of Ontario’s regulated internet gaming market, it found that advertising that used athletes and celebrities that appealed to children were a “potential harm to those under the legal gaming age.”

The amended standards prevent Ontario internet gaming operators from using active or retired athletes in its marketing, unless they are using them to promote responsible gambling practices, it said. 

When it comes to use of overall celebrities, “role models, social media influences, entertainers, cartoon figures” and any symbols that might appear to minors are now restricted, it said. 

Ontario operators can’t advertise or provide marketing materials outlining gambling inducements, bonuses and credits. However before Tuesday’s announcement, there were no limits regarding how much they could advertise overall, prompting many to enlist big-name athletes as ambassadors and spending millions on advertising campaigns.

Senator says tighter rules, national regulations needed

Canadian senator Marty Deacon, who put forward federal legislation in June that would see the banning of athletes and celebrities in sports betting advertisements nationwide, said in an emailed statement that she welcomes the AGCO’s move. 

“While it’s a step in the right direction, I would have liked to see them go further,” said Deacon, who represents Waterloo as an independent and has coached athletes involved in the Olympics, Commonwealth and Pan Am Games. The senator said the province should also only allow gambling advertisements on TV after a certain time.

A billboard promoting an online gambling service is seen on a Toronto billboard in November 2022.
A billboard in downtown Toronto advertising online sports betting is pictured on Nov. 25, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario’s ban also does not “negate the need for a single set of national standards that gambling companies must abide by across the country,” she said. 

“If other provinces open betting to private markets, nothing compels them to implement the same advertising standards,” she said. Patchwork rules across the country “lead to confusion,” and the legislation she has proposed would help create those standards, she said.

Deacon said she supported the move as it allowed betting to be out in the open and under Canadian rules and regulations. But a “really big torrent of advertising and promotions” for all ages was also launched, she said. 

NDP calls for betting ads to be banned outright

The Ontario NDP also said Tuesday that it welcomes the province’s decision to keep athletes out of online gambling commercials. The move “will help protect both children and adults from the explosion of unregulated advertising content under Ford’s Conservatives,” the party said in a statement. 

“Health professionals have been sounding the alarm about the impact that online gambling advertising is having on people, especially on youth. Today’s news is welcome — now we need to follow the advice of experts and keep pushing for more,” said MPP France Gélinas in the statement, NDP health critic. 

Critics of gambling advertising also included Conservative MP Kevin Waugh (Saskatoon-Grasswood), whose private member’s bill ultimately led to the amending of the Canadian Criminal Code and legalization of single-game sports betting.

WATCH | The Fifth Estate explores the spike in sports betting options:

The Gamblification of Canada

The Fifth Estate explores the sudden spike in sports betting options.

“I think the irritant is the ads,” Waugh told The Canadian Press in April on the Ontario industry’s first-year anniversary. “People are really upset with that, I get it.”

Province not banning sports betting advertising

Bruce Kidd, a professor emeritus of sports and public policy at the University of Toronto, who launched a campaign with colleagues in May calling for all sports betting ads to be banned in Canada, said while he’s glad the province has taken the step to launch restrictions — he’s disappointed to see it won’t come into effect until the end of February next year. 

“The government has postponed implementation, supposedly to enable the advertising companies to prepare for the loss of that business,” he said. “But it also means that the Super Bowl will be covered, other advertising bonanzas, which will have a powerful influence upon the number of gambles and the number of problem gamblers.”

He said that even though Ontario is acknowledging the harm of advertising and that it could impact a younger demographic, it’s still not banning sports betting advertising in general. Kidd said he hopes that Sen. Deacon’s legislation will go through and place a country-wide ban on the marketing.

“Our campaign is for banning ads for gambling in the same way that Canada banned ads for tobacco a generation ago, and for the same health reasons, these products and practices hurt people. We want to minimize, if not eliminate that harm,” he said.

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