If you watch sports on TV, it’s impossible to miss them.
Gambling logos, ads and endorsements for sports betting are also online, on streaming services and on billboards.
The “tsunami” of advertising, as it’s been referred to, follows legislative change in Canada in 2021, when single event sports betting was legalized. Since then, provincial gambling agencies across the country have started taking bets on sporting events.
Much of the advertising is targeted to potential gamblers in Ontario, the first province in Canada to open the industry to private companies.
- Watch “The Gamblification of Canada” on The Fifth Estate on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. Thursday or stream it on CBC Gem.
And headlining many of the ads are high profile people referred to as brand ambassadors, or celebrities and sports stars paid to promote the companies they represent.
However, three hockey stars contacted by CBC’s The Fifth Estate as part of an investigation into sports betting in Canada refused to talk about their brands, despite deals reported to be worth several million dollars to do exactly that.
The Fifth Estate interview requests followed a recent ban in the United Kingdom on ads featuring sports stars and other celebrities because of their appeal to children.
Among the three ambassadors is the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.
“Every bet with BetMGM has a potential for greatness,” Gretzky says to the camera as a lion made of ice explodes out of a frozen fountain behind him.
He is joined by two of the best young hockey players in the NHL today, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, who also represent betting companies.
Looking for more information
The Fifth Estate wanted to know more about the deals with the three sports stars.
“I appreciate the question, but after all of that I don’t think I’m going to get into it much, honestly,” Matthews, a star centre with the Toronto Maple Leafs, told The Fifth Estate recently.
We approached him after a practice in Toronto to ask about his relationship with Bet99, a company that offers sports bets that is operating in Ontario. On Twitter, Matthews says he’s “proud” of his “partnership” and tells his fans to “stay tuned for more!”
WATCH | Leafs centre doesn’t want to talk about endorsement deal:
But he didn’t want to talk about the deal with The Fifth Estate.
“You guys have any more hockey-related questions?” he said. “I would just like to keep on that if that’s OK. If not, we can just move forward.”
The Fifth Estate reached out to the agents for all three hockey players, requesting interviews. In all three cases, our requests went unanswered.
Why won’t they talk to us?
We also contacted BetMGM, which made the deals with Gretzky and McDavid. A company representative told us they were too busy to talk to us.
These sports stars turned brand ambassadors are reportedly earning millions of dollars to represent sports gambling companies, and presumably to talk about them, so why won’t they talk to us?
“I think they’re compromised, that’s what I think. And I think that they should know better,” said Brian Masse, the NDP member of Parliament for Windsor West, Ont., who pushed for more than a decade to legalize sports betting in Canada.
Before single event sports betting became legal in Canada, it existed as a grey market operated in part by organized criminals.
Masse argued that with legalization, the grey market could be pushed out and Canada could build a new, safer system and benefit from taxes generated by the industry.
In Canada, according to the Canadian Gaming Association, the industry is worth an estimated $14 billion per year.
However, now that single event sports betting is legal in Canada, Masse is frustrated with the way it’s been implemented, particularly with the use of brand ambassadors who are active players.
Concerns over possible effects on children
“They have already been successful in their careers. Their value … should be their performance, not about trying to influence people to go to a product to bet on them or their colleagues’ performance,” he said.
Masse worries about how it could affect children, who look up to sports stars.
“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.”
In the United Kingdom, sports betting, and the advertising that goes along with it, have been a reality since 2007.
In 2021, there were 1.4 million gambling addicts in the U.K., according to a study conducted by the international research data group YouGov. A survey by the U.K.’s Gambling Commission in 2019 classified an additional 55,000 children, between the ages of 11 and 16, as “problem gamblers.”
In another analysis, the University of Liverpool reviewed data from seven major online gambling operators. It showed that 86 per cent of what’s referred to as gross gambling yield comes from just five per cent of gambling customers in the U.K.
Gross gambling yield is the amount of money an operator takes in from customers after paying out winnings but before deducting operating costs.
‘Offered enormous sums of money’
Over the years, the U.K. has seen its share of celebrities and sports stars promoting sports betting.
“I suspect history would judge them very harshly,” said Will Prochaska, strategy director with Gambling with Lives, a U.K. group advocating for tougher controls around gambling.
“They would have been offered enormous sums of money to I think sully their own reputations in the interest of profit for the gambling operators. I suspect they don’t understand the damage that they’re doing.”
A 2021 study by Public Health England revealed, on average, 409 people per year take their own lives in suicides related to problem gambling. The revelation generated headlines and prompted anger.
The parents of addicted gamblers who died by suicide pushed back, and the U.K. changed its advertising gambling regulations.
Under its new rules, that came into effect in October 2022, if a celebrity is “likely to be of strong appeal to children or young persons,” then they aren’t allowed to appear in a gambling advertisement, effectively banning all sports, TV and social media stars.
‘Hardwired’ into sport
That’s not the case in Canada.
“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,” said Darragh McGee, a lecturer with the department for health at the University of Bath in western England.
“A lot of them struggle to get through 90 minutes without having to bet on the game,” said McGee, who studies the impact of gambling on young men.
“It speaks to the way in which gambling is hardwired itself into sport in ways that have altered our very experience of sport.”
In Canada, the Canadian Gaming Association represents the sports betting industry. Its members include some of the biggest companies in gambling, including BetMGM and Bet99, which have struck deals with NHL stars Gretzky, McDavid and Matthews.
“The companies have the right to do that,” said association CEO Paul Burns. “We knew that there would be more advertising because it’s permitted.
“People will change the channel,” he said. “I know people that do that.… I don’t think any companies are intentionally trying to do anything untoward towards influencing or targeting young people.”
In Ontario, the only province where private betting companies are allowed to operate, the industry has exploded. In the spring of 2022, 18 internet gaming operators existed. Today, there are 67 sports betting operators and online casinos.
As the industry grows, Prochaska has a message for Canada.
“You’ll see a gambling industry which is now much more profitable and therefore more powerful,” he said.
“And on the other side of that, you’ll see a significant increase in people who are suffering addiction, and people who are suffering lower level harms, and you will see a higher death count.”
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