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Are sports betting ads getting out of control in Canada? Experts weigh in

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When tuning into a game, sports betting ads are now about as common as commercials for trucks, beer and wings.

But a new campaign says these gambling ads have gotten out of control and should be banned in Canada over potential harm to young people and those facing gambling addiction.

"I love to watch sports, but watching them on television today feels like I’m in a casino," former Olympian and University of Toronto professor emeritus Bruce Kidd told CTVNews.ca. "The most serious problem with betting ads is that they accentuate the propensity to bet, and as a result, the addiction to gambling."

Along with former Toronto mayor John Sewell and colleagues from the university's faculty of kinesiology and physical education, Kidd recently launched the Campaign to Ban Ads for Gambling, which is specifically taking aim at online sports betting ads.

"Sport gambling can lead to significant harm, including runaway debt, stress to families, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and even suicide," Kidd said. "The American Psychiatric Association classifies addiction to gambling a ‘Gambling disorder’, the only non-substance-related disorder so classified."

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY SPORTS GAMBLING ADS RIGHT NOW?

When Canada legalized single-game sports betting in Aug. 2021, it allowed provinces to regulate the industry. B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces all currently allow a sole provincially-owned lottery operator to offer online and in-store betting, while the territories only permit bets at retail locations.

Ontario has taken a very different approach and has opened its online sports betting market to more than two dozen third-party operators. They are managed by iGaming Ontario, which is a subsidiary of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, a provincial regulator. The provincially-owned Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, or OLG, also offers sports betting in Canada's most populous province.

With billions of dollars in potential wagers on the line, the new market has come with a slew of ads. As just one recent example, there were nearly eight-and-a-half minutes of online sports gambling ads during game one of the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff series against the Florida Panthers, including 30-second commercials and on-screen sponsorship segments. Celebrity endorsers have included Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews and Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid.

"Are there more ads than there ever were? Absolutely, because we're in this new era of single-game sports betting, specifically here in Ontario," Michael Naraine, an associate professor of sport management at Brock University told CTVNews.ca. "Sports gambling is a very, very important economic marketplace going forward for this province that we're in, Ontario, as well as the country nationally."

ARE SPORTS BETTING ADS ACTUALLY HARMFUL?

David Hodgins is the director of the University of Calgary's clinical psychology program. He believes the proliferation of ads “normalize betting behaviour in a new way for a new group of consumers – young male sports fans."

"The central issue is that sports betting  should be viewed as a potentially harmful activity similar to other potentially addictive behaviours/substances, and therefore, needing thoughtful regulation... which we have for other addictive activities like alcohol and tobacco," Hodgins, whose research focuses on addictive behaviours, told CTVNews.ca.

Andrew Kim is an assistant professor of psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University who also researches behavioural addictions. Kim agrees with Hodgins, saying the ads normalize gambling by suggesting that it's an "accepted activity in society."

"And there's this cumulative effect where the more you see the ads, the greater the chance that someone will then be influenced by these ads to gamble," Kim told CTVNews.ca. "Which makes sense, right? If you're a gambling company, would you spend millions of dollars on advertising not to have any effect on the public?"

Jeffrey Derevensky is a child psychologist, McGill University professor and director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling and High-Risk Behaviours. In addition to appealing to young people, Derevensky says the ads can also act as "triggers" for those with gambling problems, especially when ads promote in-game betting on your smartphone.

"You could bet on who's ahead in the first quarter, you could bet on who's going to foul out, you could bet on who's going to make the first three-point jump shot… You could bet on hundreds of things during the game," Derevensky explained. "Problem gamblers are more prone to engaging in continuous forms of gambling."

But Naraine from Brock University doesn’t think there's enough evidence to come to firm conclusions about sports gambling marketing in Canada, and believes more studies are needed.

"I would say that ads definitely work, but whether or not they're actually targeting at-risk groups in the ways that some stakeholders might be suggesting, it's hard to say," Naraine said.

Kim, who is also an adjunct scientist at the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, says studies on gambling ads have already been conducted in places like the U.K. and Australia.

"These ads do impact gambling attitudes and behaviours and especially for people that are vulnerable, so people that may already be experiencing problem gambling, and for young adults and youth as well," Kim said. "And this is especially true if you have stars and athletes, people you look up to like Auston Matthews And Connor McDavid in these advertisements."

ONTARIO MAY BAN CELEBRITIES FROM ADS

In April, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) announced a proposal to ban athletes and celebrities from online gambling commercials

In a statement to CTVNews.ca, an spokesperson for the Crown agency said regulators are continuously assessing the market "to effectively address new or emerging risks to Ontarians."

"With the objective of minimizing potential harms, advertising and marketing approaches that include athletes, as well as celebrities that can reasonably be expected to appeal to minors, have been identified," the AGCO spokesperson wrote. The AGCO is accepting comments until May 15.

The proposal is welcome by psychologists like Derevensky and Kim.

"For young people especially, they look up to these athletes and these celebrities," Derevensky said. "You know, for hockey they'll wear their sweatshirt with their number and their name on the back. We know that many people want to emulate and model their sports celebrities, so this becomes potentially problematic."

"Having athletes and celebrities, it's pretty memorable," Kim added. "It has more of an appeal to children, and we know with gambling, the earlier you start, the more at risk you'll be of experiencing gambling problems in the future."

Kidd, the track and field star turned professor, is glad Ontario is considering the move.

"But even if they do prohibit influencer endorsements, that’s not enough," Kidd said. "All ads should be banned."

Naraine, however, thinks the AGCO could simply prohibit current athletes from appearing in ads.

"Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are more inclined to appeal to a youth demo than Wayne Gretzky who played in the eighties and nineties," Naraine said. "What I would like to see personally, based off of my knowledge of the space, is current athletes not be active ambassadors for these betting companies, retired athletes, fine. They don't have any impact on the outcome of the game."

SHOULD ALL SPORTS BETTING ADS BE BANNED IN CANADA?

The Campaign to Ban Ads for Gambling counts Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, children's entertainer Raffi Cavoukian, and former school principal and three-time NHL hockey dad Karl Subban among its supporters.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) also takes issue with gambling ads. CMHA Ontario CEO Camille Quenneville says the group's 27 branches "are observing an increase in clients bringing forward the issue of celebrity endorsements for iGaming."

"We are deeply concerned about the detrimental impact that ads and promotion of online gambling, including sports betting, are having on youth and other vulnerable individuals," Quenneville told CTVNews.ca. "Research clearly shows that exposure to such advertising normalizes gambling and increases the likelihood of young people gambling and the overall consumption of gambling among existing gamblers."

Quenneville points to a recent Statistics Canada study, which found that more than 300,000 Canadians are at severe or moderate risk for gambling-related problems.

Derevensky from the International Centre for Youth Gambling and High-Risk Behaviours is in favour of regulations over an outright ban.

"They could cut back the number of ads," Derevensky said. "They don't have to make it so enticing that everyone is winning. I think the other thing is you could make these ads later in the evening so that younger people are not watching the television or monitoring this online."

Naraine from Brock University would also like to see better regulations. Examples include the U.K., where gambling ads can't target young people or be linked to "sexual success or enhanced attractiveness," and Australia, which bans betting ads during games between 5 am and 8:30 pm "to protect children."

"We want to create a responsible, well-regulated market," Naraine said. "No one wants to see this pushed back into the shadows. Just like with cannabis or with alcohol or any of the other sins in our society, we want responsible consumption here. So that requires standards for advertising, sure, but it also requires a lot more research and education if this is going to be a sustainable marketplace."

Kim from Toronto Metropolitan University is also in favour of stronger regulations, which could include more educational messaging from companies.

"I do think there is a middle grab where gambling operators can advertise the products but do so the way that's going to minimize the harms associated," he said.

In an interview with CTVNews.ca, Canadian Gaming Association President and CEO Paul Burns said AGCO regulations already prohibit advertising that could appeal to minors, and that companies have no interest in targeting audiences that are too young to use their platforms.

"Gambling advertising is not new, sports betting advertising is new," Burns, whose trade association represents gaming operators, said. "We feel that it's important that advertising is part of the mix when looking at gambling products, because we would like people to gamble on the regulated sites that provide a much higher level of consumer protection and oversight and are held to a high regulatory standard, because they're the sites that have the player protection measures in place."

iGaming Ontario, or iGO, manages the province's legal online gambling market. A spokesperson says ads are essential for steering Canadians away from unregulated betting websites, which also don't pay licensing fees. 

"In general, having regulated operators advertise their offerings widely is part of the process of helping people in Ontario understand that the regulated igaming market is here to offer more choice and protect players," an iGaming Ontario spokesperson told CTVNews.ca. "As consumer knowledge about the regulated igaming market increases, iGO also requires that operators contribute to dedicated problem gambling prevention and responsible gambling campaigns with a goal of achieving a balance between responsible gambling advertising and promotional marketing."

Naraine thinks the provinces need to come down harder on unregulated gambling websites that continue to advertise. He says Ontario also needs to reinvest a portion of gambling tax dollars into research, and provide authorized operators clearer guidelines on what responsible gambling campaigns ought to look like.

"Here in Ontario, third party operators through their license have to do research and education, but there's no quantifiable number on that, there's no dollar figure to that, there's no timeline for that… There's nothing," he said. "Ontario had a pretty robust research and education component up until 2019 when the Ford government ended that."

Kidd, the former athlete and University of Toronto professor, is also campaigning to ensure sport betting isn't extended to the Olympic, Paralympic, amateur and collegiate sports.

"I feel the incitement to bet as a way to enjoy sports threatens the very soul of sports," Kidd said. "It undermines the enjoyment of sports as an embodied, communal, cultural practice."

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