Betting is now an undeniable core component of the North American sports ecosystem, making a huge impact on the sporting scenes of every jurisdiction which has opened its doors to the industry.

In Canada, only Ontario has a regulated, multi-competitor betting market. The remainder of Canada’s provinces see crown corporations, taking the form of state-run lotteries, operate the area’s only legal sportsbook. In the province, the presence of the country’s one and only betting sector has seen extensive engagement between sports and the industry.

“As things have changed and the market has come alone, we see gaming as integral to the fan experience as buying merchandise and drinking a beer, if done responsibly,” said Andrew Stokes, Senior Director – Global Partnership Group, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), speaking at the Canadian Gaming Summit (CGS), an industry trade show.

How is betting beneficial?

MLSE is one of the biggest commercial names in the world of Canadian sports. The company’s flagship holding, as its name suggests, is the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of Canada’s most widely recognised sports teams and a founding member of the National Hockey League (NHL).

The company’s additional holdings include the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League (CFL), and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS), as well as two minor league teams in ice hockey and soccer.

MLSE’s engagement with the betting sector has been nothing but positive, according to Stokes, who carries out work of an “award winning calibre”. 

Betting is an attractive partner industry for various sports stakeholders. This is not just in terms of revenue generation, with many bookmakers paying generous fees for sponsorship arrangements, but also for fan engagement and brand building.

For emerging leagues and sports, working with the betting industry provides both a source of funds to support growth but also a means for engaging with unfamiliar audiences, and in doing so, further enhancing its presence and visibility.

Greg Bloom, CEO of BYB Extreme Fighting, a bare-knuckle boxing promotion, which finds itself active in the highly competitive world of combat sports going up against professional boxing and MMA groups like UFC, shared his views on betting’s benefit to his sport.

“We are a new league in a new sport, new to betting,” he said. “It has been helpful both as a revenue stream into our sport, but we also have the unique opportunity as a combat sport to really leverage the activity around betting. 

“It’s been a great benefit to us, and as we continue to grow and continue to understand how the data is going to affect the way we can schedule and the way we can plan our year, it’s been ultimately beneficial across the board.”

Elephants in the room

Betting’s presence in sports is not an entirely smooth process, however, and it has its fair share of critics. Canada is a relatively new regulated market to online sports betting, with Ontariohaving only launched back in April 2022.

In contrast, the regulated markets of Europe have been active for much, much longer. The UK, for example, has had a legal betting market since the 1960s, but in recent years the engagement between betting and the sports sector has come under increasing public and political pressure.

This has resulted in bookmakers and their sports partners placing a heavier emphasis on responsible gaming. This is something which has been noted early on by stakeholders in Canadian sports and sports betting.

“To put it simply, responsible wagering is fun,” said Owen Welsh, Associate VP of Sports Betting, Gaming and Innovation at the Canadian Football League (CFL), one of Canada’s biggest sports leagues.

“That’s the trend we’ve seen in recent years, some were more sophisticated than others. The trend is increasing in terms of participation in sports wagering, and it brings you closer to the game. That’s what the data is telling us, it’s been strong enough to build a whole strategy around betting.”

According to Welsh, the strategy developed by the CFL is to work with licensed operators and build responsible betting across Canada. The league has identified shared metrics between the two sectors and sees strong growth potential in collaborating with betting.

For example, bettors are more likely to visit social websites and channels, the leagues websites and channels, and engagement increases when fans place a wager on a CFL fixture, Welsh continued. However, he stressed that responsibility is at the forefront of the league’s engagement with betting.

“It clearly points to this as a fun experience if you do it responsibly, and it will evolve as the industry evolves,” he continued.

Customer protection is not the only area bookmakers and sporting leagues face pressure on, however. As the industry in Canada and the US – which like its northern neighbour is still in early stages of maturity – continue to grow, questions are being raised about integrity.

There have been several high-profile cases of North American sportspeople flaunting their leagues’ laws around betting. Notably, in a case close to home for the Toronto audience and speakers at CGS, Jontay Porter was suspended from the Toronto Raptors for informing someone he knew was an NBA bettor about his ill health ahead of fixtures.

In other leagues, the NHL’s Shane Pinto of the Ottowa Senators was suspended for 41 games last year for violating betting rules. In more recent developments, Major League Baseball (MLB) issued its first lifetime ban earlier this month against Tucupita Marcano, a player for the San Diego Padres.

Partnering for progress

The policy of suspensions for betting violations, a long-standing issue in countries with well-established markets like England’s Premier League, has been welcomed by some players, both former and current.

On the first day of CGS, former Edmonton Oilers’ winger turned sports TV analyst Luke Gazdic spoke about the league’s betting rules with Martin Lycka, the SVP of American Regulatory Affairs and Responsible Gambling at Entain.

Reflecting on his personal experience of league rules, he commented: “We always had meetings about the do’s and don’ts, and as a player you are always under the microscope. It’s disappointing to see that the rules were broken.

“We had non-negotiables. It’s to carry yourself in a certain light and not break the rules like this. Betting on anything – hockey, football or anything else – is a huge no no.”

Enforcing the rules is not the only responsibility sports stakeholders are under pressure to uphold. It could be argued that preventing players from breaking the rules requires a carrot and stick approach, combining enforcement such as the NHL’s 41 game ban policy with an extensive educational framework.

Stokes remarked: “As our leagues got involved in sports betting as part of their business there has been mandatory league training, that everyone who has been employed by the league itself and every team, needs to participate as a condition of their employment, self-served training. 

“The stakes are quite high – you can be banned from working in a league for the rest of your life if you’re found to be breaking these rules.”

External partnerships have played a significant role in the development of league educational initiatives and programmes. Stokes referenced working with the Responsible Gaming Council (RGC), for instance, whilst Welsh pointed to the work of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES). 

Other examples include data partners. IC360 – represented on the CGS panel by its Director of Regulatory Affairs, Sebastian Jedrzejewski – is an example of one of the firms’ active in this space.

The company is particularly active in Canada, where its work was referenced by both the CFL’s Welsh and BYB’s Bloom. Utilising data from such companies is proving useful for leagues to inform education and monitoring efforts, but also to assess how fan engagement efforts via betting are coming along.

It is clear that betting in sports is here to stay, though the relationship between the two sectors may be influenced by regulatory developments further down the line, as seen in the UK, Netherlands, Spain and Italy.

Canadian sports stakeholders have a unique advantage in this regard as they can look to the historic examples of Europe and learn from their transatlantic counterparts. 

Ensuring responsibility and integrity are protected will be vital to ensuring the public image of this sports betting-sports relationship, and the revenue and engagement it generates for both parties, continues to develop.

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