Canadian Single-Game Sports Betting Hopes Dashed As House Bill Rejected

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Canadian Parliament

The Canadian parliamentary effort to decriminalize single-game sports wagering suffered an apparently fatal blow Wednesday night in the face of Liberal Party opposition.

The House of Commons rejected single-game sports wagering bill C-221 by a close vote count of 156 to 133

Had it been approved, the bill would have been referred to the House’s Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

Now, its hopes—and the hopes of single-game sports wagering in the country—are effectively dead for the foreseeable future. 

Vote disappointing to sports betting proponents

New Democratic Party MP Brian Masse, who introduced the bill, had argued that the passage of the bill would have created jobs, helped fight organized crime, and contribute to provincial economies throughout Canada.

“By defeating this legislation the Liberal Government just endorsed an unacceptable reality in the gaming sector in Canada. They are well aware of the massive revenue stream sports wagering is providing organized crime to fund human trafficking, the illegal drug and weapons trade, money laundering and tax evasion,” MP Masse said Wednesday night.

The bill’s critics in the legislature had argued that passing the bill would not effectively discourage illegal wagering and could exacerbate problem gaming issues in the country. 

Several professional leagues formally opposed C-221

The NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB all filed opposition letters in 2012 to Canada’s previous sports betting efforts.

The NBA retracted its opposition in 2015 to align more closely with its current stance on wagering. The other three leagues continued to maintain their opposition.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told Bloomberg Surveillance that hockey doesn’t lend itself to betting like other sports do.

His league, which has the largest number of franchises in Canada of any of the four North American leagues, wrote in 2012 that widespread sports betting legalization in Canada would threaten the integrity of NHL games.

Bettman has not taken that approach, however, with the city housing the NHL’s newest franchise: Las Vegas.

The NHL awarded Sin City its first major professional franchise earlier, and said that any concerns the league had about gambling were not regarding the integrity of the game. 

Bill called for amendment of criminal code

C-221 was effectively identical to a 2011 bill, C-290, spearheaded by now-retired MP Joe Comartin.

Both sought to amend the federal criminal code to give provinces the choice to legalize single-game wagering.

Some forms of parlay sports betting, such as Pro Line, are legal in Canada and administered by provincial lotteries. In that betting scheme, bettors must pick multiple, consecutive winning outcomes in order to win any money.

C-221, on the other hand, would have allowed lotteries to offer contests where bettors could wager on just one game.

The House of Commons passed C-290 unanimously in 2012, albeit with little debate. The Senate failed to address that bill over three years and it eventually died. 

A chance for a more thorough sports betting debate

The bill’s proponents had hoped a more thorough debate (the bill was argued earlier this legislative session for several hours on the House floor) of C-221 in the Justice Committee would assuage some Senate members who were uncomfortable with C-290’s relatively debate-less passage.   

Somewhat unexpectedly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s liberal party formally came out against the bill earlier this year. The party had supported C-290.

An outraged MP Masse blasted liberals Wednesday night, calling C-221 a bill the party’s members didn’t even understand.

“The Liberal Government ignored an opportunity to create and protect jobs and stimulate economic growth in the entertainment and tourism sector as well as in data management, fin-tech, web design, journalism and others.  This is a huge missed opportunity that perpetuates a completely unacceptable yet entirely correctable status quo,” he said.

Canadian legislation could push American legislators to act

If Canada does eventually pass sports wagering legislation, it could compel American stakeholders to act more quickly.

The American Gaming Association will lead a lobbying effort in 2017 that attempts to achieve the same results as C-221, albeit by different means.

The AGA will advocate for amending federal sports betting law to allow individual states to decide whether or not to offer sports wagering. Currently, single-game sports wagering is prohibited in every state except Nevada. 

C-221’s proponents had argued that provinces would see an outsized economic benefit from C-221’s passage in part because Americans in border states would flock to Canada to place their sports bets.

If the AGA is successful in its efforts, however, that assumption might not be entirely accurate.

While illegal sports betting is believed to have a handle around $15 billion per year in Canada, the similar American figure is roughly 10 times that, around $145 billion.

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