Renewed Hope For Legal Canada Sports Betting Springs Up In Ontario

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Michigan's impending legalization of sports betting gave Canada new sense of urgency

Our neighbors to the north could look to join the United States by enabling legal sports betting in Canada.

Toronto Sun story last week reported the Finance Minister for Ontario, Vic Fedeli, sent a letter to his federal counterpart Bill Morneau. The letter asked for an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada that would legalize single-game Canada sports betting in the country’s largest province.

At present, citizens of Ontario can only bet legally via the provincial lottery’s Pro-Line product that allows for parlay betting, with a three-game minimum. The letter cites the turning tide south of the border and legalization threatening to siphon off money from Canadians.

The provincial finance minister also discussed the potential for single-game betting to generate $110 million Canadian per year in tax revenue.

What a difference a few years make

Interestingly, the NBA and Major League Soccer are onboard with the plan to legalize single-game sports betting. As is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who said:

“The NHL believes that a level playing surface for sports betting is in the best interest of the NHL’s sports betting landscape”

(Whatever that is supposed to mean.)

This is an about-face for the NBA. Back in 1995, when the Raptors were awarded to the city of Toronto, there was a condition that Pro-Line not allow wagering on NBA basketball.

The province balked at pulling all NBA games from the lottery product and eventually agreed to a deal. The NBA supplemented lottery revenue losses by donating $1.5 million to medical research and $2 million to television time promoting tourism.

Modern-day movement on Canada sports betting

In Parliamentary hearings in 2012 and 2013, on what was titled Bill C-290, various sports league representatives opposed legalized gambling (these submissions were made simultaneously with depositions and declarations in the original iteration of the Christie case).

The NBA, in an undated letter to the Canadian Senate’s Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, wrote:

Eliminating the prohibition on single-game sports betting threatens to injure not only the unique relationship that the NBA enjoys with its existing fans, but also the league’s potential relationship with future fans, who may never form allegiances to a particular team because they are drawn instead to the competing interests of the betting line and the money that can be made from it.

The NHL similarly opposed C-290:

The integrity of our game and our competition is essential to the popularity of NHL hockey with our fans and with young people throughout Canada. We firmly believe that legalized sports betting threatens to compromise that integrity, and that the single-game betting scheme that Bill C-290 seeks to decriminalize poses a particularized and unique threat in that regard.

Such wagering poses perhaps the greatest threat to the integrity of our games, since it is far easier to engage in “match fixing” in order to win single-game bets than it is in cases of parlay betting (as currently exists in Canada), where bets are determined on the basis of multiple game outcomes.

The league then took it an even more hyperbolic step:

This issue is not fundamentally about dollars bet or additional revenues generated for the provinces. If single-game sports betting becomes a publicly fostered and sponsored institution, then the very nature of sports in North America (including in the National Hockey League) will change, and we fear it will be changed for the worse.

Not everyone opposed single-game betting

The major sports leagues, including the NCAA that has only a minor presence in Canada, all opposed the measure to amend the criminal code and allow for single-game betting.

But the legislation did have an advocate in its corner (though perhaps not a cornerstone of integrity) in the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”):

The sports movement is not against regulated betting, which is a major source of financing for sport worldwide. Furthermore, legal betting on sport allows fans to extend their support for athletes and teams, thus helping to build stronger attachments toward sport.

That bill that was championed by New Democratic Party-member for the Windsor West-riding (think congressional district), Brian Masse. Efforts to pass the bill repeatedly failed, in large part because of the opposition of the sports leagues, who appeared just as the bill was sailing through.

Of course, sports-league thinking has “evolved.”

Modern sports league policy

In 2016, the NBA reversed course on its opposition to NBA games being included on Pro-Line, a little less than two years following Commissioner Adam Silver’s op-ed in the New York Times.

The about-face by the NBA translated to somewhere between an estimated extra $5 – $10 million for provincial coffers. The rise of legal sports betting in the United States has piqued a similar interest in Canada sports betting.

Provinces are looking to supplement revenues and single-game betting representing a means of increasing revenue without raising taxes.

Political realities

The political realities of gambling policy around Canada sports betting are that 90 percent of the Canadian population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border.

As a growing number of states begin to legalize single-game betting, the Canadian gaming industry risks seeing that money flee across the border.

The rise of single-game betting and sportsbook wagering could also serve as a means of propping up the Canadian casino gambling industry, some of which exist minutes from U.S. population centers like Detroit.

What to make of all of this

The big takeaway at the moment is that Ontarians (and other Canadians) should feel cautiously optimistic.

This would be a federal repeal. Criminal law is largely a federal matter in Canada, but the complexity of the differences between the parliamentary system and the U.S. government’s federalist system are beyond the scope of this article.

After C-290 and subsequent efforts to legalize single-game betting failed in 2016, this topic had remained fairly quiet. Section 207 (4) (b) of the Criminal Code of Canada currently criminalizes:

… bookmaking, pool selling or the making or recording of bets, including bets made through the agency of a pool or pari-mutuel system, on any race or fight, or on a single sporting event or athletic contest.

One challenge that could slow progress with the repeal is the political split between the provincial legislature and the federal parliament, with conservatives controlling the provincial lawmaking body and liberals controlling the parliament.

It is not entirely clear how much support a new bill would have. A previous effort in 2016 saw a few dozen members vote against the party-line in favor of legalizing single-game betting. One thing that is certain is that any progress is likely to be slow, so Ontarians shouldn’t hold their breath for single-game betting in time for a Maple Leafs march to the Stanley Cup.