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Sports gambling in Canada a thorny issue
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Sports gambling in Canada a thorny issue

“The ethics of journalism are one thing. Another thing is the ethics of business.”

— Polish author and journalist Adam Michnik

Take powerful sports media companies, allow them to buy sports teams, and then have them partner with online gambling sites. What could possibly go wrong?

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro

Whether or not you’re a sports fan, you may have heard that as of April 4, online single-game sports betting is now legal in Ontario.

If you’re a sports fan, you probably already know that because sports betting has fully infiltrated sports news: more than half of all the advertisements in between segments of highlight shows and even TV timeouts during live game broadcasts are now devoted to promoting Ontario’s newly licensed online sports books.

But the intrusion of legal sports betting has reached far deeper into the world of sports journalism than just the advertising. First, some background.

It all starts in August 2021 when the federal Liberal government passed legislation legalizing betting on individual sports games. Before this, provincial lottery corporations offered sports betting through ProLine but only in the form of parlayed bets where you had to successfully predict the outcome of multiple games to win. However, with the new federal legislation, provinces were free to start licensing single-game wagering.

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Why would Ottawa pass legislation to allow online sports betting?

For many years now, Canadians have been able to bet on sports through online books operated outside Canada. The provinces believe this betting activity was draining up to $14 billion each year from the domestic gaming industry. And that, the provinces believed, was harming provincial casinos and their monopoly on legalized gambling.

So, largely at the urging of the provinces and with the blessing of most major professional sports leagues, Ottawa decided online betting was game on. The impact that it’s had on the world of sports journalism has been swift and — in some regards — unnerving.

For example, sports channels are not just covering the sports betting industry, they are players.

Both TSN and Sportsnet have deals with specific sports betting sites which offer both broadcasters a share of betting profits in exchange for promoting sports betting in general and odds. What that means is that during their flagship highlight shows — TSN’s SportsCentre and Sportsnet Central — regular coverage is interrupted by multiple references to the odds on a particular game or predicted accomplishment within a game. Gambling odds have become seamlessly embedded in the journalistic content.

Not to be outdone, the leagues themselves are also setting up shop for a piece of the action. MGM Resorts, one of the world’s largest casino operators, is currently the official gambling partner of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the Women’s National Baseball Association and the National Hockey League.

Why should any of this be a concern?

For years, sports news has offered pre-season odds of teams winning a league championship, or the odds of a particular player winning a particular golf tournament or setting a record. And as for the convergence of sports media companies and the sports they cover, that conflict of interest was established years ago in this country.

Rogers Communications, already owner of several broadcast companies including Sportsnet, is a 50 per cent an owner of the Toronto Blue Jays and, along with Bell Canada, a 75 per cent owner of Maples Leaf Sports & Entertainment. TNSE in turn owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, their farm team the Toronto Marlies, the Toronto Raptors (and all their various farm teams) and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.

So, you have corporate interests that not only own the teams and venues, but also the media companies that broadcast their games. And now, they are in a business partnership with licensed online sports gambling sites. As I asked in the introduction, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for sports journalists, lots could go wrong.

First and foremost, the journalists who cover sports are privy to a lot of sensitive information about athletes, teams and leagues that would be of value to gamblers and which could drastically impact the odds on a particular game or event.

The Columbia Journalism Review did an excellent summary of all the concerns that could arise as sports journalism and sports betting become more intertwined.

The CJR article started with an anecdote about NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport, one of the best football journalists in the world, admitting he is often privy to details that many gamblers would love to have. Like when he learned through his sources the San Francisco 49ers had decided to draft Trey Lance, a lesser-known quarterback from North Dakota State, in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, a big draw for sports gamblers.

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, right, holds a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being chosen by the San Francisco 49ers in 2021. (Tony Dejak / The Associated Press files)

The CJR article quoted Rapoport admitting it was entirely possible for him to withhold that information and use it to put a lucrative bet on the 49ers. Instead, Rapoport “listened to the angel on his shoulder. He went straight to Twitter.”

The breaking news he posted tanked the odds on the 49ers drafting Lance, dramatically changing the outcome of a bet. “Someone who’d bet a hundred dollars on San Francisco to take Lance a few weeks earlier stood to profit fifteen hundred dollars; after Rapoport’s report, the odds swung dramatically,” the CJR article noted. “Four days later, when Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, took the stage to announce that San Francisco had drafted Lance, anyone who had just bet a hundred dollars on that outcome walked away up a mere fifty-five bucks.”

That is just one scenario, but it wouldn’t take very long to imagine other problems created by the collaboration of sports news and sports betting. And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is gambling and it has other devastating impacts on society.

Meta-analyses show very clearly a majority of the people who watch and read sports news are also sports gamblers. And that online sports wagering dramatically increases gambling addictions, and that betting through mobile apps is extremely popular among younger generations. And that’s just among the so-called punters.

A great summary of the collateral damage done by sports betting, assembled by the National Council on Problem Gambling in the U.S., cited studies from Europe that found nearly six in 10 professional athletes in a recent survey admitting to betting on sports. If that’s not a cause for concern, I don’t know what is.

If you were a betting man or woman, the safe wager is that sports betting in this country will only expand in the coming years. Responding to the federal legislation passed last summer, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corporation now allows single-game betting through its own app. Will Manitoba eventually license other sports books in this market?

The smart money says yes.

 

Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise.

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