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So, here’s a safe bet: if you’re a hockey fan, your viewing of the Stanley Cup playoffs has been punctuated by advertisements for online sports gambling.
The odds are also pretty good at this early stage of the playoffs you’re already sick to death of the constant haranguing by current and former hockey stars and assorted other celebrities urging you to click your way to instant riches on the sites they’re being paid to endorse.
The promotional push for placing bets on sports-wagering platforms now operating in Canada is incessant — from commercial spots to rink-board advertising to discussions of parlay possibilities by in-studio panels whose job used to be presenting highlights and offering analysis.
Since last April, when single-event sports betting became legal in Canada, online gambling and the advertisement thereof have all but taken over the TV-sports airwaves. At times it feels very much as if the gaming has overtaken the game.
Front and centre in online-gambling ads are former hockey star Wayne Gretzky and current top-tier players Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, all of whom have signed presumably lucrative contracts to promote specific betting sites.
The question, of course, is why? Why would hockey’s biggest stars risk sullying their reputations by touting a nascent Canadian industry whose products are known to be addictive and whose social harms have not yet begun to be calculated?
The only available answer is money. Despite already having more than most ordinary people can even imagine — Messrs. McDavid and Matthews each reportedly earn in excess of US$11 million annually, and Mr. Gretzky’s net worth is estimated to be US$250 million — all three have clearly decided to overlook the addiction-related harms associated with the activities they’re being paid to promote.
Despite protestations to the contrary by gambling-industry officials, some of the most impressionable targets of these ads are young viewers. And research has shown young men to be among the most susceptible to the allures of such advertising and the most at risk of being drawn into a cycle in which gambling as “entertainment” becomes gambling as obsession and life-destroying addiction.
It’s precisely for that reason the United Kingdom, which has 15 years’ experience with legalized sports betting, decided last fall to ban all gambling ads featuring celebrities and sports stars, having determined they are contributing factors in the unacceptably high rate of gambling addiction in that country (recent studies suggest the U.K. has 1.4 million gambling addicts, including at least 55,000 under the age of 16).
Canada should not wait 15 years to come to the same conclusions. It is encouraging that the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) last week proposed a ban on ads featuring athletes and other celebrities.
“The AGCO has identified advertising and marketing approaches that strongly appeal to persons who are under the legal gaming age through the use of celebrities and/or athletes,” says an online statement.
The change should be implemented by the AGCO with all due haste, and similar restrictions should be enacted across the country, in an effort to mitigate the generational harms being created by a now-legal practice that exposes its users — including impressionable youth — to an immersive, repetitive and extremely fast-paced form of gambling that requires nothing more than access to a smartphone.
Messrs. Gretzky, Matthews and McDavid have declined requests for interviews related to their promotion of online gambling. The curtailment of celebrity endorsement of online gambling will have minimal impact on their overall wealth, but their reputations will nonetheless have been tarnished by a decision that was anything but a great one.