The Pairing of Single-sport Betting with Sports Heroes Creates Problems

The intentions were good. In legalizing single-sport betting in 2021, the federal government was responding to Canadians gambling billions illegally on individual events each year. Moving the process of betting on things like the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup out of the shadows – and often the hands of organized crime – was designed to offer a safe and regulated environment, cutting off a rich resource for criminals while keeping gamblers safer.

Today, however, many are observing that the roll-out of safe betting comes, ironically, with its own risks. Some days it seems that advertising for sports betting is everywhere, whether it’s billboards on main thoroughfares, or pop-up ads while online or the frequent ads during professional sports broadcasts. A simple Internet search indicates a wealth of choices should one want to place a bet, making it incredibly easy to take a risk. As we are seeing in Ontario, the first province to legalize sports betting, this is rapidly becoming big, big business, clearly placed in public view, complete with apps to make the betting process easier.

One of the most troubling aspects of the arrival of legalized sports betting is the endorsements of some of the biggest name in professional sports in Canada, with a multi-generational approach. Wayne Gretzky, hockey superstar of the 1980s and 1990s, beams down from billboards, while Auston Matthews, currently a star with the Toronto Maple Leafs, has added his endorsement to the same company.

These are men who are revered by countless fans, and no doubt their endorsements carry weight. It’s  important to ask, therefore, about the impact such ads have on people vulnerable to a gambling addiction, or to impressionable teenagers watching sports programming at home with their families.

Anyone who becomes a big name in sports cannot help but know the influence he or she will have on a fan base. To think that an activity that carries inherent risk is now being endorsed by people placed on pedestals by millions is alarming.

Many people can buy the odd lottery ticket occasionally and that’s it in terms of taking a chance with money, but for far too many people, gambling can become an addiction that affects finances, relationships, careers and mental health. For those who are vulnerable, gambling can become a vicious circle that simply builds upon itself, increasing debt and worry while chasing after a sure thing. Betting is a very different game than hockey or basketball.

Attempting to wrest the betting industry out of the hands of criminals is a wise move, especially as it’s a move that will help protect participants. But if various levels of government are serious about legalizing the industry, they must also consider the impact of the advertising and endorsements.

We have come to understand not only the health risks of smoking, but also the temptations posed by having products out in the open, which normalizes them. Cigarette advertising is long a thing of the past, cigarettes are no longer sold in drug stores and are kept behind screens in convenience stores, and you cannot smoke a cigarette without first being confronted by the cautionary warnings on packaging.

In contrast, the beaming face of a sports star helps to glamourize betting, and the happy demeanor of big-name figures offering endorsements ignore the very real problem sports can create.  It remains puzzling that an activity that is a risk to so many people is being brought into their homes via television and the internet.

An important step as governments wrestle with the reality of sports betting would be to place restrictions on advertising and seek the advice of addiction experts on how to help minimize the impact gambling has on families and individuals. Here’s hoping these are the next step taken in what should be ongoing scrutiny to protect individuals and families for an activity that can become a demon.


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