Canadians should soon be able to place a wager on the outcome of an NHL game thanks to what experts say is an overdue change to the country's laws on sports betting.
A private member's bill passed by the House of Commons on Thursday would legalize putting money on a single sports game. Currently, people skirt the law by using offshore betting services to place wagers.
Modernizing the legislation is "long overdue," said Tom Mayenknecht, a Vancouver-based sports marketing expert.
“It’s impossible in this era to police people betting offshore," he said. "So this way, it keeps more of the money in Canada, both in terms of where it’s being spent and then secondly, the investment of a share of the proceeds back in the community."
Canada's current sports betting legislation is "ancient," and loosening the rules would be similar to changes the federal government made around cannabis in 2019, said Michael Naraine, an assistant professor of sports management at Brock University.
“Obviously for a very long time, everyone was like ‘cannabis is bad.’ But people were users of cannabis. It wasn’t that it was just magically removed from the country. People were smoking and using cannabis," he said.
The federal government changed the laws around cannabis not only to generate tax revenue, but to educate the public on responsible use, too, Naraine said.
“Rather than punishing the consumer who’s already doing it, embrace the activity but do so in a way that you can provide them choice but also, more importantly, education.”
How, exactly, new-look sports betting would work in Canada remains to be seen. If passed by the Senate, Bill C-218 would give the provinces and territories full jurisdiction over single-event betting.
Each province and territory would likely do things slightly differently, said Paul Burns, president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association.
Some may run their own betting services while others will dole out licenses to sportsbook companies like FanDuel or DraftKings. A province could also opt for a hybrid model.
“This allows the regulated industry in Canada to catch up and play on a level playing field," Burns said.
Currently, Canadians can only place parlay bets that cover multiple games. But that isn't appealing to many want-to-be bettors, who can turn to about 2,000 offshore websites, many of which are not well regulated, said Burns.
"We get calls to our offices from people who have trouble getting their money out of sites," he said.
Each year, Canadians are betting about $4 billion through offshore sports books and another $10 billion through operations in Canada run by organized crime, Burns added.
The idea behind parlay betting was that it would help prevent corruption and collusion in professional sports, said Naraine.
"Now sports integrity is a lot more enshrined. We have a lot more confidence in sports integrity," he said. "We’ve got the numbers, we’ve got the data, we’ve got cameras everywhere. It’s so difficult to be corrupt in sport now.”
The NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and CFL all signed on to a joint letter last June supporting the changes to legislation.
Mayenknecht said the leagues recognized that single-event sports betting could be a "massive" new source of revenue.
The biggest chunk of cash will come from commissions or licensing fees on the actual wagers, Mayenknecht said, but the leagues will also be looking at future opportunities.
He sees a day in the not-so-distant future when fans will be able to walk up to a window outside an arena or a kiosk on the concourse to place a bet on the outcome of a game. He noted that the Phoenix Suns announced earlier this year that they're working with FanDuel to create a "betting lounge" in their home arena.
Leagues also know the new legislation will open opportunities for new sponsorships, Naraine said. After exhausting the traditional avenues like official coffee and official vehicle, teams are looking to branch out into new areas like computer technology and ride sharing, he said.
“These are categories that didn’t exist 10 years ago. And one of those categories is also a sports gaming operator," he said.
One industry knows the impact of Bill C-218 won't be entirely positive. The new legislation will hurt the horse racing industry, said Jim Lawson, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment.
“There’s no question in my mind, even now, that sports betting is going to cannibalize our mutual wagering dollar in Canada," he said. "As you let people wager on sports, (the horse racing industry) is going to lose a lot of those customers to sports betting. There’s only so many sports betting dollars available.”
Woodbine pushed for an amendment that prohibits fixed odds wagering on horse racing, and Lawson said the ensuing change will help limit the impact to his industry.
“I think (the legislation) is a good thing for the country," he said. "It’s going to generate revenue and largely, but not completely, replace a grey market that does exist."
Lawson said Woodbine has already been approached by companies looking to create partnerships as Canada's sports betting landscape shifts. They like that Woodbine already has infrastructure in place, he said, from anti-money laundering systems to responsible gaming programs to a mobile app.
The legal changes are unlikely to completely shutter offshore betting websites, Lawson said.
“What it will do is it will bring most of the major players into Canada, operating legally, regulated and paying taxes," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press