Ontario’s proposed ban on athletes and celebrities in gambling ads could be a mistake

A suggested ban on celebs in gambling ads won’t address the low revenue numbers and operator dissatisfaction in Ontario.

The AGCO is looking at further restrictions

Earlier this month the Alcohol & Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which regulates gambling in the province of Ontario, Canada, announced that it was looking into the possibility of amending the current advertising standards in the province to include a ban on athlete advertisements and a ban on more celebrity and social influencer advertising for gambling websites. The AGCO said this was necessary to stop compulsive gambling as well as to prevent minors from being influenced to gamble by people they look up to. 

Ontario Canada gaming ad restrictionsThe AGCO said they were requesting input from all stakeholders including casino companies, addiction services like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and anti-gambling groups on whether the proposal should move forward. Stakeholders have been given a May 8th deadline to submit their thoughts.

Proposed changes to the current gambling standards

- Create an obligation for operators and suppliers to cease any advertising and marketing activities that use athletes, whether active or retired, in gaming marketing and advertising.

- Prohibit the use of cartoon figures, symbols, role models, social media influencers, celebrities or entertainers who are reasonably expected to appeal to minors.

The latter change is significant because the current rules only disallow advertising by celebrities who would primarily appeal to minors, while this new rule opens the door to ban celebrities that could possibly have a slight influence on minors. Consequently, some older actors like Jamie Foxx, who is a major spokesperson for BetMGM, could be deemed to appeal to minors simply because he has appeared in music videos with Drake and Demi Lovato and can still be seen on Sesame Street reruns from the 2000s. It would be a stretch, but it does open the door to effectively banning all celebrities except the likes of Tom Jones or Sean Hannity who would definitely not appeal to minors.

A bigger concern to the gambling companies is the proposed loss of athlete advertising. Betting companies are always trying to differentiate themselves from the competition and athletes do that simply because of people recalling seeing them in ads. Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs currently advertises for Bet99 and both Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and former NHL star Wayne Gretzky advertise for BetMGM. No athletes other than hockey players are currently in gambling advertisements in Ontario although sources told me that a couple of Ontario websites were in discussions with Toronto Blue Jays and NFL players about the possibility of being spokespeople in advertisements for their products starting this year.

Do Celebs really help the bottom line

The only proven influence athletes and celebrities have is brand awareness.

While athletes are deemed to be very influential in encouraging people to gamble, some naysayers question whether this is really true. One industry analyst wants proof:

“Where is the proof that athletes, actors or singers have any real influence in getting people to gamble? At this point it’s all speculation,” an analyst who lives in Thunder Bay said to me.

“There have been no studies anywhere that shows this to be the case. Even in other countries where similar laws were passed (the UK recently passed a law banning advertising by athletes or influencers that could appeal to minors) they simply passed the law as a scapegoat for their failings as gambling regulators. Yes, there is an increase in problem gambling everywhere, but the reasons given had nothing to do with athlete advertising. Reasons mostly given were predatory actions by some actors encouraging problem gamblers to bet more, things like gambling machines (fixed odds terminals), and the overuse of credit cards. And the suggestion they are protecting the children is ridiculous. cartoon celeb gambling advertising ban CanadaNaturally there must be some rules related to minors. Gambling companies shouldn’t be allowed to show SpongeBob SquarePants placing a bet on a game at Ladbrokes or have K-Pop groups singing about their wagers on the World Cup, but how many kids are really being influenced to bet on sports at BetMGM because Wayne Gretzky is in an ad for the site? The only proven influence athletes and celebrities have is brand awareness. That is the case for poker sites whereby professional players convince current players to use one website over another. There is no proof that anyone picks up poker just because Daniel Negreanu is seen in a PokerStars ad and there is no proof that someone decided to wager on sports or children placed a bet because they saw an athlete in an ad.”

Another long-time gambler wondered if parents are simply falling down on the job and whether the government was being hypocritical.

"I have gambled since I was 10 years old. I got into gambling via horse racing when I went to the track with my grandfather and by the time I was in high school I was betting with bookies and even running an NFL pool at my school. To me it’s all about parental responsibility. I didn’t want my kids to be like me, so when they were a bit older, I discussed with them the dangers of gambling, including telling them I could be a lot richer today if I didn’t get into gambling. Those words stuck with them and I wish my parents talked to me about gambling the same way. And my son just talked to my grandson telling him that when he is grown up he can make his own decisions, but for now he needs to obey the rules of the house and not gamble. My grandson is 12 years old, and he says he has no interest in betting. He just enjoys the games, and I can assure you that seeing Wayne Gretzky in BetMGM ads has no influence on him. Of course, technology has changed so my son has put in ad blockers and restrictions on his son’s phone and laptop that won’t allow him to access gambling websites. And more importantly, he doesn’t give his son access to his credit card or bank card which would be necessary for a minor to make a deposit to a gambling site.

I may be skeptical, but I think that the reason the government doesn’t want to have that talk with kids about the dangers of gambling is because they actually want them to eventually gamble when they are of legal age. For every ad I see for a sportsbook on TV here in Toronto I see three ads telling the public to “dream big” by betting the lottery, not to mention the multiple ads for sports betting on Proline and casino betting on the government’s OLG website. And don’t forget that ads for OLG and all the betting sites can be seen at hockey games, baseball games, soccer games etc. and there is no talk of stopping those, even though the stands are filled with kids. It seems to me that the government’s priorities are misguided."

Paul Burns, the CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, told the Toronto Star in an interview that he believed the gambling companies have done a good job balancing the promotion of their business while being responsible and wasn’t sure if there would be a huge objection by gambling companies that are members of the CGA if they had to give up the athlete advertising. But when the Ontario open market went live just over a year ago, Burns was asked about promotions and advertising by the gambling sites and his reply was that it is a legal product and legal companies can advertise their products. I doubt that view has changed. It is also notable that Ontario has some of the most restrictive promotion rules in North America, including only allowing gambling companies to list promotions through direct marketing with customers who already signed up or directly on their websites and companies that tried to promote outside of those methods were fined heavily. So, this new rule may be unnecessary and perhaps they simply need to enforce the current rules better.

As I read about the new proposal, I was curious if the same situation could arise in the United States given that over 30 states have legalized sports betting. I spoke with Larry Walters, a first amendment attorney who specializes in gambling law and asked him if disallowing athlete or celebrity advertising would be seen as a violation of the First Amendment and he said it likely would:

"A content-based restriction on commercial speech would likely be unconstitutional in the U.S., under the First Amendment. While the government may have a legitimate interest in keeping minors from gambling, a total ban would not be narrowly tailored to accomplish that goal, as required. For example, end user filters could be used to block gambling advertisements, or ads from certain websites."

Worry about the money

While the athlete and celebrity ban seems to be at the forefront of concerns by the AGCO, one must wonder why the gambling figures so far are not a bigger concern for them and the subsidiary iGaming Ontario. At the end of one year, Ontario took in $35.6 billion in wagers and had $1.4 billion in gross gambling revenue. Canada iGaming Ontario advertising This placed it well behind New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, three states smaller in population than Ontario and each of which offer both online casino and sports betting. And it put Ontario around the same figure as New York, which only offered sports betting and no casinos in a state that started online operations around the same time as Ontario. It’s also notable that each of the aforementioned states had about 1/3 the total operators as Ontario. In fact, the number of Ontario sites has gotten so high that two operators, Coolbet and Mansion Casinos withdrew after one year saying the playing field was just too crowded. And there are indications that a few other operators in Ontario will choose not to renew their licenses when they come due in 2023.

So, it’s a bit astounding that the AGCO may handcuff some of the Ontario sites even more when they seem to be struggling to be profitable.

Read insights from Hartley Henderson every week here at OSGA and check out Hartley's RUMOR MILL!

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