Can Canada finally get single game sports betting AND a casino in downtown Toronto?
Tracey Ramsey, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Windsor, is planning to once again introduce a bill to legalize single game sports betting throughout Canada. Currently single game betting is prohibited under the Canadian federal law which requires bettors to wager on parlays of 2 games or more. The relevant section of the criminal code is as follows:
Section 207 4(b) states that illegal gambling includes:
"Bookmaking, pool selling or the making or recording of bets, including bets made through the agency of a pool or pari-mutuel system, on any race or fight, or on a single sport event or athletic contest."
All of the provinces run a sports lottery, but the requirement to wager on parlays, along with the low payback on the sports lotteries, similar to other lotteries at about 70%, has made the sports lotteries unappealing to most sports bettors. As a result, serious bettors as well as many casual players have chosen to play at the myriad of offshore sportsbooks that are still available to them including Bet365, Pinnacle, The Greek and William Hill which are off limits to U.S. players, but available to Canadians.
In recent years several politicians have tried to amend the law to allow single game sports betting in an effort to increase interest in casinos and to attract more American customers. To change the law, the legislators would simply need to strike the last part of the section or at the very least remove the word “single” from the statute. The first initiative was made in 2010 by Joe Comartin, a New Democratic Party (NDP) member of Parliament from Windsor, who issued a private members bill to amend the law in an effort to increase attendance at Caesars Windsor. The bill passed unanimously in the House of Commons with all party support in 2012 and was sent to the Senate to be affirmed. The bill should have just been rubber stamped by the Senate (since the Canadian Senate is made up of unelected patronage appointments, and thus the Senate almost always just passes bills handed down to them from the democratically elected House), but with this bill, the Senate chose to challenge it in an effort to justify their existence and outlandish salaries and to take focus off of various scandals. Consequently, they stalled the bill and it died on the floor of the Senate.
The bill was reintroduced in the House once again in 2016 by Brian Masse, another NDP MP for Windsor, who had the same objectives as Comartin. This time the House voted it down by a 155-133 margin. No reason was given for the defeat, although insiders believed that the newly elected Liberal government under Justin Trudeau didn’t want to make waves with the Senate.
So now Tracey Ramsey, the newest MP for Windsor, wants to bring a version of the bill to the House again, but this time she believes she has some leverage to get the House to reconsider its latest decision. Attendance at Caesars Windsor has been steadily declining and the casino just ended a long strike. David Cassidy (no relation to the late Partridge Family singer), the president of the Unifor Local 444 union which has Caesars Windsor as a client, spoke with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and urged her to pass a single game sports betting bill as a matter of urgency. Cassidy claimed that he believes single game sports betting must be passed not only to increase interest at the casino and to create jobs, but more importantly to keep up with the United States. Last year SCOTUS struck down PASPA and several states began offering sports betting. Michigan thus far has not made concrete plans to initiate sports betting at casinos and racetracks, but almost all analysts agree it is just a matter of time before they do. And New York has already passed sports betting into law. Once the inevitable happens and most U.S. states introduce sports betting, instead of Americans flocking to Canadian casinos to wager on sports as Comartin and Masse envisioned, the opposite could prove true and Canadians could decide to venture to casinos and racetracks in Detroit, Sault Ste. Marie, Buffalo, Niagara Falls and any other border city where sports betting is legal to place their wagers. And even if the border state chooses not to offer sports betting neighboring states likely will. And, Ohio and Illinois, which look like they will be offering sports betting, aren’t that far from Windsor or Michigan. So as far as Ramsey and Cassidy are concerned this is no longer a matter of wanting sports betting passed to gain an advantage, but rather is necessary for survival. It also explains why Cassidy chose to meet with the Foreign Affairs Minister to discuss his concerns. The U.S. and Canada are in a very tense trade dispute right now (even though a new version of NAFTA has been approved by both countries), so the last thing Canada wants now is to see more Canadian money flow to the U.S.
The other form of leverage Ramsey has is that sports leagues are now starting to partner with U.S. casinos, thereby indicating that they are not so opposed to gambling as they led the Senate to believe in 2012 (one of the reasons the Senate cited for their vote). In Canada, hockey and football are the most popular sports wagered on by far, and the NHL has signed an agreement with Caesars and Fan Duel (owned by Paddy Power-Betfair) to help promote sports betting on hockey. So clearly the league’s objections are no longer justified, and Caesars is the owner of Casino Windsor. And most importantly for Ramsey and Canadian bettors, there is an election coming up in 2019 and Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are currently trailing in the polls. The Liberals will be looking to the NDP and the unions to help prop them up to defeat Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party, and possibly to set up a coalition should the Liberals only win a minority in 2019. And deals like this with the NDP will help them in that regard. Also, many of the Senators who voted down the bill in 2014 are no longer there.
In other Canadian news, Ontario Premiere Doug Ford, the brother of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, tabled legislation as part of an economic statement that includes a clause to dissolve the corporation and public board overseeing management of Ontario Place (a prime piece of real estate near downtown Toronto by the waterfront), which was appointed by the previous Liberal government. The decision on what to do with the property would then be decided by the new Conservative government and likely Doug Ford directly. The reason that is significant is that Doug Ford, while on Toronto council, worked with his brother Rob to try and bring a casino to downtown Toronto. Several casino companies made bids, but only MGM was interested in putting a casino on the Ex Grounds, which is attached by a bridge to Ontario Place. MGM indicated they would be happy with Ontario Place as well for the location. The Fords apparently were backing that bid over the ones from other casino companies, since they believed Ontario Place and the Ex Grounds was an underutilized property whereas the land by the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (where Caesars and other developers wanted to put the casino) was over-utilized and would just create more congestion in the area.
Toronto council would still need to approve any casino, but many left-wing councillors who made it their mandate to defeat the casino the first time around are no longer there. This is partially attributable to Doug Ford, who passed legislation to cut Toronto council from 47 seats to 25 seats just prior to the last municipal election, a move that was controversial and forced voters to choose between incumbents, many times where both were councillors that opposed the casino. It’s not 100% certain if there are enough councillors that would vote for the casino now, but it is very close, and Doug Ford showed he can be quite vengeful and persuasive. A big sticking point is that Toronto mayor John Tory said on record that he does not want a casino on Ontario Place land, so he may not agree to throw Toronto out there as a host city. If that happens, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that the province will try and make the casino provincially run, which would be unusual, but would allow the money to flow back to the province directly rather than the city. Doing so may require a rewriting of existing law, but Ford has shown he is willing to take that chance and he has the votes in parliament to do so.
The two main concerns to that proposal are that Toronto has already agreed to two Greater Toronto casinos at Woodbine racetrack in Etobicoke and at Durham Live in Pickering with Great Canadian Gaming winning the bid. It’s uncertain if a downtown casino would violate any provisions in that contract with Great Canadian or if those casinos would cannibalize revenue from a downtown casino, although most in the industry believe it wouldn’t, given that Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America and could easily support three casinos, separated by almost 15-20 miles distance each. Moreover, it’s not certain whether MGM or any of the other casino developers would be interested in bidding again for a casino given that almost all believe they were sold a bill of goods the first time around. Unofficial estimates say that MGM spent over $10 million on their Toronto casino bid and were flabbergasted when the city simply chose not to build a casino. People I spoke to that were close to the bid told me that MGM management would never have poured money into the bid to the extent they did if they believed for one second that there was a realistic chance that city council would have rejected all bids. That said, given the size of the city and the potential revenues, MGM and Caesars would likely be willing to give it another go, but only if they received assurances in writing that a casino will be built on the Ontario Place lands. In its initial bid MGM promised to invest $3 billion to $4 billion, improve transit and infrastructure to the area and create 10,000 high paying jobs. That would be music to the ears of the current Ontario government who were left a hefty debt load and a rising unemployment rate by the previous provincial Liberal government whose leader indicated she “hated gambling.”
So, Canada is in the news again with gambling issues that should have been settled a long time ago. But now it’s a new ball game, with a Conservative government leading Ontario and a federal Liberal government desperate for NDP support facing an election. OSGA will keep readers abreast of all developments in those areas.