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When Canada allowed legal sports wagering — and why it ended

Betting on the outcome of sports like baseball, hockey and football became legal with a national government sports lottery in 1984. But the game didn't last long.

Federal government introduced Sport Select in 1984, but killed it later that year

Lotto Canada was launched after the successful lottery that raised money for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, according to CBC reporter Fred Langan. The federal government went on to announce its sports lottery in 1981. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

On June 22, The Canadian Press reported that single-event sport gambling would become legal in Canada with the passing of Bill C-218 in the Senate.

Canadians were first able to legally bet on sports games in 1984, according to reporting at the time by CBC News. 

But betting on the outcome of a single game, rather than trying to predict the winners in multiple games, was prohibited until the passage of Tuesday's bill.

Back in 1984, reporter Fred Langan brought viewers up to speed with wagering on sports for CBC's The Journal.

Getting into the gambling game

Betting on sports in 1984

Digital Archives

37 years ago
3:05
The federal government introduces what it calls a "sports pool" so that Canadians can wager on the outcome of sporting events -- and the provinces don't like it. 3:05

Lotteries had until then largely been the domain of the provinces, which ran games with names including A Plus, Wintario, Le Quotidien, Western Express and Lotto 6/49.

But the federal government wanted a cut of the "hundreds of millions" in earnings that lotteries were pulling in. When announcing their entry into the wagering arena in 1981, they didn't call their innovation a lottery. It was a "sports pool."

"By going into these sports pools, we will not be in competition with the provinces," said Gerald Regan, the federal minister of fitness and amateur sport, in September 1981.

Langan said that sports pools were "big in Europe." 

"Instead of picking random numbers, the gambler picks the outcome of a series of soccer matches," he said.  

In Canada, hockey, baseball and football games, or a combination, were expected to be the sports up for wagering.

For the federal government, the key difference between a sports pool and a lottery came down to skill, and Langan said "a lot of sports fans" agreed.

"If I pick a team and they lose, my guess was wrong ... I'm betting because of what I think," said a man who contrasted sports betting with "numbers that drop out of a machine." 

It soon became apparent that there just weren't enough gamblers willing to take a chance on sports — or, at least, not in the way prescribed by the national pool called Sport Select.

Getting out

Sports pool no more in 1984

Digital Archives

37 years ago
1:51
The federal government kills its sports lottery, Sport Select, after losses add up. 1:51

Six months later, the federal cabinet decided to end its sports pools. George McLean, host of CBC's The National on June 29, 1984, told viewers the government was going to "kill" the betting game it had launched under the name Sport Select.

Reporter Claude Adams described the problems Sport Select had confronted from the start: hostile provincial governments, which took Ottawa to court and "forced" provincial ticket vendors to "embargo the pool." Professional sports teams didn't like the idea because it "tarnished" their image.

Worst of all, Adams said, the game "wasn't simple enough." And he said it was losing $1 million a week. 

"They have a game that ... appears to be too complicated for most lottery players, so they don't try it," said Bryan Elwood, who was described as a "gambling expert."

"The Sports Pool Corporation will be wound up by Sept. 30, 1984," Sen. Jack Austin, then minister of social development, told reporters.

According to the Globe and Mail in September 1984, after Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives swept into office, the new government had no plans to revive Sport Select.

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