Why gambling almost kept the NBA out of Canada

When the league looked at expanding north, it insisted that Canada's sports lotteries stop allowing betting on professional basketball.

Betting on basketball brought in millions for Ontario with the Pro-Line sports lottery

NBA won't stay if gambling is in play

29 years ago
Duration 2:17
NBA won't stay if gambling is in play

Investing in an NBA franchise for Toronto might have seemed like a gamble at one time.

And it was gambling that could have brought the whole enterprise to an end before it even really started. 

NBA Commissioner David Stern said he didn't want people betting "grocery money" on the outcome of a game. (Prime Time News/CBC Archives)

"At stake is $20 million a year," said Peter Mansbridge, host of CBC's The National, introducing the story in December 1993. "The money Ontario says it makes from letting people bet on pro basketball."

Before bringing any team north, the NBA wanted an assurance that it would not be among the leagues in Pro-Line, the lottery that let people wager on pro sports games.

"We don't like to see people encouraged to bet the grocery money on the outcome of any sport ... but particularly our own," said NBA commissioner David Stern.

But Ontario relied on what it took in from lotteries for things like health care, and so the NBA's position was a problem.

"That's a lot of money," Premier Bob Rae had said a month earlier, of the earnings Ontario pulled in from basketball betting. "That builds a lot of things." 

"If it's a question of us getting the basketball or Pro-Line, I'd choose the basketball," said a man outside a lottery kiosk. (Prime Time News/CBC Archives)

Reporter Paul Hunter talked to two people identified as Pro-Line players, each with a different view.

"I don't think the NBA has a right to tell a sovereign nation how to run their affairs," said a well-dressed middle-aged woman.

"If it's a question of us getting the basketball, or getting the Pro-Line, I"d take basketball," said a younger man.

Vancouver was also awaiting word on it own bid for an NBA team, and Premier Mike Harcourt seemed to take a softer line than Rae.

"That's part of the negotiations and discussions," he said.

But, as Hunter pointed out, Rae's Ontario might stand to lose a whole lot more if it backed down to the NBA.

"It could be pressured into eliminating betting on all sports," he said. "And that's worth $200 million a year." 

Two months later, a deal

Ontario cuts a deal with the NBA

29 years ago
Duration 2:18
The province finds a way to replace lost gambling revenue in an agreement with the NBA.

After waiting and speculation, Rae held a press conference in which he held a basketball covered in a red maple leaf alongside Stern and John Bitove, Jr., the chairman of the Toronto franchise.   

The NBA made a number of financial pledges to Ontario In exchange for the province giving up revenues from basketball bets. (Newshour/CBC Archives)

"We're delighted that we were able to reach this accommodation," said Stern.

"We very much wanted to have a franchise in the province of Ontario." 

Reporter Havard Gould said a stalemate in Toronto would have been a setback for the NBA's "ambitious" international expansion plans.

And the NBA did something unprecedented.

"So the NBA ... offered concessions and cash to convince a jurisdiction to accept a franchise," he explained.

Ontario Premier Bob Rae described the deal between the province and the NBA as "a victory for both sides." (Newshour/CBC Archives)

What Ontario got from the NBA included $1.5 million for cancer research, $2 million to promote Ontario tourism, and $5 million to a charitable foundation.

The NBA College Draft would also be held in Toronto (and it was, at SkyDome, in 1995 — the first NBA draft outside the United States.) 

Finally, if the league delayed the construction of a new basketball arena in the city, it would pay $1 million. 

(That arena turned out to be what is now called the Scotiabank Centre, which was shared between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA franchise, which came to be the Raptors.)