All those sports betting ads you're seeing? 'It's illegal,' says Alberta gaming commission
The grey market of online sports betting continues despite change to rules in 2021
If you've watched any NHL or NBA playoff games this spring, you've seen them.
Flashy advertisements — some featuring big celebrities like Wayne Gretzky, Aaron Paul, and soon, likely Auston Matthews — introducing viewers to new, online sports betting services.
Confusingly, according to Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC), those sites are illegal in the province.
"It's illegal for somebody to be offering bets to Albertans that are not regulated," said Steve Lautischer, vice-president of gaming with the commission.
"The only legal sports bets in the province of Alberta today are either found through what we offer on PlayAlberta.ca or what is offered on Western Canada Lottery Sport Select brand."
For months, sports fans have been subjected to an endless stream of advertisements for different sports books. The deluge of offerings comes after a change to federal law last summer, which made single-event sport betting legal, whereas previously, gamblers had to parlay their bets, or bet on more than one event at a time.
The change was meant to capture some of the Canadian audience already betting billions on single sporting events illegally, helping to keep some of the profits within Canada's borders.
The law gave each province the authority to regulate sports betting as it saw fit. In Ontario, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) began to offer licences to sports betting sites.
But in Alberta, the province decided all bets would go through its own service, Play Alberta, which offers sports betting, lottery and casino games.
"It appears that the illegal providers see the Canadian landscape on a whole as ripe for the taking to offer bets, even though they are not legal bets," Lautischer said.
Impacts of increased gambling ads
Apart from the legality issue, the sheer quantity of ads also has some public health experts worried.
Dr. Robert Williams, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge and a research co-ordinator with the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, said he's concerned about how the advertisements might impact younger audiences.
"It does tend to promote some increased involvement in young people when they become of legal age," he said in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.
Feature a celebrity — or even a sports broadcaster — Williams said, and the perception of the advertisement will be even more favourable.
"Endorsements by celebrities does cause the ad and message to be more memorable, and if the endorser is deemed to have positive qualities, this enhances consumers' perception of the product, including brand loyalty."
Some jurisdictions like the U.K. have banned celebrities, athletes and social media influencers who appeal to the under-18 audience from participating in gambling advertisements, according to the BBC.
Other concerns include the impact of sports betting ads on people who've recovered from gambling addictions, as well as on public health messages advocating for people to limit their involvement in gambling.
"It's not a positive thing, from a public health perspective," Williams said.
Online gambling has become increasingly pervasive since the days of sites like PokerStars, said Debi Andrus, adjunct professor of marketing at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
You used to be able to play for free, she said, but then sites started to ask for account memberships, money and subscriptions. That's probably why the federal government stepped in and changed the rules, she said.
"If you don't allow it … the Canadian money ends up offshore. We have the same amount of betting taking place, but we end up with the money going out of the country, and we can't control it or regulate it," she said.
When it comes to gambling advertisements, Andrus said companies are not as strictly regulated as they are for things like tobacco, cannabis and alcohol.
"I mean, it devastates families, just like alcoholism, just like any type of illness," Andrus said.
"It's not illegal to advertise, but you have to look at what is the bigger picture in terms of how much online gambling is really regulated."
Lack of consequences
Lautischer places some of the blame on federal agencies and broadcasters themselves for showing advertisements for sites that aren't regulated in Alberta.
"It does concern me to see such a slew of illegal advertising occurring in the province … and some of these companies that are on the illegal side certainly have deep pockets," he said.
According to Lautischer, there's "not necessarily" a penalty for Albertans to place a wager on these sports betting sites, but he cautions against it.
"There's really no guarantee for their banking information.... Is it safe and secure? I can't tell you."
With sports books still vying for their share of new markets, and playoffs continuing for several sports, Williams said people can expect to see the advertisements continue.
"The truth of the matter is, they're targeting everybody ... because there's no real prosecution of people who are gambling from Alberta," he said.
"When the market's a little more mature, you'll see less ads, less frequently, but I don't see any change in store for the near future."
With files from Elizabeth Withey