Hockey fans can likely bet on seeing more gambling-related advertising — for now
Sharp rise in betting-related content in hockey media, as sports books compete for business
Talk to a hockey fan and the odds are good they'll have something to say about all the betting-related content appearing in NHL broadcasts lately.
"It is forced upon us every few minutes," said Gordon Rendell, writing via email from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., and summing up a frustration he and other like-minded fans are feeling.
There are TV ads promoting sports betting, broadcast segments devoted to sports betting, digital ads on arena boards promoting sports book companies — all part of the fierce competition for the business of people who want to bet.
"It turns me off," said Robert Suggitt, a 61-year-old Edmontonian who's watched the game since he was a kid — and continues to, despite all the promotion.
Veteran sports broadcaster Dave Hodge isn't a fan of the gaming push either — not only for what it means for the sport, but also what it means for those watching the on-air product.
"I think that's skewing the telecast," said Hodge, who also believes it's potentially dangerous for the integrity of the sport.
A fresh market
The sharp rise in betting-related content in hockey media follows the legalization of single-event sports betting in Canada last year. That allowed provinces to regulate betting within those regions.
WATCH | Promoting a new sports-betting market in Ontario:
A similar story has unfolded in the United States, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed the wider adoption of sports gambling across that country in 2018.
The New York Times reports that 31 U.S. states now allow people to bet on sports in-person or online. Five others are ready to do so in future.
Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said the U.S. and Canada offer gaming companies vast numbers of potential customers.
"We have a ton of money pouring in — both into the U.S. and into Canada, as you're opening up a gigantic market," said Matheson, an expert on sports economics and gambling.
Leveraging star power
The appeal of the Canadian market is seen in the efforts sport book companies are making to gain the attention of hockey viewers and their betting dollars.
Some of those companies have inked deals with the NHL, granting them greater visibility to fans at events and on broadcasts. FanDuel and BetMGM, for instance, inked partnership deals allowing them "to use official NHL branding ... to appeal to fans and sports betting customers" in the U.S. and Canada.
There are also endorsement deals with high-profile players: Auston Matthews, the prolific Maple Leafs goal-scorer, has an endorsement deal with Bet99, while Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid is a brand ambassador for BetMGM.
Not all fans are impressed.
Rendell, the lifelong hockey fan from Labrador, points to a commercial he's seen featuring McDavid and Wayne Gretzky. The premise sees a distracted No. 99 paying closer attention to a basketball bet than to watching the modern-day Edmonton star practice.
"So ridiculous," said Rendell.
The expansion of sports gambling in Canada has brought concerns about the harms it may cause.
Some of the people watching hockey at home fear the broadcast and media side of that industry promotion could put some viewers at risk.
"The sell is hard, it's there all the time," said Hodge. "You can't get away from it."
Matthew Young, the director of research and evidence services at Greo Evidence and Insights, an organization that researches problem gambling, said sports have long had an image of having a beneficial impact on society.
"What you have through this deluge of sports advertising is a coupling of sports and betting and appreciation of sports and gambling," said Young, who believes these promotional efforts may need to be more strongly regulated.
And it's not just adults watching hockey games — young viewers will be seeing those ads, too.
"They are going to grow up in an environment where they are going to be very, very aware of sports betting, aware of gambling and it's [being] introduced to them at a very, very young age."
More news, more content
Steve McAllister has followed the developments on the sports-betting front closely, while producing Gaming News Canada — a twice-weekly newsletter covering the industry, which launched in January 2021.
He's seen the industry generating more news as it grows.
"[Initially] I was having a hard time writing 700 words a week," said McAllister, the vice-president and editor-in-chief of Parleh Media Group, whose latest edition totalled nearly 4,000 words.
He hears what fans are saying about the changes in hockey broadcasts. To him, it's a puzzle broadcasters are working to solve.
"How do you present content around sports betting that's not going to offend sports fans who aren't interested in betting?" said McAllister, whose sports media career has included work in communications and journalism.
"That's the dilemma and that's the challenge."
CBC News asked the NHL about feedback from fans on this issue. The league did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sports betting is a huge industry with a global profile. Experience from outside of North America may provide a glimpse of how it may fare here in the long run.
Matheson, the sports economics expert, said the United Kingdom has had legalized sports betting in place for decades and some of its marquee companies — some of which are entering the Canadian market — spend big to promote their business.
"Roughly half of the teams in the English Premier League right now have a betting sponsor as their primary jersey sponsor," he said.
That could speak to the kind of potential investments these types of industry players could one day make in North American sports.
The frenzy of spending could also look different in the future, as the market matures.
McAllister predicts economic realities will eventually inform the decisions being made.
"You can only spend millions of dollars on advertising for so long," he said.