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NHL and U.S. full steam ahead with sports gambling, but what about Canada?

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has had a complete change of heart in 2018 regarding sports gambling (via CNBC)

Once considered an unlikely event, the National Hockey League (NHL) has made a complete 180-degree turn and decided to dive head-first into the sports gambling industry. It was only a few years ago when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman claimed that “government-sanctioned sports gambling threatens to compromise the NHL’s reputation and integrity, and undermines fans’ trust and confidence in honest competition.”[1] But now, according to NHL Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer Keith Wachtel, the League has “no concerns about the integrity of our game, of our players, our officials. We’ve never had an issue.”[2]

In 2018, the NHL has been full steam ahead in uniting the hockey and sports gambling worlds. Last month, Bettman announced that the NHL has partnered with MGM Resorts International (MGM) to be the League’s official sports betting partner, which also allows MGM to have access to the NHL’s proprietary player tracking system data.[3] Shortly after, the New Jersey Devils and Las Vegas Golden Knights signed sponsorship deals with William Hill, one of the largest bookmakers in the world.[4]

What changed the NHL’s mind after many years of taking an anti-gambling stance? You guessed it . . . the law! As you probably already know, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA) earlier this year allowing states to freely legalize sports gambling as they choose.[5] This landmark decision paved the way for professional sports leagues in the U.S. to fully get on board with gambling. “We’ve historically been opposed to extending sports betting on our game, and, emotionally, I don’t think that’s changed,” said Bettman. “However, it is a fact of life in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and it’ll be up to the states to decide whether or not they’re going to enact sports betting.”[6] Basically, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.[7]

It also does not hurt that, according to a Nielsen sports study, the NHL is projected to collect $216 million in extra revenue from sports betting.[8] This increase in revenue would be extremely beneficial to the players as well since it would lead to an increase in the salary cap (meaning higher salaries), and half of this "hockey-related revenue" going into their pockets.[9] I bet (no pun intended) that this revenue will be a topic of conversation during the next collective bargaining agreement discussions.

It appears to be all systems go for betting on hockey in the United States. But what about Canada, where hockey is far more popular? Well, Canada has yet to legalize single-game betting, which severely hinders its sports fans to partake in the “complete” gambling action. This is despite, according to Vice President of the Canadian Gaming Association Paul Burns, an estimated $10 billion being wagered by Canadians through illegal gambling operations in Canada and an additional $4 billion being bet through offshore online sports gambling websites.[10] Meanwhile, only $500 million is being bet through legal means.[11] There is clearly a lot of money to be had here.

Currently, Canadian Criminal Code Section 207(4)(b) outlaws “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.”[12] This means that Canadians can only make parlay wagers, which is betting on the outcome of at least two games at once, and must do so through their provincial lottery operators.[13] As many experienced gamblers would tell you, parlays are a "sucker's bet."[14] So, for many years, Canadians have placed wagers online with offshore bookmakers, where they receive more favorable odds and a higher payout than what they would receive by placing a bet with their provincial lottery.[15] This offshore practice has been ignored by Canadian authorities and viewed as a “legal grey area.”[16]

One would think that Canada, a country that is relatively more progressive than the U.S. and where hockey is king, would have been the first to delve into union of hockey and sports gambling. Even though there have been attempts in the past to legalize single-game betting in Canada, it has been shot down twice in recent years.

In 2011, Bill C-290 was proposed to amend the Criminal Code to permit wagers on single-game sporting events. While this bill unanimously passed in the House of Commons, it sat in the Senate for three years before eventually dying with the calling of the 2015 general election.[17] Opposition to the bill was led by Canada’s Conservative Party and staunchly backed by the NHL, which dramatically stated at the time “[i]f single-game sports betting becomes a publicly fostered and sponsored institution, then the very nature of sports in North America (including in the National Hockey League) will change, and we fear it will be changed for the worse.”[18]

The next attempt to amend the law occurred in 2016 with the introduction of the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act (Bill C-221). This time it was the Liberals who opposed the bill which never got through the House of Commons. While the NHL did not officially oppose or approve of this bill, Brian Masse, the member of parliament that spearheaded the bill, felt betrayed by the League for not supporting single-event sports betting in Canada while “hypocritically” approving the expansion franchise in Las Vegas instead of Quebec City.[19]

But now with the United States and NHL fully supporting single-game wagering it is likely only a matter of time before the Canadian government renews discussions on this issue and passes a bill that amends the Criminal Code. If not, more and more Canadians will cross the border to place bets in the United States (keep in mind that the majority of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border), which would severely harm the Canadian casino industry and its employees.

It is probable that a new bill would be supported by pro-business Conservatives and the Liberals that just legalized cannabis in favor of safer regulation, greater tax revenue, and limiting the illegal drug trade.[20] As of now, it remains to be seen who introduces such a bill, but it appears that Mr. Masse (whose constituency is in Windsor, which is home to a Caesars casino), as well as Essex MP Tracey Ramsey,[21] are leading the charge:

Thus, while Canada currently trails in the sports betting world, do not be surprised if they catch up very soon, especially if the NHL jumps in to push the potential bill along. The timing is right and the pressure is on because the longer the Canadian government waits, the more money they lose.


[6] ESPN

[9] ESPN

[14] CBC

[16] CBC

[19] CBC

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