Sports betting? It’s been hard to avoid mention of it, if you live in Ontario.
Since the province launched its regulated online gaming market a year ago, you’ve likely seen the ads, heard the hype, and at this point, you know how to partake.
Canada made single-event sports betting legal in 2021, but Ontario was first to move ahead with a regulated sports betting program — allowing multiple operators to provide legal, online sports gambling services.
This more liberalized world of sports betting has captivated many Ontarians, who are providing enough business for more than two dozen companies to compete for this sports-related segment of the broader provincial online gaming market.
“From a consumer point of view, it’s been a success,” said Michael Naraine, an associate professor in the Department of Sport Management at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ont.
“If you’re a fan of of gambling and sports gambling, you’ve been happy with how things have rolled out.”
Yet industry experts and operators say more changes are on the horizon for sports betting in Canada, as the product offerings evolve and the market matures.
Money being made
Twelve months in, the Ontario government appears satisfied with the state of the regulated online gaming market, which has operators offering casino and poker games, in addition to sports gambling services.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General said Ontario’s “safe, legal, and competitive online gaming market” is creating business opportunities, protecting consumers and providing revenue that “helps pay for government priorities.”
Reporting from iGaming Ontario (iGO), a subsidiary of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, shows billions in wagers made in each of the first, second and third quarters of the online gaming market’s first year. Fourth-quarter data is not yet publicly available.
But these totals don’t break down the proportion of these wagers that come strictly from sports betting.
“Sports betting and online casino games are both performing well,” iGO said via email, noting it “may provide specific breakdowns in future reporting.”
These totals also don’t include the digital gaming business that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) accounts for, including its own sports-betting transactions. Its 2021-22 annual report notes OLG’s PROLINE+ brand processed $1 million in wagers within days of single-event betting being offered — and that was months before the wider regulated market launched.
William Woodhams, the CEO of Fitzdares — a British bookmaker that now operates in Ontario — said it appears “the majority of money being wagered on apps and desktop” in the provinces is occurring via casino games.
“Until there’s more sport product [to bet on], that’s going to be the way it is,” he said.
‘Always-on sports product’
The Fitzdares executive said there are key big-league sports that Ontarians are drawn to betting on — but those leagues don’t run continuously, year-round.
“What we have currently in North American sport are these big, blue ribbon moments,” Woodhams said, citing the brief NFL season and March Madness as examples.
He said that leaves the domestic gambling market lacking “an always-on sports product,” which ends up focusing attention on “these big NBA, NFL, hockey moments.”
Woodhams expects interest to grow in placing bets on a wider range of sports. That said, Fitzdares is hearing from customers who want to bet on curling.
The provision of in-play betting — or bets made during a game, about various aspects of play or the match itself — is another area of focus for the industry.
Woodhams said these offerings are highly appealing to participants and “are where the future of sports betting is.”
But there are concerns about how such offerings may affect some of the people putting their money on the line.
Andrew Kim, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University, said sports gambling was previously offered on a more limited basis — and involved less frequent activity by participants, such as making selections for a set of game outcomes and then waiting for the results.
“You make your picks and then what do you do? You sit back and you watch the game,” Kim said in an interview last month.
But in-play betting opens the door to people being able to make many bets within a given game.
Kim points to a baseball game, which might involve a pair of teams collectively totalling hundreds of pitches — each of which could be bet on.
“That’s similar to a slot machine, if you think about the structural characteristics,” he said.
“What this liberalization has done, it’s introduced — now making it legal and available — this potentially more harmful form of sports betting.”
The Ontario experience is of interest to other provinces — including in Alberta, where there is currently only one regulated gaming site in operation.
Karin Campbell, the manager of communications for Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC), told CBC News via email that PlayAlberta.ca “has witnessed tremendous growth since launching its sports offering” a year and half ago, attributing that to the related betting activities, but also newly available access to online lottery services.
AGLC is “closely monitoring” Ontario’s market experience and Campbell said the regulator’s focus “is to support the successful and legal implementation of an expanded sports betting market.”
In British Columbia, single-event sports betting is also a key draw on PlayNow.com — the province’s only legal regulated gambling website — where B.C. bettors placed $170 million on such bets in the first 12 months that it was legal to do so.
“Single-event bets account for the majority of all sports bets on [the site],” Matt Lee, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Lottery Corporation, said in an email.
Given the interest in these services, Lee said the lottery corporation “continues to evaluate what sports-betting experiences” could be offered in future.
In Atlantic Canada, there is only one legal provider of single-event sports betting and that is the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. Spokesperson Greg Weston said “sales have been strong since the option became available.”
Peter Czegledy, a partner at Toronto’s Aird & Berlis LLP and chair of its gaming group, suspects “Ontario will not be alone” in allowing private operators to compete with established government operators in online gaming — including sports betting — as time goes on. But he said the approach may differ among jurisdictions.
Some industry watchers expect Ontario’s market to have fewer companies in the mix in the long-term.
Brock University’s Naraine predicts there will be some consolidation and some failures, eventually resulting in a core group of big companies.
“We’re essentially going to end up with seven or eight major players,” said Naraine, pointing to the recent departure of Coolbet as a sign the current market makeup may not be sustainable.
Czegledy notes it’s likely that more operators may both enter and exit the Ontario market over time.
But to him, a more relevant question “is what kind of operators have or have not become regulated and what percentage of the overall market they represent,” Czegledy said in an email.
“By those measures, in my estimation, Ontario has done well so far.”