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Canadian media’s promotion of sports betting should have limits

Edge: The ethical implications of our media’s promotion of sports betting are profound

Media Canadian Business

Sports betting activities have proliferated in recent years due to increased visibility through pervasive advertising campaigns. Photo courtesy Play Canada.

Rick Dhaliwal was just about to launch into his show-opening banter with co-host Don Taylor on their popular Donnie and Dhali sports talk show on Victoria’s CHEK-TV this past Thursday when he hit send on a tweet that would set the cat amongst the pigeons. “VCR is still hot & SJ is in the basement,” it read, referring to that night’s hockey game between the Vancouver Canucks and the winless San Jose Sharks. “I like VCR -1.5, SJ under 2.5 goals, & VCR over 3.5 goals. CHEK out this Same Game Parlay (SGP) from our friends @ #BET99. $50 gets you $162.50!” Pictured at the bottom of his tweet was a grinning Georges St-Pierre, the three-time former UFC welterweight champion who is also one of Bet99’s celebrity endorsers.

The cryptic content of Dhaliwal’s tweet, for those not conversant with betting lingo, advised gamblers to wager on Vancouver beating San Jose by two goals or more, San Jose scoring two goals or fewer and Vancouver scoring four goals or more. If all three of those things happened, which is known as a parlay, a $50 bet would return $162.50. It might have been a safe bet given how the teams had fared so far this season, but that’s not the point.

Reaction to the combative former radio reporter’s tweet was immediate, but not over any ethical concerns. “VCR?” one reply said simply. “Why on earth are we using VCR?” another commented. “Tell me more about this VCR team,” quipped one wag, and soon pictures of video cassette recorders began to fill the feed. Only one reply questioned the ethics of a sports journalist giving betting advice. But imagine the poor schmuck, possibly unemployed and thus home watching TV at 10 a.m. on a Thursday, who bets his mortgage on this sure-thing as a result of Dhaliwal’s advice. He would lose it all if the Sharks pulled an upset, or even scored more than two goals.

It wasn’t the first time this NHL season that Dhaliwal had touted a parlay by tweet. That was the week before, when the St. Louis Blues were in town. “Tonight I like a VCR win & under 6.5 goals,” he tweeted. “$50 gets you $130. Good Luck!” That bet, incidentally, proved a winner when the Canucks won 5-0. The show also regularly tweets out its “Bet99 Banger” choices for “prop” bets on games, such as a certain player to score that night.

A recent backlash has been seen across the country in response to the onslaught of TV ads promoting sports betting. “It’s wrong to have sports betting ads during TV broadcasts of hockey games,” children’s singer and Canucks fan Raffi told The Athletic. “It’s a family audience. You’ve got impressionable youth and kids watching.” The head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport told the CBC that Canada is flirting with disaster when it comes to sports betting, as a match fixing scandal is inevitable. Independent Senator Marty Deacon recently introduced a bill to regulate sports betting ads, which is currently being debated.

Even pro athletes have fallen victim to the lure of easy online sports wagering, including three NFL players who were suspended earlier this year, and Ottawa Senators forward Shane Pinto, who was recently banned for half a season.

The ethical implications of our media’s promotion of sports betting are profound, and TV hosts giving advice on bets is dangerous ground. Ontario announced in August that it will ban the use of athletes in online gambling ads starting in February, while also strengthening standards on any appeal to minors. A recent episode of CBC’s TV newsmagazine The Fifth Estate titled “The Gamblification of Canada” described the recent explosion of sports betting ads as “irresistible to the most problem gamblers.” A professor at the University of Guelph who studies the problem urged limiting the amount of such advertising, noting that sportscasters will say things encouraging someone to gamble.

Several US states that have recently legalized gambling are now tightening their oversight of the industry, especially of ads that might be seen by underage viewers. At least three US states, according to the New York Times, have “responded to a jump in abusive behavior by moving to bar gamblers if they threaten or harass athletes after lost bets.” The US betting boom began in 2018 after a Supreme Court ruling allowed states to decide whether to legalize gambling on sports, which has seen more than 35 do so.

In a bid to address the problem, Australia has banned the use of credit cards to place online bets, while Belgium and the Netherlands have banned gambling ads on TV and radio, in newspapers and in public places. The UK agency that oversees online gambling concluded in a recent study that “gambling poses the risk of becoming a clinical addiction,” proposed “financial risk checks” for bettors who lose more than $160 in a month and endorsed removing gambling logos from player jerseys.

A Canadian study released last year found that Indigenous people (72.4 percent) reported higher rates of gambling than non-Indigenous people (64.2 percent) and were three times more likely to be at risk for gambling problems. “When gambling becomes a problem, both the person who gambles and their family are negatively affected,” it noted. “Gambling problems can lead to marital breakdown, bankruptcy or financial hardship, suicide, crime, reduced health and increased use of alcohol and other substances.” An Ipsos poll released earlier this year found that nearly half of Canadians think gambling ads have gotten out of hand and need to be cut back.

Canada legalized single-game sports betting in 2021 and enabled the provinces to allow more gambling on sports, which led all 10 to legalize online sports betting. This began an influx of domestic and foreign sports books, intense competition and thus the onslaught of ads. Media outlets in Canada have been eagerly taking all this action they can get, especially since most other advertising has long since fled to Google and Facebook. The advertising downturn has prompted the recent closure of numerous radio stations across Canada, including two sports talk stations in Vancouver alone, leading popular sportscasters to branch out into podcasting or, like Dhaliwal and Taylor, into TV.

Dhaliwal noted that Bet99 has been a show sponsor for two years, that they set the odds, not him, and that sports podcasters also engage in bet-touting. Podcasts are not yet regulated, however, although they soon will be under the new Online Streaming Act. In the meantime, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission should set some limits on broadcasters luring bettors into making specific wagers. As for Dhaliwal’s touted parlay, the Canucks indeed beat the Sharks that night by a score of 10-1, more than tripling the investment of any bettor who took his advice, bringing his season record to 2-0 and establishing him as the small sample size savant of Canadian sports betting.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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