Sports betting in Canada: Are we setting ourselves up for success? 

By the Responsible Gambling Council

Placing a bet on a favourite sports team or game is not a new way to gamble. Like most forms of gambling, people have been doing it for centuries. For years, Canadians have watched from the sidelines and placed bets informally or on illegal and grey market sites – sites that vary in their degrees of effectiveness in responsible gambling and harm minimization. Now, with Canada having legalized single-event sports betting, and Canadians placing bets here at home, it raises the question: are operators, regulators, governments, RG organizations, community and treatment agencies prepared for what’s to come?

To date, the Canadian approach to preventing gambling harms as a public health issue has led to the creation of a safe and sustainable gambling industry with player safety and clear accountabilities at the forefront. We must advocate for the same protection guidelines for sports betting — working together to provide a safe and regulated experience for players that is rooted in player protection. So where do we start? 

Sports betting is uniquely different 

In some fundamental ways, sports betting is distinct from other forms of gambling. It normalizes and integrates betting into an already established family-friendly pastime. In addition to the gambling motivators of the chance to win and entertainment, sports betting adds the emotion of the game to wager considerations. The emotion associated with passion for the team or athlete as well as the heat-of-the-moment gameplay can make informed decision-making about money and time spent more difficult. Some sports bettors overestimate their knowledge of and ability to predict the outcome of sporting events which can increase the risk of harm.

The structural characteristics of sports betting create a need for innovative approaches to harm prevention. As opposed to other forms of gambling where bets are only allowed prior to the start of a game, spur-of-the-moment betting with micro-bets (i.e. betting in real-time on individual moments in a game not related to the final score) and in-game betting (i.e. the ability to wager throughout the duration of a game after it has started) increase the risk of extended, continuous and impulsive play that could be problematic for high-risk groups.

Sports betting also attracts a new type of player with unique information needs and requires innovative ways to reach them. Typical sports bettors tend to be:

  • Younger males with relatively high incomes
  • Educated and employed with easy access to mobile devices
  • Youth and athletes who may be motivated to gamble on sports to fit in with their peers and have limited exposure to other types of traditional gambling
  • More likely to use alcohol or other substances while gambling

Rethinking player education and prevention messaging

We know the characteristics of sports betting and the profile of the people who engage in sports betting differs from other types of gambling. However, what doesn’t change is the need for prevention education that effectively educates players of the specific harms that come with sports betting and how to mitigate them.

Though limited, evidence from other jurisdictions suggests that sports betting begins early in life and that young adults are at an increased risk for experiencing gambling harm and developing misconceptions about skill and expertise. This makes it imperative that the provinces invest in relevant awareness education programming in schools and communities now, before exposure to sports betting increases.

Promoting responsible gambling practices in the context of sports betting, such as limit setting, breaks in play and reminders about the risks of in-game betting and micro-bets, can help equip players with information to make educated decisions about their play. Additionally, a collaborative approach between operators and healthcare, mental health, education and social services professionals to engage in new and innovative forms of prevention education is needed to offset the harms of sports betting.

Research is the game-changer 

To no one’s surprise, research on sports betting and sports bettors in Canada is limited.

In order to address the unique risk factors and challenges that sports betting presents, provinces and territories should start thinking proactively about how to better understand the needs of priority populations. Having the right research and evaluation plan in place, such as collecting baseline data and conducting ongoing prevalence studies will help provide the data necessary to inform a harm prevention strategy and measurement plan.

Focused research that identifies which groups are high risk will increase our understanding of the initiatives that are needed to reach and protect these groups. Studies that explore the unique structural characteristics, such as in-game wagering, micro-bets and inducements that are embedded in the mechanics of sports betting will only become an asset to responsible gambling policies and practices in the future.

The introduction of more robust and longitudinal data means prevention and education programs can be more impactful. With this evidence, we can develop effective and targeted safer play strategies, such as low-risk gambling guidelines specific to sports betting and proper messaging to tackle risky game features.

Advertising guidelines as a national strategy

The creation of advertising standards and safeguards must start with the younger population in mind. Learnings from Australia show that youth were found to have a very high level of gambling advertisement recall and understanding of how to place bets, as well as heightened levels of gambling intention with increased familiarity[1].

What needs to be done to counteract the influx of marketing seen on television, tablets, and smartphones?

A coordinated marketing monitoring effort that limits the volume and frequency of advertising exposure is required. Areas such as ads or promotions that depict substance use, like alcohol and wagering inducements and promotional offers should have restrictions in place. Standards for the time of day and target restrictions, such as children and youth would minimize the impact of advertising on vulnerable populations across Canada.

Due to the reach and impact of advertising, the development of communications standards that are research-informed will help create a more balanced advertising framework that prioritizes and delivers messaging for vulnerable populations, such as age, ethnocultural and gender groups. It is important that we require sports betting ads to include responsible gambling messages that dispel common perceived norms, such as the illusion of control, as well as limit inducements to gamble.

As Canada is in its infancy with legal single-event sports betting, we have an opportunity to create an effective regulatory framework for this type of gambling environment. Collaboration between operators, regulators, allied health professionals and social services sectors will ensure that a comprehensive research, programming, and advertising strategy can be developed and implemented with maximum impact. It is this collective action that will enable the adoption of a safer sports betting industry that is built on responsible gambling best practices and evidence-informed player safeguards.

The rise of different types of sports betting and increased exposure means player education and information will only become more crucial. We urge all provinces to establish a dedicated fund that would provide annual support to prevention education and programming, research, monitoring, evaluation and treatment services for the long term.

[1] Lamont & Hing, 2018; Lopez-Gonzalez, Estevez, & Griffiths, 2017; Lopez-Gonzalez & Griffiths, 2018b; Nyemcsok et al., 2018; Thomas et al., 2016

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