Clearing up the confusion around sports betting advertising

Gaming ads were a prominent topic at CGS

Of the many topics discussed at the 2024 Canadian Gaming Summit in Toronto, one of the most pertinent was the advertising of gaming across the country.

TV viewers, sports fans, online surfers, social media users and many people in between are inundated with gambling ads daily. Whether that should be curbed — and if so, how — is one of the most prominent industry debates.

A common theme across several CGS panels was an assertion that any problems around advertising begin with a great deal of “confusion” among consumers. That word was used by leaders from lottery corporations, private operators, regulators, data firms and consultants alike.

The confusion isn’t only about the nuances of the market but also pretty fundamental stuff.

What does regulated even mean, anyway?

Data referenced on a panel by Ipsos SVP Scott Morasch suggested that more than two years after Ontario opened its doors to dozens of online operators, many consumers still can’t tell the difference between sites that are regulated by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) and those operating without a license.

Two-thirds (65%) of adult Ontarians say they know there is a “black market” but only 34% of those surveyed felt confident they know how to tell the difference between regulated and unregulated sites. While that latter statistic is much higher (73%) for frequent bettors, more than half of both the general public and frequent gamblers gave a wrong answer when asked how they tell the difference.

“The public doesn’t actually know in a lot of cases what to look for,” Canadian Gaming Association (CGA) President and CEO Paul Burns said while moderating a panel. “We’ve seen that there is a lack of clear knowledge about what’s legal and what isn’t, what’s regulated and what isn’t.”

This is hardly a new development. As Burns noted on the later Ipsos panel, CGA research in around 2016 showed that a significant proportion of Canadians thought online gaming outside of the lottery was already regulated, six years before Ontario became the first province to actually do so.

“There was no before or after,” noted Morasch’s Ipsos colleague Sean Simpson. “People didn’t know what changed. The only thing that changed for most people was they started to see more advertising.”

Simpson cited cannabis as a starkly contrasting example; people knew very clearly that it was only sold illegally before 2018. In contrast, he says, “Two years after Ontario’s gaming regulation, people still can’t tell the difference.”

Different standards for different operators

Speaking on a panel moderated by Burns, PointsBet Canada CEO Scott Vanderwel used another term: “noise.” Unregulated operators continue to advertise prolifically, he said, bombarding consumers with advertising.

“That noise is a complicating factor. There’s an active grey market that continues to advertise in Ontario today, and they complicate the standards. You end up in a situation where you’ve got a handful of operators genuinely trying to do the right thing but that noise is a complicating factor and it exists because we don’t really have a Canadian-wide framework.”

The AGCO holds its licensed operators to strict standards around advertising. But those operators who are not licensed are not beholden to the same regulations.

“It allows for grey-market operators to continue in this country coast to coast,” said Vanderwel’s PointsBet colleague Dave Rivers, SVP of Marketing, on a separate panel. “Within the regulated framework, we [licensed operators] are held to different standards in terms of what we can say or do.”

“When it comes to celebrity endorsements, sure, in the province of Ontario, I’m not allowed to utilise those in terms of brand awareness. But in other markets in Canada, grey competitors of ours can utilise that.”

The problem of geography

That geographical issue that Rivers touched upon is another sore point of contention.

On the one hand, there’s the operator complaint. Rivers cited the example of sportsbooks advertising nationally during Edmonton Oilers playoff games in recent weeks. He stressed that operators like PointsBet only have the opportunity to monetize Ontario, whereas unlicensed brands operating in multiple provinces as unregulated entities “can run their adverts nationally and monetize the whole country.”

“It’s egregious how much I’m spending to access only Ontario,” Rivers said. Burns’ CGA colleague Amanda Brewer is the former Canada country manager for Kindred, which pulled out of the Ontario market this spring. She suggested that cost per acquisition “could be well over $1,000” in the early days of operation.

There’s also the consumer complaint.

A recent public opinion poll conducted by market research platform Maru found that six in 10 Canadians think sports betting advertising should be banned as a blanket measure, although it’s worth noting that view is held more commonly by elder respondents and non-bettors. But it’s also a move supported by some high-profile advocates, including the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

One of the prominent arguments made is that citizens of other provinces shouldn’t be subjected to betting advertising for companies that are only regulated in Ontario. Vanderwel understands the argument.

“The advertising that spills over to Alberta and B.C. and through national broadcasts is a point of concern for citizens of those provinces where the sportsbooks showing up on their TV aren’t even available to them in their marketplace…” he noted. “We don’t have geoblocking on broadcasts across the country.”

Brewer emphasized that while regulators and operators can conduct themselves with a social conscience, Canadian broadcasters and technology platforms like Meta should be held to account the same way the betting industry is.

“My Instagram and Facebook feeds are inundated with sponsored posts,” Brewer noted. She added that, “there is a lot of abuse” from unregulated operators, highlighting that some broadcasters are still happy to take money from unlicensed operators.

“It’s a decision made by the broadcasters and the league how many times you’re going to see a specific ad during a specific event,” Brewer told SBC. “There is a large group of stakeholders that come together to get these ads on air. It’s not just the operators, it’s not just the industry.”

Rivers agreed that broadcasters could be doing more. He added that media companies made the decision to remove U.S. Super Bowl adverts from the Canadian feeds so Canadians didn’t see any U.S.-based advertising.

“So, the technology is readily available for media organisations to decide what you can and can’t see,” he said. “It only exists because it’s being allowed.”

What can be done?

Some measures have been taken by the AGCO to address certain issues.

The regulator has been strict on not allowing Ontario to be built on advertising inducements like new-user bonuses, which Brewer said was a concerted effort to protect players and avoid what she described as the “sign-up war” seen in U.S. markets. Another measure has been to ban the use of imagery that would appeal directly to minors and to only allow professional athletes or celebrities to market operators’ responsible gambling practices.

Those actions may have curbed some concerns, but the root of the issue continues to be debated. Not just in public, but also in parliament. Bill S-269, the National Framework on Advertising for Sports Betting Act, was heard last month as Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications members assessed whether they should try to put sports betting advertising back in the box.

Sen. Marty Deacon, the bill’s sponsor, said politicians now have “the privilege of sober second thought” when considering the “barrage” of betting advertising. Bill S-269, which had its second Senate reading in May, would require the development of a national framework for sports betting advertising based around what Deacon called “reasonable limits.”

The idea of a full ban on advertising was referenced in those committee sessions but Deacon acknowledged that while that would be her choice, it’s not particularly feasible. “We didn’t think this bill would survive a constitutional challenge if we sought a complete ban and didn’t want perfect to be the enemy of good.”

Brewer also suggested that a total ban wouldn’t work for several reasons, including both political and practical. A blanket ban would throw into doubt the advertising of other offerings including Lotto 649 and 50/50, she said, which would significantly limit funding for the charity and community initiatives and infrastructure those programs help to support.

Other more targeted measures such as a whistle-to-whistle ban on advertising during games might be worth considering, she reflected. But her main message was that clearing up the confusion that lingers around sports betting in Ontario and beyond is the key.

“Instead of the operators on the surface, we should be really concerned about the ones we can’t see below the water,” Brewer added. “Those are the ones that are still in Ontario or other provinces without licences, doing whatever they want to attract customers.”

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