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As Canada lifts its ban on single-game sports betting, what do fans think of the endless gambling commercials? 

News

Any sports fan can tell you that something has changed in the world of sports-betting. The laws are changing, the leagues are partnering with betting sites and some of our favourite athletes are riding the gravy train. In this three-part series, journalist Mark Hill digs into what it means for fans, governments and people who struggle with addiction. Part one covers the changing fan experience, as gambling infiltrates every part of the sports world.

“I absolutely hate seeing it everywhere.” 

“It’s excessive and weird.” 

“It’s making sports broadcasts unwatchable.” 

Those are some of the many, many comments made about sports betting commercials on Reddit’s hockey community during the 2022 NHL playoffs. At least, those are some of the polite ones. 

Canada lifted its ban on single-game sports betting in August 2021. Nine provinces now offer government-run online betting (Saskatchewan is putting the finishing touches on its service), and in April 2022 Ontario welcomed private platforms into the marketplace. Twenty-three online sportsbooks are jockeying for customers, and their competition is forcing any Canadian watching a Blue Jays, Raptors, or nationally broadcast hockey game to witness the advertising equivalent of carpet bombing.   

Commercial breaks are dominated by Aaron Paul telling you to join bet365 and a somnambulant Wayne Gretzky suggesting you try BetMGM. TSN and Sportsnet run sponsored pre-game segments explaining the moneyline. More perniciously, there are prompts to gamble during games. Info boxes, and the commentators themselves, hint at how much money you could win in mere moments with the right prop bet. 

The reasons behind this deluge are obvious. Ontario’s online sports betting market made $286.4 million over its first two quarters, and revenues are expected to grow amid the perfect storm of October sports: MLB playoffs begin, the NHL and NBA are launching fresh campaigns, and every breed of football is in full swing. The Ontario government wants a slice of that money, and other provinces are enjoying the whole pie. But the viewing experience has become, at best, tedious. At worst, it’s like constantly being told that a cigarette and a strong scotch would sure taste great right now. 

Will fans adjust to another year of these commercials? Will sportsbooks ever show mercy? And are there any benefits to the bombardment? 

They’re everywhere, like an invasive species,” says Stephan Roget, a writer for the Canucks Army fan blog. “They’re also just deeply unpleasant. Every single one just screams at you to ‘Gamble! Gamble now! See, Matthew Barnaby is gambling, why aren’t you?!’ and it’s just exhausting. It’s hard not to come away with a bit of a sick feeling, knowing that gambling addiction exists.” 

Josh Kern, the editor-in-chief of Raptors HQ, is more measured, but notes that the in-game segments are changing the feel of games. “I don’t mind the commercials as much—it’s easy to tune those out—but piling the in-game segments on top, it does sometimes feel like the broadcast is no longer a basketball game with ads, but a gambling ad with some basketball thrown in. And for me, ‘tuning out’ usually means scrolling Twitter, but there are just as many gambling ads there too!”

Roget and Kern have noticed plenty of complaints among their fanbases but stressed that these aren’t new; repetitive ads have always been scorned by fans who will see them hundreds of times over the course of a season (“those Jay Baruchel BMO ads from a couple of years back come to mind,” Kern says).

And although fan annoyance is easy to see, the broadcasters say they are thinking hard about how to handle this new deluge of ads.

“We recognize that sports betting content and advertising represents a change for audiences and we are being extremely thoughtful about the volume and content of the commercial inventory that we are allotting to sports betting partners to ensure we continue to offer a quality viewing experience,” said Jason Jackson, a senior communications manager at Sportsnet.

Sportsnet says it is also dedicating a portion of its airtime to public service announcements and responsible gaming messaging.

Roget did note, however, that while the “awkward and blunt ways” gambling gets worked into broadcasts are a source of annoyance, the approach appears to be working. 

“I definitely hear plenty of complaints about the prevalence of the ads. I’ve also definitely heard more Canucks fans talking about gambling in general, as well as participating in it. I would say that close to a majority of my ‘hockey pals’ are now betting at least semi-regularly, and that’s a new factor in conversations. So there’s at least some embracing of the push.” 

With seemingly every commercial designed to be as stimulating as possible, the prospect of another season of them is unpleasant. Kern hopes we’ve reached a peak. 

“I suspect there will be more and more in-game segments, which are harder to ignore. But I think it’ll even out in a season or two. Much like the glut of cannabis shops here in Toronto, many of which are now closing down, once the novelty wears off the sheer number of gambling ads and segments will diminish.” 

That’s an optimistic outlook. Roget posits a more troubling one. 

“I could see this fading into the background and becoming widely accepted, just like board ads and ice ads and helmet ads and jersey ads. We let them airbrush an ad onto the glass telling us to get McDonald’s delivered to our houses this very instant, and nobody bats an eyelash. What’s the difference?” 

The ads are irritating but unsurprising. If a market is opened, companies will compete for it. But what does it mean that nearly every sports media outlet, from the juggernauts down to tiny fansites, has embraced gambling?

“If people want to read about it, then someone should probably be writing about it,” Roget says. “But I do think there’s plenty of bad in there, especially when it starts to overwhelm brands like TSN or Sportsnet. To me, sports coverage and gambling coverage are distinct. Reporting them right beside each other, and often intertwining them, seems like covering fantasy sports as if they were real.”

Roget also notes, however, that “there’s definitely some cool stuff to come out of this.” 

“I’ve watched some hockey broadcasts where they crunch the numbers and give you each centre’s probability of winning a faceoff as it happens. I love getting that sort of stuff as a fan. Do I care that the percentages were provided by a gambling site? Not really! That’s a form of not-so-in-your-face marketing that I can get behind.” 

Kern also notes that gambling has given Raptors HQ sponsorship opportunities, which means better pay for his writers. Like almost all media in 2022, most sports publications need more money—The Athletic, for example, lost a staggering 55 million dollars in 2021—making it easy to say yes to gambling.

“Gamblers have been part of the core sports audience for decades, so at least the broadcasters no longer have to pretend it’s not part of the game,” Kern says. “But to me the biggest benefit is that the additional coverage has meant more opportunities for new faces and voices, particularly young, up-and-coming personalities, and especially women and BIPOC.” 

More jobs and new voices are great, but how long the gambling money will be there to support them is an open question. This season, however, expect to see a lot more angry Reddit comments.

UCP members say Smith’s victory won’t lead the party to split, yet

News

CALGARY — With former radio host and Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith set to be sworn in as Alberta premier on Tuesday, after coasting to victory in the United Conservative Party leadership contest, party members say they don’t expect to see an exodus of moderates from their ranks.

But that could change if the party flounders in the next election.

Melissa Caouette, a UCP member and political strategist who worked for former Alberta premier Jim Prentice, says any uncomfortable, centrist-leaning party members thinking about leaving the UCP will probably wait until after the scheduled 2023 provincial election to initiate a split. 

“If it were to work, it needs to happen after this experiment of uniting these parties in Alberta has proven it doesn’t work anymore, and that would be signalled by an election loss,” says Caouette. “If we are losing elections, if our polling is down, if the membership isn’t happy, I think that’s a more appropriate time to have that conversation.”

Lauren Armstrong, a UCP member who worked for the Kenney government, said the media is more interested in the idea of the party splitting than the members.

“I don’t hear that we need to be in different parties, I don’t hear that ‘we need to break up in order to represent our values and our positions’,” says Lauren Armstrong, a UCP member. “The media wants to hear that we all hate each other, but it’s because it’s more interesting than saying, ‘Well you know, it actually looks like we’ll be fine’.”

Smith, who won the party’s leadership on the sixth and final ballot with 53.77 percent of the vote, was a controversial figure due to her opposition to vaccine mandates and her proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act, which, when originally pitched, would supposedly allow the Alberta government the option of refusing to enforce federal laws it opposed. 

And although some UCP members are content to wait until the next election to see if they still belong to the party, others have already expressed dismay about Smith’s victory.

“Some Canadian politicians have taken the odd page from the Trump playbook, Danielle is taking entire chapters,” wrote long-time Alberta political strategist Ken Boessenkool at The Line, in a piece that compared Smith to a kamikaze pilot aimed at the province.

Boessenkool, who worked on the campaign for Rajan Sawhney in the leadership race, is one of a number of conservatives who have pushed back on the idea that Smith’s victory represents an ideological squabble, rather than a new kind of populist politics.

In her victory speech on Thursday night, Smith immediately took a confrontational posture against the federal government and COVID-19 measures, although she spent several minutes reaching out to her competitors in the leadership race and then pivoted to economic issues like inflation.

“No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free. We will not have our voices silenced and censored. We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order to work or to travel. We will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by a virtue-signalling prime minister,” said Smith, to applause and cheers from the crowd.

Armstrong says anybody wanting the lead the UCP must show they will stand up to Ottawa and, although constitutional scholars have dismissed the idea, Smith’s Sovereignty Act was the clearest outline of how she would do that. 

“I think she will do what Alberta premiers have always done, which is, if they’re offering a deal that we ought to be taking, she’ll take it,” says Armstrong. “But generally speaking, it will be a healthy conflict with the feds that I don’t see as being super different from previous premiers.” 

The UCP emerged in 2017 from a merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties and the resignation of party leader Jason Kenney, after narrowly surviving a May leadership review with just 51.4 percent of the vote, has reignited old tensions between the two factions.

Having been absent from electoral politics for over seven years, Smith’s victory has been called a takeover by the UCP’s more conservative wing, which is largely drawn from the former, rural-based Wildrose Party that Smith herself led from 2009 to 2014. The former Wildrose Party was originally made up of grassroots conservative voters dissatisfied with the direction of the Alberta PCs. 

Caouette says Smith is supported by former Wildrosers who are more likely to split from the UCP if their interests are not represented by the party. 

“Danielle Smith has the support of those people, she’s worked hard for it, they’re behind her,” says Caouette. “It’s less likely for the people who disapprove of Smith to be motivated to split the party because they don’t feel like the party is centrist enough for them.” 

Armstrong says anyone uncomfortable with the PC-Wildrose merger left the UCP before the last provincial election. She says the tens of thousands of Albertans buying UCP memberships to support Smith is good for the party. 

Caouette says that because the UCP originated as a merger of two parties, Smith’s win due to the backing of former Wildrose supporters is not a takeover. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s a takeover at all because the point of combining the parties back in 2017 was to make sure that both sides, both the Wildrose and the PC sides, were represented,” says Melissa Caouette. “Sometimes that means that leaders who reflect one side will be the leader.” 

Several verbal blunders by Smith, such as suggesting cancer patients can control their illness if it is before Stage 4, marred her ultimately successful campaign. 

Caouette says Smith’s curiosity and willingness to engage and listen to people is both a strength and a weakness.

“She’s proven that she can empathize with people, she can talk to people, she can have a discussion with somebody who may or may not share her view and see their perspective,” says Caouette. “The challenge, I think for her in that, is having boundaries, having lines that don’t get crossed.”