A Call to End Gambling Ads as Athletes and Celebrities Are Shut Out of Them
A Call to End Gambling Ads as Athletes and Celebrities Are Shut Out of Them

With the hockey season winding down, many Canadians have two things on their minds: their teams’ playoff chances and a barrage of television ads for online sports gambling.

The deluge of commercials is a creation of Ontario. Canada’s most populous province decided to go with a competitive marketplace just under two years ago, after the federal government opened up sports betting. As of Friday, 79 online gambling sites, not all of them based on sports, are legally permitted to relieve Ontarians of their money. In other provinces, sports betting is part of the provincial lottery system.

Just over a week ago, Ontario put in effect new rules that bar online gambling ads that feature athletes and celebrities, including the hockey legend Wayne Gretzky as well as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the current N.H.L. stars.

But a group that includes some prominent members of Canada’s sports community now wants the federal government to step in and go much further by banning all gambling advertising. The demand is modeled after the severe restrictions on cigarette advertising in Canada, which studies have shown to be an effective tool for reducing smoking.

The group is part of a growing backlash against online sports betting that my colleagues Eric Lipton and Kevin Draper have recently written about. And Jenny Vrentas, another colleague, has reported on the push and pull online gambling has brought to the N.F.L.

[Read: First Came the Sports Betting Boom. Now Comes the Backlash]

[Read: N.F.L.’s Rapid Embrace of Gambling Creates Mixed Signals]

The members of the group, Ban Ads for Gambling, have a number of different motives. Like other critics, they argue that sports betting is fueling gambling addictions and ultimately brings costs to the public health care system and the general economy that are higher than the tax revenue it generates.

But Bruce Kidd, the group’s chairman and a member of Canada’s track team at the 1964 Olympics, told me that he had another motivation.

“There are people who say that you enjoy sports more if you bet,” said Mr. Kidd, who is a professor emeritus of sport and public policy at the University of Toronto. “I say you ruin sport if you promote betting because, first of all, it disembodies sport — it removes it from the enjoyment of the physical activity. And secondly, it reduces this extraordinarily rich, multifaceted cultural experience to one or two decisions, like whether the referee throws a flag in the first quarter.”

He added that athletes were now finding themselves targeted by sometimes racist online abuse — not for losing a game but for not scoring enough, or too much, to fit some gamblers’ bets.

The Canadian Gaming Association, the industry’s national trade group, did not return my request for comment.

As a starter, the group is championing a bill introduced last year in the Senate that would regulate ads for sports betting. But it is not backed by the government, something Mr. Kidd acknowledged might greatly limit its chance of becoming law.

Last year in Australia, an inquiry recommended phasing out ads for online gambling over three years. But in November, the government appeared to reject that approach, citing the importance of revenue from online gambling to many sports associations and leagues.

But in other countries, including Britain, further restrictions on advertising are being considered. The Guardian announced last year that it would no longer accept gambling ads on its news websites to address the “pervasive nature of retargeted digital advertisements that trap some people in an addictive and unhealthy cycle of gambling.”

(Jordan Cohen, a spokesman for The New York Times Company, said that it accepted gambling ads if the advertiser “completes a certification form confirming their ads and gambling products are in full compliance with all applicable law.” The Athletic, which is owned by the Times Company and provides sports articles to The New York Times, is the “sports betting partner” of BetMGM in Canada and the United States. It has an exclusive advertising arrangement in the two countries, he added.)

Mr. Kidd said that any ad ban might ultimately exclude things like lotteries and charity 50-50 draws at sports events. But he added that he was confident that the continued growth of online gambling, and the problems that come with it, would bring changes to Canada.

“For the most part, we think that the international pressure is moving in the direction of more regulation,” he said. “Gambling addiction is the only nonsubstance form of addiction.”

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    A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades. Follow him on Bluesky: @ianausten.bsky.social

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