In April 2022, Ontario became the first province in Canada to allow private gaming websites to start taking bets. This was welcome news for companies that ran online sports betting, as they predicted Ontario could become one of the biggest online sports-betting markets in North America. While it hasn’t reached that point yet, the numbers are staggering. Ontario’s internet-gaming regulator revealed that in the last quarter of 2022, Ontarians bet more than $11.5 billion on sports. That is a 91 per cent increase over the previous quarter. This follows the rapid rise of online sports gambling in the United States, as the Super Bowl alone saw a record US$16 billion worth of bets made.
What allowed for the quick success of Ontario’s private gaming websites was the passing of Bill C-218 back in August 2021 by the federal government. In the past, no one could make a legal wager on who would win a sporting match. Bill C-218—the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act—brought about a huge shift in the way sports gambling in Canada was done as it removed the ban on single-event sports betting. While the gambling companies are making money, the intrusion of gambling is showing how capitalism destroys sports at the expense of fans.
A tsunami of advertising
Anyone who has watched a hockey or basketball game in the last year would have noticed the effect gambling has had on broadcasts. Betting websites have bought an enormous amount of commercial time during the games, and hired superstar athletes like Connor McDavid, Wayne Gretzky, and Kevin Garnett for promotion. The National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) have also signed agreements with these websites as “official sports betting partners”. Everyone involved in pro sports has been quick to cash in, including the broadcasting companies who have replaced half-time analysis with new segments detailing betting odds. At every turn, gambling asserts itself.
The aggressive push to gamble is part of the continuous effort of the capitalists to squeeze revenue out of sports. Advertising is plastered all over the arenas, the players, and anywhere else it can be accommodated. Now, not even the breaks in the game reserved for analysis or colour commentary are safe.
In 2012, all three commissioners of the big North American sports leagues opposed any intrusion of gambling into the league. In 2014, former NBA commissioner David Stern appeared in court to argue against any expansion of sports gambling. But now that there’s a lot of money on the table, all the higher-ups have had a change of heart.
The fix is in
Critics of sports gambling have argued that it promotes match-fixing. Match-fixing is a practice where athletes, coaches, or referees intentionally push the game to a certain result. This is usually done in exchange for a payout from someone betting on the game. Match-fixing obliterates the integrity of a game. Referees call ludicrous penalties. Athletes turn into paid actors. All of this ruins the experience of millions of fans.
The history of sports is littered with notorious match-fixing events where participants had money on the line. Even the major championships, like the 1919 World Series, have had teams paid by gamblers to intentionally lose. The most damning example of Canadian match-fixing comes from the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) in the 2010s. The CSL was so notorious for having fixed matches, many international gambling rings wouldn’t touch it.
One particularly bad game was recounted in The Globe and Mail:
One match was so bad that it ended in farce as the honest team decided to punish the fixing team and started to score in their own goal to deny the fix. The fixing team then took the ball and tried to score in their own goal. The last 20 minutes of the match was spent with each team frantically trying to score in their own goal.
A report released in 2015 by the International Centre for Sport Security suspected as many as 42 per cent of matches in the 2015 season could have been fixed. While the CSL scandal took place internationally, with crime syndicates in Europe pulling the strings, the further intrusion of gambling in sports only has potential to make match-fixing more common.
Online sports betting preys on ordinary people who may already be struggling to make ends meet. Just like in the CSL, the game is rigged. Some users turn to sports betting as a way to make extra income, but in reality, the odds are always stacked against them.
The reason that gambling companies operate is to turn a profit. For every lucky bet, there are many that do not pay out. Gambling companies use sophisticated algorithms to maximize profitability while paying out just enough to keep users hooked. The industry also employs targeted advertising to lure people into participating in their games, with little regard for the human cost of their profit-driven activities. The vast majority of people who engage in online sports betting will end up losing money, contributing to the poverty that already exists in society.
Sports betting is often portrayed to be skill- or knowledge-based, as though bettors with a greater understanding of the game will be more successful. Even if this was true, the gambling companies have found a way to ensure they pay out as little as possible: ban the winners. Just like at a casino, if a bettor finds themselves on a hot streak, the house will kick them out. Many users who won big bets, or won enough consecutive wagers, reported being banned from platforms or slapped with betting restrictions. You just can’t win.
No matter the consequences
The online sports betting industry in Ontario is dominated by a few large corporations, who enjoy significant profit margins while offering little to no support to those who develop addictions or other gambling-related problems. Their business model is also skewed towards a small group of frequent gamblers. An analysis from the University of Liverpool showed that online sports gambling companies made 86 per cent of their profits from five per cent of users. They intentionally target gambling addicts, or users prone to betting in a compulsive manner.
This predatory targeting ruins people’s lives, and in the worst cases, ends them. Gambling addicts have the highest suicide rate of all addictions, with one in five reported attempting suicide. This makes sense, as financial strain is a primary driver of suicide. The increased prominence of sports betting, the advertising with superstar athletes, and its acceptance by the major leagues will contribute to more of this in the future.
Above all, the rapid expansion of sports gambling shows how capitalism ruins sports. The economic pressure of capitalism’s death agony has pushed the bosses to squeeze every dollar possible out of sports, no matter the consequences. The experience of fans is being eroded by advertising, match-fixing, and the push to gamble. Last year, much to the dismay of fans, the Montreal Canadiens unveiled their new jersey, which included a prominent Royal Bank of Canada logo. The anger was captured well by former player Georges Laraque who said, “I grew up in Montreal and I remember reading the book, The Jersey of Rocket Richard, you know, talking about the jersey. It was sacred,”. But for the ruling class, nothing is sacred except profit.