Lately, when Ontarians turn on their television to watch sports, there are probably two types of commercials they will wind up seeing.
One is advertisements for Ontario political parties, as a provincial election is just a week away, on June 2. Current Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives lead in public-opinion polls, but there is still enough time for minds to change.
The other dominant form of advertising in Ontario these days is for online sportsbooks, such as bet365 or PointsBet. The province recently opened a competitive market for internet-based gambling, and newly-regulated operators have been on a marketing blitz.
Ontario’s regulatory framework for iGaming is the first of its kind in Canada. And, along with the federal authorization of single-game wagering last year, the market allows private-sector operators of online sportsbooks to legally enter and take bets in the country’s biggest provincial market. Nowhere else in Canada is this done (at least not at the moment), and it will affect the province’s finances.
So, with the campaign entering the final stretch, is anybody promising voters that they will shake up how gambling is done in Ontario?
Well, if they are, they’re being pretty quiet about it.
Covers sent emails to the media lines for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, New Democratic Party (NDP), and Greens. Only the Liberals, who are running second in the CBC's Poll Tracker, responded before the publication of this story.
“An Ontario Liberal government will continue to advance responsible and modern gaming in the province while ensuring the protection of consumers,” a party spokesperson wrote in an email to Covers. “We were supportive of the federal government's move to legalize single-sports betting and will work with [Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.] and operators to enable casinos to host brick-and-mortar sportsbooks in their facilities as well.”
To be fair, there are a lot of other, bigger issues for provincial parties to tackle, such as education and health care. However, that means figuring out what the other parties could do about sports betting in Ontario if elected, or re-elected, is educated guesswork.
The PCs are the ones who enacted the current iGaming framework. It seems unlikely they would make major changes to the market this early in the game. And, under the Tories, OLG has been talking to its operating partners about bringing brick-and-mortar sportsbooks to casinos, although that process has been very gradual. No retail books have opened yet.
Still, some people are not happy with the province’s current approach to gambling for different reasons and would gladly see it tweaked. This could be because of anxieties about increased gambling addiction, the possibility of fewer jobs at land-based casinos, or (and this may be a longshot) annoyance about the loss of daily fantasy contests.
Concerns about Ontario’s new iGaming market also got some play in the province's legislature from the NDP, who are running third in the polls.
New Democrat Percy Hatfield (who is not seeking re-election) said on April 4, the day the iGaming market opened, that the launch was “causing concern” for 260,000 people with a known gambling addiction.
Before that, Hatfield, a politician from the casino-hosting city of Windsor, sounded the alarm about the iGaming scheme potentially eating away at employment at brick-and-mortar gaming facilities.
Hatfield on March 3 pointed to research done for Great Canadian Gaming Corp., the operator of more than a dozen land-based gambling facilities in Ontario, which warned about the possible loss of jobs and tax revenue due to the rise of online gambling.
“What is the government thinking?” Hatfield said at Queen’s Park, according to a transcript. “How can we allow Internet gaming if it means fewer jobs, less money to the provincial treasury and no hope for those still on layoff from the COVID cuts?”
PC Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy responded that jobs would be created in the province, including at land-based facilities.
“In fact, when you look around the world where iGaming has been regulated, it’s created more jobs, it’s created more tax revenues, and it’s been good for the economy so that people can put food on their table,” Bethlenfalvy said in the legislature.
200 non-union jobs in Toronto? Compared to 9,000+ union jobs in Windsor, Niagara, Belleville, Pickering, Peterborough, Rama… the list goes on. There’s simply no benefit to risking these jobs by rushing iGaming in Ontario. Let’s get it right Minister @PBethlenfalvy & @fordnation https://t.co/civy0wfHCZ— Unifor Together (@UniforTogether) January 20, 2022
Whoever forms government after June 2 will likely be hearing from the various groups with a stake in the province's gaming industry. The government may even take a few of their suggestions.
The NDP, for instance, are also traditional allies of organized labour in Ontario. And Unifor, Canada’s biggest private-sector union, has pushed back against the province’s iGaming plans on behalf of members working in casinos.
“We believe the provincial government should pause the iGaming program and undertake a program review with the participation of gaming workers and their unions, local communities, municipal partners, First Nations communities, local suppliers and other key stakeholders,” the union recently told Covers in an email.
One of Unifor’s problems with the iGaming scheme is that online operators are taxed at a lower rate than their retail counterparts. The reported rate for iGaming revenue was 20%, while for land-based operators it is 55%.
“Unifor continues to argue that Ontario’s brick-and-mortar casino operators should be given the chance to compete fairly, and on a level playing field with digital gaming operators,” the union said. “In its current form, Ontario’s iGaming program gives the mostly foreign digital gaming operators an unfair advantage.”
There could be regulatory tweaks made once the campaign dust settles.
The fantasy industry has been pushing for changes to the province’s rules to make their business more financially feasible in Ontario. There have been no official revenue reports about the iGaming market either, and those could start to come after the election as well.
Ontario’s government has faced additional pressure for iGaming-related tweaks from the business lobby. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce declined to comment further to Covers, but its president and chief executive officer, Rocco Rossi, wrote to the province's attorney general in February to raise concerns about the possible impacts to casinos.
“Ontario is not the first jurisdiction in North America to legalize iGaming,” Rossi wrote. “Every U.S. state that has introduced iGaming has done so in a coordinated manner with existing land-based casinos.”
The chamber urged the provincial government to set a fairer tax rate, consult with First Nations that have gaming operations online or on their lands, and provide municipalities and Indigenous communities with an iGaming revenue-sharing agreement.
Indigenous communities connected to the gaming sector have indeed taken issue with Ontario's approach. One group, the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, even warned about the potential for a legal challenge.
“The government has not taken the time that it needs to address the effect that iGaming will have on First Nations’ ability to provide clean drinking water, healthcare, education, and housing to their members,” Kelly LaRocca, chief of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, told Covers in March. “While I will not speak to the specifics of legal matters, I believe that the government should be reminded that their failure to consult and accommodate impacted Indigenous governments is a serious matter which must be addressed immediately.”