Anyone who watches sports is used to seeing betting ads during games, but a collaboration between CBC’s Marketplace and British researchers at the University of Bristol found gambling messages fill up to 21 per cent of each broadcast, on average, based on an analysis that looked at seven games.
Marketplace asked the researchers to count the number of gambling messages — including betting company logos, commercials, sponsored segments and any time betting odds appeared on screen — viewers were exposed to during five NHL games and two NBA games broadcast live on television between Oct. 25 and Oct. 29.
An average hockey or basketball broadcast runs roughly three hours. The research team reviewed footage for all seven broadcasts, and also reviewed any available pre-game show, which usually ran about half an hour.
- Watch the full Marketplace episode, The Big Gamble, Friday at 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland, on CBC-TV and anytime on CBC Gem or YouTube.
Their study tallied 3,537 gambling messages across all broadcasts, or about 2.8 every minute, totalling one-fifth of the viewing time.
“It’s shocking the amount of gambling-related messages that bombard the audience when they’re just trying to watch a game,” said Jamie Wheaton, who studies gambling at the University of Bristol and led the research on the NHL/NBA games with Raffaello Rossi.
More than 90 per cent of the logos or references were found directly on the playing surface, or court- or rink-side.
FanDuel was the brand with the most messages across the seven broadcasts, accounting for more than a quarter of the total gambling messages in the study.
Markus Giesler, a professor of marketing at York University in Toronto, reviewed the results and said he’s worried about how seamless the integration of sports and gambling has become.
“All of this is contributing to the normalization of gambling,” Giesler said. “Something that we conventionally think of as a very risky and a very dangerous practice [is framed] as something that’s actually just fun and harmless.”
Ontario launched regulated market in 2022
Wheaton, Rossi and their colleagues did similar work counting gambling advertisements during the opening weekend of English Premier League soccer games in the U.K. this past August. They found nearly five messages per minute across 24 hours of coverage and described the advertising as “inescapable.”
Ontario is the only province with a regulated market for private gambling companies to operate in. Regulated casino and sports betting in all other Canadian regions is handled through a provincially run website.
Since Ontario launched the regulated market in April 2022, gambling has exploded in the province. iGaming Ontario, which manages this market, reported players wagered more than $14 billion in the second quarter of 2022/23. Since the launch of the regulated market, revenues for gambling companies have more than tripled, from a total of $162 million as of June 30, 2022, to more than $540 million by Sept. 30, 2023.
Companies like FanDuel have apps where users can sign up to place bets on a variety of sports or play virtual slot machines. iGaming Ontario takes a share of the money made by operators through these activities.
Deirdre Querney, an addiction counsellor at Alcohol, Drug & Gambling Services in Hamilton, Ont., has seen a rise in calls for help since the launch of Ontario’s regulated market.
“A lot of folks are complaining about the increase in advertising,” Querney said. “It’s like they can’t watch a hockey game or football game without constantly being reminded of opportunities to gamble.”
Statistics Canada estimates that in 2022, two-thirds of Canadians reported gambling or playing the lottery in the last year, and that as many as 300,000 people in Canada were at risk of developing a problem gambling habit. (Problem gambling is defined as gambling that begins to negatively affect a person’s life.)
For Noah Vineberg, who is recovering from a gambling addiction and is a lifelong sports fan, avoiding gambling advertisements is impossible. The onslaught constantly threatens to trigger him to gamble again.
“It’d be a blatant lie to say it didn’t,” he said.
Querney describes a shift in recent years, from people trying to control their betting habits in physical casinos to struggling with the pull of internet gambling.
“All of a sudden, you have something completely different — often younger men sports betting online,” she said.
FanDuel did not provide a comment to Marketplace about the ubiquity of its advertising messages, and deferred to the Canadian Gaming Association for a response. Paul Burns, the CEO of the CGA, which represents many gambling operators in Canada, noted that FanDuel is “a large brand and very popular in the marketplace.”
He said gambling messages are “part of branding and advertising” and that FanDuel advertises “within the scope of the leagues and the broadcast partners who set the parameters around what’s permitted.”
Burns said he did not find the overall number of messages to be unreasonable, and argued it’s no different than the advertising practices of other industries.
“This is a legal, regulated industry,” he said. “There’s a high level of oversight.”
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) stipulates that advertising should contain a responsible gambling message “where effective.”
Wheaton and his research team found that fewer than three per cent of the gambling messages they saw during the NHL/NBA games in the study contained reminders that you must be 19 or older to gamble or directed viewers to resources to help with problem gambling.
Burns said operators in Ontario are now required to hit “a minimum level of spend on responsible gaming,” a policy he said they put in place after the first year of the regulated market. He said we will start seeing those changes soon.
“The gaming industry knows people have control issues with our products,” Burns said. “There’s always more we can do, and we will continue to do that.”
Wheaton reviewed Ontario’s gambling regulations as they pertained to the games he and his team studied. He says the regulations are “ineffective at regulating the current volume … of advertising.”
Several of the gambling brands regulated in Ontario have been using celebrities and athletes in their advertising. Sports Interaction, for example, features NHL players Leon Draisaitl and Mitch Marner in a commercial promoting the company’s online sportsbook.
Marketplace reached out to the leagues and broadcasters, but received no official comment from the NBA or NHL.
CBC, which aired two of the Hockey Night in Canada games included in the analysis, said Rogers Sportsnet holds the national NHL rights and controls the advertising.
In a statement to Marketplace, Rogers Sports & Media, which owns Sportsnet, said the AGCO reviews and approves all sports betting-related ads that air on their TV channels. “We want our viewers to enjoy sports betting safely and responsibly and we use some of our airtime to share messages about responsible gaming and how to get help if needed.”
Bell Media, which owns TSN, also said they follow the standards set out by the regulator and added that “responsible gaming is a key element of TSN’s approach to sports betting content.”
One stakeholder, who did not want to be named, told Marketplace that the findings appear to be overstated, and that counting each logo is not the right way to think about how you limit advertising overexposure in this space.
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As a result of public pressure from various groups — including mental health and responsible gambling advocates — the AGCO will ban the use of athletes in gambling ads starting in February, unless they’re promoting a responsible gambling message.
Giesler says this is a start.
“Detaching athletes from gambling marketing is an important first step,” he said. “It’s not the only step.”
Wheaton says this will do little to address the volume of gambling messages, including the ones imposed directly on the rink or court.
In a statement to Marketplace, the AGCO said it has “significant advertising rules for igaming operators to ensure ad content is truthful and responsible” and added that “advertising has played a key role in addressing one of the government’s important goals, which is to shift gambling to regulated sites that meet high standards of player protection and block access to minors.”
Vineberg, who still watches sports, has developed strategies to try and avoid these advertisements. They include starting up a conversation with someone about something unrelated when the commercials are on or taking his dog for a walk during the sponsored segments.
But he acknowledges it’s harder than ever for people with a gambling addiction to avoid the temptation. His advice? Talk about it.
“I texted my wife every single time that I either thought about [gambling] or was tempted,” Vineberg said. “It really helped for me.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to gambling, here’s where to get help: