The Rise (and Pitfalls) of Sports Gambling Everywhere, All the Time

Looking at the law changes that brought us sports betting ads everywhere—and the near-certain downsides

The Rise (and Pitfalls) of Sports Gambling Everywhere, All the Time
Photo by Heather Gill / Unsplash

"You look at a young man who’s making millions of dollars and represents millions of people in a community, but is 21 years old, you know? Let’s say they’re injured and they’ve got time on their hands, and they’ve got millions of dollars and they’ve got a cellphone, and Wayne Gretzky gets on and MGM and talks about betting." – Michael Andlauer on Shane Pinto's suspension for gambling-related activities.

It's impossible to avoid hearing about sports betting in the NHL today. If you watch a game on TV, the broadcast brings you the evolving in-game odds during stoppages in play, whole intermission segments are dedicated gambling, and, anecdotally, it sure feels like half the ads during every commercial break are for sportsbetting. And those ads? Well, they star prominent figures in hockey like Wayne Gretzky and Auston Matthews telling you that their platform offers the best odds, the best payouts, and the most generous terms. The Sens have BET99 as their helmet sponsor. Most hockey podcasts have a betting partner as a sponsor. Listen to the radio, surf the web, heck just walk around your town and look at the ads on the billboards, and you realize there's so much gambling advertising we've almost become densensitized to it.

Something that isn't talked about very much, though, is how we got here. It's almost like society was thrown into the middle of a lake, without being given the option of walking in from the shallow end to decide if we want to go deeper.

Going back 100 years ago, there were two kinds of legal sports betting in Canada and the US: horseracing and parlays. For the most part, Canada's approach to gambling has followed from its influential neighbour to the south. Horseracing in the US was popular through the 19th century, but was nearly wiped out at the turn of the century by those who saw gambling as a moral hazard. However, a common theme emerged around this time that's been utilized ever since in the expansion of gambling: loopholes. Introduced in 1908, the idea of pari-mutuel betting came to the scene, a process which saw bettors' contributions pooled to enable bettors to bet and be paid out in a group rather than on an individual basis. Functionally, this changed nothing about the practice, but it allowed racetracks to sidestep the attempts to end gambling. Canada's 1892 ban on gambling was changed shortly afterward, with gambling on horseracing becoming legal in Canada in 1910.

The parlay's history is a little more complicated, since its origins trace back to card game parlays. A parlay is when you bet on multiple events to all take place (usually at least 3). So while winning a card game (often) requires skill, betting on a few events to happen feels more random, and amateurs feel their chances are higher. This idea plays off people's misunderstanding of statistics. For example, to have 50% odds of hitting on a three-bet parlay, the three events individually each need to have an at least 79.4% (0.794^3 = 0.5005) chance of taking place, but sportsbooks will present three "likely" events as a promoted parlay at much worse odds than they should be, in the hopes that bettors are statistically unsavvy. In the US, states are given a lot of jurisdiction over their own laws, and so parlays vary from place to place. Nevada legalized gambling in 1931 to try to combat the Great Depression, but they did not permit single-game parlays for decades afterward. In Canada, though, single-game betting had been banned in 1892. In 1985, the federal government gave provinces permission to allow multi-game parlays by introducing their own laws.

In 1992, the US passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), to limit sports gambling. This riled up, especially, New Jersey, who became the leaders in fighting the restrictions. The main line of counter-argumentation went that this law violated the Tenth Amendment, which prevents the American federal government from restricting states in areas which are not explicitly the jurisdiction of the federal government, such as potentially sports gambling. (The run-off effects of American federalism on Canadian law are a different, enormous topic of conversation.)

Sensing the potential for huge amounts of money, the NCAA, NBA, NFL, MLB, and, yes, NHL challenged this law as well. It took time, but PASPA ended up before the Supreme Court, who declared it was indeed entirely unconstitutional by a 6-3 vote in 2018. And that is the crux of why we've been overwhelmed with gambling ads. Suddenly, restricting sports gambling in the US was illegal. States and sports leagues alike flocked to this new potential massive revenue stream. Single-game, same-game, and in-game betting could all be promoted, along with futures. There was a near-limitless number of ways these could be combined into getting people to bet (and mostly lose) money. Once there was no legal opposition, it became pretty much inevitable that it would be legalized. And sure enough, 37 states now permit sports gambling. In Canada, Bill C-218 in June 2021 permitted provinces to follow suit. And in April 2022, Ontario became the first province to officially legalize it. So if it feels like there's been an explosion of advertising in the past 18-24 months, there has, coinciding exactly with the various stages of legalization.

The reasons behind legalization are easy to see. In 2022, nearly $100-billion was placed in sports bets, earning sportsbooks an estimated $7.5-billion in revenue. This was 63% higher than the year before, so many expect this figure to keep climbing. It's estimated that there are more than 80 (legal) sportsbooks operating in the US, and this number undoubtedly will also climb. It's harder to get numbers for all of Canada, but Ontario reported $2-billion in bets for the first 3 months of 2023 and a revenue of $138-million, which is on pace for a 340% increase over the previous year if that number has stayed constant through the year (which it hasn't; we'll eventually find out how much it rose). In an age of government austerity and continual complaints about high taxes with increasing government debt, many politicians felt it was irresponsible to not open up this potential windfall in taxable revenue.

I probably don't need to mention the downsides to all this gambling. You can hear it in most gambling ads, the reminder about who to call if you have gambling addiction problems. To me, that inclusion feels a bit like the stats and images we force tobacco companies to put on their products, all while allowing them to engineer their product to become more and more addictive (such as genetically engineering double the amount of nicotine in tobacco). Fully knowing the addictive, destructive nature of gambling, we hope that tacking on a problem gambling hotline phone number will save the worst of the problem, all while allowing the sportsbooks to develop innovative, more addictive, more exciting, more engaging ways to get and keep people addicted.

I don't want to sound high and mighty here. I realize that we are lucky at Silver Seven to (1) have a loyal fanbase who are willing to subscribe to support site operations monetarily and (2) not depend on this site for our living. You have to make different choices when sports journalism is your livelihood. When looking for sponsors right now, nobody pays anywhere near as much as online sportsbooks. In many cases, it's a choice between shuttering the site/podcast, or else taking gambling ad money. The choice we have come to here on Silver Seven is that there may someday be a sponsor or two of this website, but we will not ever advertise gambling.

The stats on gambling addiction are bleak. Gambling, like other addictive activities, significantly and permanently affects nearly all neurotransmitters associated with pleasure and satisfaction. Gambling addiction is heavily associated with dissociation and escapism (just like social media addiction). The correlation between gambling and celebrity addiction is strong (and, hence, using celebrities to promote gambling is highly effective). Many problem gamblers think it's just bad luck or the fault of companies that they haven't won big yet (and, thus, that they just need to persevere a little longer). Unlike other addictions, a big problem with gambling is that most believe they will make it big if they just try a little longer. In the UK, 0.5% of adults are diagnosed gambling addicts. In Canada, that number is around 1.0% (and 1.6% of the two-thirds of Canadians 15+ who gamble). From March to October 2022, the rate of calls to Ontario's problem gambling hotline rose by 280%, with 55% of those calls being about sports betting. Gambling addicts are up to 15 times more likely to die by suicide. Gambling addiction is more likely to affect vulnerable populations, including lower-income, those with psychiatric disorders, and adolescents. Not to mention that sports gambling brings in features such as 24-hour availability, simplicity, a false sense of control, social pressure, and an increased likelihood of alcohol playing a role.

The truth is, we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It will be years until we have enough data to draw full conclusions. It's hard to know how being inundated with betting ads from childhood will affect the attitudes and susceptibility of future teens and young adults to gambling. At best, the results will be as bad today, which should already justify taking these ads off the air. As in most things, it's money driving the bus, and most consequences are neglected when enough money is involved. Just remember, the next time you get annoyed by Auston Matthews saying What Are The Odds, for some, it's a lot more than annoyance; it could be a temptation to put their health, their marriage, even their life on the line. It makes one wonder how anyone decided opening these floodgates was ever worth the gamble.

If you need help with a gambling addiction, please know there is support and you can overcome. ​Visit or call 1-866-531-2600.

In addition to the links in the article, I would like to acknowledge the following sources: Myles Dichter (CBC), BetMGM, the Canadian Department of Justice, Blair Driedger (Canadian Bar Association), American Gaming Association, Nick Wells (Canadian Press), Dan Ralph (Canadian Press), and Dom Luszczyszyn (The Athletic).

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