Risky explosion of Canadian sports betting ads, via ‘The Fifth Estate’

Bob McKeown, veteran journalist and senior host of “The Fifth Estate,” was discussing sports betting advertising when he returned to an old press conference he once covered. It was held in 2006 when Wayne Gretzky was preparing to travel to Italy for the Winter Olympics.

The hockey legend and his family were embroiled in a gambling controversy that also engulfed the NHL. McKeown still remembered a scene that looked like a crowded Pearson International Airport in Toronto and how, instead of suitcases, the floor had turned into a sea of ​​television cameras.

“I’ve never seen a scene like it,” McKeown said. “And there was Wayne talking about the evils of gambling.”

On Thursday, “The Fifth Estate” will air another story related to sports betting, and the hockey legend will appear once again in an episodic episode. CBC’s news program explores the potential risks of the advertising explosion surrounding sports betting in Canada (9:00 p.m. — 9:30 a.m. NT — and streaming on CBC Gem).

Gretzky became a fixture in that commercial rotation.

“It’s in front of the Bellagio and those frozen, hundred-foot fountains,” McKeown said. “I don’t blame Wayne. It’s hard to blame someone who has been paid what is said to be an eight-figure sum.”

In a telephone conversation with The AthleticMcKeown discussed what the news magazine discovered while traveling to the United Kingdom, where sports betting is more entrenched, and the lessons it could offer those monitoring the new Canadian market.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What initially sparked interest in a 45-minute deep dive into the Canadian sports betting industry?

It started during the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, when the world changed. I think anyone who watched those playoffs was aware that something was different, and it had to do with the tone and content of the TV commercials. It just seemed to cry out for a “whodunnit” – or as you say, a “deep dive” – ​​into how it happened and why.

When you travel to the UK attached, what future do experts predict for Canadians?

Many people have said, if you are worried about what might happen, look at the UK. They are like us; their legal system is like ours, and they did that 15 years ago. So if it didn’t work out there, we would definitely know about it. You go to the UK and they say, “You’ve come to the right place – it’s been going downhill for a decade and a half.”

What are some of the risks when, as the story suggests, betting becomes “embedded” in the sports viewing experience?

I think a lot of it has to do with who the target audience is. And talking to the Canadian Gaming Association people, they said nobody is targeting anybody. Well, sorry. It’s pretty clear from almost everything they do that they’re targeting young men, who are likely to respond to the kind of gambling you can do on your smartphone. There was a time when, in order to bet legally, you had to go to the US and go to a casino or a racetrack. And then things changed. This is a big change. Someone said it’s like an alcoholic having a barbell in his pocket. It is intended for people with a weakness for gambling. And the people who are most vulnerable are young people in their late teens and early 20s.

What changes have been made in the UK and other markets with a longer history of legalized sports betting?

Obviously, we’re looking at the role of ads here. One of the things that everyone noticed during the playoffs last year was that you saw hockey stars gambling. Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. And now John Tavares has joined. And, of course, (Gretzky). In our teenage and 20s lives, this is not something we experienced. It seemed so strange, but it was especially illegal for products like alcohol and — when they could be advertised — cigarettes… To think that they can try to market gambling products, but they can’t do beers or mickey of gin, that’s ridiculous difference — difference without difference.

What response did “The Fifth Estate” get when it reached out to McDavid and Gretzky for comment about their connection to sports betting?

No. … In other stories that we’ve published — about hockey bullying, about hockey fights, about other issues related to our national sport — I called Wayne and asked if he would get involved. And two out of three times, I think, it would. … I sent him an email saying that he had expressed his views on these issues and I was wondering – since we’re going to be looking at his role in problem gambling – if he would like to talk about it and talk. He didn’t get back to me. That says about all there is to say. I won’t criticize him for not wanting to talk about it. And I won’t criticize him for wanting to take an eight-figure sum, if that report is true. But I’m sure he knows what it looks like.

How would you describe the reaction you got from Auston Matthews when you asked him about his association with Bet99 during the post-training media scrum?

I guess a million dollars can’t buy you as much as you think. We reached out to him and Bet99, his employer, and have not heard back. It was pretty clear that they weren’t interested, which I found to be an intriguing situation where they’re paying a guy – reported to be in the seven figures – and paying him to represent them. He is their brand ambassador. He was polite, but certainly not interested in discussing Bet99, and he made that perfectly clear.

What kind of reaction could you expect?

Oh, probably that. I didn’t think he would discuss the moral ethics of what he was doing. He was actually pretty decent, like I said.

You talk to UK gambling awareness campaigner Will Prochaska: How does he feel about celebrity endorsements for sports betting?

Finally, the last thing you hear in our feature is (Prochaska) talking about all the things that come with gambling in the context we’re talking about. Liberalized, legalized gambling — especially online, and especially aimed at young people. There are, in the UK – I think we’ve got it – 55,000 children who are addicted to gambling. And that just tells you all you really need to know about whether it’s right or wrong.

Were there direct calls to action regarding the amount of commercials seen on Canadian sports television?

I am not aware that there was. In Great Britain, they recently published the results of a public inquiry into all this, based on their 15 years of experience with the law and its spin-offs. And they passed a law where people like Matthews, McDavid and Wayne Gretzky can’t advertise gambling services in the UK because they are influential. They are the people that others want to emulate. They are role models. And specifically, from the time of alcohol and tobacco on the air, people who were not allowed to be hired to do TV commercials. So they did it. And in the UK you can no longer have any gambling adverts before nine o’clock at night. … They are going in the exact opposite direction of where Canada is going.

Have you figured out how much this wave of advertising could be worth to Sportsnet and TSN, Canada’s two major sports networks?

I am not. It’s a pretty rich topic. I think we covered it pretty thoroughly, but we didn’t ask a lot.

Based on the report in the article: Is it true that match fixing is not expressly illegal in Canada?

There is no indication that if you fix a match you will have to go to jail. Maybe they are doing it on the basis of money laundering. They can do this on the basis of fraud. They say there are other ways to prosecute someone for match-fixing under the Criminal Code, but there really isn’t a single phrase or word that indicates match-fixing is illegal.

What would you like viewers to take away from this episode?

The question I have is: What is it about gambling that is so enchanting that the list of possibilities Prochaska talks about at the end trumps it?

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(Photo: Julian Avram / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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