O Canada! The history and state of sports betting in the Great White North

Katy Micallef 2 years ago
O Canada! The history and state of sports betting in the Great White North

There are certain dates that are forever etched in history. June 6, 1944 will always be linked with D-Day. July 20, 1969 will perpetually be connected with the moon landing, and August 27, 2021 will invariably be associated with the dawn of a new era in Canadian sports betting. That was the day that Bill C-218 came into effect in the Great White North, thereby legalizing single-event sports wagering. And much like D-Day and the lunar landing, it didn’t happen overnight. Not even close.

Sports betting in Canada has a long and complicated history

Sports betting has been a popular pursuit in Canada since long before Confederation. Early settlers wagered on all manner of competition, from boxing matches to ice hockey to horse racing. As the nation grew so too did the appetite for betting on live events, and bookmakers flourished from coast to coast in burgeoning metropolises like Toronto, as well as smaller port cities like Halifax.

Sports betting in all its forms went largely unregulated until 1892, when the federal government passed the Criminal Code of Canada, which banned all gambling activities. Canadians continued to make private wagers from time to time, of course, particularly in the country’s lawless frontier towns, but for the first time ever they began to face very real consequences for dealing with unlicensed bookies.

It wasn’t until 1969 that Canada finally began to embrace gambling as a legitimate means to help fund programming. An overhaul of the Criminal Code that year gave federal and provincial governments the authority to run lotteries, with proceeds going to select charities as well as the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. The impact was immediate as funds began flooding in, prompting legislators to begin pushing for even more amendments to make gambling available in their constituencies.

Another welcome change occurred in 1985 with the passing of a new amendment which allowed for legal betting on a wide variety of North American sports. Bettors could now wager on events like basketball, baseball, hockey, and football, although there was a catch. The bets had to be bundled together in a two-to-six-leg parlay and moneyline wagering was the only option available. It would be years before bettors could also lay money down on totals, point spreads, and team and player props.

The birth of online sports betting

The advent of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s brought about a tectonic shift as enterprising independent operators stormed the Internet to offer casino and sports betting services. Among the first was Sports Interaction, which operated from an Indigenous community in Quebec.

Other online operators began popping up in far flung locations like Costa Rica, Gibraltar, and the Isle of Man. They existed in a legal grey area and could offer Canadian bettors a wider range of markets, attractive bonuses and, most importantly, single-event betting. They could also accept significantly larger wagers, which set them apart from some Canadian lotteries which capped sports bets at $100 per ticket. The appeal was obvious, and Canadians began gravitating to these sites with increasing regularity.

It wasn’t always easy figuring out the good guys from the bad guys during the early days of the Internet, and sites like Covers began to emerge with the purpose of making smarter sports bettors at a time when data and unbiased wagering information was not readily available.

Provincial operators also answered the siren call of the Web and began rolling out their own online sites. The British Columbia Lottery Corporation led the charge in 2004 with its popular Playnow.com site, and Quebec (Mise-O-Jeu) and Ontario (Proline) also joined the fray.

The sudden availability of betting options through provincially-regulated sportsbooks and offshore books led to a huge uptick in wagering in Canada over the next decade. From 2010 to 2018, the percentage of Canadians between the ages of 18-35 who placed a bet increased from 18% to 52%. The amount of money being wagered also rose astronomically. By 2014 it was estimated that Canadians bet $14 billion on sports annually, with just $500 million of that sum being wagered through official provincial entities.

Bill C-218 rises from the ashes of Bill C-290

That vast discrepancy got many savvy legislators thinking, and they drafted a number of forward-thinking bills to legalize single-event sports betting, the most noteworthy of which was Bill C-290. The bill passed in the House of Commons in 2012 with ease, but was subsequently voted down in the Senate in 2015 after years of heated debate. A second attempt was voted down along party lines the following year in 2016.

Undaunted, legislators took another kick at the can in 2020 with Bill C-218, and this time around they hit paydirt. Officially known as The Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act, the bill was widely supported by all four of Canada’s major political parties and passed its second reading on February 17, 2021 by a vote of 303-15. It helped that the legislation was eagerly supported by the Canadian Football League, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association, and met only minimal resistance from the typically protectionist horse racing community.

Ontario is open for business

Ontario was among the first provinces to offer single-event sports betting on August 27, 2021, when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) rolled out its new PROLINE+ digital sportsbook. Nova Scotia, where Covers is headquartered, jumped on board on February 11, 2022, by offering single-event sports betting through the Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC).

It was a promising step in the right direction for both provinces, but the fun really began two months later on April 4, when Ontario became the first province to allow third-party operators of online sportsbooks to set up shop. More than a dozen private bookmakers began taking legal wagers in Canada’s most populous province that day including bet365, BetMGM, FanDuel, and PointsBet. Overall, 34 gaming operators have registered to operate within Ontario, giving local bettors a wealth of wagering options.

The desire to make it big in Ontario is understandable given the fact the province’s population of 14.2 million accounts for 38% of the entire nation. Financial projections also forecast iGaming will generate a net income of $18 million within the province for the 2022-23 fiscal year. That number is expected to rise to $31 million by 2024-25.

iGaming Ontario (iGO) has yet to release official numbers for the province’s burgeoning sports betting market, but a few leaders have already emerged. According to a report from Morgan Stanley analysts Ed Young and Thomas Allen, Penn National Gaming Inc.’s theScore Bet garnered 35% of the app-download share in Canada in April. It was followed by bet365 at 27% and FanDuel at 16%.

The numbers further west have also been overwhelmingly positive. British Columbia residents made more than $25 million in single-event sports bets within two months of Bill C-218 going into effect. Residents of the country’s Prairie provinces in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have also placed $7.1 million in single-event bets to date through their respective provincial lottery corporations.

The future is bright

Although Ontario was the first province to welcome in third-party operators, it may not be the last. Other provinces and territories are watching the proceedings closely and taking notes. Covers has been part of the journey since the very beginning and will continue to be there every step of the way to document the market’s evolution.

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