Canada, at last, appears to be waking up to the prospect of legalized, ‘single bet’, sports wagering, with new moves afoot to convince policy makers of the need to amend the Criminal Code of Canada and bring the activity away from the black market and into the light. Leading the latest initiative is Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli and there is support, too, from the major sports leagues.

News of the fresh interest in legalized sports betting broke first in The Toronto Sun which obtained a letter sent from Fedeli to federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau in which he asked for a change to the Criminal Code. Quoted in the publication, Fedeli’s letter underlined the scale of the illegal betting market and warned of the need to give Canadians a legal option to bet on their favorite sports.

He wrote: “Single event sports wagering is one of the fastest growing categories of gambling entertainment. In fact, in a typical year, more than 90% of the sports dollars wagered in Nevada sportsbooks are on single event bets.

“Last spring the US Supreme Court authored a decision giving state lawmakers the opportunity to legalize single sports betting in their states. Given the absence of legal alternatives, Canadian consumers are increasingly turning to illegal, offshore sportsbooks, or to US-based casinos, which offer single event sports wagering. Recent estimates indicate illegal single event sports betting generates $110 million (CDN) per year in revenue, in Ontario alone.”

Fedeli’s views hold water. Canadian casinos, limited to offering parlay bets, are largely located on the border with the US, where they will have to compete increasingly with gambling venues stateside – venues that will likely offer legal sports wagering within the next two years. Canadians might well feel compelled to spend their weekends, time, and money in America watching sports and spending their discretionary dollars there on betting, dining and shopping. The Canadian economy stands to take a hit.

Chantal Cipriano, a gaming lawyer in Toronto, Canada, has had her eyes set on the single game sports betting phenomenon entering the Canadian marketplace for some time. Offering her view of the current situation, she told SBC Americas: “Failing to amend the Canadian Criminal Code to keep up with other parts of the world which are successfully embracing single game sports betting, particularly online, will continue to drive Canadians to place offshore bets. If Canada keeps dragging its heels, it may run the risk of permanently losing some of the Canadian market to foreign competitors.”

She added: “I think that Canada’s reluctance to legalize single game sports betting is at odds with its recent legalization of cannabis. The legalization of cannabis demonstrates that certain prohibitions don’t work. Single game sports betting falls within that category. Unlike cannabis, Canada’s gaming laws haven’t changed in a long time, yet the international sports betting industry has been undergoing major changes to its single game offerings. I am hopeful that stakeholders will continue to promote the legalization of single game sports betting in Canada and that it will finally gain the attention that it deserves.”

Of major significance in all of this is the purported backing of the big sports leagues who, historically, have been diametrically opposed to sports betting on the presumption that it would compromise the integrity of their sports, teams and athletes. Paraphrasing Fedeli, he says they now support Criminal Code amendments to allow single sports wagering in Canada, particularly in light of the recent legalization in the US.  

And the leagues appear to be making all the right noises. Again, quoted in the Toronto Sun, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was reported as saying: “The NBA would support the province of Ontario offering this form of betting, subject to appropriate safeguards.” MLS Commissioner Don Garber added: “We support Ontario’s initiatives to grow fan engagement in a responsible matter.”

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie wrote: “Canada must move forward to ensure Canadian industries remain competitive with their US counterparts.” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also spoke in favor of change, saying: “The NHL believes that a level playing surface for sports betting is in the best interest of the NHL’s sports betting landscape.”

It would also be fair to assume that the leagues’ support might not be wholly altruistic. They have endured sustained push back on calls for integrity fees from sports betting in the US, unsurprisingly considering their previous antipathy toward the gambling sector. If there is to be a sports betting revolution in Canada, they will be anxious to avoid a repeat of what happened post-PASPA when their reasoning behind an integrity fee was described as specious at best.