A years-long push to legalize single-game sports betting, currently illegal under the Criminal Code, took a step closer to its goal this week.
A private member’s bill, sponsored by Con- Saskatoon-Grasswood MP Kevin Waugh, passed through its second reading in the House of Commons Wednesday. In a rare display of cross-partisan approval, the bill passed 303-15.
Speaking to Global News this weekend, Waugh said he believes the vote will be a valuable one for the sports industry in Saskatchewan and beyond.
“We believe, through the Canadian Gaming Association (CGA), that it’s a $14 billion dollar industry that Canadian provinces and Canadians are not getting any benefit from,” Waugh said.
“This will give the provinces, if it is passed, the much-needed money to give back to sports, culture, recreation and hopefully addictions programming, which I am certainly championing along with this bill.”
Waugh referenced 2019 CGA estimates that Canadians wager $4 billion on sports per year through offshore organizations, and $10 billion a year through illegal bookmaking operations in Canada.
“We don’t get any taxes through organized crime. We don’t get any taxes through organizations like Bodog and Bet365 – the offshore sites,” Waugh said.
The CGA also estimated that Canadians only spend $500 million per year on legal provincial sports betting.
Right now, the only way Canadians can legally place a wager on a sports event is through parlay betting, which requires multiple outcomes to be picked and combined into a single bet.
Last February, Waugh introduced Bill C-218, the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act, to amend the Criminal Code.
Following the proroguing of parliament last summer, discussion on the bill resumed in November, at the end of which Waugh says the federal government approached him about turning his private member’s bill into a government bill: C-13.
“There were some differences between my bill and the government bill, so I kept my bill just in case things did not proceed.”
Then, Waugh says an opportunity arose to debate C-218 earlier this month, leading to last Wednesday’s vote.
The bill is set to be reviewed by the House of Commons’ Justice and Human Rights Committee this week. C-13 has since been pulled.
Waugh believes the bill can be reviewed, given its third reading, and pass through the Senate by the end of May — about the time the beleaguered CFL typically kicks off their season.
Attempts have been made to amend sports betting rules under the Criminal Code in the past.
In 2012 an NDP-led bill passed through the House but stalled out in the Senate. Waugh says that at the time, professional sports leagues were resistant to the idea.
“There was a lot of opposition from the leagues. In 2012, the Toronto Blue Jays and (President) Paul Beeston did a damaging report in front of the Senate saying they did not favour regulated sports betting,” Waugh said.
In his presentation, Beeston argued that the integrity of Major League Baseball would be compromised by the bill. He referenced the infamous Black Sox game-fixing scandal of 1919.
Beeston also argued that “those who bet with illegal bookies and via the Internet are likely to continue to do so because they receive different betting formulas, greater odds, betting on credit and the ability to hide income.”
But in recent years, opinion seems to have shifted on the matter, as pro leagues have become more attuned to game-fixing and fraud-detection.
Waugh also credited a 2018 American Supreme Court decision for catalyzing the move to embrace sports betting. The decision allowed New Jersey to become the second state after Nevada to legally offer sports betting.
Now over 20 states offer some form of legal sports wagering.
“We’re a bit behind in Canada, so we’re hoping this bill can pass through the House soon so that it would give Canadian provinces the right to go to single-game betting.”
In June of 2020, representatives from five major sporting leagues signed a letter endorsing Waugh’s bill.
“You can see that professional sports leagues want regulation to the gaming industry.”
The CGA has also been throwing its support behind the bill in recent months.
CEO Paul Burns noted that Canada’s gaming industry supports over 180,000 jobs nationwide, jobs “that pay an average salary of over $60,000 a year.”
“We’ve earned support from major unions like Unifor, to communities and mayors who see the gaming industry as a significant contributor to the community and they want them to thrive and continue.”
Burns also detailed the potential benefits to leagues and franchises.
“The professional sports leagues were the last of the major stakeholders coming to the table. The CFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, MLS — all of these organizations are saying ‘get on with this and make it happen,'” said Burns.
He says teams and leagues now collect a wealth of statistical data, which can be sold to bookmakers.
“They’re leveraging their intellectual data. There are also marketing partnerships with gaming companies. They also understand that betting adds to the enjoyment of watching the game for some people. Creating those experiences where the revenue can fall back to the leagues and teams is important,” he said.
“Especially in light of the impact COVID-19 has had on the CFL with them not being able to have a season. They’re looking for new revenue streams, and ensuring that they’re bringing their fans back to the game as quickly as possible is incredibly important and this can play a role in that.”
Of course, with more opportunities for gambling comes a greater risk of gambling addiction.
Burns said he’d rather see $14 billion waged in a system with built-in responsible gaming protections than without.
“Canada has some of the best responsible gaming programs in the world.”
Waugh suggested daily limits could be imposed on how much people can gamble.
“Gambling can wreck a situation in a home. In the USA, some of the states have limits. So I would hope that the provincial lottery corporations in each province would take a look at this.”
If the C-218 becomes law, Canada’s provincial governments will be tasked with administering and regulating new gaming.