Sports betting sites, online casinos and cryptocurrency dealers have become major TV media buyers.
Watching sports on TV used to be predictable. Breaks in the action would feature trucks, beer and, if it was an American station, perhaps a gecko. Lately that’s changed. Sports betting sites, online casinos and cryptocurrency dealers have become major TV media buyers. And much of what is being pitched is not even intended for B.C. audiences—at least, not legally.
It’s not just sports broadcasts. Up and down the cable menu you’ll find plugs for Jackpot City, Bet 365 and Draft Kings, as well as cryptocurrency dealers such as Wealthsimple Crypto and Crypto.com. Why has the media advertising landscape changed so abruptly? There’s no one answer, but the most significant changes involve sports betting companies.
Last August, the federal government removed restrictions on single-game betting in Canada, allowing provinces to set their own regulations. Previously only parlay (multi-event) betting had been allowed. Single-event betting creates a much larger pool of gamblers. “Where there’s a new multi-billion-dollar market up for grabs, the ads will follow,” says Doug Jasinski of marketing firm Skunkworks Creative.
Then, on April 4, Ontario became the first province to host a competitive sports betting market. That allowed outside companies like BetMGM and Bet 99 to legally compete with Ontario’s provincial lottery. Just as national hockey broadcasts last spring featured political ads for the Ontario provincial election, sports betting sites are paying for national ads just to reach the Ontario market. “Gambling websites that are now licensed in Ontario appear to have purchased significant advertising packages with national broadcasters,” says Dan Beebe, interim COO of the BC Lottery Corporation, “and those packages have no boundaries between provinces.”
According to Ron Segev of Vancouver’s Segev LLP, a legal firm specializing in digital technology and online entertainment, sports betting ads ostensibly aimed at Ontario also serve to drive up name recognition even in jurisdictions like B.C. where their operations are legally prohibited. Segev believes these companies are banking on B.C. and other provinces following Ontario’s lead. “They’re hoping provincial governments will see Ontario’s enormous gains in revenue and follow suit,” Segev says. “Then the companies that were prescient enough to run campaigns and gain user databases will have an advantage.”
Crystal Kwon of Front + Centre Communications suggests that the surge in TV advertising could be tied to a lack of alternative options for those businesses: “Other advertisers have been moving toward different avenues like social media influencers and Facebook.”
Doug Johnson, chief ad sales officer of Vancouver-based BBTV, points out that, unlike cable TV, platforms such as YouTube require geo-tagging that restricts ads to specific territories. “You have to follow the rules of the platform,” he says.
It’s not just sports betting flooding the airwaves—there are plenty of online casino ads running as well. “There are around 800 offshore gambling websites operating outside of Canada’s legal framework across the country,” Beebe says. “They may have ramped up their spending in response to the increase in ads from li- censed operators in Ontario.”
Free-to-play sites with .net addresses and non-gambling gaming sites like Zynga are not illegal. But Beebe says some “free” .net sites are a lure for more lucrative operations. “Many online gambling websites market themselves in advertising as .net websites that aim to entice Canadians with advertised promotions to paid .com websites,” he says.
Although those gambling sites are not legally allowed in B.C., the ads and the sites themselves may fall into a legal grey area. Segev notes that while the U.S. Department of Justice cracked down on several gambling services in 2011, including Canada-based Poker Stars, Canadian officials have never gone to court to test the limits of their jurisdiction over offshore gambling operations. “There have been no Canadian attempts at enforcement against outside operators,” Segev says. “Whether their businesses are legal or not has never been tested in court.”
As for crypto ads, their rise appears to be driven not by any regulatory changes but by a desire to establish dominance in a booming—if volatile—market. “These are new and emerging industries trying to establish their positions,” says Kwon.
Segev agrees, and adds that despite some dubious operators in the industry, cryptocurrency promotion is not a practice that Canadian officials can regulate effectively. “They’re not just on TV,” Segev says, “they’re on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram. It’s beyond the reach of Canadian regulators. It’s not even cat-and-mouse—they’re never going to catch that mouse. The Canadian government is not going to turn off the internet.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beebe says that BCLC is the best option for gamblers in B.C. “Simply put, when British Columbians play with BCLC’s PlayNow.com, they are playing on the only legal, regulated gambling website in B.C. All profits generated by PlayNow. com go back to the province to help fund services for BCers, whereas we don’t know where the revenue goes from unregulated operators. PlayNow.com players also know that their accounts are secure, and that they can easily withdraw their funds, unlike the experiences that players sometimes encounter on some offshore websites.”
It isn’t just advertising that’s on the upswing—the sports betting market is booming everywhere. BBTV’s Johnson says sports betting ad sales in the U.S. are expected to rise to $3.6 billion in 2022 from $2.1 billion last year. “It’s estimated that will increase to $10 billion by 2028,” Johnson says.
With numbers like that, B.C. audiences will surely continue to see a steady stream of gambling pitches, regardless of provincial rules.
Single-event betting became legal in Canada last August. Two months later, BCLC had seen more than $25 million in single-event bets placed. The number of NFL bets in particular jumped 97 percent on the platform.
BCLC lost some 60 percent in revenue during the 2020/21 fiscal year, mostly due to COVID-19 and the shuttering of brick-and-mortar operations.
But the organization’s online hub, PlayNow.com, actually doubled its revenue from the previous year, and that was before the single-event legislation kicked in. The platform took in more than $2 million in bets on the Super Bowl, doubling its previous record haul for the NFL championship.
In June of this year, BCLC partnered with the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority and SaskGaming to bring PlayNow.com to Saskatchewan. It also started piloting sports-betting concepts at B.C. bars and pubs this year, with the goal of promoting online betting in real time.