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Ontario regulator to limit use of athletes & social media influencers in online gambling ads

August 30, 2023

With the opening of the market of legal Ontario sportsbooks & online casinos, there has been a flood of advertising of these products within Canadian sporting broadcasts, leading to widespread anger and criticism from the portion of the public that has no interest in gambling, or think that gambling advertising is outright harmful.  Beyond the volume of ads, many of the online gambling operators have been criticized for their use of current NHL athletes in their ad campaigns, including this piece by the Globe and Mail's health reporter, André Picard

The National Hockey League placed no restriction on any association between their contracted athletes and sportsbook companies with regard to forming brand ambassador partnerships.  As such, active players Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers partnered with BetMGM, while Toronto Maple Leafs players Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares partnered with Bet99, Sports Interaction and OLG's Proline+ respectively.  

In April 2023, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario indicated that they would be publishing changes to their marketing rules in order to further protect minors and it was expected that some action would be taken to limit the use of athletes within ads in some fashion. Yesterday the AGCO published these new requirements with a memo on their website. Here is what will apply to marketing in Ontario from February 28, 2024.

  1. Be based on themes, or use language, intended to appeal primarily to minors. 
  2. Appear on billboards or other outdoor displays that are directly adjacent to schools or other primarily youth-oriented locations.  
  3. Use or contain cartoon figures, symbols, role models, social media influencers, celebrities, or entertainers who would likely be expected to appeal to minors. [This requirement has been changed]
  4. Use active or retired athletes, who have an agreement or arrangement made directly or indirectly between an athlete and an operator or gaming-related supplier, in advertising and marketing except for the exclusive purpose of advocating for responsible gambling practices. [This requirement is new]
  5. Use individuals who are, or appear to be, minors to promote gaming. 
  6. Appear in media and venues, including on websites, and in digital or online media, directed primarily to minors, or where most of the audience is reasonably expected to be minors. 
  7. Exploit the susceptibilities, aspirations, credulity, inexperience or lack of knowledge of all potentially high-risk persons, or otherwise extoll the virtues of gaming. 
  8. Entice or attract potentially high-risk players. Instead, measures shall be in place to limit marketing communications to all known high-risk players. [This requirement has been changed]

From March 1 2024 onward, the use of these kinds of athletes in advertising in Ontario may only be done if linked directly to the promotion of responsible gambling practices, as shown in point number 4.


Restriction on social media influencers in Ontario gambling ads likely to backfire

Also noteworthy in these changes is point number three, with regard to the use of "social media influencers" within gambling ads that would likely be expected to appeal to minors. Currently, illegal operators are fully exploiting social media influencers to attract players to their "black market" offerings. This is especially the case in the booming world of esports, striking deals to be seen via brand placements with popular "streamers". 

With marketing rules like this from the AGCO, legal Ontario esports betting brands will not be able to be seen in these particular arenas, given how young these forums tend to skew.  In this instance, the AGCO is choosing to opt-out of any marketing within this "young space", fully allowing the black market to exploit it to Ontario's cost.

Is it better to leave Ontario's youth exposed to the giant black market operators in an exploding market like esports, for example? Or is it better for Ontario to allow its regulated operators a chance to make themselves known to the next generation of online gamblers in the province, so that younger players can know that there is a proper place to play, with all the responsible gambling tools that will be at hand? 

At what point do Ontario's online gambling marketing rules and restrictions, which are rooted in good intentions actually become harmful?  Time will tell.


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