Ontario Officially Bans Athletes in Online Sports Betting, iGaming Advertising

Internet gambling operators used a variety of athletes and celebrities to tout their websites in connection with the launch of Ontario’s competitive market for online sports betting and casino wagering in April 2022. 

Feb 28, 2024 • 13:40 ET • 5 min read
Wayne Gretzky NHL All-Star
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The Great One is now forbidden from telling you how great BetMGM is in Canada’s most populous province.

As of Wednesday, Wayne Gretzky, Auston Matthews, and Connor McDavid — as well as athletes from any other sport — are prohibited from appearing in advertising for online sports betting, casino gambling, and poker in Ontario unless they are exclusively promoting responsible play. 

That change was implemented by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), the regulator of online gambling in the province. The AGCO’s standards for iGaming advertising were officially updated on Wednesday with new restrictions for marketing (including the use of various celebrities) that the regulator telegraphed were coming last spring

“Children and youth are heavily influenced by the athletes and celebrities they look up to,” said Tom Mungham, the then-registrar and CEO of the AGCO, in a press release last August. “We’re therefore increasing measures to protect Ontario’s youth by disallowing the use of these influential figures to promote online betting in Ontario.”

Internet gambling operators used a variety of athletes and celebrities (such as Gretzky) to tout their websites in connection with the launch of Ontario’s competitive market for online sports betting and casino wagering in April 2022. 

The first-of-its-kind framework for Canada allowed an army of private-sector operators to register with the regulator and take bets from Ontario residents, a departure from the legal monopoly most provinces grant to government-owned lottery and gaming corporations.  

A perceived boom in iGaming advertising ensued that irritated some sports fans and grabbed the attention of regulators and lawmakers. The AGCO then announced in April 2023 that it was proposing changes to its advertising standards, "with the goal of further minimizing potential harm to youth and children."

Those changes were proposed in August and are now in effect. As of Wednesday, the advertising section of the province’s iGaming standards prohibits using “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."

How do you do, fellow kids?

The update to the iGaming standards also tightened the restrictions on using celebrities, cartoons, and other popular figures in marketing for casino sites and sports betting in Ontario

Rather than banning celebs “whose primary appeal” is to people under the age of 19 (the legal gaming age in Ontario), operators are now forbidden from using such figures if they “would likely be expected to appeal to minors.”

This restriction applies to the use of “cartoon figures, symbols, role models, social media influencers, celebrities, or entertainers,” the standards now say.

The change could be considered a bit broad, as who is to say for sure who or what is likely to appeal to young people? Advertisers would likely welcome the knowledge of what exactly is popular with young people at any given moment. 

Perhaps with this in mind, the AGCO provided guidance about the new iGaming rules earlier this month, reiterating its “standards-based” approach that does not provide a ton of specifics operators must follow. 

That approach and the burst of advertising around the launch of the iGaming market in April 2022 was followed by the AGCO issuing several fines involving the use of gambling inducements, which in Ontario can only be advertised on an operator’s site or via direct marketing with players. 

“The objective of a standards-based regulatory model is to shift the focus from requiring Registrants to comply with a specific set of rules or processes, which tend to be prescriptive in nature, towards the broader regulatory outcomes or objectives they are expected to achieve,” the AGCO explained. “This approach offers greater flexibility for regulated entities to make decisions that best suit their business needs while meeting the regulatory outcomes.”

Clearing things up

At any rate, the clarity offered by the AGCO earlier this month provided additional insight into how athletes can be used in iGaming advertising in Ontario, if at all. 

The regulator said the type of athlete could be someone from one of the major leagues, such as the NHL or NFL, as well as amateurs and those from smaller sports, such as darts or bowling. You could, however, still use "casual participants in local sports who are not recognized or known as athletes," such as a guy who plays shinny hockey.

Operators can still use game footage and have their logos on a player's helmet or jersey in a game. Moreover, as long as an athlete is not doing so under contract with a sports betting company, they can appear on television broadcasts and podcasts to offer their expertise and commentary, including on sports betting.

The AGCO expanded on the RG loophole as well. Again, though, an athlete can only be used in advertising to promote responsible gambling, not to shoehorn in lessons on how to place same-game parlays. 

“Advocating for responsible gambling practices could include but is not limited to, educational content, information on the signs of problem gambling, accessing services, and responsible gambling controls such as voluntary breaks in play, self-exclusion, and financial and time-based limits,” the AGCO said.

Under the influence

The AGCO acknowledged Ontario broadcasters may show out-of-province advertising that violates its iGaming standards and said it will work with operators to try to curtail those issues. 

It also suggested operators must “conduct a credible assessment” of celebrities or other popular figures that may use a "broad array of factors” to assess whether someone is likely to appeal to minors. Those could include audience demographic data or any "obvious" links to a children's film, the regulator said. 

Another clarification was provided on the term “social media influencer,” which the AGCO said could cover bloggers, streamers, or other content creators. 

“While the AGCO is aware that there is interest in a prescriptive definition, such as a minimum number of followers that a person might have, the Registrant’s judgement or assessment needs to focus on an individual’s appeal to minors,” the regulator added. “The AGCO is aware that the igaming environment is constantly evolving, as are operator advertising and marketing strategies. We encourage Registrants to take a cautious approach and to assess the risks of using certain individuals.”

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