Ontario is heading into another NFL season with a cornucopia of sports betting sites but a scarcity of paid fantasy football contest operators — and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.
“Unfortunately, there’s just been no movement,” said Peter Schoenke, the president of RotoWire and the person who heads up government affairs efforts for the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association (FSGA). “There’s really no sign on the horizon that anything’s going to change.”
The status quo in Ontario means brands such as DraftKings, FanDuel, and Underdog will not offer paid fantasy contests in Canada’s most populous province for the upcoming NFL season, which starts Thursday.
So, in short, Ontario fantasy fans are in for another NFL season with the same dearth of paid contest operators, barring any government or regulatory intervention between now and the Super Bowl.
“There’s still a lot of consumer interest,” Schoenke told Covers in an interview on Tuesday. "But... I haven't been able to find a lot of buy-in from politicians, whether nationally or provincially."
Fantasy's loss, betting's gain
It’s a unique situation in Canada, as Ontario remains the only province that allows multiple private-sector operators of online gambling sites to take action within its borders. The launch of a competitive market for Ontario sports betting and online casino gambling in April 2022 has led to a boom in the number of regulated bookmakers in the province.
Nevertheless, the framework also prompted several major providers of paid fantasy sports contests to shut down those offerings in Ontario because of the province’s regulations.
Research conducted for the FSGA earlier this year found a drop in fantasy sports play in Canada “due to the emergence of legalized sports wagering as well as Ontario’s implementation of unsustainable paid fantasy regulations.”
One regulation looming over potential fantasy operators is that Ontario considers “pay-to-play” contests as a form of gambling and not a “game of skill” as in some U.S. states. That means fantasy operators must play by the same rules as online sportsbooks, and pay licensing fees and a share of their revenue to the province. All contest participants must also be physically located in the province.
That said, online fantasy companies can legally operate in Ontario (and smaller and free-to-play ones still do), but regulators say they must sign a contract with a government agency and abide by the province’s rules to offer paid contests. Instead, the major fantasy operators are choosing not to offer paid contests at all in Ontario and citing the province’s regulations for doing so.
“Choosing whether or not to offer pay-to-play fantasy sports is an individual business decision that rests with registered operators,” the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario’s (AGCO) communications team said last week in an email to Covers. “Free-to-play fantasy sports have been, and will continue to be allowed to be offered, now that [the] igaming market is in place.”
One of the big issues for operators is that Ontario’s rules for online gambling require all players to be within the province’s borders. Those limited player pools weren’t big enough for the larger fantasy companies.
“This would severely limit the size of future contests, and lead to significantly smaller prizes - a product we know will not be attractive to our players in Ontario,” FanDuel says on its website in explaining why users can’t play DFS in the province. “FanDuel is hopeful that in the coming months regulations will change to allow larger contests, and should this change happen, FanDuel plans to bring our DFS product back to our players in Ontario.”
There was hope earlier this year that change could come soon, after Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey hinted the provincial government was looking into the issue. The question of shared liquidity is also affecting poker sites in the province.
“What's next for me from the political side is, and I'm just going to say it without a lot of details, we have liquidity challenges,” Downey said during the Canadian Gaming Summit in Toronto. “I don't want to talk too much about what I'm doing, but that is very much on my mind.”
Settling in for the long haul
Since then, there hasn’t been much movement publicly on the file. The Progressive Conservative government at Queen’s Park arguably has much bigger fish to fry as well, as it seeks to settle a highly-charged political situation regarding land use and the province’s Greenbelt.
Furthermore, when provincial regulators and legislators have taken an interest recently in sports betting-related issues, it has to do with advertising. Notably, the AGCO announced near the end of August that it is banning athletes in iGaming-related advertising in the province.
Schoenke sees those legal sports betting issues sucking up a lot of oxygen with policymakers, making it hard to get any fantasy-related reforms on the political agenda.
Even so, Schoenke and the FSGA are going to continue their grassroots efforts to try to nudge Ontario politicians and regulators to consider changing the rules. It may just take another NFL season or two before it happens.
"We thought that they'd realize their mistake and snap back," Schoenke said. "And now, a year later, it's sort of like 'OK, well, this is going to be a long slog.'"
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