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Got questions about Ontario’s online gambling industry? Don’t bet on getting the answers

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When Ontario announced a few years ago that it was giving the green light to online gambling, politicians made familiar promises about the scheme. It would be great for consumers. Great for the province’s tax revenue. Great for jobs, great for the local innovation economy. (They didn’t say anything about how great it might be for our blood pressure to be subjected to the ensuing flood of sportsbook ads.)

Since then, most of the talk about online gambling has focused on its downsides: the volume of ads; the disappointment in seeing heroes such as Wayne Gretzky or Auston Matthews encouraging fans to get into the betting game; the cautionary tales about addicts losing their homes, their jobs, their families, their lives.

Would the conversation be different if the government actually trusted the public enough to give them real information about the state of the industry?

For almost two years, iGaming Ontario (or iGO), which oversees online gambling in the province on behalf of the Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), has followed a policy of saying as little as possible. It releases quarterly snapshots that contain a handful of data to show things are going swimmingly.

Which they might be. Who knows.

For the first year of those quarterly reports, iGO revealed almost nothing. It published the total amount of money that had been wagered, but refused to outline how much came from the different types of betting: casino, sports, or online poker. It was hardly a vote of confidence in a promising industry.

It’s finally begun breaking out those figures. Still, it evidently believes most information is like thrash metal or direct democracy: potentially dangerous if released onto an unsuspecting public. And so it withholds data that might help Ontarians grapple with the emerging place of online betting in the province.

Other jurisdictions seem to recognize the benefits in giving the public access to timely, comprehensive information. Mobile sports gambling launched in New York State only three few months before it did in Ontario, and from the very beginning the gaming commission there released weekly and monthly financial reports for both the entire state and each individual sportsbook. The public can see exactly how much business each sportsbook is doing every week, what its gross profit margin is – and also the amount of tax it’s paying into the state’s coffers.

Right next door to New York, online sports betting in Massachusetts went live less than a year ago, and that state not only releases reams of information about the industry and individual operators, but state law requires its gaming commission to conduct all of its meetings in public: They’re livestreamed, for anyone in the world to watch.

Here in Ontario, the AGCO has been meeting with industry members over the past few months for discussions about the agency’s proposed changes to advertising standards, under which most athletes, celebrities and influencers would be banned from promotional efforts starting at the end of next month.

Who has the AGCO met with? Don’t ask. (I mean, I did; in its e-mailed reply, the AGCO avoided the question.)

A little while ago, I left a message for Thomas Mills, the communications division chief of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, to ask why the state believes it’s important to share information. He called me right back.

“Our work is complex,” he explained. “From an economic point of view, from a public-health point of view, the work we do is important and is of interest to the citizens of the Commonwealth, and stakeholders from around the country. So I think transparency is really the public interest that’s being served. People can see the work that we do, warts and all.”

A quick scan of the information published by Massachusetts and New York may give you some idea of the warts that Ontario might be trying to hide.

Last month, mobile sportsbooks in New York State took in US$2.04-billion in total wagers. Of that amount, the market goliath FanDuel handled US$835-million, or about 41 per cent of all wagers. DraftKings handled US$773-million (about 38 per cent), and Caesars handled US$202-million (or almost 10 per cent).

A half-dozen also-rans picked up the remaining crumbs: BetMGM (US$127-million; 6 per cent), Rush Street Interactive (US$51-million; 2.5 per cent), PointsBet (US$29-million; 1.4 per cent), Resorts World Bet (US$10-million; 0.49 per cent), Wynn Interactive (US$9-million; 0.44 per cent), Bally Bet (US$7-million; 0.34 per cent).

The Massachusetts numbers for December echo the winners-take-all landscape in New York. Of US$643-million wagered on online sportsbooks, DraftKings handled US$316-million, or 49 per cent. FanDuel handled US$187-million (29 per cent). ESPN Bet, newly rebranded from Penn Sports Interactive, handled US$50-million and saw its market share jump to almost 8 per cent from 6 per cent. The other five licenced operators handled the remaining 14 per cent of the action.

All of which is to say the industry looks a little like America itself: a few fat cats at the top, with everyone else scrambling to survive.

And what does the landscape look like in Ontario, where there were an astonishing 49 licensees operating 72 gambling websites – including, by my count, 30 sports-betting operations – as of Dec. 31, 2023? Are two or three foreign juggernauts dominating an industry the government had hoped would become a central player in the province’s innovation economy, as people suspect? Are Canadian-based companies, which have much smaller marketing budgets than the global behemoths, connecting with consumers? Are they barely keeping their heads above water? Are they targets for the industry consolidation that so many observers believe is inevitable? Will the jobs that the province trumpeted as a major reason to greenlight gambling never materialize, or evaporate? Will online gambling be yet another branch-plant economy of foreign giants?

(I asked iGaming Ontario these questions. It sent me an e-mail, which didn’t answer them but did include a statement from Martha Otton, iGO’s executive director. It read, in part, “I am proud of the contributions to Ontario that the regulated igaming market has made so far. Whether it’s measured in jobs or GDP, the new igaming sector has contributed significantly to Ontario’s economy.” The statement added: “As the Ontario igaming market enters its second year, I look forward to continuing to welcome operators that want to establish a workforce in Ontario, as BetMGM, PointsBet and FanDuel and others have already begun to do.”)

There are already signs that small operators are getting squeezed out. The Estonia-based Coolbet, which made a splash by signing Andre De Grasse as a brand ambassador, closed up shop after only a year, citing the extraordinarily competitive environment in the province. Two months ago, Unibet, whose parent company is based in Malta, announced it, too, would be leaving.

Last week, I sent an e-mail to iGO outlining the approach taken by Massachusetts and New York State, and asked why its release of information is so limited.

I received a response which read, in part: “As an agency reporting to the Ministry of the Attorney General, iGaming Ontario takes seriously its accountability to taxpayers.” It added: “As the market continues to stabilize, iGaming Ontario is focusing on ways to increase and improve our public reporting.”

The e-mail was unsigned. When I asked to whom I should attribute the statement, I was told to reference “an iGaming Ontario Representative.”

I replied that I needed an actual name.

I did not hear back.

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