Over the last 12 months, Canada again failed to win a game in the FIFA World Cup, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 55-year Stanley Cup drought continued, and a Buffalo Bills team backed by many north of the border once more failed to make it to the Super Bowl.
But the last year for Ontario sports bettors has been different than any before it. Prior to 2022, Ontarians had to resort to the gray or illegal market north of the U.S. border to place a single-game sports wager. Years of frustration for sports bettors in the province came to an end last April when Ontario launched the commercial iGaming market.
Thus far, the results have been staggering. During the first year, Ontarians wagered about $35.6 billion (CAD), resulting in about $1.4 billion in total gaming revenue, according to figures released by iGaming Ontario on Tuesday. The figures place Canada’s most populous province in the top five jurisdictions for online gambling in North America, iGaming Ontario added. Instead of providing individual breakouts, iGaming Ontario reports iCasino, mobile sports betting, and online poker wagers in one single category.
— iGaming Ontario (@iGamingOntario) April 4, 2023
In total, betting activity in the commercial iGaming market has exceeded the expectations of the Canadian Gaming Association (CGA), the nation’s leading trade association for gaming operators and suppliers.
On Tuesday, the CGA scheduled a reception in Toronto to toast the one-year anniversary of the launch. A who’s who of regulators, consultants, and C-suite executives were scheduled to appear at the event at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Regulators from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), iGaming Ontario, and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission (OLG) were to attend, with Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey scheduled to speak.
“Ontario’s iGaming market has displaced the pre-existing unregulated market and made Ontario a recognized leader internationally in this industry since its launch in April 2022,” Downey said in a published statement. “We are truly proud of this strong, responsible, competitive online gaming model.”
Below we highlight the leading issues in the marketplace one year after the historic launch.
Prospering in a crowded marketplace
In an effort to ensure free-flowing competition replete with customer choice, Ontario regulators have been fairly liberal on the number of participants allowed to enter the market. There were 36 operators in the market as of late January, providing a total of 68 gaming websites, according to iGaming Ontario.
While two U.S. states, Colorado and New Jersey, each have approximately two dozen sportsbooks in their respective markets, other prominent jurisdictions have far less. New York, which shares a border with Ontario, issued online sports wager licenses to just nine operators at the completion of a competitive bidding process in 2021.
“The high level of interest we have seen from the market has really come from a model that was built on collaboration [and] input from the industry,” Canadian Gaming Association CEO Paul Burns said in an interview with Sports Handle. “The regulated marketplace was built around protection and consumer choice. And on both points I think the market has been able to deliver.”
— Gaming News Canada (@GamingNewsCA) April 4, 2023
As the fourth-largest city in North America, Toronto is home to thousands of rabid sports fans. The province is also home to two NHL franchises, three Canadian Football League teams, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays. With 14 million residents, Ontario represents about 40% of Canada’s population. If Ontario were in the U.S., it would be the fifth-largest state.
It comes as little surprise, then, that the heavy hitters from the U.S. market set up shop in Ontario. The three definitive U.S. market leaders, FanDuel, DraftKings, and BetMGM, launched in Ontario last year. The triumvirate joined other prominent operators such as theScore Bet, bet365, Caesars, BetRivers, PointsBet, and Unibet in the market.
“We’ve been absolutely thrilled with BetMGM’s first year of performance in Ontario. The market has an incredibly strong base of sports fans who quickly took to the regulated market which also helped bring new responsible gaming and user protection tools,” said Scott Woodgate, BetMGM’s vice president of marketing in Canada, in a statement provided to Sports Handle. “Ontario has turned into one of the most competitive gaming spaces in North America for sports betting, iGaming, and poker players.”
The competitive marketplace has prompted numerous operators to innovate as a way of differentiating themselves from their rivals. Last July, theScore rolled out a proprietary tech platform for sports betting, a move that enabled the operator to offer expanded parlays and other unique products.
“Delivering a superior and safe customer experience remains our top priority and we will continue to enhance and innovate our products to provide users with the ultimate integrated media and betting offering,” said theScore President Benjie Levy in a statement.
A focus on responsible gaming
Before the recent crackdown on sports betting advertising in Massachusetts and New York, Ontario may have set the North American standard for strict marketing regulations. From the outset, Ontario regulators established limits on the advertising of bonuses and promotions used as an inducement for new customers. As of Tuesday, more than 1.6 million customers maintained active player accounts with websites that had agreements with iGaming Ontario, the agency noted.
“Even with the restrictions on the use of bonuses and inducements, that has not actually been a deterrent to the success of this market,” Amanda Brewer, Kindred Group’s Canada country manager, told Sports Handle. “This market has been able to attract customers, retain customers without having to rely on inducements.”
Regulators also established signage restrictions prohibiting sportsbooks from placing billboards within a certain distance of school zones. The restrictions have forced operators to adjust, especially when it comes to advertisements accompanying hockey, the national winter sport of Canada. Last March, BetMGM signed a partnership with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid marking the operator’s first deal with an active player in North America’s top four major professional sports leagues. It followed another deal a year earlier with hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
The Great One joins the King of Sportsbooks.
— BetMGM 🦁 (@BetMGM) June 2, 2021
Gretzky signed a multi-year deal to become a studio analyst with Turner Sports shortly after the network won NHL broadcast rights in 2021. Gretzky signed the deal around the same time DraftKings gained the right to become the exclusive sportsbook and daily fantasy sports provider for Turner’s coverage of the NHL. FanDuel, meanwhile, established a foothold among hockey bettors through its official betting partnership with TSN,
“We are so proud of all we’ve accomplished since launch. Our focus on RG messaging in combination with our unparalleled sport and TSN partnerships helped establish our brand in market,” said Dale Hooper, general manager for FanDuel Canada.
The transition for gray market operators
A contentious issue throughout the market has been the presence of so-called gray market operators, which for years provided betting platforms not licensed or regulated by government authorities. While some former gray market operators, most notably Pinnacle and bet365, completed the requisite licensing requirements to enter the legal, regulated market, others such as Bovada (Bodog) have not.
The AGCO on Oct. 31 closed the transition period for unregulated operators and suppliers to apply to enter the legal commercial market. The deadline gave gray market operators approximately a year to meet the AGCO’s compliance standards. Operators that remained non-compliant by the fall deadline risked having their “application for registration refused,” the AGCO said at the time.
— Greg Warren (@GregwarrenBC) October 4, 2022
Since then, the AGCO has taken a robust view with suppliers, Burns told Sports Handle, ensuring that they are only supplying to registered and licensed operators.
According to an Ipsos survey conducted last month, 85% of respondents who gambled online in Ontario over the past three months placed bets on a regulated site.
“A key objective has been to move Ontario players from playing on unregulated sites to the regulated market, so that they would benefit from high standards of operator and game integrity, fairness, and player protections,” said Tom Mungham, registrar and CEO of the AGCO, in a statement. “Although there’s still much work to be done, we’re pleased to see such a substantial shift toward gaming on regulated sites.”
Potential changes for Year 2
Not every operator in the province has been successful. Last month, Coolbet announced its departure from Ontario citing the competitive nature of the market and the intense promotional environment. It remains to be seen if Coolbet’s departure will be a one-off or a harbinger of larger market consolidation.
“Personally, I think we’re 12 to 18 months away from seeing the market settle down to the ones that will be here for years to come,” Brewer told Sports Handle.
Some sportsbook operators would also like to see more granularity from iGaming Ontario in its reporting methodologies. At present, the sports betting industry is unable to come up with a reasonable approximation on quarterly handle and revenue figures since the AGCO does not have a separate breakout for the category.
“They have not released that. I think that is something everyone would like to see the province do,” Burns told Sports Handle. “That has been part of the mystery, the lack of details.”