At nearly 9 minutes of sports betting ads per Toronto Maple Leafs game, a new group wants them banned

Almost eight and a half minutes of sports gambling advertising aired during the Toronto Maple Leafs game on Tuesday, May 2. One campaign says the ads put young people at risk being pulled into gambling and say they should be banned. (Tyler Cheese/CBC - image credit)
Almost eight and a half minutes of sports gambling advertising aired during the Toronto Maple Leafs game on Tuesday, May 2. One campaign says the ads put young people at risk being pulled into gambling and say they should be banned. (Tyler Cheese/CBC - image credit)

If you watched the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of their playoff series last Tuesday, you probably took in almost eight and a half minutes of sports gambling advertising.

That includes several 30-second television ads as well as on-screen sponsorship deals.

In Ontario, the prevalence of that kind of advertising has increased significantly since the province opened up to independent online gambling sites last year.

But the move has some asking if there are too many ads and what impact they have on viewers.

Among them is Karl Subban, a hockey coach and the father of three NHL players.

"It's a big problem. Gambling is very addictive," said Subban, who's also a school principal. "A lot of the marketing is focusing on grabbing the attention of the most vulnerable, the youngest of our population."

Tyler Cheese/CBC
Tyler Cheese/CBC

Subban spoke to CBC Toronto on behalf of the Ban Ads For Gambling campaign. The group's website says it wants all advertising that promotes gambling banned.

"Harms from gambling include financial problems, stress to families, youth and children, mental health issues including addiction and even suicide – among other documented economic and social issues that negatively affect Canadians," the website says.

Concerns about 'harmful effect on young people'

The group is especially concerned about the involvement of celebrities and athletes in ads they say target children.

"They catch the attention of young people," Subban said. "It's a powerful way of marketing to them, which we know can have a harmful effect on young people realizing their potential and really reaching their dreams."

Lesley Oliva, an elementary school teacher and parent in Vaughan, Ont., says her current students are much more aware of sports gambling than those in the past. Nevertheless, she agrees the ads are harmful.

"Kids should not be exposed to this at a young age," Oliva said. "It's just the wrong messaging to be imprinting on them. It's not healthy for their long-term growth."

Tyler Cheese/CBC
Tyler Cheese/CBC

In Ontario, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGCO) has a number of restrictions on how internet gaming is marketed, most geared toward protecting minors. In a statement to CBC Toronto, the AGCO stated its "goal is to regulate gaming in a way that minimizes potential harm and promotes a responsible gambling environment."

The commission also noted that Ontario is one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban mass advertising of gambling inducements such as bonuses and free plays.

WATCH | CBC's The Fifth Estate investigates the spike in sports betting options:

Last month, the AGCO also proposed changes to its standards that would restrict the use of athletes and celebrities in internet gambling ads. The agency said it's engaging with a "broad range of stakeholders" until May 15 before making any official changes.

Gambling addiction experts and Concordia University professor Sylvia Kairouz agrees the advertising is problematic.

In her research, Kairouz has found that such ads have a real impact on an individual's behaviour.

"It's pushing them to gamble but it's also pushing them, in some instances, to gamble more," she said, adding that the rise of online gambling has created an opportunity for addicts to participate alone without any of the social controls that exist offline.

In an ideal world, Kairouz said, there should be no ads for addictive products like gambling, alcohol and tobacco.

'The odds aren't with them'

Tony Chapman worked in advertising for three decades and feels that gambling should not be promoted this way.

"To me, it's irresponsible," he said. "This is not something we should be conditioning the consumer towards."

Chapman says he's concerned about the influence ads like this could have at a time when the cost of living has become too high for many Canadians to manage. He worries people may be pulled in in the hope of a big payoff.

"The odds aren't with them," Chapman said. "The odds are with, obviously, the companies that are spending all this money trying to convince you to gamble."

Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on massive multi-media campaigns to reach consumers in as many places as possible, he said.

While still hoping for government intervention, Subban thinks other strategies are needed to address the problem at hand, including more education and more open conversations between children and their parents and teachers about the potential dangers of gambling.

"We're on this journey together to help our young people to realize their potential and so we need to have conversations about some of the things that are getting in the way," he said.

"Either act today or pay dearly tomorrow."