The Law of Sports Gambling in Canada

  • December 01, 2015
  • Blair Driedger

Bet on changes for the first time in years

One cannot question the prevalence and importance of professional sports in Canada and what has rapidly become a billion dollar industry. As Canadians’ obsession with sports grows, so too does the desire to get closer, and feel connected with, professional athletes and the games they play. High definition cameras and social media aside, sports betting is arguably the most modern way individuals are feeling that connection, and Canadians are paying for it. Estimates have Canadians wagering over $10 billion annually, predominantly on the outcome of a single game. The catch? Single-game bets, primarily placed through offshore betting websites, are illegal.

Canadian gambling laws, save for a series of minor and now antiquated amendments, have remained largely unchanged since the enactment of the Criminal Code in 1892. Section 207(4)(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada prohibits wagering on the outcome of a single sporting event. In response to the single-game prohibition, Canadian provinces, given exclusive authority to administer legalized forms of gambling in 1985, currently offer “parlay” wagering on sporting events. Parlay wagering involves correctly predicting the outcome of two or more sporting events. The win rate for single-game bets is significantly higher than parlay bets and, as a result, single-game bets are much more appealing.

Enter Bill C-290. A private member’s bill that would delete a small clause from s.207(4)(b) of the Criminal Code that prohibits wagering on a single-sports event; opening the door to Vegas-style sports gambling in Canada. The bill is expected to receive Senate consideration in 2015. If passed, Bill C-290 would give each province the power to permit single-game sports betting within its borders. Notably, both British Columbia and Ontario are on record in support of Bill C-290.

 Proponents of Bill C-290 hang their hats on the revenue potential that is being foregone by failing to take control of the industry; an argument best distilled by the comments of one supporter who said “[m]ake no mistake: If you vote against this Bill, you are not voting to put a stop to single-event sports gambling, but you are voting to ensure it remains in the shadows, with the money going offshore and to organized crime.” It’s worth noting that the American President’s Commission on Organized Crime rates illegal sports gambling second only to drugs as a source of income for crime syndicates.

 Those opposed to single-game sports betting, a list that includes major North American professional sports leagues, argue that such bets will undermine the integrity of professional sports. Sports purists are concerned that widespread sports betting will make fans more concerned about the betting line than the entertainment of the game. Alas, one cannot help but question the commitment of the professional sports leagues in opposition to the bill; the NHL, NBA and MLS have all publicized potential expansion into Nevada, the holy grail of the single-game sports wager.

The merits of Bill C-290 will continue to be debated, but there is no ignoring the fact that the current prohibition is not stopping the activity. Undoubtedly, the debate surrounding Bill C-290 marks what is sure to be one of the most influential decisions on the legalization of sports gambling in North America to date, and excitingly, Canada is at the forefront. Certainly, a savvy gambler would put their money on the law of sports gambling changing in Canada for the first time in many years. Stay tuned.

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Blair Driedger graduated from the inaugural TRU Law class in 2014 and currently works at Bilkey Law in Kamloops.