Companies offering online gaming and sports betting in Ontario have to be ready to pivot their marketing strategies to proactively comply with recently introduced regulations prohibiting the use of current or retired athletes in advertisements for their products.
The amended regulations from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which will formally take effect on February 28, 2024, also ban ads from entertainers, social media influencers, role models and cartoon characters who would “likely be expected to appeal to minors.”
Esports-focused Rivalry was one of several licensed operators in Ontario that provided guidance to AGCO on the development of marketing standards that would maintain a competitive and responsible set of rules for the province.
“AGCO's new guidelines will likely push operators to be more creative with their marketing versus traditional betting advertisements which have historically relied heavily on celebrity and athlete endorsements,” said Steven Salz, co-founder and CEO of the Toronto-based company.
“Rivalry's marketing and acquisition strategy has always prioritized organic content and original IP as opposed to promoting betting itself.
“From that standpoint, we don't expect AGCO's guidelines to impact our operations materially, though we will make any necessary adjustments to ensure we remain compliant moving forward.”
Shelley White, CEO of the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) in Canada, said the group was pleased to see that the AGCO is making changes to the current advertising standards to protect vulnerable populations from the risks of gambling.
“Gambling participation typically increases during adolescence and peaks in young adulthood when the risks for gambling harm is also amplified,” White said. “Banning the use of athletes and restricting celebrity endorsements is an important step towards minimizing harm.”
Ontario launched its competitive market for online gambling in April last year and like in many other markets saw an early boom in ads on television, radio, billboards and other sports-media channels.
As a result of the updated standards, eliminated from the Ontario airwaves will be BetMGM’s existing promotional tie-ups with Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, the league’s reigning most valuable player, and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
Bet99 also has a partnership with Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews.
The impact on other marketing strategies should also become clearer as the AGCO prepares additional guidance around the standards.
“We commend the AGCO for instituting the long-rumoured adjustments to operator marketing standards while also acknowledging the new rules will force a pivot in our strategy, as well as many other legally regulated operators in Ontario,” said Nic Sulsky, PointsBet Canada’s chief commercial officer.
Sulsky stressed that the “extent of that pivot is not yet known while we await further clarification from the AGCO, but we are ready to adapt as needed across our marketing and advertising methods.”
The AGCO standards align somewhat with existing rules on alcohol advertising in Ontario, which prevent the use of celebrities who would “reasonably be expected” to appeal to persons under the lawful drinking age.
Danielle Bush, an attorney with McCarthy Tetrault in Toronto, said further guidance from the AGCO is sorely needed as it is not immediately apparent which celebrities who might appear in gambling advertisements would likely be expected to appeal to minors.
“There is some concern that the AGCO will take the same approach to this issue as to many others and advise operators that they are required to use their own judgement on the matter,” Bush said.
“Unfortunately, the AGCO has been known to advise operators that their judgement failed them on a particular point and to then fine the operator for contravening the standard in question (in sum for guessing incorrectly).”
White stressed that the use of celebrities and athletes in gambling advertising makes what can be a risky activity seem cool.
“This is a step in the right direction to protect people against gambling harms,” White said. “As the Ontario market continues to evolve it is critical that there are prevention efforts in place to reduce risk and to create a culture of safer play.”
Penn Entertainment-owned theScore Bet launched a new campaign prior to the launch of the National Football League (NFL) season last week that features an old-school bookmaker who is far less appealing that theScore.
Aubrey Levy, theScore’s head of marketing, said the decision not to lean on any athletes was not related to the pending AGCO changes.
“Celebrity has never been a prerequisite in our campaign ideation,” Levy told The Message, an online magazine covering the Canadian advertising industry. “When we’ve used talent previously, it was always in support of the campaign message, rather than the primary focal point.”
“So, as we decided to focus this campaign more on a comparison of our differentiated value proposition versus the category, creatively celebrity didn’t fit as well to support the strategy,” he said.
As Ontario’s gaming industry pivots to comply with the new advertising restrictions, there is still a bill pending in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario that would ban all online gambling advertising in the province.
In addition, Marty Deacon, who represents a region of Ontario as an independent senator in Canada's federal parliament, has introduced legislation to create a national framework to regulate advertising.
At least some Ontario online gambling operators would be open to further conversation on the advertising front.
“A whistle-to-whistle ban on betting advertisements has had a positive outcome in other countries with regards to the fan viewing experience — though it remains to be seen whether or not Ontario will follow suit,” Rivalry's Salz said.