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Sheldon Irwin was 13 years old when he placed his first bet.

It came at a nearby barbershop in his Montreal neighbourhood, where the barbers let him build up losses at poker without calling those losses in.

Two years into his life of gambling and skipping school, he went to the barbershop and met a sports bookmaker there.

The term, also known as bookie, is used to describe someone who would take sports bets before doing so was legalized.

“I was a sports big lover. We talked about sports and gambling the great thing about bookies in those days is you didn’t have to pay until the following Tuesday – that was before Sunday night and Monday Night Football. When I ran out of money with one bookie, I was resourceful and found another bookie.”

Irwin has been in recovery for over 17 years and now volunteers his time with Gamblers Anonymous.

He said he has watched gambling evolve during his lifetime to include in-game gambling, leading to his own concerns about what people – particularly youth – are faced with.

“Now you can do it in the game,” Irwin said, adding that he’s seen an uptick of youth attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

The program is like Alcoholics Anonymous which has people follow 12 steps to help combat their addiction.

But the saturation and prevalence of sports gambling advertising has Irwin and researchers concerned.

“Radio shows today are giving you live odds. I don’t know what I would’ve done with all that information, I don’t think I would’ve been here today,” Irwin said.

Canada’s federal government legalized single-game sports betting in August 2021, allowing people to gamble on the outcome of just one game instead of in a parlay format that required betting on at least three outcomes and having them all be right to win.

The goal was to take back control of a roughly $10-billion-a-year industry where betting on single sporting events was conducted through the black market by organized criminal networks.

Since then, provinces and their respective lottery corporations have reported a substantial increase in revenue.

David Hodgins, a professor with the University of Calgary’s psychology department and who also works with the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, said the prevalence of advertisements has changed how sports gambling is viewed.

“With advertising, it’s really exposing lots of people to gambling, and normalizes gambling in a different way,” he said. “In relation to sports, the more people who gamble, the more people who get into problems.”

The federal health ministry said in an e-mailed statement that “problematic gambling and gambling disorder can have physical and mental health impacts on individuals and their families,” adding that the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse had released lower-risk gambling guidelines to help people in Canada reduce gambling-related harms in 2021.

In August, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario banned the use of athletes in the advertising and marketing of internet gaming in Ontario.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, track star Andre DeGrasse and current NHL stars Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are among the athletes who have appeared in ads for gambling sites.

The new restrictions will come into effect Feb. 28, 2024.

Hodgins said the country has not yet seen the full impact of legalized single-sports gambling on Canadians.

“It tends to be a younger demographic that are betting on sports and they tend not to be people who are seeking treatment. So it might be a little while before we see huge numbers of people in our treatment programs,” he said.

“People with addictions tend to begin to address problems when they’re in their mid 30s.”

Nigel Turner, an independent scientist with Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, said in an interview that more awareness is needed about the impact gambling and the abundance of advertising is having on Canadian youth.

“Youth tend to be the people who develop when they first start gambling. It tends to be an adolescent thing. Are we creating lifelong addicts by exposing youth to a lot of these gambling ads?” he said.

“It’s true they are restricted on these legal websites. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to take the message from those games and go find a bookie who will take their bets or even become a bookie themselves and try to make a living out of it. We shouldn’t assume that they don’t gamble just because they can’t get online.”

Turner adds that gambling has also changed how people view sports and the teams they support.

“With sports, it’s changing the nature of what a sports game is for. Instead of admiring the athleticism and going ‘Rah, rah for your local team’ it’s ‘Well how can I make money out of this?’

“Gambling changes the way people view sports.”

Sports gambling in Canada can be done through provincial government corporations, such as British Columbia’s B.C. Lottery Corporation, with multiple private companies like FanDuel and DraftKings allowed to operate in Ontario.

Loyalist Public Affairs spokeswoman Brittany Hendrych, representing FanDuel, declined to comment on the concerns raised by Irwin and others regarding advertising and problematic gambling.

DraftKings did not respond to requests for comment.

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