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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews in action against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena on April 20.Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Turn on the NHL playoffs. It’ll likely be only minutes, if not seconds, before an advertisement for an online sportsbook pops up, whether it’s an ad on the boards, a sponsorship on the broadcast or a TV commercial between periods.

It’s also likely to feature a familiar face. Whether it’s Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews or hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, sports-betting companies are using the likeness of athletes and celebrities to promote their product.

It’s been this way for more than a year. Ontario launched single-game and futures sports betting in early April of 2022, beginning an era in which gambling advertisements dominate the sports-media landscape.

But that may change soon, with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario proposing last week to ban athletes from participating in gambling marketing. It’s part of a broader effort by the AGCO to pull back on advertising that appeals to those under the legal gambling age.

“When you have athletes like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews endorsing sports betting, these are examples of athletes who have great appeal to young people,” said Timothy Dewhirst, a senior research fellow in marketing and public policy at the University of Guelph. “If they’re promoting what’s been classified as an addictive behaviour that has potential harm, it’s not a great situation.”

The AGCO is considering amendments that, if adopted, would take effect three months after the new standards are published.

The AGCO also proposed prohibiting the use of celebrities and entertainers, along with social-media influencers, role models, cartoon figures and symbols, that are “reasonably expected to appeal to minors.”

This would be a step further than the current standards, which prohibit the use of figures whose “primary appeal” is to minors. The current standards also prohibit other forms of advertising to minors, including placing gambling billboards next to schools.

Dewhirst said the amendments are a step in the right direction but leave many questions unanswered.

“There’s still a lot of potential for [athletes] to be associated with sports betting, and in a medium where they’re still reaching children and youth,” Dewhirst said.

He noted the possibility of a jersey patch for a betting site, such as the Washington Capitals have with Caesars Sportsbook. These sponsorships – as well as advertising on broadcasts – will still associate players with sports betting, Dewhirst said.

Shelly White, CEO of the non-profit Responsible Gambling Council, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that the organization is “pleased” with the AGCO reviewing its standards. She said gambling participation increases in adolescence and peaks in young adulthood.

White also said advertising should be balanced with “prevention education targeted to vulnerable populations, such as youth and young adults.”

Gambling is classified as addictive by the American Psychiatric Association but is advertised more prominently than other addictive products, such as tobacco or cannabis, Dewhirst said.

Dewhirst said advertising regulations in those industries could offer guidance for how to approach gambling.

The AGCO declined to comment because the changes to the advertising standards are not yet final.

The proposed changes are part of a broader pushback against sports betting advertising. Earlier this week, a coalition of the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and others announced plans to develop consumer-protection policies on sports betting advertising. Among the aims of the policies is marketing only to those who are of legal betting age and preventing advertising from degrading the consumer experience.

An Ipsos poll from January showed nearly half of Canadians found the volume of online gambling marketing is excessive and needs to be cut back.

Still, even with the AGCO’s proposed new regulations, Dewhirst said the types of advertisements will change, but the volume likely won’t.

“It’s incredibly pervasive right now … and I don’t think that these proposed amended standards will stop that,” Dewhirst said. “They’ll adapt.”

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