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A gambler makes a sports bet at Bally's casino in Atlantic City, N.J. on Sept. 5, 2019.

Wayne Parry/The Associated Press

This year may be a total washout – oy, let us count the ways – but if things go smoothly in Ottawa next week, sports fans who like to wager a bit of cash on their favourite teams might have reason to cheer as they turn their gaze toward 2021.

The Criminal Code currently prevents Canadians from betting on a single sports event, such as the outcome of a hockey or basketball game. That’s why those who bet with, say, Ontario’s ProLine lottery have to choose at least three matches at a time. Still, many fans do place those bets, quietly, especially when the Super Bowl and March Madness roll around: Experts estimate that Canadians wager as much as $4-billion annually with offshore operators in what is known as the grey market, such as the online sites Bet365.com and 888Sport.com, and likely billions more in the black market with bookies who may or may not be backed by organized crime.

But research suggest many more fans are still sitting on the sidelines, waiting until they can place legal bets with companies that are licensed and registered to do business in Canada.

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That day may not be far off. Last week, the Liberal government introduced Bill C-13 in Parliament, which would strike down the ban on single-event sports betting, leaving the provinces to license and regulate the industry just as they handle other wagering. “The goal of the legislation is simple,” Justice Minister David Lametti said in a news conference. “It is to bring a common practice out of the shadows and into the open. To make it legal, regulated and safe.”

Second reading and debate on the bill is scheduled for next Wednesday, so it could be referred to committee before the House of Commons adjourns for the holidays next Friday. Which means NHL and NBA fans could be betting on games when those leagues start their 2021-22 seasons next fall (pandemic permitting).

If the speedy developments caught you by surprise, you’re not alone. As recently as last February, the Liberal government seemed so uninterested in changing the law on betting that the Conservative MP for Saskatoon-Grasswood, Kevin Waugh, introduced a private member’s bill to do it, backed by Brian Masse, the NDP MP for Windsor West, whose riding includes the Caesar’s Windsor casino. A previous private member’s bill on the matter had taken three years to wind its way through the House and the Senate – where it died in 2015. Waugh’s bill seemed as though it could meet the same fate. But then, suddenly, the Liberals shoved it aside and replaced it with their own effort. (Waugh greeted the move magnanimously, saying he didn’t care whose name was on the final bill.)

Why the about-face for the government? In his news conference, Lametti noted that the landscape had changed significantly in recent years, including the fact that pressure has been building from the United States, where single-event sports betting was decriminalized in 2018. (In a sign of that pressure, last February, British Columbia’s PlayNow betting site announced that, as a result of competition from “more than 2,000 unregulated offshore sites that are operating in B.C.,” it was increasing the amount of money a player could transfer to their account each week to $100,000 from $9,999.)

Perhaps most significantly, after decades of the major sports leagues resisting any change because of concerns about the corruption that betting could bring (Major League Baseball, with its Black Sox scandal of 1919, was especially touchy on the subject), all have now swung 180 degrees. Last June, the commissioners of five major leagues – the NHL, NBA, MLB, MLS, and CFL – issued a joint statement of support for the move in Canada. Indeed, they and their TV network partners have become evangelists for the cause, believing that betting could lead fans to be even more engaged in games.

Some people have suggested that the government, desperate for any new sources of revenue amid the pandemic, was hoping for a potential windfall in new taxes that could come from licensing and regulating foreign operators to take wagers legally from Canadians. But that seems unlikely: “There’s virtually none for the federal government,” Paul Burns, the president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association lobbying group, told The Globe and Mail in an interview this week.

In fact, liberalized betting may do much less for provincial coffers than governments across the country might be hoping. “There’s already about $500-million wagered into provincial sports lotteries today,” Burns noted, referring to such products as ProLine and PlayNow. The provinces take more than 30 per cent of that money – or more than $150-million. If they license private operators to book sports wagers – from which the provinces would take only a slim fee – they’ll likely cannibalize some of their current fat profits.

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But with the Canadian casino sector barely hanging on as the pandemic grinds slowly along, liberalizing betting suddenly seemed like an easy way to help a struggling industry: “We’re going to need something new and different for when we’re allowed to reopen safely,” Burns said.

Casinos aren’t the only businesses hoping single-event sports betting will jolt their fortunes. The Toronto-based app company Score Media and Gaming Inc. (aka theScore), which runs its sportsbook theScore Bet in a growing number of U.S. states, is hungry to bring its betting operations to Canadian provinces. U.S. television networks are including more betting information in their broadcasts, believing that viewers might be more inclined to keep watching a game if they have money riding on it.

In fact, a few weeks ago, the Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. in the United States struck a long-term strategic partnership with the betting company Bally’s Inc. in which Bally’s will distribute its betting content to almost 200 stations owned or served by Sinclair. The 21 local Fox Sports networks owned by Sinclair will be rebranded with the Bally name.

There’s a land rush on in the United States, with billions of dollars at stake. Very soon, that frenzy will be coming north.

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