The CBC says it bears no responsibility for the sports gambling commercials on its airwaves during NHL hockey games, and that viewers with objections should take up the matter with the Sportsnet network, which controls the broadcasts and collects all the advertising revenue from them.
That control also gives Sportsnet free rein to air editorial segments that are sponsored by sports betting companies. These segments, featuring Hockey Night in Canada on-air talent, would likely be barred under the CBC’s own advertising standards, which prohibit promotions that create the appearance that editorial content is being influenced by advertisers.
The issue has come to the fore during the NHL playoffs, which have pulled in millions of new viewers who, because they were not watching throughout much of the year, had not noticed the prevalence of the ads.
This week, a viewer shared with The Globe and Mail a recent exchange he had with the CBC, in which the public broadcaster’s ombudsperson, Jack Nagler, explained the ads’ presence by saying that Sportsnet is “responsible for all editorial content in the broadcast.”
Viewers began complaining to broadcasters about the ads last spring, after the federal government’s legalization of single-event sports betting opened the floodgates to millions of dollars worth of advertising and sponsorship across the television landscape.
Bell Media’s TSN and Rogers Communications Inc.’s Sportsnet have especially benefitted, tailoring some of their radio and TV offerings to include more betting-oriented content.
“Sportsnet is extremely thoughtful about the volume and content of the commercial inventory that we are allotting to sports betting partners,” said Jason Jackson, a Sportsnet spokesperson. “In addition, we are dedicating a portion of our airtime to PSAs and responsible gaming messaging to help raise awareness and ensure consumers have the tools and information they need to participate safely and get help if necessary.”
But the CBC is in an awkward position with hockey. It held rights to broadcast the sport for decades, but in the 2014-15 season began airing games by virtue of an arrangement it struck after Rogers landed national Canadian rights to NHL games in a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal. Ads for sportsbooks have aired on some CBC-produced shows, including its Olympics broadcasts, but the vast majority of them air during NHL hockey games. Because the CBC is a public service, many believe it should be free of commercial imperatives.
That may be why it receives complaints about the gambling ads. During the playoffs last spring, Mr. Nagler wrote on the CBC website that he had heard from several viewers on the matter, and quoted one who argued that the advertising “was legal but it certainly is not moral ... The fact that you are attempting to convince [children] that gambling is cool and fun is unbelievable if you are to be considered a responsible network.”
After the CBC lost its hockey rights, Rogers secured a special licence from the CRTC to enable it to take over the public broadcaster’s airwaves for its NHL hockey programming on Saturday nights and throughout the playoffs. Rogers receives all advertising revenue and pays the NHL for the rights to the games.
But, in a little-known element of the deal, the CBC agreed to effectively subsidize the broadcasts with what is referred to as a “value-in-kind” contribution worth approximately $20-million per year for the first five years of the agreement, according to a person familiar with the terms of the contract, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The CBC’s contributions included production staff, studio space and other resources.
CBC and Sportsnet told The Globe they do not discuss commercial arrangements.
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In exchange, the CBC secured the right to promote its programming to the large Hockey Night in Canada audience. The broadcaster does not include hockey viewership in its TV ratings or its calculation of market share.
It could not have anticipated that a glut of betting promotions would wash across its airwaves. In addition to the traditional 30-second commercials, logos of sports betting companies appear during in-game action through electronic overlays. Wednesday night’s Toronto-Florida game included ads for BET99, Bet365, Betway, and Sports Interaction on the rink dasher boards and ice surface.
The Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts on the CBC regularly include an intermission segment sponsored by Bet365, during which live betting odds appear on the lower half of the screen. The segment concludes with host Ron MacLean telling viewers: “Check out the Bet365 app for the latest odds.”
And Hockey Central, a half-hour program preceding HNIC, includes a short segment sponsored by a sportsbook, hosted by Cabbie Richards, the executive producer of Sportsnet’s betting content. During one episode last month, Mr. Richards chatted with Hockey Night in Canada panelist Kevin Bieksa while the odds for specific events occurring – such as the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon scoring two goals in the first-round series against the Seattle Kraken – appeared on a screen behind them. Mr. Richards highlighted one possible bet, calling it “the gift” from DraftKings Sportsbook.
That sort of editorial content almost certainly would not be permitted under the CBC’s own policies, which say “advertising on CBC services must not create the perception that CBC programs and Web services are being influenced by advertising or sponsorship messages scheduled in or adjacent to them.”
But those policies do not apply to what airs on the CBC when the broadcasts are under Sportsnet’s control.
“It’s a bad look,” said Christopher Cwynar, an assistant professor of communications at Trent University Durham GTA who has written extensively about public broadcasting. Mr. Cwynar was in favour of the original deal the CBC struck to air Sportsnet’s hockey broadcasts as a public service. But he believes the sports betting ads have created “the worst-case scenario” for the broadcaster.
He said the deal may now be undermining the CBC’s public service mission and sowing discord with viewers. “And of course it opens the CBC up to its critics, who are always looking for ammunition to use, to critique it and suggest that it’s no longer necessary,” he added.
Chuck Thompson, a CBC spokesperson, said the broadcaster had not conducted any research on how its airing of Sportsnet-produced games had affected the public’s perception of the CBC. Still, he noted, “We do know Canadians love to watch NHL hockey. And CBC is proud to make the games we carry available to Canadians across the country.”