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Scott Stinson: 'It's ruined sport.' As Canada considers legal sports betting, there are warnings from abroad

27th February, 20:43

There is an element of the NFL Combine called the Wonderlic test that is supposed to measure the intelligence of the prospects being paraded around like prize steers as they prepare for the league's draft.

The value of the test has long been doubted. Johnny Manziel had an excellent score in his draft year, so there's that. Players who perform miserably on it often go on to long careers. One detailed analysis recently concluded the Wonderlic was "worthless" as an evaluation tool.

And yet, you can bet on it. A popular online sportsbook that is based in the Caribbean but accepts Canadian customers will take all kinds of Wonderlic-related wagers. You can wager on which quarterback will post the highest score, or what the highest score will be, or the lowest.

It is a perfectly ridiculous thing on which to bet money. You might as well bet on a coin flip, or the outcome of a random number generator, or what colour hat the first person you see will be wearing when you look at the window. But the Wonderlic lines are moving. People are betting them.

The sports-betting marketplace has changed in recent decades, dramatically. Where available wagers were once simple and straightforward -- which boxer will win a match, or what team will win the game -- it is now possible to bet on just about anything and at any time.

Where available wagers were once simple and straightforward, it is now possible to bet on just about anything and at any time.

And while these wagers have been available to interested Canadians for some time thanks to grey-market operators based in other countries and effectively out of the reach of our authorities, such bets could move into the mainstream should gambling laws here change. A private member's bill was introduced in the House of Commons on Tuesday that seeks to delete the prohibition on single-event betting in the Criminal Code.

The arguments for change are mostly economic: there is a lot of money to be made in legal sports gambling, and with single-event betting no longer banned federally in the United States, there is an urgency to catch up. North American sports leagues are barrelling ahead with gambling partnerships and things like point spreads and over/under totals, which used to be an electrified third rail for any television commentator, are making their way on to network broadcasts. There is a sense of a massive shift underway on this continent, with interested parties collectively deciding that the revenue potential for legalized betting is so great -- not just for the gaming industry, but for leagues, teams, governments, and media -- that long-held concerns about the impact of increased gambling should be cast aside.

There is at least some consistency in this, as governments here have long profited from all kinds of gaming, and since the grey market is already providing the product, unregulated, anyway. But as Ottawa considers whether to follow Washington's lead, it is worth considering the experience in places where sports wagering has long been fully legal. They offer some warning signs. In Australia, governments have reported sharp rises in sports-related gambling in recent years, driven by the ease and accessibility of online wagers. And in the United Kingdom, which has a long and established gambling culture and deregulated most gaming activities in 2005, there is talk of trying to reverse the growth of sports betting there. Reports in London last month said federal ministers will review gaming regulations, which could eventually include restrictions on gambling sponsorships that have become a pervasive part of British soccer.

So, while governments here consider moving ahead on sports gambling, others who have allowed it for years are thinking about moving in the other direction.

Darragh McGee spent six years in Canada while completing his doctorate at the University of Toronto, shortly after gambling in the United Kingdom had been deregulated. When he returned home, he realized there had been what he calls a profound transformation. While watching a soccer match at a pub on a Saturday, most of the customers had their phones out to either check wagers or to make them on live action.

Betting on matches, he says, "had become deeply embedded and normalized" as part of being a fan.

McGee, a professor at the University of Bath, has since studied the significance of online sports wagering in the lives of young men in the U.K., by tracking the behaviour of 32 participants who had previously placed bets. The group of men between the ages of 18 and 35 took part in focus groups, filled out a gambling diary, and participated in interviews.

You can't just enjoy it for what it is. It's completely taken over. All my mates can't watch it without having a bet anymore. It's ruined sport

McGee found that the men viewed "having a stake as essential part of watching the game," he says. The study quotes a 27-year-old man as saying: "You can't just enjoy it for what it is. It's completely taken over. All my mates can't watch it without having a bet anymore. It's ruined sport."

The ability to place bets online, particularly on a smartphone, has been essential to this transformation. Betting shops have existed in the U.K. for decades, but young men who might be disinclined to venture into such gloomy places can instead wager at all times and in all places on their phones which, as anyone who is the parent of a teenager knows, are never far from their hands.

McGee also found the study subjects reported that "digital money" felt less real. A 31-year-old told him that one used to have to walk into the bookies, but now "it's just a phone." Money could be quickly deposited and bets placed without any real consideration of the transaction that had taken place.

The betting platforms, much like any kind of free-to-play app that sucks users into building a virtual farm or matching series of emojis, also nudge users into action with loyalty offers, free wagers and other incentives. Someone who just signed up to try placing a one-off bet will soon find offers for all kinds of bets, especially while soccer games are taking place. Yellow cards, corner kicks, offsides, even replay reviews: if you can put a number on something, you can bet whether it will happen.

"The reality in the U.K. is that sport itself has become a way in which young men, and young people in general, are increasingly exposed to and socialized into gambling," McGee says.

It is not just academia that has taken notice. Half of the franchises in the 20-team Premier League have a betting company as their primary jersey sponsor, which is particularly significant in soccer because the sponsor logo is much larger on the jersey than the club crest. The same is true for 15 of the 24 teams in the second-tier Championship. That league itself, as well as the two tiers below it, are sponsored by SkyBet. Anti-gambling advocates, and some opposition parliamentarians, have called on gaming sponsorships to be banned, as happened with the tobacco industry there more than a decade ago. The sports minister told the BBC last month that soccer had developed "too much dependency" on the gambling industry.

That point is hard to dispute. The English Football League, which includes the three tiers below the Premier League, has said betting income has become a significant part of its finances, and officials there have said they would request financial support from the industry even if they could no longer advertise. Gambling has driven such growth, in other words, that English soccer would struggle to get by without it.

Concerns about the ubiquity of sports betting overseas now overshadow worries about match fixing and the integrity of the games, which used to be the main objection. But isolated scandals such as the Black Sox of 1919, or that of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, could become more common as wagering becomes more widespread here.

Advocates of expanded gaming in Canada say the increase in monitoring and regulation that would come with legalized betting would solve integrity concerns, while worries about pervasiveness could be addressed by provincial authorities that would decide how much of it to allow. It would be a delicate balance to strike: how much gambling to allow to capture the revenues and squeeze out grey-market operators, while still trying to avoid associated societal ills?

The experience in the United Kingdom suggests that, beyond the usual questions about problem gambling and responsible gaming that would come with an expansion of sports betting, the significant change comes in the culture itself. What happens when wagering on sporting events simply becomes a mainstream part of life?

The answer is something that Canadians may soon find out for ourselves.

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