Is Hockey Night in Canada betting too much on betting?
Just over 12 percent of HNIC's ads/sponsored content are for sports betting platforms, but it's clear some people believe that is way too excessive
For those of you who are not of a certain vintage, Dave Hodge was Ron MacLean even before Ron MacLean was. The lead host of Hockey Night in Canada from 1971 to ’87, Hodge was replaced by MacLean after Hodge called out the CBC for cutting away from a game going into overtime to broadcast the national news. “The Flyers and the Canadiens have us in suspense,” Hodge said at the time, “and we’ll remain that way until we can find out somehow who won this game or who’s responsible for the way we do things here.” Hodge then flipped his pen in the air in disgust.
Although Hodge was neither formally fired nor did he formally resign, he refused to apologize for his words and found work at another network immediately. He was a man of conviction who, when Philadelphia Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh was killed in a car accident in 1985 after he crashed his car after a team party, approached his bosses at Hockey Night about working with the show’s main sponsor, Molson’s Brewery, on a campaign to curb drinking and driving. “They looked at me like I had three heads,” Hodge recalled. “I would like to get those people to drive up and down any street in Toronto and look at the signs for beer and liquor and wine companies that say exactly that, ‘Don’t drink and drive.’ ”
When Hodge watches the show that he stepped away from 35 years ago in March, he’s far more troubled about what he sees now than he was when he was there. And that is what he believes is the proliferation of advertising by sports betting companies and the show’s attempts to incorporate gambling into its content with its SN Bets Big Board segments featuring Cabbie Richards and Andy MacNeil. Richards is Sportsnet’s executive producer of sports betting content and MacNeil is an Edmonton-based betting analyst for the Vegas Stats and Information Network. In fact, Hodge said if sports betting were such a big part of the show when he was a part of it, he would have once again drawn an even more definitive line in the sand. “I’m not telling anybody what to do today or passing any judgment,” Hodge said. “But if you’re asking me what I would have done under those circumstances in 1980, I would have stood up and said, ‘It goes or I go.’ ”
Hodge is clearly not alone in his indignation. Two recent Tweets he sent out critical of Rogers and HNIC were liked more than 6,000 times and Hodge said that of the 800-plus of responses he received to them, not a single one of them was negative. Not a single ‘Old man yells at clouds’ gif in the bunch. An HNIC staffer confided there has been significant blowback. In a recent column, Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail said HNIC has morphed into Hockey Night at the Casino and lamented how outlets “exploded with advertising” for sports books and betting platforms after Canada legalized single-game wagering (at the discretion of the provinces) last August. A documentary filmmaker called the proliferation of betting advertising “relentless”.
But has it really been “relentless”? Has it been omnipresent and ubiquitous or is that just a perception? Well, for two nights, I charted HNIC broadcasts on Sportsnet and took a record of each advertising spot/promotion for both the pre-game Hockey Central show and the HNIC broadcast itself – Game 4 of the Western Conference final June 6 and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final the next night. And guess what? If you’re concerned about the proliferation of gambling advertising, you should probably be just as horrified by the number of promotions the show has for fast foods/convenience foods – which, at last check, were not exactly good for peoples’ health – because there were actually more of those.
Here’s what I found tracking the spots using a very unscientific method over two nights:
There was a total of 285 advertisements/promotions over the two nights. Those included everything from garden-variety advertisements to in-game short spots to “this period is sponsored by,” to advertising that was dressed up as content.
Of those, a total of 35 of them, which included the SN Bets Big Board segments, were for on-line sports betting platforms. That accounted for 12.28 percent of the spots. Two of those 35 spots, both by bet365, were exclusively devoted to responsible gambling.
The leader in the category was for fast/convenience foods (including adds for Skip the Dishes), which took up a total of 43 spots (15.09 percent). Sportsnet plugging its own properties was second with 42 (14.74 percent), while ads for cars and car-related products accounted for 28 (9.82 percent). Twenty-seven (9.47 percent) were for banks and financial institutions.
Beer and liquor, which once ruled the Hockey Night in Canada airwaves and pretty much the NHL as a whole, accounted for only six (2.11 percent) of the spots, which was more than mildly shocking.
Here are the spreadsheets from two nights of advertising on Hockey Night in Canada on Rogers Sportsnet.
Red - Ads/promotions/content for betting platforms
Blue - Fast/convenience foods
Purple - Sportsnet properties
Green - Financial institutions
Black - Automobiles
Orange - Beer and liquor
So it’s pretty clear that Sportsnet and other hockey carriers are tapping into the sports betting platforms, which are tapping into the hundreds of millions of dollars Canadians spend on sports betting every year. Is just over 12 percent of the advertising spots an excessive number? It certainly seems to be for some people. Watching hockey legends such as Wayne Gretzky as spokespeople for these platforms is more than a little unsettling for some people. But as far as Hodge and others are concerned, it’s the SN Bets Big Board segments that cross the line. Hodge despises them on so many levels, not the least of which is that it serves to cheapen an institution in Canadian hockey viewing.
“That’s the most egregious part of it,” Hodge said. “As one who used to consider Hockey Night in Canada a revered show and one that had standards I tried to follow, it really bothers me to see them, quite frankly, sell out. If it’s going to exist at all, and it shouldn’t, at least produce the damn thing so it looks like it’s a quality that belongs on that show. I mean, that’s Cable 10 stuff that they’re doing.”
The fear, of course, is that the increased exposure to all of this will lead to a spike in problem gambling. And it’s a legitimate. But I also remember a day when HNIC, and the NHL for that matter, probably wouldn’t have existed without the revenues brought in by breweries. And there is no doubt that alcoholism has more far-reaching negative effects than problem gambling. At least for now. A recent study done by the Canadian Community Health Survey indicated that two percent of Canadians 15 years old and older have a gambling problem. Conversely, according to a 2018 survey by Statistics Canada, 19.1 percent of all Canadians 12 and older (which is 5.9 million people) reported alcohol consumption that classified them as heavy drinkers.
And there didn’t seem to be much of an outcry when the airwaves were filled with advertisements that portrayed social drinkers as living their best lives and being ridiculously popular. So why the outcry now over a vice that affects far fewer people in society? And while Dr. Nigel Turner, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and an independent scientist as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), thinks there’s too much sports betting advertising on hockey broadcasts, he said it’s still too early to tell what kind of effect they’re having on people. “I don’t think we’re going to be swamped by huge numbers of problem gamblers,” Dr. Turner said. “But this is going to ruin some peoples’ lives because some people are going to gamble money they can’t afford to lose.”
Dr. Turner actually said that nobody knows yet whether sports betting will represent just a shift in what problem gamblers are playing or whether it’s going to be a new population of problem gamblers. Historically, the bulk of people with gambling problems have been those who play slot machines. He also said the Ontario Problem Gambling Helpline reports that there is, “a bit of an uptick in sports betting, but it’s not really showing yet as a major area of concern. It’s a slightly higher portion of people betting on sports than prior to the pandemic, but it’s not statistically significant.”
Is there any possibility that someone who bets on hockey might have less of a chance developing a problem than someone who sits in front of a slot machine for hours on end or plays table games in a casino? Dr. Turner said sports betting has “historically been slightly less problematic” and less prevalent than electronic gambling machines, perhaps because in the past there was a time separation between the time you made the bet and when you got the payoff, as opposed to slot machines and table games that are continuous. But that could change with the advent of prop bets, that allow hockey viewers to bet on any number of things that could occur during the game.
In the end, Dr. Turner said it’s important for those who bet on hockey to bet only money they can afford to lose and that wagering should be seen as a fun pastime rather than as a means to make money. And he feels that messaging is getting lost in the hype around hockey betting. For example, consider Gretzky’s words in one of his spots for MGM Bets, where he a brand ambassador: “With every tap, a new legend is born. A chance to grab destiny, defy the odds and strike. Because every bet with MGM Bets has a potential for greatness.”
Doesn’t exactly create an impression that you should be in it for some harmless fun, does it? Dr. Turner said it’s important to remember that the odds are always, always against you. After all, these platforms wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t have the huge advertising budgets they do if the companies running them weren’t making huge profits. And hockey can be particularly difficult to make wagers because of the parity and the fact the worst teams can overcome the best on any given night. “But still, you can always bet against the Leafs winning in the playoffs,” Dr. Turner said.
It’s not outlandish to suggest that Rogers has taken a financial bath since its 12-year, $5.2 billion Canadian NHL TV deal kicked in eight years ago. The lack of success by Canadian teams and the pandemic have taken their toll and there’s no doubt that the revenue from sports betting advertising on HNIC is helping to keep the lights on. It’s now legal, has been around for a long time and even Dr. Turner said the number of problem gamblers is low compared to those who gamble without developing an addiction.
“We’re taking a mindful approach and seeing what happens with the broadcast, Sportsnet senior director of content Sam Nasrawi told Steve McAllister of The Toronto Star in April. “We may sit back and say, ‘Is this too much?’ The legalization of betting can’t take over our broadcasts. We don’t want to hit people over the head.”
Even though the actual numbers might not bear that out, the perception among some people is that they’re getting clobbered every time they turn on the television for a hockey game.
Thank you for the perspective. I too have been unhappy with the betting piece and yes, understand the linkage to fast food & alcohol on health. Good blog.
Random Midnight thoughts from Iowa
Central Iowa Random Predictions results
Campbell, you're second. Or Third. How to you refer to someone behind a first place tie?
Waugh, you're 10th. or 12th. Same question.
Gambling. I used to gamble a bit. I put a $100 in the pot in.... 2013? I've been milking it since then. This year, the river ran dry, and I think I'm good. I'm not inclined to add to it. I don't think I enjoyed it THAT much, as opposed to just watching with out taking a financial stake.