[Acoustic guitar music plays]
[Music fades into Hockey Night in Canada theme, and clips of game announcers and cheering crowds]
Silas Le Blanc: What do you think of when I mention Hockey Night in Canada? You might think of watching Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux dominating the league, setting records that still haven’t been broken; and probably never will. Maybe you remember Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, and the bloody rivalry between the Avalanche and Red Wings in the nineties. Or maybe you’re older than that and you grew up watching Gordie Howe, or Bobby Orr. Maybe you’re REALLY old and remember the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs ever won a Stanley Cup.
Growing up in Vancouver in the late 2000s and early 2010s, my formative memories of Hockey Night in Canada were of Jim Hughson shouting and watching the Sedin twins play some of the most unique brand of hockey that the game has ever seen. It’s been a long time, so younger viewers may not know this, but the Canucks used to actually be pretty good.
Every generation of Canadians has some sort of formative memory from Hockey Night in Canada, not only from the players, but the voices of the game. Foster Hewitt is known as a legend, and the original prominent voice of the program, and play-by-play announcers like Bob Cole, Chris Cuthbert and Jim Hughson have kept up the standard that he set. Even segments pregame, postgame, and during the intermissions, have kept people interested in the program, with Don Cherry, for example, becoming a household name in this country. Even after he was fired, names like Elliotte Friedman, Jeff Marek and Kevin Bieksa have been able to keep fans both entertained and informed throughout the duration of a broadcast.
Hockey Night in Canada has been a fixture on Canadian televisions since 1952. If CBC/Radio-Canada was created to foster a sense of Canadian national identity, then Hockey Night in Canada might be its most successful endeavor.
[Clips of crowds at hockey games cheering and booing]
However, the program has made some changes lately, which Roy MacGregor, a renowned hockey writer who was described by The Washington Post as “the closest thing there is to a poet laureate of Canadian hockey,” says have all but destroyed his interest in the sport.
[Clip of a sports show talking about betting lines]
Announcer in Clip:…LFG presented by Bet99. I’m here with my guys Anthony Bruno, Andrew Martin. My name is Cabbie Richards, and we’re gonna start with a long shot. The best way to get back on land after getting boat raced like they did on Wednesday, is with a W…
SL: Hockey Night in Canada, along with several other sports broadcasts all across Canada and the U.S. have embraced sports betting as a large part of their coverage. Now, along with analyzing game footage, reporting on news, lineups and statistics, pregame, postgame and intermission segments are now focused on reporting betting lines of the game they are showing, and telling people what they should bet on.
[Clip of a sports betting anchor]
The biggest chases I do in Hockey are when teams fall behind. That’s more of the smart betting I do. I’ll look for teams that are having good nights, they fall behind, and then I’ll crush them, and that’s some of my biggest success in gambling.
SL: This brings up a problem for people entering the sports broadcasting industry. Is it ethical for journalists to be promoting sports gambling content? Are sports broadcasters journalists, or are they entertainers? And can journalists who work for companies that take on sports gambling ads report on the legalized gambling industry responsibly?
**INTRO MUSIC STARTS TO FADE IN**
In this audio documentary, I’m going to take a closer look into this issue, and try to find out how journalists are navigating this shift in the industry. We’ll hear from journalists and experts to figure out how the sports-betting industry can be responsibly reported on, or whether it can be at all. We’ll also look into how tied in sports organizations are with the gambling industry, and what impact this has on the viewer.
Welcome to “The House Always Wins” an audio documentary from the Review of Journalism…
**MUSIC PLAYS AND FADES OUT**
[News clip from the legalization of sports betting]
Lawmaker: Provinces and territories will be able to offer single event sport-betting projects, like wagering on the Grey Cup, game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, or the Super Bowl.
SL: On June 29, 2021, Bill C-218 was passed in Canadian Parliament. This act amended the Criminal Code to make it lawful for provinces to “conduct and manage a lottery scheme in the province that involves betting on a race […] or fight, or on a single sport event or athletic contest.” What this essentially means is that sports betting is now completely legal in this country. Now, anyone can bet on who will win the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl, or any other game completely legally.
Prior to the ascension of this bill, sportsbooks operated offshore in what was referred to as the grey market. For the average sports bettor, not much has really seemed to change in terms of the actual product. They still have the ability to place bets on whatever outcome they want, albeit now it would be completely legal to do so. I doubt people were getting locked up for placing bets on games before this bill, but it may be nice for some of them to have peace of mind.
The most obvious change that has occurred since the passing of this bill, however, has to do with advertising. Television ad spots have been taken up by athletes such as Wayne Gretzky, Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews telling the viewer to sign up for some gambling website, and social media has many targeted ads for these companies.
[Clip from an ad]
Advertiser: Make every moment more this NBA season with FanDuel sportsbook. New customers get a risk-free bet up to 1000 bucks!
SL: There has been a lot said about the ethics of this—chief among them is the implications of potentially advertising to children—but for journalists, there is a particular ethical concern when it comes to integrating gambling advertisements into what is supposed to be journalistic content.
Broadcaster: What’s going on? It’s Pat and we’re down here at the Leafs game to interview couples about sports betting. Do you trust each other or no?
Many of these gambling segments are sponsored by betting sites, and even the ones that are not are still arguably doing advertising for the industry as a whole. TSN and Sportsnet—owned by Bell and Rogers respectively—have specific people who are dedicated to promoting gambling content, and have specific offshoots that only focus on gambling. The Athletic, which is owned by The New York Times, is also partnered with BetMGM, and has a specific sports-betting section. However, this shift is not only exclusive to outlets who are owned by large media conglomerates either; The Steve Dangle Podcast Network, a YouTube channel and independent network of audio and video content, regularly has ad spots for gambling companies, and their flagship podcast has a regular segment in which a guest comes on to tell the listener about which money lines and spreads to bet on.
[Clip plays from segment described above]
Advertiser Voice: You Can Bet on That with David Bastl brought to you by Sports Interaction, get in the action and make a play. Nineteen plus. Please play responsibly.
Host comes in: Today’s a little bit different. Dave, we’re featuring a bet that Steve came up with.
SL: The issue with this type of advertising is that for people who struggle with gambling addiction, the ubiquity of these ads makes it extremely difficult to quit, especially since it is something that can stick with you for your entire life.
Dr. Nigel Turner: There are risk factors. People who, for example, are unhappy with their lives, who need to escape, who need to dream about a better life, are more likely to become addicted to it.
SL: That’s Dr. Nigel Turner, who is an independent scientist with the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH. He said that while the majority of the population engages in some sort of gambling at a very low level—such as buying lottery tickets—there are risk factors that cause some people to put a lot of money into gambling and become addicted.
NT: They want to forget about their problems, and gambling is a great way to forget about your problems while you still have money. Because you always have this delusion that you can somehow beat the odds, win it all back. But it spirals down out of control so that you gamble, you win something and then you lose and then you win, then you lose, then you win, and then you lose, and then the losing, over time, exceeds the amount that you win. Otherwise, the casinos wouldn’t exist, if that was the case, right?
SL: When it comes to gambling, winning money in the long run is extremely difficult which is why these betting websites want as many people engaging with gambling as possible. If a so-called expert on television tells someone to make a bet, and people win, gambling companies are happy to take this short-term loss, as long as they’ve secured new customers.
And unlike say, poker or roulette, sports betting gives the illusion that a player with a certain skill level can beat the odds. If you’ve ever listened to a call-in show on sports radio, or browsed any team’s social media page, sports fans tend to overestimate their own knowledge of the game.
NT: There’s knowledge of that game that you’re playing, right? There is a feeling of mastery, a lot of sports fans will feel they really know their team. They’ve got an edge, they’ve got something special. So it’s a little bit of a delusion of control, illusion of control, they think they can somehow know the game well enough to beat the odds.
**COIN FLIP SOUND EFFECT**
SL: Let’s use a relatively simple example to explain how this works. Let’s say I ask you to bet on the outcome of a coin flip. Give me $10, and if you guess the result correctly, I’ll return you your 10, plus another $9. You might win, and even if you go a few more times, you could make some money after a few turns. However, you will inevitably have to start losing money eventually. Given the fact that your return is lower than the amount you initially wagered, this is not a wise bet to make, even if there is a chance at winning a few times.
Now this might sound completely absurd. You might think that nobody would ever actually bet a large amount of money on a coin flip, and you might be thinking that I’m just using an analogy. But people actually do bet on the Super Bowl coin flip. It’s one of the most popular props during the big game. Pat McAfee, a former NFL punter and popular sports analyst, put $40,000 on it during one of his shows. If he had won—which, for the record, he did not—he would have only made a net return of $78,500, which may be a lot of money, but this isn’t even double his initial wager, for something that has a 50/50 chance of winning.
This is essentially how sports-betting lines work, albeit on a much larger scale. The algorithms that sports-gambling companies use are so advanced, and their lines are so sharp, that betting on sporting events in the long-term is about as predictable as betting the result of a coin flip.
With this out of the way, is it responsible to be advertising this type of content on sports broadcasts, given how misleading these ads are, and that sports betting is just another way for people to lose money? People like McAfee can afford to spend that kind of money on frivolous odds, in fact, it probably helps boost engagement for his show. But can the average bettor afford to spend that kind of money? Could you?
NT: So, if you had a sports gambling-related problem five years ago, you got over it, you quit, you started rebuilding your life, recovering, paying off your debts, and so on. Now, you’re hit with all this constant barrage of ads after ad, after ad, after ad. Some of those people are going to relapse. So, that’s one area I’m concerned about.”
In an article for The Globe and Mail, Roy MacGregor, who has been called the Wayne Gretzky of hockey writing, wrote about how these changes have impacted his enjoyment of the sport, and his concerns that gambling is being advertised to children. In an email to me, he said that it has “all but destroyed his interest in sports” and compared it to selling opioids over the counter.
Roy MacGregor: Well, I find it absolutely obscene. Forget about gambling, and forget about anything to do with social mores and that. It’s just annoying. It just goes on and on and on. And now you have the people who are supposed to be journalists and broadcasters joining in on the parade. And that to me just destroys their credibility. But, I want to make one really important point here. How can we live in a society that bans tobacco advertising, cigarettes, when cigarettes affect only the one person smoking (or the risk of secondhand smoke, I admit to that) but basically it’s a one person, one fault situation. Gambling is a disease that could destroy families.
SL: MacGregor emphasized how this has ruined his enjoyment of the game, something that he has been writing about and has been passionate about for so much of his life
RM: It’s made me think that I don’t want to watch anymore. So many people I know are using the mute you know, as soon as that crap comes on. They tune it out. This has the potential to absolutely impact whatever sport you’re betting on when you can bet within the game. Forget about betting on outcomes, which has been going on for decades and years, and it’s had its problems. When you can bet within the game on who gets a shot, who gets a goal, who gets an assist, you’re absolutely setting it up for scandal. And it’s gonna come, believe me because hockey, for one thing, and you know the history of this yourself: It’s filled with scandal. And you have to just go look at the Evander Kane story and how he got himself in such trouble. How might a guy like that get himself out of trouble? Well, I don’t even want to go down that path.
Just look at any Twitter feed, you’ll see all kinds of people, they’re talking about their children who are into it, they’re watching TV, they love Connor McDavid, and now they’re wanting to bet and they’re opening their own accounts. And I mean, Jesus Christ. It’s just untenable to me that this could be happening. I don’t understand how society could let something like this happen when we know that gambling is an addiction, and has seriously harmed many, many, many, many thousands of people and families.
SL: MacGregor says that he is concerned with the way journalists are now promoting this kind of content, and that it gives them a lot less credibility in their reporting
RM: It’s one thing for the faces like Gretzky, McDavid, Matthews and that to front these operations, and you know, I can disagree with that or not like it but it’s got nothing to do with me. It’s their call. When people who are trying to have credibility as journalists are also getting involved in the gambling bit and talking about odds? It’s funny, it’s a language I don’t even know, or understand because I pay no attention to it. I have no interest in it. But for them to get involved in it and to basically be promoting it, boy does it ever chip away at their credibility.
SL: Now, let’s look at the other side of the coin. The advertising industry has always been extremely predatory, that’s not exactly a secret.
Few people are under the illusion that advertisers have the consumer’s best interest at heart. And besides, is advertising for gambling companies really that much different than advertising for fast food or alcohol companies?
Veteran Hockey reporter Ken Campbell made this point on his Substack. He said “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.”
In his own observation, which he admitted to being very unscientific, he noted that there were much more advertisements for fast foods than there were for betting, even counting the native in-broadcast segments.
These are all fair points, and advertising is completely necessary in order to keep the lights on for sports broadcasting companies. With that said, there’s something that still feels particularly egregious about sports journalists promoting betting content completely uncritically. While yes, there should probably be much less advertising for fast food companies in general, it would probably feel particularly unethical for a health journalist to be promoting McDonald’s or Burger King.
Dan Berlin, an associate professor of sports media here at Toronto Metropolitan University says that betting has always played a major role in how sports are reported, and is a key reason that we as fans are so concerned with keeping up-to-date with lineup and injury information.
Dan Berlin: We’ve used probabilities and data and statistics in sport to always build out this foundation of sports stories. In fact, if you even look at this idea of team injury reports, these have always been provided as sort of the standardized information that has allowed for, at least underlying, maybe not being outright in saying so, being used for gambling purposes and creating this level of information that is considered fair and just without offering any opportunity for any, quote unquote, shady dealings to take place. So I kind of look at that as sort of this underlying part of sportswriting.
SL: However, Berlin is also concerned with the way that a lot of important sports stories are being overlooked in favor of the more “hard news” if you will, which is greatly influenced by the interests of gambling companies.
DB: You know, what is happening now is a shift. What we’ve noticed now is, of course with this move, because we see that from a revenue standpoint, there’s a couple of issues I see here from an impact standpoint. Number one, the type of information that viewers now value. So if you look at journalism, I think one of the areas that’s going to be greatly impacted is long-form journalism, or maybe journalism that deals with the social impact of sports or simply the human interest aspect, it becomes less valuable to media outlets as they put more value into—And of course, it’s this push and pull, right? It’s objectivity in journalism and telling stories. But also recognizing that these betting companies are also giving them an influx of money, and of course the audience is now more interested in insider information, so it goes against long form.
SL: Sam Konnert, a freelance journalist who wrote an article for The Walrus called “Who Loses as Online Betting Takes over Sports?” said that it may be difficult for journalists to be able to report on the betting industry and its pitfalls.
Sam Konnert: I can imagine if the company you write for is sponsored by BetMGM it might not even be allowed. But even if it’s not, in that case, there might be tremendous pressure not to write about it. And that might come from the editorial team, that might come from the higher-ups, or even the reporters, but there’s no criticism from ESPN, there’s no criticism from Fox Sports, things like that. So I think if you really want to see any kind of change, it’s the media that has to hold them accountable, and there’s no incentive for the media to be holding them accountable because everyone is making so much money
SL: In a viral twitter thread, hockey data and analytics reporter for The Athletic, Dom Luszczyszyn spoke about his experience creating a model to help readers beat the odds in betting over the course of a hockey season. He claimed that his model was profitable over a very large sample of betting, and that it hasn’t been proven incorrect based on the few seasons that he ran it. He said that this model became a significant secondary source of income for him, and that a lot of his self-worth as a journalist was hinged on the success of this model.
Last year, in the 2021-2022 season, his model started off very well, but by around mid-February it started to take a nosedive, and the losses started to outnumber the gains. By late March, it had reached a net loss over the course of the season, and at its lowest, was experiencing a net loss of 15 units. While it still ended up turning a profit by the end of the season, Luszczyszyn said that his mental health had reached “rock bottom” during this downswing.
In the thread he said, “I’m genuinely concerned with how pervasive gambling has become intertwined with sports. Gambling is *not* for everyone and can lead to some incredibly dark places that the gambling industry doesn’t seem concerned with and every day there are ‘experts’ feeding people picks with absolutely zero accountability whatsoever for where those picks will lead you. No transparency and people who don’t know better will not know better. and they’ll think it’s fine because these are ‘experts.’”
Luszczyszyn no longer runs this model on The Athletic, and instead models playoff projections and advanced-stats leaderboards.
NT: In the financial industry there’s this concept called sufficient market belief. It’s basically if somebody on TV tells you they think a particular stock is going to go up in value, any potential financial advantage of that stock has gone, because everybody knows about it, right? So it’s now an efficient market, that is, the price, the value of that price has been factored into what you pay for it, the value has already been equalized, and that’s the same with gambling. If somebody is advertising on TV that they think this team or that team is more likely to win, or more likely to beat the line, the point spread, whatever, and that’s worthless. Any public information like that is immediately worthless as soon as it becomes public.
[Music plays, fades out]