January 17, 2022 Sports Betting, Interview

The King in the North

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Gaming America recently sat down with Paul Burns, President & CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, to discuss the history of sports betting in the country, and the bright future ahead for the nascent industry.

Firstly, would you be able to tell our readers about your career in gaming to date, and the role you played in establishing the Canadian Gaming Association?

My background is in politics. I previously worked for political leaders at the federal-provincial level and one of the last political files I ended up managing in Ontario was for gaming. When the region, back in the late '90s, was expanding gaming offerings through casinos, slots and race tracks, I got to work on a lot of those files; and that ended up leading me to work for a company that wanted to build casinos in the region at that time. That’s how I got started in the gaming business and I have been in and out of it for a while.

In 2006, my former colleague was approached to form a national trade association for the gaming industry in Canada.  As many people know, gaming in Canada at this time was largely in the purview of the provisional government, with government agencies and lottery corporations overseeing the sector.  In the early 2000s, there was a large emergence of private-sector participation in the industry and this has been growing ever since. Thus, through the establishment of the Canadian Gaming Association, we have been able to create a voice for gaming in Canada and today we have 55 member companies.

Obviously, the last two years have been filled with many challenges but also a lot of opportunities, especially with the law that saw single-event sports betting legalized throughout the country, and the government announcement that Ontario will become an opened licensing market for online gaming.

Overall, we came out of the backend of a pretty nasty two years with exciting times ahead for the Canadian gaming industry.

The last year has been a period of tremendous growth for sports betting in Canada, following Bill C-218; can you explain the process it took to finally get single sports betting regulated throughout the country?

The overarching laws for gaming in Canada reside in the Criminal Code of Canada; but since 1985, the power of gaming was essentially devolved to the provincial governments. From here  the Federal Government’s involvement sort of stopped, and so  to get interest in amending in such a specific event – remember  we had sports betting in Canada for decades, it just had  to be a parlay wager – we had our first meeting in 2010.

Our first bill actually passed the House of Commons unanimously; it went to our Senate and they really were not having any of it. There was modest opposition from sports leagues but mostly just a lack of information and they refused to deal with it, despite provincial governments, labor and communities’ support. We tried to push it through but they did not want to deal with it.

The third time, however, was a success. The timing was right, professional sports leagues had joined the cause and there was literally no opposition.

Do you think the lack of opposition the third time around was partly due to the huge growth demonstrated in the US?

Yes, it really showed the inevitability to the Members of Parliament and the senators could see it was coming. The country has a large grey market; Canadians have been betting for the majority of a decade, in excess of $4bn in handle.  This also drove home the fact.

The timing of all of these things coming together was certainly fortuitous and it was an interesting coalition with the amateur athletics community.

With that, and the unprecedented growth seen by the sports betting market in the US, where do you see Canadian sports betting going in the next few years?

Because of Ontario (which is the fifth-largest jurisdiction in North America now) being an open market, we are going to see a wide variety of offerings for the people of the province. Bringing gaming into the regulated sphere will really unlock the market. From a sports betting point of view, partnerships between sports teams and sportsbooks are important. Even the Toronto Star, which is one of Canada’s largest daily newspapers, is going to be launching its own sportsbook; so it is clear we will see a lot of variety and a lot of opportunities for customers.

One of the things we have talked about a lot with the Government here is tapping into the innovation sector, the small emerging start-up companies; Ontario proves a unique opportunity for them because a license is available here where it is not in many other regions. Canada has punched above its weight for some time, a lot of companies saw their genesis here but because of the previous lack of licensing they have had to leave the market. We are hoping now we can get generation companies that grow up here and stay in Canada.

Your career has often focused on the importance of responsible gambling. How does the industry, growing as fast as it is, continue to balance growth with responsibility?

This has been part of how the Canadian gaming market emerged. A lot of the discussions that are happening in the UK right now, we had a decade ago. And in terms of building in player tools and responsible play into awareness programs, advertising standards, education, access to self-exclusion,  we will see these things continue in our market.

The amazing thing is – we have had discussions with some of our members new and old about this – companies  have really been stepping up and understanding that they  want to lessen the impact they are having on their customers,  by ensuring   they provide player protection tools. Universal self-exclusion will also be a feature of the marketplace; if you are excluded from a casino in a community, you will be excluded from online offerings. So there are a lot of provisions people are happy to sign on to. A lot of the educational material is done by provisional governments but now the private sector is looking to help. Moreover, every staff member in every casino in the country is trained in responsible gambling. Operators have welcomed this approach as they want healthy customers.

The Canadian Gaming Association has recently elected four new board members. What do you feel these new voices can bring to the organization?

A lot of our growth has come from sports betting payments and online technology: that’s where these new members have come from, each bringing a wealth of experience from their respective careers and companies they represent.  The CGA board took the opportunity to, as we continually do, expand the board to reflect our membership growth.  It was a logical choice, then, that all sectors of the industry that are represented in our membership are also reflected on our board. We are grateful for those that stepped up:  they have a great deal of knowledge to offer and are eager to do so, so we are thrilled.

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