Ontario casinos are expected to reopen Jan 26, but there is no firm launch date for privatized iGaming

Ontario Casinos Shuttered As Delays Continue For Privatized Online Gambling

Ontario has closed the doors on all casinos in the province until a tentative date of January 26. The order came on Jan 4 and went into effect the following day.

The Doug Ford government made the decision as the COVID-19 variant Omicron overwhelms healthcare and causes staffing shortages across the board. In doing so, it has highlighted the province’s attempt to capitalize on the federal government’s repeal of its nationwide prohibition on single game sports betting.

Ontario’s road to online gambling privatization

In June 2021, the Canadian federal government passed Bill C-218 amending sections of the Criminal Code relating to single-event sport betting. The passing of the bill would allow provinces to provide Canadians with a legal betting option. In the process, they can now reap the some of the profits formerly going to a multi-billion dollar offshore gray market industry. The new law came into effect in August.

Ontario was quick to pick up on the new law’s potential. In July 2021, the province established iGaming Ontario as a subsidiary of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGCO). The new agency’s role is to conduct and manage the private online gambling operators and watch the money. For its part, AGCO will still be in charge of regulation, such as preventing access to minors and protecting personal information.

Easier said than done

However, legislation and legalization is one thing, policy is another.

Policy really comes down to wording and fairness. Offering gambling products as a private company in Canada is not as simple as obtaining a license, paying a fee, and starting to take bets. Federal law requires that all non-charitable gambling – including Canadian online casinos – be “conducted and managed” by the provinces.

Can iGaming Ontario realistically manage and have oversight of private vendors? Can they keep competition between the various Ontario online gambling sites fair? If even one vendor, or themselves, do not follow the rules they could be very quick to break the already murky federal laws.

Policy is there to prevent such disasters, but getting this piece of policy right isn’t easy. It’s a bit like the classic computer game Snake: It has to hit all the right points, be quick, and not run into itself in the process. Unfortunately, it hasn’t managed to get off the ground on schedule.

Ontario’s answer to the gray market missed its target release date of December 2021. The province is now projecting its fruition in February 2022, though many expect further delays.

Public money is being left on the table

Between the closing of casinos and these missed months of betting opportunities, the province is losing some serious cash, both real and hypothetical.

Prior to COVID-19, the province was making a profit of roughly $2.5 billion per year between its casinos, lottery, and existing online gaming through the Ontario Lottery and Gaming website. The market of betting they’re attempting to break into is projected to bring an additional $1 billion.

Some quick math can tell you the province is out about $200 million this month. Those lost provincial lottery and gaming profits would be going towards sports, cultural events, and hospitals. All these things have also been directly drained by the pandemic.

Ontario has a good idea. They saw this large chunk of money flowing out of the country to offshore operators, and formed a plan to go after it. Who wouldn’t? The same approach has worked with the legalization of cannabis, though the feds helped a lot with that one.

Being the first to say you’ll do something is an accomplishment but being the first to be successful takes care, thought, and patience. That’s an area in which the current Ontario government appears to struggle.

We will see what happens in February and beyond.

- Katy Jean is a columnist and freelance writer from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her writing has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and Canadian politics. She is most active from her Twitter account @katynotie.
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