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- FEATURE: Ontario Online Gambling
After some delays and a little controversy, private sector online gambling in Ontario is almost ready to go live. iGaming Ontario (iGO) announced an official launch date today: April 4.
Originally, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) had said it anticipated that the market would be up and running before the end of 2021. However, the general rule for gambling expansion is that the final bureaucratic steps necessary to open a market almost invariably take longer than the regulator expects. Looking at the history of iGaming launches in US states, Ontario’s four-month delay not unusual.
In a press release, iGO Executive Director Martha Otton said:
“Consumers can be assured that companies who successfully enter the new Ontario market will have met rigorous standards of game and operator integrity, fairness, player protections and social responsibility, allowing all players to play with confidence. Prevention of underage access, ensuring compliance with applicable laws including anti-money laundering rules and regulations, and measures to enable more responsible gambling are just a few of the assurances consumers can expect in the new market as of April 4.”
From the looks of things, a substantial number of brands will be ready to go as soon as the market opens. These include homegrown brands theScore Bet and NorthStar Gaming. Many of the larger operators currently competing in the US market will also throw their hats in the ring, like:
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, led by Doug Ford, has wanted to privatize online gambling in the province all along.
In 2019, the Ford administration drafted its first annual budget, which included a mention of iGaming privatization. At that time, it was more of an intention than a plan. However, the following year’s budget included more specifics about the approach.
Still, it wasn’t until 2021 that we began to see concrete action. This was, of course, accompanied and spurred on by progress at the federal level in repealing the prohibition on sports betting. Just as it was in the US, legal single-game sports wagering seems to have been the magic bullet necessary to get policymakers to take online gambling seriously.
The impacts of COVID-19 on retail gambling revenue have also contributed. The delays in the Ontario online market launch are regrettable in that light, as its retail casinos were once again forced to shut down earlier this month. South of the border, legal online gambling has proven to be a great boon during the pandemic, in terms of making up for lost tax revenue in those states where it is available.
Even if the market successfully launches on that new target date, it might not stay launched. Ontario’s Auditor General has warned that the approach the province has chosen could face a challenge.
Under Canadian federal law, all legal, for-profit gambling must be “conducted and managed” by the provincial governments. A true, fully private market would be illegal. Ontario’s solution was to create a new government body, iGaming Ontario, which will then have operating agreements in place with the various private companies.
Legally speaking, the question is just how much of the decision-making and monetary investment iGaming Ontario must do itself in order to qualify as “conducting and managing” the products. The Auditor General and Attorney General have different opinions in this regard.
The good news is that the Auditor General’s Office cannot bring a legal challenge itself, only offer advice. However, such a challenge could come from almost anywhere. One possibility would be Great Canadian Gaming (GCG), which operates most of the province’s retail casinos on behalf of the lottery. It commissioned a study making the alarmist claim that privatized iGaming would cost the province billions in lost revenue.
Given that the launch is moving ahead over GCG’s objections, it might try its luck with a lawsuit instead. A challenge could equally come from First Nations groups, companies that failed to get an operator agreement, anti-gambling groups, or anyone else unhappy with how things have proceeded.