Ontario Online Gambling Pt. 7: Canada’s Future

Credit: Shutterstock/STEKLO

There are few certainties in the gambling industry, as every market is different. At this point, there are still a number of ways things could play out for Ontario. It could:

  • Lose a legal challenge and have to abandon the plan or go back to the drawing board
  • Survive such challenges, but still be a failure in terms of revenue and employment, or,
  • Succeed, whether modestly or spectacularly

From the point of view of Canadian online gambling outside of Ontario, the last scenario is the most complex and interesting.

If either of the first two scenarios come to pass, then it’s unlikely other provinces would attempt the same thing. Most would probably stick with the status quo option of a lottery monopoly. There’s a chance that some, especially other Prairie provinces, might instead try to copy Saskatchewan’s partnership with First Nations. That, of course, would be the best case scenario for First Nations themselves.

But what if Ontario’s online gambling privatization plan works out as the province hopes? Then other provinces face a much more significant choice. In the US and elsewhere, the evidence generally supports the idea that private markets for online gambling do better than lottery monopolies. However, both privatization and gambling itself are hot-button topics, politically speaking. It’s not a given that other provinces will follow Ontario’s lead.

Some are more likely to do so than others. Below, you’ll find how Online Poker Report rates the probabilities, working across the country from west to east.

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Some provinces are more likely than others to follow Ontario's lead

Each province’s chances of following Ontario’s lead. Graphic by Online Poker Report

British Columbia

If Ontario succeeds, then it’s almost certain that there will be a conversation about privatization in British Columbia. As for the outcome of that conversation, there are cases to be made both ways.

On the one hand, British Columbia’s starting point is more similar to Ontario’s than any other province. It has only one-third the population, but at 5 million, it’s definitely big enough to support a private market. Its lottery iGaming site, PlayNow, is arguably the best-developed in Canada, even more so than that of Ontario Lottery and Gaming.

What’s more, it has a large retail gaming sector, using a public-private partnership model quite similar to Ontario’s. Here too, Great Canadian Gaming (GCG) is the main player on the private sector end of that relationship. If Ontario manages to work out its differences with GCG and the latter becomes amenable to online gambling privatization, the odds for BC will increase dramatically.

On the other hand, it has made more investment in its public sector gambling than most provinces. BC has a deal in place with Manitoba to offer PlayNow’s products in the latter province. It has also developed its own responsible gaming program, GameSense. That’s been such a success that last year, it managed to license GameSense to the US operator BetMGM, which is among those coming to Ontario.

Those investments may make BCLC more resistant to allowing the private sector to compete directly with its products.

Meanwhile, it’s a politically polarized province, highly progressive around the major cities in the southwest, and much more conservative elsewhere. The last provincial election was a very tight race between the NDP and Liberals. That has the makings of a vicious debate when it comes to privatization, and how it turns out could depend on who’s in charge in a few years.

Alberta

Of all the provinces, Alberta is probably the most likely to emulate Ontario. Its population is only slightly smaller than BC’s, so it could definitely support a market on its own. Furthermore, as the most strongly conservative province, it shouldn’t have a hard time mustering political support for the idea of privatization.

Conservatism is a double-edged sword when it comes to gambling, of course, as it often means opposition on moral grounds. In Alberta’s case, however, that ship has sailed. Like BC, it has a thriving retail casino industry and its own provincial iGaming site, PlayAlberta. Despite sharing a lottery with the other Prairie Provinces, it actually struck out on its own for online gambling.

In case there was any doubt, the province is already making its own move toward privatized gambling. It is currently looking for applicants to run private sector sportsbooks. Initially, this is only for retail operations, but Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis has described this as the “first phase,” implying more to come. It’s all but a given that it will be watching Ontario closely to see whether it can safely copy its approach, or needs to take a slightly different tack.

Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan is blazing its own trail, partnering with the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority and Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations to create a provincial online gambling and sports betting site. That will go live later this year.

Unless that plan fails, it’s unlikely Saskatchewan will consider anything else in the near future.

Manitoba

As mentioned above, Manitoba currently relies on British Columbia for online gambling, sharing that province’s PlayNow site. That being the case, its future probably also depends on what BC does.

With only 1.4 million residents, Manitoba is at the very low end of market viability. It’s similar to West Virginia in terms of population, but much more spread out, and that state has not been a success story for iGaming (see Part V of this series for a per capita state revenue comparison). If BC sticks with PlayNow as its only regulated online gambling option, Manitoba will almost certainly stay the course, as well.

If BC does attempt to privatize its market, then things get trickier. Manitoba would probably want to follow along, if possible; but creating an interprovincial privatized market could add an additional layer of legal complexity.

Quebec

Quebec is Canada’s second-most populous province and has an iGaming site, Espace Jeux, that rivals BC’s PlayNow. Even so, one has to rate Quebec as a heavy underdog to try privatization.

First of all, it’s resistant to the concept broadly. It has been more hostile to the offshore gray market than any province, having tried and failed to force its internet service providers to deny its residents access to all non-lottery gambling sites.

The lottery also owns and operates its casinos directly, rather than using the public-private partnership model. If it were to soften its stance on privatization, it would probably start there, rather than with online gaming.

Finally, Quebec’s political culture is a bit contrarian when it comes to other provinces and particularly Ontario. Almost any policy issue runs the risk of being dragged into the Quebec-vs.-rest-of-Canada culture war. It may be watching Ontario, too, but for different reasons than other provinces. Plus, it’s more likely to try to learn from Ontario’s failures than its successes.

That said, the province has taken a more conservative turn of late under François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government. However, even the CAQ is less openly in favor of privatization as a concept than other conservative parties. A Quebec private market isn’t entirely out of the question, but it is an extreme long-shot.

Atlantic Canada

Atlantic Canada is of course four provinces, not one. However, they’re each too small to consider privatization on their own, and their lottery is a shared endeavor through the Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC).

Even so, we see some differences of opinion when it comes to online gambling. ALC launched online casino games on its website in 2020, but only New Brunswick gave its authorization. The other three provinces have proven resistant, and Nova Scotia even dragged its heels for six months before finally accepting the idea of single game sports betting.

As a result, players in other provinces see the games advertised, but are told they can’t play. The idea has been a hot topic throughout the region, receiving a lot of media attention, most of it negative. Part of that is due to ALC’s decision not to apply the same stake limits to online gambling as it does to its retail video lottery terminals.

All of that taken together makes the Atlantic region a big underdog to go the private sector route any time soon. It would probably take all four provinces together to produce a viable market, and even then the combined population would only be around 2.5 million.

With three of the four provinces still opposed to the very idea of online casinos, we’re not likely to see the conversation even get started here for quite some time. The most likely scenario under which it could happen would be for New Brunswick to split off from the Atlantic region and link up with another province, though it would face the same challenges as Manitoba in that case.

The Territories

The Territories aren’t provinces, but have access to lottery products through the Western Canada Lottery Corporation, which serves Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. These provinces have gone their separate ways in terms of online gambling, leaving the Territories out in the proverbial – and literal – cold.

With tiny populations and no actual provincial governments per se, the Territories’ route to any sort of iGaming would be to piggyback on one or more provincial markets, as they do for the lottery.

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