Opinion

At first, it was easy enough to ignore. An occasional mention here and there, but nothing too intrusive. “Let them have their fun,” I recall thinking, completely oblivious to the Pandora’s Box that had just been opened.

At first, it was easy enough to ignore. An occasional mention here and there, but nothing too intrusive. "Let them have their fun," I recall thinking, completely oblivious to the Pandora’s Box that had just been opened.

But now? It’s bordering on obscene, taking over entire broadcasts and becoming the focal point — during the action, intermissions and, especially, commercial breaks.

I’m talking, of course, about sports betting in this country. And a scourge that far too many people — from decorated greats such as Ron MacLean to the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky — seem all too willing to sell their souls for as they turn into powerful shills.

Folks wanting to tune in to catch the Oilers versus the Flames are instead being pounded over the head with DraftKings versus Bet99. Rather than break down what an early couple of goals by the underdog visitors might mean for their chances of stealing a victory, we’re bombarded with talk about how it’s shifted the money line.

"It’s time now to check out the Sportsnet Bets Big Board presented by DraftKings," MacLean shamelessly threw to Elliotte Friedman on Thursday night, as Colorado and St. Louis took a breather.

"Scoreless after 20. The updated lines are Blues plus-170, Avalanche minus-230. The betting market is giving Colorado an implied probability of winning at about 70 per cent," Friedman excitedly proclaimed before reading a commercial for the online betting site, including a deal that has them "offering two-to-one odds on any team to score a goal each game this month" and urging viewers to "place your bets now."

There are plenty of other segments as well, including frequent check-ins with Cabral "Cabbie" Richards which make the whole thing feel like one big shady infomercial.

It’s bordering on obscene, taking over entire broadcasts and becoming the focal point ‐ during the action, intermissions and, especially, commercial breaks.

Howie Meeker would likely be shouting "stop it right here!" in his trademark squeaky voice if he were still alive, ashamed at what has happened to the Hockey Night In Canada telecasts where he used to educate the masses by analyzing the action with his telestrater.

The Beaverton, a popular Canadian parody website, published a cheeky story the other day that carried the headline: Sportsnet apologizes for interrupting gambling commercial with hockey. The brief writeup went on to say "viewers were forced to endure a stretch of hockey that showcased several big goals, hits and saves without any pressure to impulsively waste their money."

As always, the best comedy has a ring of truth to it. And this was right on the money. Unless you are a diehard bettor, I suspect this deluge has most viewers reaching for the remote.

Individual teams are getting in on the act, too. The Winnipeg Jets began posting pre-game odds on their social-media feeds this past season, and visitors to Canada Life Centre have no doubt noticed the bar code you can now scan directly off your seats that takes you to a betting website.

Sportsbooks are beginning to pop up at rinks and stadiums across North America. Whether it interests you or not, you truly can’t escape it these days.

Let me be clear: I have absolutely no issue with betting on sports. I’ve bought plenty of Sports Select tickets in my lifetime, try to get to Assiniboia Downs a few times every summer, participate in a handful of fantasy leagues — hockey, baseball and football — and will make friendly wagers with friends and family members.

I also recognize legalized gambling can be a game-changer for sports leagues and networks desperate to expand revenue streams — especially following two crippling pandemic years — and that the talking heads on TV are just doing as they’ve been told.

At the risk of being branded a hypocrite, I initially gave this development a cautious thumbs-up in a column I penned 11 months ago.

There are plenty of other segments as well, including frequent check–ins with Cabral “Cabbie” Richards which make the whole thing feel like one big shady infomercial.

"There’s no doubt this won’t be for everyone, just like other vices such as booze and tobacco aren’t, either. To pretend it’s not happening and allow huge amounts of revenue to flow out of the country on the black market is foolish. Fact is, these dollars are used by provinces to fund vital public services including health, street repair and, somewhat ironically, addictions programs," I wrote at the time.

"Nobody will be forced to make a wager against their will. But you can bet this is going to be a popular move for sports fans feeling lucky — or perhaps wanting to just put their money where the mouths are — who will no longer have to look very far to get their fix."

A private member’s bill from Conservative MP Kevin Waugh amended the Criminal Code which previously outlawed wagering on single sporting events, other than horse racing.

The basic premise is to keep this money closer to home, since Canadians already turn to foreign gambling sites, casinos and illegal bookmakers to the tune of an estimated $14 billion annually.

It quickly gathered multi-party support as it passed through the House of Commons last June, opening the door for provincial governments, which regulate gambling in Canada, to take the leap.

Just one problem: We forgot to pack a parachute.

It feels like we’ve completely thrown caution to the wind and have gone all-in without any real thought of the potential ramifications. You’ll note there’s never a warning about gambling in moderation, unless you can read the tiniest of print at the very bottom of your TV screen.

Proof of just how problematic it can be recently came in a Twitter thread from Dom Luszczyszyn, who writes about analytics for The Athletic.

Individual teams are getting in on the act, too. The Winnipeg Jets began posting pre–game odds on their social–media feeds this past season, and visitors to Canada Life Centre have no doubt noticed the bar code you can now scan directly off your seats that takes you to a betting website.

If anyone could defy the odds and cash in, it’s a guy makes his living crunching numbers, right? Wrong.

In a lengthy thread to his 77,000 followers, he candidly revealed how he spiralled out of control as the losses started piling up, and he became increasingly desperate to crawl out of his self-inflicted crater.

"My mental health was at complete rock bottom at the end of it. It felt like there was no end in sight — especially when I was losing in the worst ways imaginable. I was constantly living on edge which was never a comfortable feeling."

Nothing Luszczyszyn said surprised me. Addiction — whether it’s gambling, alcohol, drugs or otherwise — is very real. I witnessed that on a daily basis for more than two decades while covering crime and justice for the Free Press. It seems the pandemic has only made the situation worse.

On the other side of the coin, pro sports are harder than ever to predict, with salary caps and parity reigning supreme.

That’s particularly true in the NHL, where the standard of officiating can change from period to period, coaches are allowed to be dodgy about injuries with players, and picking the winners and losers really does feel like a roll of the dice.

This truly is a dangerous game everyone is playing. Unfortunately, I’d bet there’s no end in sight.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.