Whether it was throwing dice hundreds of years ago, betting on horse races, playing Bingo or buying Proline tickets, one thing has remained consistent throughout the history of sports betting in Canada.
We Canadians love to gamble.
Canada is one of the most liberal-thinking countries when it comes to gambling. Our government has a very relaxed policy on it (there’s nothing in the United States that resembles our provincial sports lotteries, and there’s been no crackdown on daily fantasy sports in Canada), and no Canadian has ever been prosecuted for using an online sportsbook.
Gambling is part of our culture. In a recent poll, 55% of Canadians said gambling is not a moral issue, while another 19% believe it is morally acceptable. Only 23% of Canadians felt gambling was an unacceptable behaviour.
But where does this love for gambling in Canada come from?
In this article, we’ll look at the history of sports betting in Canada, from its native origins to the introduction of government-regulated sports betting to a Canadian founding one of the world’s most popular sportsbooks.
We’ll also assess the current climate of sports betting in Canada and see where the future may take us.
Let’s get started… at the beginning.
The Early History of Sports Betting In Canada
Gambling and sports betting in Canada may have evolved over the years, but it has always existed in one form or another.
In fact, we can trace the history of sports betting in Canada back more than 600 years, when natives were known to play a variety of games of chance.
When the Canadian government banned almost all forms of gambling in 1892, betting on horse races was the only wagering allowed.
Horse betting and the midways at county fairs were the only legal ways to do betting in Canada until 1969, when the Canadian Criminal Code was amended to allow provincial and federal governments to run lotteries in support of charities and other good causes (such as the 1976 Olympics in Montreal).
Once our governments realized gambling in Canada could be used to generate significant revenue, they began to open their arms to gambling more and more. More amendments were made to the Canadian Criminal Code to allow provinces to administer computer and video gaming devices like slot machines.
Government-regulated sports betting in Canada was not far behind.
Sports gambling in Canada was limited to illegal bookmakers until the early 1990s, when the provincial governments introduced Proline and other provincial sports lotteries like Sports Action and Mise-O-Jeu.
However, wording in the Canadian Criminal Code prohibited Proline from offering single game sports betting in Canada. An amendment to the Code in 1985 meant provinces could only provide sports betting in a lottery format, so they offered parlay (multiple-game) betting. This required you to make 3-6 selections on one ticket and get them all correct to win your wager.
Proline betting in Ontario began with Sport Select, when you could pick which team would win. A few years later, Proline added Over/Under, allowing you to bet on how many points would be scored in the game. Shortly after that, Proline betting added Point Spread, a common way to bet in football and basketball. In the mid 2000s, Pro Picks rounded out the Proline betting options,
Proline and other provincial sports lotteries were quite popular at first because they provided a convenient way for us Canadians to bet on sports in a way we hadn’t before.
But the complaints eventually came.
Proline betting pros and cons
One of the early pros of Proline sports betting in Canada was that the odds were posted up to a week in advance of the games – and they didn’t change.
It was easier to pick 3 games for a ticket when you had a week’s games to choose from. Bettors were also able to take advantage of betting lines that had moved at sportsbooks but not at Proline.
According to a 2005 study by Glomecord.com gaming specialist Cameron Scott, a 1-point discrepancy between the Vegas betting line and the Proline point spread line was enough to put the odds in Proline players’ favour. That was eventually exploited by Ottawa-area brothers Brian and Terry Leblanc, who earned approximately $650,000 per year playing provincial sports lotteries in Ontario and Quebec from 1996-99.
Another one of the Proline betting pros was the convenience. You could play Proline at the corner store and for as little as $2 per ticket. If you won your Proline bet, you could cash your ticket at the corner store if the payout was under $300.
However, we Canadians quickly found a lot of things that we didn’t like. Here are six of the biggest Proline betting cons:
- The parlay requirement made it very difficult to win in Proline betting. It was already hard to pick winners against the spread 53% of the time; having to go 100% on 3-6 games in order to get paid made for a lot of losing tickets.
- Proline betting odds were not fair when compared to the probability of outcomes occurring, especially heavy favourites. The payout also included your original wager, so you weren’t “winning” as much as you thought.
- The various Proline tie rules turned many potential winning tickets into losers. All football games decided by 3 points (a very common margin of victory) or less were graded as ties. So were basketball games decided by 5 points or less. Proline tie rules depend on where you live, which only added to the confusion.
- Proline betting limits were low in order to protect the provincial sports lotteries from liability. You could only bet a maximum of $100 per Proline ticket, and you could not play the same combination of outcomes twice in a row. There were even cases when, if too many other people bet on the same games, you wouldn’t be allowed to.
- Over the years, Proline betting selection became very poor. NBA basketball was taken off Ontario Proline betting as a condition for the Toronto Raptors joining the NBA in 1994 (Proline tried to add NBA betting again in 2010, but those plans fell through).
- Eventually, Proline stopped offering betting on games that weren’t being played that particular day, another move to protect the provincial sports lotteries from liability.
Provincial sports lotteries may have been the most visible way to bet on sports in Canada, but many of us wished there was a better option.
Online sports betting in Canada
The explosion of the Internet’s popularity in the mid-1990s brought many new possibilities. We could communicate more easily and efficiently than we ever had before, and there was a wealth of information suddenly at our fingertips.
It also opened exciting new ways to bet on sports in Canada.
The Canadian Criminal Code prohibits anyone in Canada from accepting sports betting wagers, unless they meet certain conditions, which is why there are no brick-and-mortar sportsbooks in Canada. But the Internet allowed us to place our bets with online sportsbooks based outside of Canada, which was and remains perfectly legal.
Sports Interaction changed the history of sports betting in Canada even more when it was founded in 1997 on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, about 15 minutes outside of Montreal. Sports Interaction and other online sportsbooks offered single-game sports betting in Canada on many sports Proline didn’t, and at better odds. The sportsbooks also offered generous signup and deposit bonuses.
Bodog was founded by a Canadian
A riveting chapter was added to the history of sports betting in Canada in 2000, when Saskatchewan-born Calvin Ayre launched Bodog, an online gambling site that would make him a billionaire.
Ayre may have grown up on a pig farm, but he was no country hick. He first thought of developing his own Canadian sports betting site after reading a 1992 newspaper article about a Caribbean-based company offering sports betting over the phone.
Ayre’s first key to success was that he understood network design, which allowed him to constantly improve his site without having to pay expensive licensing fees. He also chose the name of his website wisely, and he hit a home run by marketing himself as the ‘bad boy billionaire’ face of the company.
“In terms of making our brand more accessible and attractive to an international audience and our particular demographic, we made a very deliberate business decision early in the game to tack my face all over our website and on all campaigns associated with the Bodog brand,” Ayre told international IT news publication The Register in 2006. “More than simply a branding strategy, this tactic allowed us to add an extra layer of transparency that – along with our focus on customer service and our expansion into new forms of entertainment has allowed us to play an integral role in legitimizing an industry well in need of a face-lift.”
Ayre sold Bodog’s US-facing online gambling website to another Canadian company, the Morris Mohawk Gaming Group in Kahnawake, in 2006 and announced his retirement from the online gambling business shortly after.
Provincial sports lotteries moving online
Over the past decade, Proline and other provincial sports lotteries have gradually joined the movement towards online sports betting in Canada.
The British Columbia Lottery Corporation introduced Playnow.com in 2004, a website that offered online play and purchase of select lottery products. Playnow.com offers comparable betting odds to online sportsbooks, though it isn’t as good an option for sports bettors because it still requires you to bet multiple games at once.
Mise-O-Jeu in Quebec now allows you to do sports betting online, but once again you can’t bet on just one game at a time.
Other provinces in Canada appear to be following suit, though they’re doing so slowly. The Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation introduced a new online gambling website in early 2015, but it did not include sports betting capabilities.
The future of sports betting in Canada (Bill C-221 and C-290)
Proline and online sportsbooks might not be the only ways to do legal sports betting in Canada in the near future.
According to a 2014 TSN.ca article by Rick Westhead, Canadians bet nearly $16 billion on sports each year – only $500 million of which is wagered with Proline and other provincial sports lotteries.
Realizing the potential tax dollars that are being passed up, some government officials have begun pushing for government-regulated sports gambling in Canada. A bill that would legalize single-event sports betting in Canada, Bill C-290, was passed unanimously through the House of Commons in 2012.
However, Bill C-290 was never approved by the Canadian Senate and died in the summer of 2015. A new bill, Bill C-221 (The Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act) was introduced in early 2016, but was quickly met with opposition from the governing Liberal party.
Professional sports leagues have varying opinions on whether single-event sports betting in Canada should be regulated by the provincial governments, and it remains unclear when — or if — legislation similar to Bill C-221 or Bill C-290 will ever be passed.
Even if single-event sports betting in Canada is legalized and government regulated, there is no guarantee that provincial sports betting would compete with the odds and bonuses offered by online sportsbooks, and the odds offered by illegal bookmakers.
It’s entire possible that many of us would bet on sports the same way that we have throughout the history of sports betting in Canada.