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Oilers star Connor McDavid now a face of responsible gaming after promoting gambling

Athletes aren’t supposed to appear in gambling-related advertising in Ontario anymore, though sports fans may have noticed Connor McDavid in a new spot for online sports betting platform BetMGM.

That’s because the 27-year-old hockey superstar is shown advocating for responsible gambling — an exception that is allowed under tightened regulations for the marketing and advertising of gambling in Ontario that took effect on Feb. 28.

The 30-second ad features McDavid sitting in a room with a friend and asking him if he’s aware of “responsible gambling tools”� from BetMGM that will prevent his pal from getting “carried away” with betting.

The new ad has been airing on television and digital platforms for several weeks. But McDavid is already a familiar face to BetMGM’s customers, having been part of a prior ad campaign involving Wayne Gretzky, which promoted the same company’s betting services.

A screengrab shows Connor McDavid as he appears in a spot promoting BetMGM's responsible gambling tools.
McDavid is shown in a screengrab of a BetMGM advertisement promoting responsible gambling. The new ad has been airing on television and digital platforms for several weeks. (mcdavid97/Instagram)

Judd Moldaver, the agent representing McDavid, said the hockey star’s relationship with BetMGM remains the same, despite the change in advertisements.

“Responsible gambling was part of the relationship between Connor and BetMGM from the very start,” Moldaver told CBC News via email.

“It is something he feels strongly about, and this ad was a priority for him — he wants to be visible talking about playing responsibly.”

Yet some observers question how credible it is to have McDavid switching up his role for BetMGM, seeing his on-screen presence as a reminder of the company behind the advertisement, rather than a voice of gambling moderation.

Andrew Kim, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Calgary, said he believes it essentially adds up to bolstering brand awareness.

“You associate Connor McDavid with their site,” said Kim, also a sports fan, who caught his first glimpse of the Edmonton Oilers captain’s new ad during the broadcast of a recent hockey game.

Hockey stars including Connor McDavid and Wayne Gretzky refused to talk to the Fifth Estate about their brands despite multimillion-dollar deals reported to do exactly that.
McDavid is shown in a prior ad campaign for BetMGM with hockey great Wayne Gretzky, right, promoting the company’s betting services before regulations in Ontario were changed. Under the tighter regulations, athletes can only advocate for responsible gambling. (BetMGM)

The fight for market share

Marketing expert Tony Chapman said he saw this scenario coming, given that Ontario did not bar pitch-persons from switching from promoting gambling to highlighting potential curbs on its services.

He said the value in having a star like McDavid is clear: “You hire a celebrity like him to fight for market share,” Chapman, host of the Chatter that Matters podcast, said via email.

Kim said McDavid’s star power makes him broadly recognizable to sports fans — and this celebrity recognition helps consumers more easily remember the brand he is associated with.

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BetMGM must see the value in McDavid’s star power, too, as the company touts its “partnership with one of hockey’s greatest players” and underlines the fact that the reigning NHL MVP is explaining how people can put limits on their betting.

Matt Prevost, the company’s chief revenue officer, said McDavid was “part of our efforts to promote responsible gambling” since the start of his relationship with BetMGM.

“That was something he expressed as a personal priority,” Prevost told CBC News in an emailed statement.

Paul Burns, president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association (CGA), said that active athletes have typically been prohibited from advertising gambling services “in most jurisdictions in the world.” Ontario’s updated regulations now do the same.

But he pointed out that some very well-known athletes in the United States have been involved in promoting both gambling and responsible gaming.

Brothers Eli and Peyton Manning, both retired NFL stars, have appeared in ads for Caesars Sportsbook, as well as in Caesars’ spots for responsible gambling.

Eli Manning and brother Peyton Manning are seen at the 2024 Pro Bowl, in Orlando, Fla., in February 2024.
Peyton Manning, left, and his brother Eli Manning are shown in Orlando, Fla., in February during the 2024 Pro Bowl. The retired NFL stars have helped promote Caesars Sportsbook gambling products, but they have also appeared in responsible gambling ads for the same company. (Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA Today Sports)

Tony Chapman, meanwhile, questions putting the words “responsible and gambling together.”

He said that “gambling sites that promote responsible gambling, especially with a celebrity, should not be allowed to attach their logo … [in order to show] their intent is true.”

“If not, they are riding a Trojan horse into the consumers’ psyche and leaving their brand behind,” Chapman said.

Billions bet by Ontarians

Canada legalized single-event sports betting in 2021, but the following year, Ontario was the first province to launch a regulated sports betting program.

Two years into this new reality, Ontario bettors are making billions of dollars in wagers each quarter, via online sports betting, but also through online poker and casino games and other online gaming products.

Sports betting, in fact, represents only a fraction of the larger online gambling market in Ontario. But the sports-related segment is heavily promoted and has faced heavy scrutiny since its broad legalization.

Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators is seen battling with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers during a March 24 game at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa.
The partially obscured logo of Betway — a sports-betting service that is part of Ontario’s regulated market — is displayed on the boards at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, during an NHL game between the Senators and the Edmonton Oilers on March 24. (Marc DesRosiers/USA Today Sports)

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) is well aware of how much of a role promotion has played in growing the market, something it acknowledges on its website.

In an email, the agency said that “responsible gambling is a central aspect” of the regulated market and that it sees athletes as having a useful role in spreading that message.

“The use of athletes, whose influence and appeal extend to a wide audience, remains permitted in advertising and marketing for the exclusive purpose of advocating for responsible gambling practices,” the AGCO said, noting the new McDavid ad is permitted accordingly.

The regulator also said it’s “pleased” to see gambling operators “making the necessary adjustments to align their advertising practices with the updated standards.”

Burns, of the CGA, said that industry members have clarity on what is expected when it comes to advertising. Prior to the launch of the legal market in Ontario, he said, there was no industry-funded promotion of responsible gambling practices.

The University of Calgary’s Kim, however, said he sees an inherent tension in an industry that provides gambling services trying to get some of those people to pull back their participation.

“You are essentially trying to get your highest customers who spend the most to spend less,” he said.

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