News

Niagara politicians react to betting bill's defeat

By Ray Spiteri, Niagara Falls Review

A bill to introduce single-event sports betting — which could have been a huge economic boost for Niagara Falls and other border cities — was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
(Mike DiBattista/Niagara Falls Review/Postmedia Network file photo)

A bill to introduce single-event sports betting — which could have been a huge economic boost for Niagara Falls and other border cities — was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. (Mike DiBattista/Niagara Falls Review/Postmedia Network file photo)

Federal Parliament was “extremely shortsighted” in defeating a bill to begin the process of allowing single-event sports betting, which could have been a huge economic boost for Niagara Falls, says Mayor Jim Diodati.

“I was very disappointed. This was not about allowing or not allowing gambling. People are already betting on single-sport events through either illegal means, or offshore,” he said.

“We’re not going to change the habits of Canadians, but we could allow the stream of revenues to come into the country. We’re talking billions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.”

On Wednesday night, Parliament voted 156 against and 133 in favour of Bill C-221 — the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act.

All four Niagara MPs — St. Catharines Liberal MP Chris Bittle, Niagara Centre Liberal MP Vance Badawey, Niagara Falls Conservative MP Rob Nicholson and Niagara West Conservative MP Dean Allison — voted in favour of the bill.

Windsor West NDP MP Brian Masse, who led the charge on Bill C-221, blasted the Liberal government for the bill’s defeat. He accused the Liberals of “stubborn ignorance” and “injudiciousness.”

According to Masse, the refusal of the government to address single-event sports wagering in Canada leaves a $10-billion-a-year industry in the hands of organized crime.

Ontario residents can already legally bet on sports, but it’s limited to Pro-Line, the Ontario government-run lottery in which bettors select the outcomes of three or more contests.

Bittle said he voted in favour of the bill because of its importance to Niagara.

“It had a potential to create, I believe, 100, 150 new jobs at the casino, plus a lot of tourist spinoffs as well,” he said. “It would have been good for the regional economy as a whole.

My belief is if it was legalized, there would be a lot more money in provincial coffers to use towards harm reduction because even though it would create jobs, gambling is still a potentially addictive behaviour, and can be a very destructive behaviour. But it’s already going on.”

When asked if he was told the rationale for why most MPs voted against the bill, Bittle said the opposition came from “a good place.”

“Their concern is the increased access to gambling will lead to greater harm, and they are basing that on a study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health,” he said. “However, my belief is that gambling is so easily accessible right now via smartphone or the Internet, that it’s something that we have to regulate.”

Bittle said this is not a partisan issue.

“A good number of my Liberal colleagues voted in favour of it, a good number of Conservatives voted against it, so it wasn’t just Liberals voting against this bill.”

Nicholson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Jennifer Ferguson, director of marketing services for Niagara Casinos, said legalizing single-sports betting would have had a “favourable impact” on its operation and tourism within border communities such as Niagara Falls.

“However, we respect the process and decision made by the federal government.”

Earlier this year, Niagara Casinos said the Canadian Gaming Association looked at the impact a sports book would have on two of Ontario’s border casinos in Niagara Falls and Windsor.

Niagara Casinos said the report found a sports book in Niagara Falls would result in $34.4 million in gross wagers with a win for the casino of $1.7 million.

Sports betting would also be expected to drive increased attendance and an increase in ancillary revenues with spending on hotels, food and beverage, and entertainment.

Single-event sports betting has been a long-standing controversy. Legislation on the issue was proposed four years ago as Bill C-290. But that bill was stalled in the Senate and died with last fall’s federal election and change in government.

Earlier this year, Masse introduced Bill C-221 as a private member’s bill, once again hoping to make the first steps toward legalizing and regulating the activity.

The defeat of Bill C-221 means it won’t proceed to the Standing Committee of Justice, which would have heard testimony from witnesses on the issue.

Bittle, however, said he doesn’t believe the debate is over.


“The minister of justice has promised a full review of the Criminal Code. I’m on the justice committee, and look forward to that. This is one of the sections I think that we should really discuss, look into, and provide an evidence-based response, and have full discussions with our provincial partners.”

Diodati said he and Serge Felicetti, the city’s director of business development, went to Ottawa a few years ago to lobby the Senate when the issue was at the upper house of the Canadian Parliament.

“The idea, originally proposed, was around trying this in border towns, so this would benefit Windsor, Niagara Falls, and the idea was that you could create events around single-sport events such as the Super Bowl or the Final Four,” said Diodati.

“There’s huge Super Bowl weekends in Las Vegas, Final Four weekends in Vegas, there’s all sorts of these types of single-sport betting events. Since, right now you don’t do that in Canada, they go to Las Vegas, or they bet on illegal, offshore sites.

It’s extremely disappointing and extremely shortsighted. Border destinations like Niagara Falls would benefit immensely. Not only just directly, but indirectly in people coming for the weekend, and the events that get created around those sporting events.”

Niagara Falls NDP MPP Wayne Gates, who has been a vocal supporter of allowing single-sports betting, said the Parliament vote is a “lost opportunity” for Niagara, and all of Canada.

He credited the four Niagara MPs for voting for the bill, but blamed the majority Liberal government for the bill’s failure.

“Single-sports betting had a chance to create jobs for border communities like Niagara Falls, Windsor, Sarnia,” he said. “Equally important, it would have taken billions of dollars away from organized crime every single year that really supports the worst of those activities.”

Gates said single-sports betting could also have helped the Fort Erie Race Track.

“It had the potential, if we had single-sports betting, to help some of our betting at the Fort Erie Race Track, which, again, is about protecting the jobs and something that, quite frankly, the community wants, and that’s some form of casino or gaming in that facility (beyond just horse-race betting).”

rspiteri@postmedia.com

— with files from Postmedia Network

Poll

Do you believe the federal government should have passed a bill to allow single-event sports betting in Canada?