‘Society let him down,’ grieving mother says in warning about sports betting ads

Warning: This article contains references to addiction and suicide.

Like so many parents, Liz Ritchie hangs an ornament on her family’s Christmas tree for each of her children. As she hooks her son Jack’s to a branch, she’s reminded he won’t be home for the holidays.

Not this year, not next year, not ever.  

At just 24 years old, Jack died by suicide after a gambling addiction left him feeling helpless, stealing away his sense of purpose and his life.

Sitting in her home in Sheffield, England, Ritchie has a clear message: “I want to warn Canadians, I want to speak mother to mother from across the pond. You need to be worried for your children, this is not OK, and some of your children will die.”

RISE OF ADS

If you’ve turned on a television in Canada to watch live sports in recent months, you may have noticed a different game being promoted on the screen. The early edition of Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada featured no less than 19 sports betting commercials.

Whether you watch hockey, basketball, or any other sport on TV in this country, you currently can’t escape the onslaught of gambling advertisements being broadcast again and again, during prime time hours, while children and Canadians of all ages watch their favourite teams from coast to coast to coast.  

Ritchie witnessed a similar rise of sports betting advertisements in the U.K. years ago, but she didn’t realize how it would influence her son at the time.

“They warn you about sexual predators, drugs and alcohol, but the government never said anything about gambling,” she told CTV News.

Sports broadcaster TSN, which is owned by CTV’s parent company, Bell Media, is now producing and airing its own gambling segments on TV, radio and online.

Rogers’ Sportsnet is also creating and churning out its own multi-platform sports betting content, featuring some of its most notable on-air talent.

ONTARIO’S REGULATIONS

Ontario is the first Canadian province to go all-in, regulating the first online gambling market in the country. Anyone of age can now legally place a bet on any aspect of a game, or spin an online slot machine with the flick of a finger on their phone. As other provinces contemplate their own legislation, all eyes are on Ontario.

Paul Burns, the CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, a sports betting and gambling lobby group, believes that regulated online gambling is safer than the alternative over the last several years.

“Canadians were accessing gaming with no controls, no oversight, no protection. And that’s what this has done, that’s been the biggest change in the last 12 months,” said Burns.

Currently in Ontario, there are 68 online gambling sites regulated by the province.

Lobbyists like Burns say “advertising is part of what comes with having a regulated gaming market,” though he admits that “there’s a shared responsibility between broadcasters, sports leagues and sports betting operations to understand what is the right mix (of gambling promotions) for their product, for their customers and for the leagues’ reputations.”

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which regulates online gambling in the province, sent an email to CTV National News that states “Marketing and advertising standards” are in place “to help protect vulnerable and high-risk players from wagering inducements.”

The AGCO has also had discussions “with Canadian advertising industry leaders” to discuss “the role they can play in managing the advertising placed by both regulated and unregulated internet gaming sites.”

‘A PUBLIC HEALTH DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN’

But some anti-gambling advocates in the U.K., where betting legislation was rapidly expanded in 2005, are speaking out.

They believe the tragic lessons learned in their country should serve as a cautionary tale to Canadians.

“It’s a public health disaster waiting to happen,” said Ritchie.  

Jack Ritchie is seen in an image provided by his family.

Public Health England found that there are more than 400 suicides associated with gambling each year in the country. In 2019, England’s National Health Service opened its first of 16 planned child gambling addiction clinics.

Matt Zarb-Cousin runs a U.K. non-profit called Clean Up Gambling, and he says young adults can be particularly at risk.

“At the ages of 18 to 24, before your brain fully develops, you’re very vulnerable to developing a gambling problems. The fact that young people are more likely to gamble as a result of advertising I think is a reason to restrict it,” he said.

Zarb-Cousin added that the promotion of gambling companies in the U.K. “conditioned young people to believe they have to bet to enjoy the match, and when they reach the age when they can gamble at 18 the first thing they do is download all the gambling apps.”

INCREASE IN REPORTS FROM PARENTS

CTV National News sat down with a recovering gambling addict who asked that we not share his name or identity. For the purpose of this story he’s asked to be called Al.

Al now volunteers his time with Gamblers Anonymous Ontario, and he too is worried about the influence that sports betting commercials could wield.

“Imagine a 12-year-old or a 14-year-old watching hockey, or watching basketball or any sports – how tempting it would be to place on their phone.” 

In an email, Sportsnet told CTV News: “We recognize that sports betting content and advertising represents a change for audiences and we are being extremely thoughtful about the volume and content of the commercial inventory that we are allotting to sports betting partners to ensure we continue to officer a quality viewing experience.”

According to Al, broadcasters, sports leagues and the AGCO aren’t being careful enough. Al shared that the number of parents calling into Gamblers Anonymous pleading for help, concerned their child might be addicted to gambling, has skyrocketed in recent months in Ontario.

“A lot of parents think that their kids are doing their homework upstairs, but they’re racking up $30- to 40-grand on a credit card,” Al said.

ATHLETES’ INVOLVEMENT CRITICIZED

Some fans are speaking out against their favourite stars who’re now featured in some of the advertisements.

From Connor McDavid to Auston Matthews to Wayne Gretzky, some of the biggest names in hockey have signed on and are pulling in major paydays. The NHL’s Washington Capitals landed a deal to feature “Caesars Sportsbook” on their jerseys. Sports broadcaster TSN even joined forces with FanDuel as its official sportsbook partner.

In a statement TSN said that FanDuel “has a number of features in place to mitigate risk for bettors, including tools to help customers set deposit, wager, and time limits.”

But individuals like Al, who spent decades gambling, say they believe that a completely open online betting market spells trouble for Ontarians – and residents of other provinces if they follow with similar regulations.

Waving his phone in the air, AI highlighted how much easier these apps and companies make it to place a bet.

“It’s always in our hands. You don’t have to drive to a casino or store if it’s snowing or if it’s raining. You can (gamble) from home while you’re drinking a coffee, and destroying yourself.”

‘LIKE FEEDING KIDS SPOONS FULL OF VODKA’

Back in England, Ritchie says that she likens the wave of commercials and content on TV is spoon-feeding children the addiction.

“It’s like feeding kids spoons full of vodka and scotch. It’s being normalized in society.”

Ritchie, who’s now co-founded the organization Gambling with Lives, notes that she and other families know the cost all too well.

“I’ve spoken to loads of mothers, and they all say to me, ‘My heart is broken, I’ve lost my child, I didn’t know that gambling could take my child,” she said.

Richie says if her son, Jack, had come to her and said, “’I’m addicted to heroin,’ we’d have known what to do, but (with gambling) we didn’t. Eventually he came to us and said he’s lost some money, and we banned him from the bookies, but that didn’t matter. He found a way to make a bet.”

Jack Ritchie is pictured in an image provided by his parents.

‘SOCIETY LET HIM DOWN’

Ritchie said her son tried to quit, and at one point, the university graduate stopped for 18 months. But he went back to it again.  

After another long break from gambling, Ritchie said, she and her husband received a note one day in 2017.

“Out of the blue, Jack wrote, ‘The old problems back. I’ve gambled again and I’m not coming back from this.’ The email contained an attached suicide note.”

Ritchie said that Jack didn’t die by suicide “because he lost massive amounts of money,” but that he ended his life “because he thought he’d never be free of the gambling.”

“He felt despair. Because of the normalization of it, it undermined the sense of himself as someone who could have charge of his life. He thought he let us down, but we let him down, society let him down.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from a gambling addiction, there are resourcces available through Gamblers Anonymous.

If you’re struggling from a mental health addiction or problem gambling, you can also contact ConnexOntario at 1-866-531-2600.

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