Ontario’s decision to ban betting on UFC an unwelcome surprise to some

December 7, 2022 6:29 PM

Ontario’s decision to ban betting on UFC an unwelcome surprise to some

Photo: Shutterstock
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports
December 7, 2022 6:29 PM
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports
  • Canada
  • Ontario
  • Sports Betting

The dust is settling on last week’s decision by Ontario’s digital-gaming and sports-betting regulator to ban wagering on the UFC due to integrity concerns.

On the one hand, by instructing all registered operators to stop offering and accepting wagers on the UFC, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGCO) made an important statement on how seriously they’re taking the issue of betting integrity in a newly regulated Ontario market. The issue revolved more specifically around suspicious betting patterns in a UFC fight in early November. Betting by insiders at UFC (athlete’s coaches, managers, handlers, trainers, and medical professionals) has been an ongoing issue not only for the AGCO, but also bodies like the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, which has also taken action.

As a spokesperson from the AGCO reiterated to CDC Gaming Reports, the whole purpose of establishing standards specific to sports and events betting that apply to internet gaming, land-based gaming (casinos), and lottery products is to “protect the public and minimize the potential compromising of betting markets through activities such as insider betting or game manipulation.”

Operators will have to show that UFC bets or betting products meet the Registrar’s Standards before they get the green light to take bets on UFC again.

Not every operator in Ontario is on board, though.

“The halting of UFC betting came as quite a surprise to us,” said one Ontario operator. “The most important thing to note is that betting integrity within any sport is the largest priority and any concerns need to be investigated swiftly. That being said, it seems awfully knee-jerk to react with a ban on betting for the entire sport. It’s strange that more mature markets in the U.S. and Europe haven’t seen this as a necessary step.

“It sets a really dangerous precedent when regulators can seemingly change or limit the overall product of an operator at will. The fact that this is in reference to an event that occurred on Nov. 5 means that this decision was made really quickly. It begs the question, was the appropriate amount of due diligence done in advance of such a drastic decision?”

As Canadian Gaming Association President and CEO Paul Burns said, this isn’t a “forever” situation. “This wasn’t a problem with betting operators,” Burns told CDC Gaming Reports. “This was a situation with the UFC. They’re are saying to the UFC, your policies don’t meet our standards, and once they do, they will be welcome back. [The AGCO] doesn’t want to keep [the UFC] off. But they have no choice, because their standard is their standard and that’s what we get with regulated environments.”

Burns added that he didn’t believe the AGCO’s action would boost black-market betting on the UFC either. “I think illegal markets are out there in every market and it’s always a concern, [but] I don’t think there’s any more heightened concern there because of this.”

Other provinces have been following Ontario’s lead. On Dec. 1, Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) stopped offering and accepting wagers on UFC events due to the possible risks to wagering integrity. Previously placed UFC wagers on PlayAlberta.ca were voided and the stakes were returned to players.

“AGLC will continue to monitor standards implemented by UFC before reinstating betting options on Play Alberta,” a spokesperson said.

In Saskatchewan, Alanna Adamko, director of communications for SIGA (Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority), which operates the province’s PlayNow.com sports-betting platform, says they are still offering UFC, but it makes up only two percent of the total settled sports bets on the site, where NFL, NHL, and soccer lead the way. PlayNow.com is only place in Saskatchewan where people can make legal online sports bets.

The UFC has responded by saying that they’re cooperating with multiple ongoing government investigations surrounding the fight on Nov. 5, involving Darrick Minner and his coach James Krause. The UFC has released Minner from his contract, suspended Krause, and made it clear that any UFC fighter who continues to work with Krause will not be permitted to participate in UFC events.

Said the UFC in a Dec. 2 statement, “Along with the safety and health of its fighters, UFC believes there is no more important component of professional mixed martial arts than the integrity of the sport. Weeks prior to the Minner fight, the organization sent formal notification to all fighters and members of their teams that they and certain other defined “insiders” were prohibited from wagering on UFC events.

“This was an extension of UFC’s pre-existing (and since updated) fighter Code of Conduct as well as a recognition of various state, federal, and international laws and regulations expressly prohibiting conduct that threatens the integrity of the sport including, but not limited to, insider betting based on non-public information, fight-fixing, and other such misconduct.

“UFC will continue to take all necessary and appropriate steps to ensure compliance with and enforcement of its policies and those of the jurisdictions in which it operates.”

One thing is clear: Most licensed Ontario operators are careful not to cross the AGCO on this, at least publicly. CDC Gaming Reports approached several for comment and were turned away. The International Betting Integrity Association also had no to comment on the UFC situation.

So far, it doesn’t cost the industry too much. What Adamko said about UFC/MMA popularity was telling. One of the more popular Ontario sportsbook operators said the UFC/MMA is eighth on their handle list.

Tony Bitonti, a spokesman with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, said UFC/MMA betting on their Proline platform sits well behind major sports leagues, ranking just behind tennis in terms of popularity. However, they believe the UFC has real growth potential.

“We respect and comply with all directives from the AGCO and look forward to the adoption of a new, more robust, Code of Conduct that will protect our players and allow us to offer wagering once again,” he said.