Sidney Crosby swoops in on the Calgary defence and fires top shelf to score the game-winning overtime goal for his Penguins. The Pittsburgh crowd on the September night goes wild.
But wait! It's just September! These games don't mean a thing in the standings; they're pre-season. Who really cares?
Well, chances are, you would if you had the Penguins to win this game in one of a number of sports lotteries throughout this country. While it's not the most dependable way of making money, betting on sports is big business, and always has been. Gambling and sports have co-existed almost since time began. Legalized gambling, while it can be abused, is always far preferable to the hypocrisy that it doesn't exist. (To learn more, see A Quick And Dirty Look At Sports Gambling.)
What's more, governments have all but encouraged the practice in recent years, given the dough that floods into government coffers from it.
How Much Money?
In the fiscal year ending in March, 2009 Ontario lottery revenues from all sources -- slots, lotteries, sports lotteries, scratch-and-win tickets -- topped $3.8 billion in fiscal 2009. In British Columbia, the figure was $954 million in fiscal '09. In energy-rich Alberta, the projected revenue figure for lotteries in the upcoming fiscal year tops $1.3 billion, which, combined with the $700 million Albertans are expected to shell out on liquor, surpasses the $1.9 billion in anticipated royalties from conventional crude.
Sports Lotteries: Different Kettle of Fish
However, unlike other lottery games which are pure chance, sports lotteries combine chance and skill. Thus, it's possible for a skillful sports bettor to win if he or she knows something about the teams, players, game conditions and the "breaks" of the game. Sport Select is the umbrella under which sports betting games are offered by provincial lottery corporations in Canada. For example, Quebec's game is known as Pari sportif, in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, it's called Pro-Line, and in B.C. it is dubbed Sports Action. However, the rules for the games are similar in all provinces.
Initially created to offer betting primarily on North American professional sports leagues, Sport Select has expanded to offer betting on competitions such as English Premier League soccer and U.S. college basketball. As wagering on individual games technically violates the Criminal Code of Canada, this is a parlay game in which players bet on up to six different outcomes (minimum two outcomes in B.C. and the Maritimes, minimum three in Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere in Western Canada).
How to Play
Each week, the provincial lottery corporation publishes an event list that outlines all the events and the odds of wagering. Let's say Toronto is hosting Montreal and you pick the Leafs to win by two goals or more. The odd on that contest is 1.50. The same night, you pick Detroit and Nashville to tie (in regulation, of course; overtime or a shootout can now break a tie). The odd of that regulation tie is 4.00. The third outcome on which you bet is called Over/Under, in which you wager that the goal total (still with Detroit and Nashville) will go over 4.5 by both clubs. The "Over" odd is 1.70.
Now, to boil this down, the total odds of those three outcomes are 10.20 (1.50 x 4.00 x 1.70). That means the $5 bet that you laid down on those three outcomes in those two games would win you $51.00, if both games worked out the way you bet them.
In some cases, the winnings are not penny-ante, and success stories on Ontario's Pro-Line website are positively mouth-watering. For example, one winner recently took home more than $72,000 on one offshoot of Pro-Line, Pro-Picks, in which players wager on individual performances. All told, in the last week of September, more than 22,000 winners shared $2.4 million on Pro∑Line and their associated games!
But, as always, there's the downside. The ease of playing and the possibility (however remote) of winning big lures folks into gambling, sometimes so deep that they can't get out. The latest figures from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) report that in Ontario, 3.8% of adults (or about 430,000 people) have moderate or severe gambling problems. An additional 9.6% (860,000 people) are classified as "at-risk" for problem gambling. A CAMH study of young people found that 4.7% of students engaged in heavy gambling in 2007. When the rush and the need for action overcomes reality, folks at risk are urged to seek help through gambling help lines. (For more, see Why We Splurge When Times Are Good.)
The Bottom Line
Summing up, gambling is intended to be fun, not as a way of making money. At the risk of sounding clichťd, the house always wins. That means, most of the time, you don't. Researching the soundness of this forward's ankle or that quarterback's knee and the effect they may have on next weekend's games should never occupy more time, energy, cash and thought than necessary things like working, eating, sleeping and otherwise taking care of your family. If it is, it's time to take a serious look at what you're doing. Keep gambling fun, and treat it as a part of life -- not as life itself. (For more, check out Going All-In: Comparing Investing And Gambling.)