Ontario’s new privatized online gambling market launched yesterday, April 4.
For the most part, it was a success, though at least one former gray market operator has encountered some difficulties with the transition. Many more have yet to launch.
One of the features of the new market is that the regulator, AGCO, won’t allow poker sites to pool traffic with other jurisdictions. In other words, Ontarians will have to make do with a ring-fenced market, like their peers in Michigan and Pennsylvania have to date.
While previewing that story here at Online Poker Report, we described April 4 as Grey Monday. In reality, however, the transition from gray market sites with global access to locally regulated, ring-fenced sites hasn’t been that abrupt.
On launch day, only one operator made the switch immediately, which was 888poker. Today, they’ve been joined by BetMGM Poker; more on that below.
Meanwhile, PokerStars has continued business as usual, with its Ontario players still able to access the global dot-com site. This will have been a surprise for some. AGCO has said that companies it approves must sever any ties they have with those who continue unregulated operations. As of May 2020, PokerStars has been part of the Irish conglomerate Flutter. Flutter also owns FanDuel, which is already up and running in the Ontario online gambling market.
How is that possible?
A grace period for those on the waiting list
The answer lies in the nitty-gritty of AGCO’s rules.
Getting regulatory approval to launch isn’t a simple rubber stamp process. Ontario is an open market with no cap on the number of operators. That means the pile of applications can get quite deep.
Furthermore, there are actually two different bodies that Ontario sites need to work with. They need regulatory approval from AGCO, but also an operating agreement with iGaming Ontario (iGO). The latter is technically the one “conducting and managing” online gambling in the province. Operators are merely offering products on its behalf.
The province is trying to make the process as painless as possible. An AGCO representative told Online Poker Report:
One of the key objectives behind Ontario’s new igaming market is to bring sites Ontarians are already gambling on under regulation so that they can be held to high standards of responsible gambling, player protection and game integrity
The AGCO is focused on transitioning operators, suppliers and players from the unregulated market to a regulated market, allowing for a business-like transition for those who had been operating in the unregulated market prior to today’s launch.
The relevant part of AGCO’s guidelines reads as follows:
All igaming applicants (operators and gaming-related suppliers) who apply prior to the date of the launch of the regulated Ontario igaming scheme, must cease unregulated market operations within Ontario once they are issued a registration from the AGCO.
What’s critical there is the last part: “…once they are issued a registration.”
In other words, those who applied before April 4 can continue to operate until they get their approval from AGCO. This presumably includes PokerStars. It is not currently on AGCO’s list of approved sites, but has said it does plan to enter the market.
Ontarians will be able to play in SCOOP
What’s more interesting still is that PokerStars appears to have some idea of when it will be getting approval.
It has told users on Twitter that Ontarians will be able to play in the Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP). This annual event is taking place a little later than last year, from May 8 to June 1.
That’s a bit of an unusual statement if its ability to keep Ontarians in the global pool is contingent on when AGCO decides to issue its approval. However, it’s important to remember that there are two steps to this process.
Another crucial bit of AGCO’s guidelines is the following:
The AGCO will coordinate the timing of registration issuance with iGaming Ontario’s commercial contract signing. This includes confirmation of data exchange so that these three events coincide and the transition to the regulated igaming scheme is as seamless as possible — with the goal of having no “blackout” period.
In other words, even if AGCO is ready, it will wait until PokerStars and iGO complete their negotiations. Reading the tea leaves here, it looks as if PokerStars expects to be able to prolong that step until after SCOOP concludes.
Will BetMGM make a dent?
Ontario PokerStars players are surely happy not to find themselves playing in isolation quite yet. It’s also good for the company, at a time when traffic is already lower than usual due to its decision to pull out of Russia.
There’s a downside, however. Like all new markets, Ontario is experiencing a flurry of marketing activity. PokerStars’ options are limited in that regard for now because it isn’t a legal operator yet.
Its reputation and long history in the province will still make it the probable market leader in the long term. However, competitors now have a window of opportunity to attract players who prefer regulated sites.
BetMGM is the US market leader in iGaming. However, its poker product is generally in third place, behind PokerStars and WSOP.
It launched its sportsbook and casino on opening day, but BetMGM Poker took one day longer. Still, it’s here now, and looking to make a splash. Luke Staudenmaier, BetMGM’s Director of Poker said in a press release:
“BetMGM Poker brings an agile, diverse, and player-centric platform to Canadian players. Through high-visibility partnerships, the brand will also connect players with world-class omni-channel experiences and poker legends, like brand ambassador Darren Elias. We look forward to building our community in Ontario, welcoming players to our tables, and providing safe, accessible, and entertaining options.”
For most gambling operators, including BetMGM, poker repesents a tiny percentage of iGaming revenue. It therefore won’t get a big marketing push of its own. It will, however, benefit from the money BetMGM spends marketing its other verticals, since users have access to all three products with a single account. One thing to watch for, then, is how much traffic BetMGM Poker manages to generate prior to PokerStars’ arrival in the ring-fenced market.