Why BCLC’s online gambling tech is spreading across Western Canada

Provinces without online gambling infrastructure turning to made-in-B.C. platform

William Whitehurst / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The online gambling technology most familiar to British Columbians is cementing its foothold in Western Canada.

The B.C. Lottery Corp.’s (BCLC) PlayNow.com platform launched Thursday (Nov. 3) in Saskatchewan, marking the third province in which the gaming website has rolled out. The Crown corporation launched PlayNow.com in Manitoba in 2013 and on the West Coast nearly two decades ago.

“It's really an opportunity for us to continue to scale and expand the online presence and the brand in the market that we started to build since 2004,” said Pat Davis, CEO of BCLC. “It matters to the residents of Saskatchewan because it's the first time they will have an opportunity to have a safe, secure legal online gambling alternative in the province.”

The platform’s latest roll-out comes five months after BCLC signed a contract with authorities in Saskatchewan and agreed to a revenue-share model to provide the province with the infrastructure necessary to facilitate online gambling.

“For smaller provinces, in particular, to build all those things, all that experience, all that technology and do it in a way that they can … get to market quickly and be able to do it successfully is a daunting task,” Davis said. “And so being able to leverage partners, in this case BCLC and PlayNow.com, I think is an attractive opportunity for them.”

The SaskGaming Crown corporation will manage the PlayNow.com website, while the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) is responsible for operating it.

The gambling industry is managed by provincial governments. But in perhaps the biggest shakeup for the sector last year, Ottawa gave the provinces the power to regulate single-game sports betting beginning in August 2021.

The BCLC began accepting wagers the first day it was permitted, while other provinces staggered their roll-outs. 

Canadians were still able to use regulated operators to bet on sports prior to the regulatory changes, but those wagers could only be parlays of two events or more.

Ottawa’s move was part of an effort to stamp out the black and grey markets for sports betting, which account for $14 billion in wagers made annually, according to a 2020 estimate from the Canadian Gaming Association.

Last year’s regulatory changes followed a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA). The PAPSA ruling gave way to American states to legalize betting on sports – and with it, the need for those states to ensure bets are placed in proper jurisdictions.

The decision turned into a windfall for one Vancouver-based company specializing in geolocation technology: GeoComply Solutions Inc., which secured a US$1 billion valuation last year following an investment of an undisclosed amount.

“U.S. authorities would not look kindly on people from the U.S. being able to wager on systems in Canada, particularly underage,” Boston-based lawyer Mark Hichar of Greenberg Traurig LLP told BIV in the lead-up to last year’s regulatory changes.

“So I would expect that they [Canadian operators] are all over these issues.”

Hichar specializes in the American gaming industry and the U.S. Wire Act, which takes aim at organized crime by targeting cross-border gambling.

“The U.S. regulatory structure requires that people who are within a state [must] wager only on systems that are within that state,” Hichar said.

A lottery corporation or gaming operator in Canada not sufficiently ensuring their systems prevent Americans from placing online bets by basic means, such as a virtual private network, risk drawing the ire of federal authorities south of the border.

And licensed vendors and suppliers could also find themselves at odds with the law if systems they are facilitating do not adequately comply with regulations.

Prior to this most recent launch of PlayNow.com, any online gambling Saskatchewan residents engaged in was through websites not regulated by provincial authorities.

With Saskatchewan now on board with the made-in-B.C. platform, profit derived from those online wagers stays within that province and are directed to provincial government services.

“You're playing with a known entity so you know where your money's going and you know that if you win you'll get paid, which isn't always the case with those illegal operators online,” Davis said.

BCLC was required to register as a gaming provider with Saskatchewan regulators and meet that province’s regulatory standards. From there, the Crown corporation worked to customize the website for that specific market.

The website features what are called GameSense advisors who interact with gamblers via phone or live chat to answer questions about the games or refer them to counselling if users believe their gambling habits are unhealthy.

The system can determine a player’s approximate locations, such as with an IP address, to confirm they are betting within the proper jurisdiction. Players' personal information — such as name, date of birth and address — also must be verified.

A B.C. gambler already registered with the local PlayNow.com website is not able to take a trip to Saskatchewan or Manitoba and gamble online there. Instead, they would have to sign up and get verified through those provinces’ respective authorities.

“It is a conversation that I think is one we will enter into longer term, but it requires inter-provincial agreement in order to do that,” Davis said.