In a court of law, it’s “innocent until proven guilty.” But Canadian gaming regulatory boards are not a court of law, and with them, apparently, it’s “guilty until proven innocent.”
Or, using phrasing more sympathetic to the thinking of those regulators in Canada, perhaps it could be presented as “erring on the side of extreme caution until confidence is fully restored.”
Nearly four weeks after “suspicious activity” was reported regarding the legal wagering on a UFC fight in Las Vegas between Shayilan Nuerdanbieke and Darrick Minner, the gaming commissions in Ontario last Thursday and Alberta on Friday suspended all betting on UFC events.
These decisions stand in clear contrast to how U.S. jurisdictions have handled it. In late November, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement prohibited betting specifically on fights involving Minner’s trainer James Krause, a central figure in the controversy who has spoken openly in the past about his betting on UFC fights. The UFC has done some of its own policing by releasing Minner and suspending Krause’s license. But beyond that, the UFC, and wagering on it, continues apace in the States.
UFC and mixed martial arts are not the first high-profile league and sport to experience a betting-related controversy. But they are the first in the post-PASPA era to have a high-profile league’s betting action shut down entirely by a regulator.
So observers are left with questions: Do the Canadian regulators know something about this case that most others don’t? Is the UFC being singled out because of something about the league’s and sport’s image? Or are the Ontario and Alberta commissions simply new to regulating sports betting and making an atypical ruling as they feel their way through this?
‘Terrible headlines for the UFC’
“I’ve seen people be like, ‘Ontario’s overreacting,’” veteran MMA journalist Luke Thomas said Friday on the Morning Kombat podcast, prior to Alberta following suit. “Let’s say that they are overreacting. … The problem is New Jersey already did something related to Krause specifically about this, now it’s in Ontario, there’s a contagion that could spread about this. And in the end, even if you think Ontario has overreacted, perception is reality to a degree. Just the perception that these issues are at play here, even if someone thinks Ontario has overreacted, it’s terrible headlines for the UFC. It’s terrible looks for them.”
Gaming industry consultant Brendan Bussmann of B Global Advisors is among those who finds Ontario and Alberta banning all UFC betting somewhat mystifying, although, when speaking to Sports Handle this week, he couched his reaction by allowing that the regulators in Canada may know something he doesn’t about the betting irregularities.
“Considering that UFC’s home is Nevada, I really question the reaction in Ontario and Alberta,” the Las Vegas-based Bussmann said. “I’m just perplexed, thinking, if anybody’s going to control this, it’s going to be Nevada — because of the gaming standards we have in Nevada and also the athletic commission as it relates to UFC.
“You didn’t see reactions like this anywhere to other incidents in the past. I mean, you look at a point-shaving scandal, you look at a ref connected with betting, the reaction wasn’t to ban every bet. It was, ‘We’re going to address the issue, and we’re going to go after it in a very meaningful way.’ It wasn’t, ‘One bad actor represents all of you and we’re going to stop.’ So I look at this issue, and I’m like, ‘Guys, there’s a better way to regulate this.’”
Bussmann noted that well before this UFC controversy bubbled up, Ontario had its peculiarities in its approach to sports betting. The province offered licensing to “gray market” operators that had previously served customers there without regulation and came down hard on companies advertising sportsbook bonuses — two positions that were not employed by any states in the U.S.
UFC’s own betting ban not strong enough?
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) explained in its release announcing the ban on UFC betting:
“Contrary to the Registrar’s Standards, the UFC does not prohibit all insiders from betting on UFC events, which could include an athlete’s coaches, managers, handlers, athletic trainers, medical professionals, or other persons with access to non-public information.
“In recent weeks, the AGCO has learned of publicized alleged incidents, including possible betting by UFC insiders, as well as reports of suspicious betting patterns in other jurisdictions.
“Therefore, the AGCO is now taking this step in the public interest. AGCO has indicated to operators that, once the necessary remedial steps have been taken, they may provide information demonstrating that UFC bets or betting products meet the Registrar’s Standards.”
On Oct. 17, two weeks prior to the Minner fight, the UFC announced its policy barring fighters from betting on UFC events, but the AGCO seems to be saying that doesn’t extend far enough and, essentially, should cover every person with gym or locker room access.
UFC just issued this memo to fighters and managers regarding a change in their athlete conduct policy:
UFC fighters are now prohibited from gambling on any UFC fight, regardless of if they are involved or not. They can still be sponsored just not allowed to bet at all. pic.twitter.com/6zhuIITxmx
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) October 17, 2022
The Nuerdanbieke-Minner controversy centers around the belief that Minner came into the fight with an undisclosed injury, and that some people had access to information about the injury and placed winning bets as a result.
When it comes to controlling injury information, UFC is facing a problem that won’t be easy to resolve, as Thomas explained on Morning Kombat.
“Fighters routinely — routinely, routinely, routinely — shield injury disclosures from the medical staff, from the UFC, from their opponent, from anyone. … In the world of betting, this acceptance of sports gambling creates new complications. And you might be like, ‘Why doesn’t that create problems for the NFL or MLB?’ Well, because the teams there do a much better job, because obviously the athletes have a much different incentive structure, they actually know what the injuries are, they disclose them to the public.
“If you actually disclosed all of your injuries [in MMA], how many fights would you get a year? You may not actually be able to compete because you have to do it. And yet, making sure that stuff is known and above board is kind of essential to making the gambling aspect of it work. … This is a really difficult problem for the UFC to solve. It’s an unenviable task.”
Thomas’ podcast partner, Brian Campbell, added that multiple fighters’ camps are crowded together in shared UFC locker rooms, where it’s easy for someone to gain actionable information about another fighter. And even if the folks within an athlete’s professional team don’t place wagers, Thomas asked aloud, “How do you prevent someone’s wife, someone’s brother [from betting]?”
Resolve it with words, not fists
So what should Dana White and the UFC do from here to get back in the good graces of the commissioners in Ontario and Alberta?
“First and foremost, you want to have that working relationship with the regulators,” Bussmann advised. “Say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about this, let’s figure out what’s going on, let’s figure out why this is occurring. Because clearly there’s some sort of disconnect here that either I need to do something as the sport, or I need to explain to you, the regulator, what’s going on here.’
“You have to have dialogue. And you can have those confidential conversations where the regulator can tell you, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s what you need to do.’”
That should be encouraging advice for UFC officials to hear, based on what Thomas had to say about the way the organization operates.
“The one thing that UFC has done really well, and what has been a big reason for their success … is they, for the most part, really try and do things right by the regulators,” Thomas said. “They know you can’t fight the regulators. You can’t fight the commission. You cannot fight the betting integrity initiatives. You cannot fight the governor. You have to have them on your side for your product to really thrive. So being in compliance … is extremely important for them. So I think they’re going to really try to do this the right way.”
Certainly, having half the population of Canada banned from betting on your events — about 19.5 million of the slightly over 38 million people in Canada reside in Ontario or Alberta — is problematic for UFC.
And so is this analysis Thomas offered on Monday morning’s podcast that re-examined the issue after Alberta piled on as well:
“Regulators in Canada are saying they can’t trust whether UFC fights aren’t fixed,” Thomas said. “That’s what they’re basically saying. They don’t know if the product is legitimate, and therefore they’re banning folks from taking bets on this.”