The Ontario online gambling market is a battleground. For now, it remains an open question who will have the upper hand: Major US brands, former offshore gray market operators, or homegrown companies.
In that latter camp, you’ll find NorthStar Bets. This new brand is an offshoot of Torstar, a media company whose holdings include the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper and online news outlet.
NorthStar Bets doesn’t operate anywhere except Ontario at the moment. It launched there last month. This week, its offerings expanded significantly with the rollout of Playtech’s IMS platform and casino technology.
Soon, those offerings may include online poker.
NorthStar Gaming CEO Michael Moskowitz said:
NorthStar Bets puts consumers at the centre of an immersive and content-driven experience. Our partnership with Playtech means that we are able to deliver an engaging and enjoyable online experience with the highest level of player protection. Consumers are looking for content that caters to their individual preferences and interests, and alongside Playtech’s unrivalled multichannel technology we are uniquely positioned to become a leader in the Canadian iGaming market.
It’s the norm for online gambling operators to license their technology from third-party suppliers. Playtech is among the most prominent of these and is in the process of building out its live casino offerings in the US.
NorthStar Bets May Become Ontario’s First iPoker Skin
NorthStar is only one of several partnerships in Ontario for Playtech. From the sounds of it, though, it may become the most comprehensive.
The press release states:
With the addition of Poker content later this year, Playtech will be providing NorthStar Bets with its full technology stack of products to deliver one of Ontario’s premier online casino and sports betting experiences.
The poker content in question is presumably Playtech’s iPoker platform. This is currently in widespread use in the international market, and some ring-fenced European markets.
Unlike big, standalone operators like PokerStars and BetMGM Poker, iPoker is a white label product. International users of various gambling brands like Bet365, William Hill, Betfair and Titan end up playing together at the same poker tables on the iPoker Network.
That network-skin model was popular during the poker boom years, when the game was growing rapidly. Since the shutdown of MPN in May 2020, iPoker is the only large network remaining that does not have a flagship skin using its own brand. (Hybrids exist, like GGPoker, which operates its own poker room, but also allows other skins access to the network).
Unfortunately, Ontario regulations do not allow traffic sharing with sites outside of the province. To start with, then, NorthStar will be on its own. However, the existence of one iPoker site in Ontario could motivate other operators to include it in their offerings. The primary advantage of the network-skin model is, after all, to make poker viable for operators who wouldn’t be able to achieve a critical mass of traffic on their own.
Perhaps the most likely operator to join NorthStar would be Bet365. After all, it is both already up and running in the Ontario regulated market, and an international iPoker skin.
Interprovincial Poker Could Be Within Reach
Ontario poker players are already petitioning the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to change its policies. When it comes to sharing traffic internationally, the trouble is that this might be legally complicated.
Canadian federal law doesn’t online gambling specifically. It does state, however, that all gambling must be conducted and managed as a “lottery scheme” by provincial governments.
Offshore online gambling falls in a legal gray area because the servers aren’t on Canadian soil. Ontario’s privatization plan hinges on the idea that private companies have access to the market through operating agreements with iGaming Ontario, an agency created to take on that “conduct and manage” role. Networking Ontario sites with ones not being conducted and managed by a provincial government could become legally problematic. As it is, the new market is already at risk of a legal challenge.
Sadly, that means that there’s no chance NorthStar will hook up with the larger iPoker Network.
That said, the same issue probably wouldn’t exist for interprovincial poker. British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec – and soon, Saskatchewan – already have a shared poker network through their lottery iGaming sites.
If other provinces follow Ontario’s lead and establish privatized markets, we could see more interprovincial networks appear. That could include brand-specific networks like WSOP, but also, theoretically, a Canadian iPoker Network connecting local brands like NorthStar. It would still require permission from AGCO, but unlike international poker, there’s no obvious legal reason that the regulator shouldn’t allow it.