99 Problems: Is Promoting A Sportsbook Hurting Wayne Gretzky’s Brand?

Written By Dave Briggs on April 27, 2022 - Last Updated on June 20, 2022
Wayne Gretzky

Hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky has a golden reputation — particularly in his native Canada. But when The Great One began representing the BetMGM Sportsbook prior to the launch of an open Ontario online sports betting market, the reception he received from many fans wasn’t great at all.

BetMGM social media ads featuring Gretzky promoting its Ontario sportsbook have been rife with negative comments about the usually-beloved Brantford, ON native.

Yes, one shouldn’t put too much credence on what people post on social media — in this case, Facebook and Twitter. But it was somewhat surprising to see the comments trending 80/20 negative about Gretzky being a brand ambassador for BetMGM Ontario. Most opined that Gretzky’s association with gambling was bad for his personal reputation.

Many said The Great One has tarnished his golden image

There were some positive comments, for sure, but a smattering of some of the more searing opinions directly related to Gretzky’s reputation included:

  • Wow expected way better of Wayne Gretzky promoting gambling which is going to ruin lives.
  • His dad will be turning over in his grave.
  • I hate this! Feeding off the weaknesses of others and glamorizing gambling! I am very disappointed in (Gretzky) and I’m noticing these gambling commercials are during all the sports I like to watch. A lot of impressionable young minds.
  • All of a sudden I don’t have the respect for him I had.
  • Wayne will sell anything that adds money to his bank account. Hockey hall of fame, human hall of shame. He was always made out to be his nice wholesome Canadian boy, but I’d bet it’s all an act.
  • Gretzky seems to have no bottom for how low he will stoop for money. Tarnishing a formerly proud legacy.
  • The Great One has become The Greedy One
  • He’s urging people to lose their life savings gambling (originally in all-caps).
  • Wtf! Why the fk would he be a part of this? Gambling destroys lives whether it’s online or in person it’s all the same.
  • Does he need the money that bad? Why is he lowering himself to shill for this?
  • Wayne’s brand is officially tarnished
  • Well it appears many people are on the same page. Our 99 has taken a wrong turn, and many are disappointed.

Yet, Gretzky is a “brilliant” choice for a brand ambassador

Dr. Antonia Mantonakis, a professor of marketing at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business, specializes in consumer psychology and has studied the role of celebrity sponsorships. She told PlayOntario that BetMGM’s use of Gretzky was a “brilliant choice” from a marketing perspective.

“Let’s say it’s a gambling brand, you don’t want a celebrity that is well-known for gambling and well known for placing bets… If it’s an exact match, then consumers won’t process the ad, they might not pay attention, they might not be intrigued. They’re not going to get the reaction that a marketer wants,” Mantonakis said.

Similarly, if the celebrity appears to have personal qualities that run counter to the brand — for example, a known vegan representing a steak house — it “will completely turn off the consumer,” Mantonakis said. “They’re going to be thinking, ‘What is this? This doesn’t make any sense? I’m not interested. I would never buy this product or never go to this website.’

“But, somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot. Marketers call this Moderate Schema Incongruity… This is the middle ground where the consumer gets intrigued. They might be feeling a little surprised. They might want to listen to the ad a little bit more. And they are almost forced to think about it at a deeper level, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I would never have thought Wayne Gretzky would be promoting a website for placing bets.’ That’s going to get a lot of consumer attention. It’s going to stick in their memory. It’s going to be something that they remember if they’re later deciding what they’re going to purchase or engage in.

“So, as a consumer psychologist, I see the choice of Wayne Gretzky for BetMGM and I say, ‘Wow, that was a really clever decision.’

Ranking the popularity of brand ambassadors

There’s little doubt that 23 years after he last played in the NHL and was also voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Gretzky remains extremely popular and well-liked.

The general popularity and “famousness” of brand ambassadors is a little difficult to quantify. But a UK-based website named YouGuv attempts to give a relative score to famous people based, allegedly, on its data derived from its “proprietary global panel of 8 million individuals.”

The American wing of YouGuv — note there isn’t a Canadian one — ranks celebrities in various categories and gives a percentage score to individuals in categories such as:

  • Fame (what percent of respondents have heard of the celebrity)
  • Popularity (what percent “like” the celebrity)
  • Disliked
  • Neutral

There is a long list of celebrities — mostly athletes — representing sportsbooks in the US. The list is much shorter, so far, for ambassadors for Ontario books.

Here are YouGuvAmerica’s ranking of the popularity of some prominent brand ambassadors representing sportsbooks operators in ads that have appeared in Ontario (remember this is a US site doing the rankings):

  • Jamie Foxx (BetMGM) — Fame: 92% / Popularity: 66% / Rank: 34th (contemporary actors)
  • Wayne Gretzky (BetMGM) — Fame: 78% / Popularity: 51% / Rank: 29th (all-time sports personalities (and #1 among hockey players)) / 582nd (all-time people)
  • Trailer Park Boys (PointsBet) — Fame: 48% / Popularity: 20% / Rank: 425th (on the list of contemporary TV shows)
  • Connor McDavid (Bet MGM) — Fame 36% / Popularity: 19% / Rank: 9th (contemporary hockey players) / 296th (contemporary sports personalities)
  • Auston Matthews (Bet99) — Fame: 27% / Popularity: 13% / Rank: 48th (contemporary hockey players) / 580th (contemporary sports personalities)
  • Susie Essman, Rex Lee and Gerry Dee (theScore Bet) — None of the three listed
  • JB Smoove (Caesars) — Not listed
  • Dan O’Toole (BetRivers) — Not listed

The Halo Effect

Mantonakis said the negative reaction some consumers are having to Gretzky representing a gambling company, might have something to do both with their own associations with gambling, as well as The Halo Effect.

“Consumers often look for associations with a brand. Sometimes it isn’t even at a conscious level,” she said. “Typically, when a consumer sees a brand associated with somebody like Wayne Gretzky, who has a great reputation… there is a halo effect on the brand. Any kind of positive associations that a consumer might have with that celebrity or that person will sort of get transferred on to the brand or the product. So, there’s this positive association. That’s why a lot of brand managers choose to use celebrities.”

So, if we accept that Gretzky has a strong reputation that, generally, transfers positively onto the brands he represents, we also have to consider the strong reaction some have both pro and con to gambling, in general, and how it influences their thoughts on Gretzky.

“As marketers and brand managers we always have to consider what the product represents,” Mantonakis said. “Is it a utilitarian product? A hedonic product? Is it something associated with pleasure? With gambling, what is it associated with for many people? Is it a fun, leisurely activity? A hobby? Is it an addiction? What are the associations that consumers may have?”

Those that hold Gretzky in high regard, but also see gambling as a societal ill, would be more likely to react negatively to him representing BetMGM.

What about Gretzky’s wine, beer and spirits?

It should be noted that Gretzky has his name attached to another vice. So, it is interesting that some would react to so negatively to his connection with gambling.

Wayne Gretzky Estates in Ontario’s Niagara region, produces wine, beer and Canadian whisky under Gretzky’s name and famous number 99.

Mantonakis said the difference in consumers’ reaction may partly be that alcohol is more accepted in Ontario than sports betting, which is relatively new — especially online. The market only opened on April 4.

Also, Gretzky Estates has done well to build a brand that suits Gretzky’s image, Mantonakis said.

“I live a bike ride away from the Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery and I think that the way that they’ve done the winery with the skating rink, the whisky, the fire-side marshmallows and all of these other parts of the brand experience, it’s on-brand for him and I think for many consumers there isn’t (as strong a) negative connotation of alcohol and alcoholism and that it is an addiction.”

Problem gambling resources

There’s no doubt problem gambling is present in Ontario, as it is in other parts of Canada and the world. There are, however, plenty of services in Ontario that help problem gamblers, either through self-exclusion programs or support centres.

Photo by Shutterstock
Dave Briggs Avatar
Written by
Dave Briggs

Before joining PlayOntario, Dave spent more than 25 years as a writer and editor, mainly covering horse racing in Canada. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Western University and was a 2018 inductee into the Communicators' Corner of the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame. Beyond a deep passion for family and music, Dave has a mostly-tragic, life-long love of Detroit sports teams. He lives in Port Stanley, Ontario with his wife and their beloved Vizsla named California.

View all posts by Dave Briggs