According to multiple national news outlets, Canada will likely drop the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for people who enter the country by Sept. 30. This policy change would allow unvaccinated professional athletes to travel north of the border to compete in games.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to make a formal announcement regarding the vaccine policy changes shortly. Currently, the Canadian government requires a person to have received two approved COVID-19 vaccine doses, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, at least 14 days prior to entering the country.
All of the major sports leagues have been working around various COVID-19 health and safety governmental policies from both sides of the border for over two years now, but perhaps no team has been impacted more by the pandemic than the Toronto Blue Jays.
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) September 20, 2022
Canada’s only Major League Baseball team spent the entire 2020 season, and over half of the 2021 season, playing south of the border in either Dunedin, Florida, or Buffalo, New York, due to various pandemic restrictions. It wasn’t until mid-July of last year that the team was able to return to the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
However, since returning to Toronto, the Blue Jays have enjoyed an additional home advantage due to the aforementioned vaccination policy. Several opposing unvaccinated players, like St. Louis Cardinals All-Stars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, American League Cy Young candidate Dylan Cease, and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, didn’t make the trip to Canada this season to play the Blue Jays.
In fact, just prior to the All-Star Break, the Kansas City Royals had to leave behind a whopping 10 unvaccinated players ahead of a four-game series in Toronto. The Blue Jays won three of those four games.
Decision comes just prior to Jays’ playoff push
In a recent article in the New York Post, Jon Heyman wrote that the New York Mets have several unvaccinated stars and that a potential World Series matchup with the Blue Jays could give Toronto a huge advantage if those stars elected not to get vaccinated in time for the Fall Classic.
Unvaccinated players have been placed on MLB’s restricted list during their teams’ games in Canada. If the restrictions are formally lifted on Sept. 30, the Blue Jays will have three scheduled home games — a three-game series with the Boston Red Sox — remaining in the regular season. However, the Blue Jays currently sit comfortably in a wild card spot in the American League and have a 99.9% chance of qualifying for the postseason, according to FanGraphs. The MLB playoffs begin Oct. 7.
Major League Baseball unveiled a new expanded playoff structure ahead of the 2022 season, which will see the debut of a full wild card round that will consist of best-of-three series. Six teams — the three division champions and three wild card teams — will make the postseason in each league, for a 12-team postseason.
Each wild card game will be played in the home park of the team with the higher seed, meaning the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds will have hosting duties. The No. 3 seeds will be the worst of the three division champions in each league, regardless of record.
Imagine if Toronto earned home field advantage in the wild card series as the higher seed and the vaccination policy was still in place. That could have potentially excluded any unvaccinated opposing players for the entire short series.
“Hypothetically, Robbie Ray being a top-tier starting pitcher is certainly enough of an impact player to drastically alter the odds on a singular game or such a series,” an oddsmaker from Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s PROLINE + sportsbook told US Bets. “[Yankees outfielder Andrew] Benintendi and [Rays pitcher Brooks] Raley to a much lesser extent. All books would treat these factors in exactly the same way had the player been taken out of the starting lineup for any reason — whether to injury or just a day of rest. This happens on a daily basis around MLB and the impact on the line varies depending on the player.”
NEW from @RyanDivish: With Canada reportedly set to lift its COVID-19 vaccination requirement for entry by the end of September, Mariners pitcher Robbie Ray could play in any potential playoff games in Toronto. https://t.co/WPleJivRbp
— Seattle Times Sports (@SeaTimesSports) September 20, 2022
Jays a big liability for Canadian sportsbooks
Money has been pouring in on the Blue Jays and their star players all season long at Canada’s provincial sportsbooks. The OLG, which operates only in the team’s home province of Ontario, reports that 58% of World Series title futures money and 65% of AL Pennant futures bets are on the Blue Jays.
“While we certainly would lose on these futures if the Jays go far, it would be an overall positive,” the OLG oddsmaker said. “They are extremely popular and represent an outsized portion of our MLB handle. A deep run by them would really bolster interest in the MLB playoffs and result in much higher overall betting volume throughout. To put it in perspective, of the top 100 highest-bet baseball games this season, the Jays were involved in 70 of them.”
Player props involving the team’s star players, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, are also being hammered by Ontario bettors, according to OLG.
The Atlantic Lottery Corporation is jointly owned by the four Atlantic provincial governments in Canada: New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Director of Sports Betting Greg Eagles is also reporting heavy action on the Blue Jays, but to a slightly lesser extent than OLG.
“For our futures bets, we have a lot riding on Toronto,” he said. “They’ve taken in approximately 40% of both tickets and revenue and are our second biggest liability as we near the postseason. Should they win it all, we will be paying out over five times what we brought in for the World Series winner, and five times what we sold for the American League winner. Our only larger risk for the World Series right now is actually six figures riding on Baltimore, despite the fact they’ve only brought in well under 10% of sales. Should any other team win the World Series, we currently stand to come out ahead.”
As for the COVID rules changing in the country, the roster juggling of opposing teams visiting Toronto is nothing new for Eagles and his staff.
“The upcoming changes to the vaccination policy have little impact on our odds-setting practices,” he noted. “Whether MLB or any other sport, we’re constantly on our toes reacting to evolving conditions as it pertains to active rosters. Whether it’s an injury, a suspension, or otherwise, it’s really par for the course.”
Eagles adds that the sportsbook is in good shape in regard to season-long props.
“We’re comfortable with the liability on our season-long props, having taken in enough early money on Vlad to win AL MVP to cover most of our risk.”
Guerrero is slashing .279/.343/489 with 30 home runs and 88 RBIs entering play Thursday, but Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is the runaway favorite (currently -20000 at FanDuel) for AL MVP, as he continues his pursuit of baseball’s single-season home run record.
“In all honesty, despite having a lot riding on Toronto, I always quietly hope for our players’ favorite teams to come in,” said Eagles. “We have a lot of play from casual and core players whose $10 to $20 wagers, on average, not only offers them a chance to win, but heightens their engagement down the home stretch and hopefully through the playoffs.”
Photo: Eric Hartline/USA TODAY