Keith Strudler: Is Fantasy Football Gambling?
Football and gambling are like matches and fireworks. They work well together, but it can get explosive.
For now at least, daily fantasy sports doesn't have to worry about that, since by legal decree, it is not technically gambling. That means that companies like FanDuel and Draft Kings aren't regulated like the gambling industry in this country, where it's illegal in most places to simply wager cash on which team will win a game or whether they'll cover the point spread, or amount one team is favored over another. So all legal gambling on sports like football in the US -- and there is a lot -- is regulated by the government. That's why you have to go to Vegas to do it. Or in one of the few but growing number of state parlays that allows fans to pick a series of games each week, with all profits going towards state budgets, not unlike the lotteries that allegedly fund our nation's public schools.
Daily fantasy sports, for the uninitiated, allows fans to create their own sports team each week from players on all teams that accumulate stats and scores, all of which are tabulated to create a winner each week. So, instead of rooting for any one team, you're rooting for individual players on a variety of different teams, and competing against people who have done the same. It changes the very nature of sport itself, from a team sport of wins and losses to a series of compartmentalized athletic performances within that process. Not to be crass, but it's like playing a drinking game during an episode of Real Housewives -- and some of you know what I mean. You stop watching the game and focus instead on its parts.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Fantasy sports has long bridged the gap between real sports and the numbers behind it. But those games have traditionally played out over the course of a season, allowing participants to draft, trade, and strategize over the course of several months. Daily fantasy is something different, and far more immediate. Each game day presents a new winning, and losing proposition, all enabled by the click of a mobile device. And if you believe it's gambling, which the courts do not, it's like having a mobile casino in your pocket. Opium for the masses, as if sports isn't just that already.
It's not deemed gambling because the courts have ruled it a game of skill, not chance, as gambling is. The skill entailed to pick the right team each week makes it something different than, say, black jack, where cards are randomly assigned. Of course, events of the past several days may have put that ruling in considerable risk. This week, both FanDuel and Draft Kings had to convince the general public that their employees weren't using internal data to win money on the other company's site. That's difficult when it was revealed that Draft King employees have won around $6 million off Fan Duel. And one of it's people won $350,000 last week off a Fan Duel NFL game.
See, if people know where the general public is placing their money, or on which players, they can use that data to pick other players, giving themselves a statistically higher chance of winning. All of which sounds like gambling. Both sites have now temporarily banned all employees of participating in any online fantasy sports for money. That probably should have been done some time ago, because that would have kept the NY State Attorney General from launching an inquiry into both companies. He'll want to know where, when, and how this all happens, likely resulting in more bureaucracy than either of these two stealth organizations could have ever imagined. It's like putting snow tires on Lamborghini. And when it's all done, you can almost guarantee that New York State will find a way to regulate, tax, and generally profit of the new frontier of sports entertainment. Perhaps when daily fantasy was a startup venture by some hipsters, it could stay under the radar. Now, it's big business, as self-evident by their multimillion dollar ad buy on ESPN and other sports networks. So if they wanted a bulls eye, mission accomplished.
I'm not dogmatically opposed to daily fantasy sports. But I am opposed to hypocrisy. There may be skill to daily fantasy sports, but there's skill to poker as well. And that's regulated. If we want to legalize gambling, then do. Don't qualify it by nuances of chance and opportunity. Daily fantasy sports has the same risks that any other gambling activity does -- addiction, loss, corruption, and most all the seven sins. If the government is okay with that, then fine. If not, then end it, along with lotteries, casinos, and everything else of that vice. Don't wait for the explosion, then pretend outrage, like we're seeing right now in New York. And let's face it, football and gambling can be quite explosive.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler