The $70 billion fantasy sports market apparently isn't the least bit discouraged by Florida's resistance to gaming expansion. Why should it be? Its entrepreneurs are sure they can convince Florida legislators that playing fantasy games of any kind isn't gambling at all. It doesn't represent a game of chance, they say. It's first about skill.
Their thought is, the timing is right. Florida, like more than half a dozen other states, is examining its gambling laws right now.
Get ready, legislators. Better go to the shotgun, prepare for an all-out blitz. With Sheldon Adelson and his destination casino dream out of Florida for now, this could be the 2016 session's hottest gaming ticket.
Fantasy sports leagues and daily fantasy sports (DFS) are through the roof in recent years, but especially since the recession ended. Last year 41 million Americans and Canadians played fantasy sports, up from 27 million in 2009, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA). The industry estimates that 57 million will participate this year.
You've probably noticed. After only the first four weeks of the NFL season, advertising from fantasy football industry leaders and rivals, FanDuel and DraftKings, promising big payouts to players who do well, have already swamped television and radio markets with banners like DraftKings' “Millionaire Maker -- Turn $20 into $2 Million,” and FanDuel’s “Turn $25 Into $1,000,000.”
With all due respect to the FSTA, those ads sure look like gambling hustles. They certainly stress winnings more than they do fun. Not that I have a problem with any of it. I'm just saying.
Here's how the game is played: You pay an entry fee ranging from 25 cents to several thousand dollars to win awards that run from a few dollars to more than $1 million. The good news is, you can't lose more than your entry fee; the bad news is, you can enter as many times as you like, sort of like buying dozens of lottery tickets to lower the odds. The player whose athletes collect the most points, based on the athletes’ performance, wins the top prize.
To make it past a conservative Legislature in a state where Disney is the fun-and-games boss, the FSTA will need legislation and a couple of crafty lawmakers to pound fantasy sports into the endzone. The lingering question is, does participation in fantasy games violate Florida’s gambling laws? And despite their firm belief the law is on their side and the games are legal, industry leaders have wisely hired a lobbyist -- in fact, Brian Ballard and his Tallahassee firm, to help with a little blocking in the backfield. As Peter Schoenke, president of FSTA said, it’s “important to establish a presence in Tallahassee and begin educating legislators about the dynamics of fantasy sports.”
I'm thinking it's an uphill battle in this Legislature.
Just Monday The New York Times published a ringing editorial against Fantasy Sports ("Rein In Online Fantasy Sports Gambling"). Said the Times, "It is hard to believe that this is what Congress had in mind when it exempted fantasy sports from a law that effectively outlawed Internet gambling in 2006."
How big is fantasy sports beyond participant numbers? The Times says, "Professional leagues like the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have invested in fantasy sports companies, as have businesses like Comcast, Fox and Google. Football teams like the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars have set up cocktail lounges in their stadiums where fans can play fantasy sports."
The Times opines that 1) fantasy sports betting opens the door to legalize sports betting, and 2) it may be just as addictive as other forms of gambling, there just haven't been enough studies on it yet.
That'll be some rabbit Ballard and partners pull out of their hat if they score on this one.
Gambling and sports law attorney Daniel Wallach with the Fort Lauderdalefirm Becker & Poliakoff, told World Casino News, the increasing growth and revenue of the industry invites scrutiny. He warns, “As more money flows into fantasy sports and the character of the games begin to more closely resemble gambling (rather than an informal social game), the risk of a criminal prosecution heightens. As unlikely as that may seem to many, all it takes is one aggressive prosecutor or attorney general to jeopardize Florida’s lucrative and established fantasy sports market.”
Then there's that "ancient" opinion written in 1991 by the Florida attorney general of the day, Bob Butterworth. It concludes a fantasy football league that charged a $100 fee to join, and distributed the pot to winners would constitute illegal gambling in Florida. Old as it is, it's a law legislators will have to contend with.
The FSTA estimates that 3 million Florida residents participate in either DFS or traditional fantasy football leagues operated by FanDuel and DraftKings, which, by the way, often have big money at stake.
Jason Robins of DraftKings, appearing last week at a casino trade show in Las Vegas, said he looks on the bright side of appealing to the Florida Legislature. There should be no confusing his operation for a casino’s, he said. He explained his industry is much more likely to attract customers who play chess and the stock market than people who make bets at sports books. “It’s really the same type of person who, on the game side, likes chess,” Robins said. “It isn’t that different from the stock market.”
I know there are members of the Florida Legislature right now who play fantasy sports regularly. And I suspect there are a few -- I don't know for sure, but I could name a few lawmakers I suspect will be dead opposed to any bill that makes fantasy sports legal tender in the state of Florida.
For us watching from the stands, I predict this next Florida gaming chapter is going to be epic.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith