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Wednesday, Nov 14, 2018
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Are fantasy sports games harmless fun or end run around regulations?

You know those fantasy sports gaming sites that dangle the chance of a million-dollar payday? Play with your eyes open. If money is what you crave, you’d be better off answering the email from that prince in Nigeria who picked you out from among all the people in the world to receive untold riches.

People love it, though. You can’t turn on a TV any more without being hit with a commercial about how much fun people are having there.

According to state House Majority Leader Dana Young of Tampa, an estimated 3 million Floridians participate in sports fantasy games, mostly on FanDuel or DraftKings. That number may be inflated, maybe not. It’s undoubtedly safe to say, though, a lot of people like this stuff.

“People have been playing fantasy sports in Florida for as long as I can remember,” Young said. “I don’t see any reason why people shouldn’t have an opportunity to participate in that. I do support the right of people to play these fantasy sports games.”

Her voice is an important one on this issue. She has been heavily involved in regulating state gaming interests, including the Seminole Tribe casinos. If the Legislature decides to look into how these sites operate in Florida, she will be one of the leaders.

I should, in the interest of full disclosure, admit I joined a fantasy football league this fall for penny-ante stakes. My team, the MoJoe Men, isn’t very good. I’ll leave it at that. I have never tried FanDuel or DraftKings and probably won’t. I know my limitations.

On these sites, participants pay a fee then choose their roster of individual players. The game assigns a dollar amount to each player — Tom Brady, for instance, is worth more than Jameis Winston — and allows you a set amount to “spend” on a team. You juggle that amount while trying to choose a team you think will score the most points.

To cash in big, you may need to beat thousands of players participating in the same game. A trick is to find players who may not be well known but who you believe will score big. Those players are less likely to be drafted, giving your team a better chance to stand out.

Recently, an employee of DraftKings won $350,000 on FanDuel by using lineup information he gathered at his site. It gave him inside information on the lineup trends.

The stakes are high and somewhat contradictory.

Investors in DraftKings, for instance, include Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the Kraft Group — run by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The National Basketball Association has a large ownership stake in FanDuel.

“Daily fantasy sports is functioning in a Wild West void within the legal structure. Like professional sports betting, fantasy sports should be legal, but both are currently operating in the shadows,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said in a recent statement.

Investing in these sites is an interesting gambit for the pro teams, considering their traditional opposition to sports betting where gamblers wager on the outcome of games. They get around it by the legal interpretation that fantasy sites offer games of skill instead of chance.

Gaming attorney Daniel Wallach of Fort Lauderdale tweeted last Friday that a federal grand jury is being convened in Tampa to investigate if these sites are violating the law. The court has not confirmed that.

It comes down to the question of whether fantasy sites are thinly disguised sports betting, with their owners doing an end run around gaming regulations throughout the country.

“I’m not going to say it’s sports betting,” Young said. “I won’t go that far. I think these games do provide a tremendous boost in fan engagement for our teams.”

The market is staggeringly large.

ESPN reported an estimated $95 billion will be wagered illegally this year on college and pro football. The network further claims that legalizing sports betting would produce as much annual revenue as the NFL currently does. That’s an estimated $12 billion if you’re keeping score.

Sports betting isn’t going away, though. It’s not legal in Florida (or nearly anywhere else), but there are plenty of websites willing to direct gamblers to offshore sites happy to take their money.

For now, these games provide a service a lot of people like and they will probably get bigger. Even if they were to be regulated out of existence, though, people will find a way around that. Like Young said, they always have. Most of the time it’s harmless fun.

If your aim is to get rich, though, put your money in solid investments and watch it grow. Your odds are better that way.

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