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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Lawmakers to explore if fantasy sports involve skill

OLYMPIA – Even if you don’t keep track of professional sports enough to care which quarterback threw for the best ratio of touchdowns to interceptions this Sunday, or some comparable metric for baseball or basketball, it’s pretty hard to miss the ballooning of the fantasy sports business.

After all, the ads for companies FanDuel and DraftKings have become so prevalent on major league sports broadcasts that they are crowding out commercials for beer and pharmaceuticals.

These are companies that will gladly take your money in exchange for letting you pick a set of athletes in a particular sport who you believe will wind up with better statistics than thousands of other people picking a different set of athletes in that sport.

They are like the more traditional fantasy sports “leagues,” but on steroids. In those older, simpler days, fans – mostly men, who tend to be more profligate with money when it comes to sports – would get together at the beginning of a particular sporting season and “draft” their individual teams. They would assemble players from different real teams in the major leagues, matching them against other pickup teams their friends, co-workers or old fraternity brothers selected.

They’d each put $10 or $50 or $100 or some other mutually agreeable sum into the pot, monitor the statistics and months later, at the end of the season, somebody would collect the money based on their “team” having the best overall statistics. This was something like an adult version of a game young boys who collected large stacks of baseball cards used to play, selecting their All-Star team and arguing over whose would win. With the wonders of sports metrics and the Internet, their grown-up selves can now settle such arguments on a daily basis if they want.

Sort of. It’s all done with numbers, and as somebody once said and many others have repeated, statistics are for losers.

It is losers who fuel companies like FanDuel and DraftKings, no matter what the commercials might lead you to believe. They take more money from losers than they pay out to winners, or else they couldn’t be crowding into commercial time slots in NFL games previously occupied by Clydesdales and hot mommas hawking Viagra.

This leads to a question a legislative panel will explore on Friday: Do the losers lose because they have less skill than winners, or is it just luck?

If the former, fantasy sports are games of skill. If the latter, they are games of chance, which is to say, gambling.

Under current state law, any fantasy sports competition involving money is gambling, and thus illegal. The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will explore whether it should be, with the hope of coming up with some legislation for next year’s session.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, the Spokane Republican who is chairman of the committee, said he’s not sure of the answer but thinks there are at least three options to consider. One is that they are illegal, and should remain so. That means people with the old-style fantasy leagues between friends are breaking the law, as are people plunking down money to fill out brackets in their office NCAA Basketball Tournament pool. Having a law that is routinely flouted may be bad policy.

Another option is that state law should be changed to allow small-scale fantasy wagering among friends and family, up to a particular dollar limit, to reflect current reality outside the Internet.

The third would be to determine this is skill, not chance, and change the law to open up online fantasy gaming to Washington residents. When opening an account on one of these websites, prospects must sign an affidavit saying they are not residents of Washington or six other states that consider this illegal gambling.

The state seems in a weak position to look askance at gambling. It allows horse racing and card “rooms” where gambling takes place on a certain scale, and negotiates pacts with tribes that operate full-scale casinos inside state boundaries. It runs a lottery, which is like the old mob-backed numbers game with a bigger public relations budget.

“I don’t think the state should be on its high horse,” Baumgartner said. “The lottery tends to be a pretty bad deal for the poor.”

But it must also worry about a “camel’s nose in the tent” concern if it greenlights online fantasy gaming. The online poker players will be asking to ante up and have the state let them in, too.

And if you think fantasy sports players can be obnoxious about how much their success is due to skill, you need only listen to a devotee of Texas Hold ’em when they’re winning. Of course when they’re losing, it’s chalked up to something else.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.

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