Full disclosure: I play fantasy football.
In my most delusional moments, I like to think I’m pretty good.
I’ve played for years, studied intently, drafted hundreds of players, and — if I’m being honest — more times than not failed miserably at it.
I’ve often found myself asking the question: Are fantasy sports a game of chance or a game of skill?
Lawmakers in Olympia are debating that very same quandary — all thanks to the national explosion of “daily fantasy” sports sites.
If you’re not familiar with daily fantasy by name, you probably are familiar with omnipresent DraftKings and FanDuel commercials, typically featuring unshaven dudes winning big money thanks to their fantasy football prowess.
I play traditional fantasy football, a season-long competition among friends. Both it and daily fantasy are currently considered games of chance and technically illegal in Washington. But as the commercials suggest, daily fantasy is something much different.
While it’s marketed as a harmless game any Sunday afternoon couch potato can enjoy, daily fantasy is actually a complex, sometimes high-stakes undertaking that average players rarely win. It’s dominated by guys staring at laptops for hours, calculating probabilities and making multiple entries.
If it’s not a racket, it approaches the territory.
56.8 millionThe number of fantasy sports players in North America last year, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association
Several bills circulating in Olympia this session aim to respond to the perceived threat of daily fantasy.
One wants to tighten the state’s grip on daily fantasy. Another wants legalize it, reclassifying fantasy as a game of skill.
Why do we need legislative action, you might wonder, especially since playing daily fantasy is already illegal here?
It’s a fair question, though — in the long run — perhaps a slightly naive one.
Court documents filed in the well-publicized New York case against DraftKings and FanDuel suggest that prohibitions may not be enough to stop everyone from Washington from playing. But it also doesn’t appear like it’s been a massive problem so far.
New York’s attorney general says Washingtonians have been responsible for $422,000 in daily fantasy entry fees. Preliminary results from an ongoing investigation of the matter by the Washington State Gambling Commission, however, indicate the majority of that money likely “came from one player who has a residence in both Washington and another state,” according to Commission Chairman Chris Stearns, “and that the entry fees and play … was conducted while that person was out of state.”
Still, it’s safe to assume daily fantasy has its eyes on Washington, which Stearns notes is “the 13th largest market in the US and until recently the largest market that does not allow” daily fantasy play.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, which both DraftKings and FanDuel belong to, has hired former Attorney General Rob McKenna to lobby on behalf of the games.
Which brings us to the bills.
Democrat Rep. Chris Hurst of Enumclaw has sponsored one that would underscore the illegality of fantasy sports and specifically target daily fantasy advertisements, making them a Class C felony.
Meanwhile, Ferndale Republican Doug Ericksen has made a move in the opposite direction, dropping a bill that would legalize all fantasy sports in Washington.
And then there’s wildcard Sumner Republican Pam Roach, Hurst’s longtime enemy, who has a bill that would continue to prohibit daily fantasy, but would allow for small, low-stakes season-long fantasy play.
Of course, the chance of any of these bills passing this year seems about as low as your chance of winning a huge daily fantasy jackpot this weekend.
But it’s also a safe bet this won’t be the last time we hear about it. FanDuel and DraftKings have a lot of money to fight, given the cut they get of daily fantasy action. According to the gaming research firm Eilers and Krejcik, DraftKings spent $224 million in advertising last year, or roughly $190 per user, while FanDuel shelled out $97 million, or roughly $110 per user.
14 percentThe percentage of Americans that played fantasy sports in 2015, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association
Speaking of money, Hurst’s bill has prompted an estimate of what it might cost the Gambling Commission to crack down on fantasy sports. It’s guesswork at best. But it’s also telling. Complaint-based investigations and enforcement fall under “indeterminate costs,” listed at anywhere from $1.9 million to $9.3 million in 2017 alone.
That uncertainty only drives home the potential difficulty of doubling down on outlawing fantasy gaming.
The smarter, admittedly less satisfying play? McKenna has hinted that daily fantasy operations may be open to regulation here, if legalized.
Stearns — whose agency doesn’t have an official stance on any of this year’s bills — tells me regulations could address things like player protections, including making sure accounts are secure; requirements for operators, including preventing players from “gaming the system” from within; and licensing, meaning levying fees to pay for all of this.
As content as I am losing my money the old-fashioned way, legitimizing — and regulating — daily fantasy seems worth considering.