Politics & Government

Betting on fantasy sports online is felony in Washington — but maybe not much longer

Late in the fourth quarter Sunday, the smart money said the Green Bay Packers were headed to the Super Bowl.

But in sports, the smart money isn’t always right.

“There’s always the chance the Seattle Seahawks will come back from two touchdowns down with two minutes left,” said Chris Stearns, chairman of the Washington State Gambling Commission.

Under Washington law, Stearns said, that element of risk means fantasy sports are a form of gambling.

That means anyone who has money riding on the outcome of an online fantasy football team is technically committing a felony.

“Whereas in most states,” Stearns explains, “the fact that you’ve spent all this time poring over stats and making your own spreadsheets, that’s the skill part, and that weighs most heavily.”

Stearns said he’s pretty sure no one has ever been prosecuted for betting on fantasy sports under Washington’s uniquely tough online-gambling law. But some popular websites won’t take paid entries from residents of Washington or other states with bans or unclear status, including Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana and Montana.

Now a bipartisan group of Washington state lawmakers wants to legalize the games.

A proposal championed by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, and Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, would classify fantasy sports as contests of skill, not gambling.

“I’m going to free the masses,” joked Roach, who said that until recently she had no idea that a competition beloved by many in her Pierce and King County district was a crime.

Betting on “real-world” teams would remain specifically illegal under the proposed legislation. For that matter, so would betting on what any particular player does in a “real-world” game.

But assembling athletes to create an imaginary team, as fantasy sports participants do, would be legal. Staking money on the outcome — even on games that last hours rather than a full season, as some websites now offer — would no longer be considered gambling.

The games would become exempt from regulation by the Gambling Commission, which has not yet taken a position on the proposal.

Legalization is backed by the Chicago-based Fantasy Sports Trade Association, which says more than 41 million Americans and Canadians play fantasy sports and nearly half pay a league fee. Players are 80 percent male and 90 percent white, the group says.

“We think citizens of Washington should be able to play the full array of fantasy sports contests offered in 45 other states and be able to win prizes in free contests offered by major media companies,” the group’s chairman, Peter Schoenke, said in an emailed statement.

Washington’s constitution bans gambling that is not specifically authorized by state law, and a 2006 law spelled out that Internet gambling is illegal. With that law, the Legislature also made online gambling a class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

In the years since, players have pushed to legalize online poker. Advocates of a proposal this year by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, say it would create a regulated system of in-state Internet poker businesses that would pay state government more than $2 million in fees.