OLYMPIA, Wash. — You can start your own office pool on what fantasy sports in Washington state will look like after July 1. That’s when a new fantasy sports law could go into effect, if passed by state legislators. In fact, three fantasy sports bills, focusing primarily on fantasy football, are now colliding in the state Legislature.
First, there’s a House bill by Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, which would reinforce the existing state law by making it clear that it’s illegal to play fantasy football for money. There is a Senate bill by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, to legalize all fantasy sports by calling them games of skill. And Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, has a bill to allow season-long fantasy leagues with no more than 50 people and in which $50 is the highest allowable fee to play.
The spotlight was on Hurst’s bill on Monday. Hurst is chairman of the House Commerce & Gaming Committee, which held a public hearing on his bill.
Hurst said he has no problem with fantasy sports in general, or people participating in small pools. And he said he is willing to change his bill to accommodate small season-long fantasy football leagues among friends and co-workers.
But Hurst wants to target DraftKings and FanDuel, two nationwide fantasy football operations who hold “daily” fantasy football contests with hundreds and thousands of players in each weekend contest — conducted via the Internet.
“What was once a fun and social game … has been prostituted into a horrific industry,” Hurst said, asserting that young children and gambling addicts can easily easily play high-stakes games offered by FanDuel and DraftKings on the Internet. And unlike a state lottery, FanDuel and Draft Kings won’t say how much of the gambled money they keep themselves, he said. His bill would make each fantasy football advertisement a Class C felony, which has a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Ericksen is on the other side of the issue. “It is ludicrous that you can buy a lottery ticket in this state, pick through pull tabs at your local tavern, or spend an evening at the bingo hall or the card room, but you can’t draft a fantasy-football team,” he said in an earlier press release. “Huge numbers of Washington residents do it anyway. We need to see this as a weakness of state law.”
FanDuel was founded in 2009, and DraftKings was founded in 2012. They feature unavoidable television ads on football broadcasts and “daily” football contests that award millions in prize money.
In season-long fantasy sports contests — which is what is played in social leagues — you pick a team and backup players at the beginning of a 16-game season to triumph and suffer weekly with those choices, with opportunities to pick up a few undrafted players as the season progresses.
In the daily sport you pick one, a few, or many teams from scratch each week — playing against hundreds or thousands of opponents in each contest. The money is much bigger. The research time dwarfs what is needed for a friendly seasonal league. The player selection is trickier; if everyone loads up on the same obvious choices— such as Tom Brady as quarterback—they cancel each other out. The winner is the player who picks the right obscure choice.
Much of this issue focuses on whether fantasy football is a game of chance, or of skill, or is a combination of both, in which legislators would have to determine which factor dominates.
At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban — also an investor in daily fantasy sports analytics startup Fantasy Labs — said that “you have to be an idiot” to think playing daily fantasy sports games are like sports betting or poker.
“The only people who think it’s gambling, as opposed to skill, are people who haven’t played or people who have other political agendas, because that’s also very important these days,” he said.
A few weeks ago, the state of New York banned fantasy football, declaring it a game of chance, with FanDuel and DraftKings taking a house cut of the gambled money.
One brief filed in New York pointed to a close Nov. 9 NFL game in which Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler took a knee to run out the clock. That knee subtracted one yard from every fantasy player who was using Cutler as his or her quarterback — and that one lost yard knocked one player out of first place in his contest, dropping his winnings from $50,000 to $30,000.
“You cannot call this a game of skill,” Hurst said.
However, DraftKings and FanDuel have hired former Attorney General Rob McKenna to lobby for them, and he argued Monday that fantasy football is a game of skill. Proponents of the skill argument point to the extensive knowledge and brainwork involved in selecting a fantasy team.
FanDuel and DraftKings belong to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, which issued this statement Monday: “The FSTA urges everyone in the state of Washington to contact their representatives to vote against Rep. Hurst’s ridiculous, unseemly bill that would make criminals out of the millions of law-abiding, decent folks who have enjoyed playing fantasy sports for decades and appreciate the skill and camaraderie involved in playing the games.”
The Washington State Gambling Commission is neutral in this legislative duel.