To date, the lone highlight of Chris Christie’s longshot campaign for President came when the media cranks asked the Republican candidates about fantasy sports during the infamous MSNBC debate, and he answered incredulously, “Fantasy Football! We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?”
Indeed, as the world falls apart around us, there has been a lot of press and chatter about fantasy sports. Fantasy sports for those of you who aren’t in the know, goes back at least to the 1970s, and the basic principal is that individuals can act as virtual team owners or general managers drafting and trading real players in a fantasy league, competing against other likewise individuals based on the players’ real world results.
Fantasy sports is now so engrained in our modern culture, it is hard to imagine a decent sized office or a college dorm not having at least one active league. Most of these leagues have a financial incentive where, for example, everyone pays an entrance fee and the winner collects the pot. It didn’t take long for the free enterprise system to recognize a goldmine, and fantasy sports outlets like FanDuel and DraftKings sprang up and grew so fast that in a recent three-month period, those two companies invested a combined $150 million on advertising alone.
If this all sounds like gambling to you, you are not alone. Now that fantasy sports has made the big time it has caught the attention of all sorts of people you don’t want attention from – government officials. Recently New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, has made it his mission to shut down FanDuel and DraftKings in his state saying, “It is clear that DraftKings and FanDuel are the leaders of a massive, multibillion-dollar scheme intended to evade the law and fleece sports fans across the country. Today we have sent a clear message: not in New York, and not on my watch.” You can bet your bottom dollar other municipalities are looking closely into what New York is doing.
Gambling, for years, was illegal in most of the United States, as it was considered a sin based on Judeo-Christian values. But then Nevada happened, followed by Atlantic City and today, between lotteries, slots, horse and dog racing and Indian casinos, you have to look hard for a region that doesn’t have state-sponsored gambling. To add to the comedy that New York’s Attorney General is really worried about his state’s citizens being fleeced by gambling, it should be noted that New York already has the lottery, horse racing, and Indian casinos, and in 2013 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for and got a constitutional amendment allowing as many as seven full-time casinos in the state. It sounds like what New York is really sore about is they haven’t yet found a way to cash in on the world of fantasy sports.
Today we are expected to swallow the logic that sports’ gambling is immoral and predatory and should be avoided, but if the government blesses and regulates it and gets a piece of the action, it is suddenly a benefit to society. Government comes off not so much as bookie when it comes to sports gambling, but more like the neighborhood Wiseguy, as it dictates what sort of vice is acceptable in its territory, and participation is encouraged as long as you pay your protection money. If you don’t, God help you.
Philosophically we can’t have it both ways. Either sports’ gambling is morally acceptable or it isn’t morally acceptable, and the answer isn’t contingent on whether or not the local schools need a new source of funding. But logic isn’t much in demand at most state capitals these days, so they will look to have their cake and eat it, too.
As most states find themselves with pension, budget, and education crises that are spiraling out of control, Chris Christie is right about one thing: fantasy sports should be way down the list of priorities. When Rome burned, Nero fiddled. As America becomes increasingly unmanageable, today’s Neros worry about if you drafted Mike Trout in the first round.
For the record, both FanDuel and DraftKings’ defense is that fantasy sports isn’t gambling but a game of skill. They will need more than skill and lady luck to survive the upcoming onslaught.