Is Fantasy Football Good For Football?

Going back several years, I can recall a time when online poker was all the rage. Being part of the poker fad myself, I grew to love Texas Hold’em and other variations of the card game. Millions of people were playing online, and it grew into a large community of players and fans alike. That community propelled television programs, such as ESPN’s World Series of Poker and Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, to new heights.

There were TV ads everywhere for the most popular hubs like Party Poker, Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker: wherever you looked, poker was all the rage.

Then something happened: that something was Las Vegas and the casino magnates. The big players in the casino world started balking; online poker was hurting their business. They lobbied to shut it all down. And they did.

It started with accusations and name-calling. Online poker was “illegal gambling.” “Fixed.” Online poker’s opponents went as far to say those websites “funded terrorism.” The reports were nothing more than allegations for those who knew better.

Party Poker, for example, was a legitimate business based in the UK. The company was publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange. It doesn’t get more legit than shareholders and a board of directors.

Investigations into cheating proved algorithms used to deal cards had the same probability as they did in a physical casino. The difference, with a computer-generated game, is that a player could see 4 or 5 times the amount of hands dealt in a hour, increasing the amount of times a random event (including unlikely odds-defying events) would occur; but it did not increase the percentage of which those events occurred. Just because it happened more often, didn’t mean it happened more than it should. Online poker was not fixed.

The casinos also cried that online poker was gambling. Any seasoned poker player can tell you the game requires skill to play. While an element of chance exists, the probability of a lucky outcome is outweighed by a talented player who knows when and how to place bets; bets which are controlled by and turn the odds into one’s favor.

For those familiar with poker, how many times have you seen poker players win hands without showing their cards, by betting higher percentage hands or “stone cold” bluffing bad ones? It happens often, proving the element of skill versus gambling one. Poker is a skill game whereas roulette, where players have no means to control an outcome, is gambling.

So you’re probably asking: what does any of this have to do with fantasy football? Well, the same thing that happened to poker is now happening with fantasy football.

You cannot change the channel without seeing a DraftKings commercial, or tune into a radio station without hearing an ad for FanDuel. The two major players in what is known as Daily Fantasy Sports (or DFS) these companies have exploded on the scene with millions of dollars paid out each week. It’s this explosion which caught the attention of the gambling conglomerates. Fantasy football is now in their sights as poker was their target in the late 2000’s.

The first smear campaign by the casinos was attempting to ruin the credibility of DFS by claiming a DraftKings employee used “insider trading” to win a large prize on the FanDuel. Insider trading is defined as: the trading of a public company’s stock or other securities (such as bonds or stock options) by individuals with access to nonpublic information about the company. For a DraftKings employee to have, in the words of their accusers, cheated, they would have needed private information about FanDuel: the competitor’s website! (This is akin to Coca-Cola sending a spy into Pepsi to steal trade secrets: it’s preposterous.)

While those reports realized their misreporting by retracting the word “insider trading,” the word was already out. This also didn’t stop those trying to discredit DFS. The sentiment is, for those fans and players who are new and/or unfamiliar with daily fantasy, it might dissuade them from playing and/or signing up. This was a precise tactic behind their accusations, whether those claims had merit or not.

The reported information which the employee allegedly used to “gain an advantage” was a list of ownership values for players across the different entries on DraftKings.

For example, Tom Brady might be owned by 60% of all entries. Thus, there’s a discernable advantage to choosing a different player, say Carson Palmer, who is owned by only 5% of entries. In that way, the entry is more unique and could break more ties, moving the player up the payout chart.

Conveniently left out of the reports, is that anyone could go online and see the ownership values from day-to-day. In addition, ownership values in DraftKings would not have much bearing in a FanDuel game or vice versa. On another site, the values may be skewed much differently. Brady could theoretically be owned 5% and Palmer 60% (those are extreme values, but illustrate a potential disparity.) Furthermore, FanDuel, make you select a kicker with their entries, whereas DraftKings does not. Thus, one full position in the lineup would have have this “advantage” and the player would have to make an educated guess on who to put on their daily roster.

Taking it even a step further, just because you select a player, doesn’t mean that player will perform in a way that will help any entrant win. What happens if you attempt to make a more unique lineup by selecting the lower-owned Palmer… and he has a bad game?

This contributes to the same skill vs. luck aspect which exists in poker, where there is an element of selecting players who consistently perform well, as opposed to making risky choices on those who do not. Would any player risk picking Kirk Cousins (who has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns) over scoring machines like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers? (Of course not!)

But why are the casinos, who successfully shutdown online poker, trying to do the same with fantasy football?

The casinos believe online players are spending money that would be spent in their gambling halls, if the online games were not an option. They believe this is causing their casinos to lose money: money they’d never have in the first place. Their train of thought assumes people betting on DFS (or poker) would travel to Las Vegas, or regional casinos, to do the same.  It’s like believing someone would spend money on milk instead of soda: if sugary drinks were outlawed, you could buy and drink milk instead.

However, the two items are mutually exclusive, and thus flawed logic, but this hasn’t stopped the casinos in their attempts to discredit DFS, while also flexing their legislative muscle. The casinos commissioned Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to outlaw DFS in the state of Nevada, which has already happened. Conveniently, Reid’s home state is Nevada, and he also served as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission from 1977 to 1981.

Thus the wheels are in motion for the casinos to ban fantasy games across the country. The casinos are behind the times and trying to cash in on the fantasy craze for themselves, regardless of how daily players or the big two sites feel. Their accusations about fantasy football are the same as those against online poker years ago, with unfounded claims. Those accusations hurt an entire industry, affecting millions of poker players and employees globally.

When online poker shutdown overnight, poker players lost millions of dollars, as the government seized funds from the major poker sites. Many of those players never received their money back. Employees of those sites, many of whom worked from home, lost their jobs.

The casinos promised “safer, legal alternatives” to the offshore websites. In the nearly 5 years since the “Black Friday” crackdown, those alternatives never materialized. Yet, the same casinos were able to outlaw DFS games in their home state overnight.

It begs the question: do the casinos care about the legality, safety and fairness of online games, or are they only trying to protect their own self interests?

I believe we already now the answer, however, fantasy football may have one edge in their favor. While the federal government has no laws protecting online poker, they have already ruled in favor of fantasy football being legal. This could protect sites such as DraftKings, for the near future, but one could only hope the gaming houses don’t flex their corporate muscle and squeeze the DFS sites out of existence, as they did poker. Should that happen, I would argue that it would have a tremendous impact on the growth of the NFL and other sports leagues.

Consider a Monday night game with Team A playing Team B. Most casual viewers have no vested interest in the game if they are a fan of Team X. However, if they play fantasy sports and have a player (or multiple players) from Teams A and B playing, it increases interest in the game… which increases TV viewership… which increases revenue and the overall growth of the game.

Canning fantasy football might not only kill that momentous growth, but also turn fantasy fans against the greedy casino business. Or worse: football itself.

I would caution those businesses to tread lightly, because the football community is much larger than the poker community ever was. And if you have never tuned in on a Sunday afternoon, they are certainly more vocal as well.

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