Living in a Fantasy World

While watching a Warriors vs. Lakers game recently, I saw something that astounded me. Not the Lakers blowing out the Dubs; every team has a bad game during the long NBA season. No, what dropped my jaw was the ad for FanDuel on the rotating boards that sit court side at the Staples Center.

That’s a pretty high-rent district, those very visible ads that form the backdrop of every game played by the Lakers and Clippers. You must be making some pretty good scratch to afford that real estate. And there was FanDuel, a fantasy sports league company that seems to have sprung up overnight, shelling out the cash to reach that huge, expensive audience.

I had heard of FanDuel before, of course; you can’t listen to sports talk radio these days without hearing their ads. But radio is a low-rent space when it comes to advertising; there’s a reason you hear a lot of used car salesmen ads on the AM dial. Getting your ad on the sidelines at the Staples Center must represent a significant step up from Jim Rome’s show. How did this new business get that rich that fast?

For one thing, they’re not so new. According to their website, FanDuel was founded in 2009. But they have seen growth on a steep curve; the same page reports that “FanDuel will go from paying out $10 million in 2011 to $400 million in 2014.” If they’re paying out that much, how much must they be taking in? No wonder they can (figuratively) sit court side with Jack at Lakers games. [ETA: I have since this writing seen FanDuel’s TV ad on ESPN. They’re even richer than I thought!]

But isn’t sports betting still illegal in this country? Well, it is and it isn’t, apparently. For one thing, FanDuel helpfully points out that, “Fantasy sports is considered a game of skill and received a specific exemption from the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA 2006).” OK then. One wonders why, if their thing isn’t gambling, would they need to get a special exemption to a law that regulates gambling? It’s also worth noting, as FanDuel does, that the laws around the country are murky on this matter, and that, “Residents of Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana or Washington may only play in free contests”–presumably because the laws in those states aren’t quite so filled with exempty goodness.

Fair enough. FanDuel has their business, and it’s mostly blessed by the powers that be. And they’re not alone in jumping onto this bandwagon. New Jersey has been earnestly trying to get sports gambling going within the state, so as to reap those same rewards FanDuel is getting–though without nearly the success. NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently voiced his opinion that sports betting should be legalized nationally. And the NHL has been publicly dancing with Las Vegas money to see if they might be able to drop an expansion team into America’s gambling stronghold.

As Timon incredulously asks in The Lion King: “And everybody’s OK with this?”

In all this rush to make sweet love to the gambling industry–and its adjuncts like FanDuel– no one seems to be particularly nervous about potential negative side effects. Perhaps they–the NHL, Adam Silver, New Jersey, one and all–should be.

For decades, big time sports leagues in this country have been hyper-vigilant about keeping gambling–even the appearance of gambling–away from  their games. That excess of caution came from experience: baseball’s Black Sox scandal, the point shaving scandal in NCAA men’s basketball back in the early 1950’s, and NBA referee Tim Donaghy betting on games he officiated, all made it clear that there was (and remains) an ongoing vulnerability for big-time sports to the depredations of the gambling industry. Ask Pete Rose whether or not gambling by anyone connected to the games has been treated seriously.

Now, however, that caution seems to be wavering, and exactly at the time when it probably needs to be reinforced. Because with the explosive growth of fantasy leagues, and the increasing payouts those leagues are making, new avenues of corruption and damage may be opening right along side that growth.

The potential damage does not lie in mere point shaving or games being thrown. Consider this: a major athlete goes to a bar. Trouble ensues. There’s a fight and some guy winds up throwing down with the athlete. Given the commonality of such a scene, few would think twice about it, beyond wondering how the player’s team will discipline him, once he gets off the injured list. That’s right, the injured list, because the other guy in the bar did enough damage to our athlete to keep him out of at least a couple of games.

Sounds like a bad break for that guy’s organization, and it would be. It would also be a bad break for the thousands–maybe millions–of fantasy players who have that athlete picked for their teams. Suddenly, all the money those fantasy players put up to join a league–and possibly win a few bucks back–has evaporated, because they made the wrong choice when they drafted.

Or maybe they didn’t make the wrong choice. Maybe the other guy in the bar was not some random drunk who looked at the athlete cross-eyed; maybe he was a hired thug who inserted himself into the situation in order to expertly take out the player, whose absence will help his employers win the money not going to all those other fantasy players who no longer have the services of the injured jock for their teams.

It’s a possibility. And note: no point shaving, no games being thrown. The injured player’s team might still win their games without him. On the surface, there’s been no direct damage to the integrity of the games–but the gambling industry could have its impact anyway, and get away with the crime…and a ton of money, too. This is not so farfetched a scenario; it could happen, as could any of the traditional forms of untoward influence on the outcomes of the games.

League executives, elected officials, players and fans may believe that there will be no negative consequences to come from letting the gambling genie out of the bottle. No one seems to be predicting that a major scandal will arise from this explosion of high stakes fantasy leagues and league-blessed sports booking. I’m not so sanguine about that; in fact, I will predict it, right here and right now, so no one will be able to make any Condoleezza Rice style “I don’t think that anybody could have predicted” pronouncements. It says here that there will be major scandal arising from this presumed brave new world of approved gambling, one that will put lives and fortunes at risk while damaging the integrity of the games that many of us watch for their own sake–not to make a profit off them. Any sports owner, executive or player who believes otherwise truly is living in a fantasy world.

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