Politics & Government

Online fantasy football: Are games legal or not?

Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden (20) may have helped people betting on him in fantasy football when he dragged Atlanta Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley (44) for a seven yard gain in the second quarter of the Sept. 27 Atlanta Falcons-Dallas Cowboys game. The Cowboys lost 39-28.
Dallas Cowboys running back Darren McFadden (20) may have helped people betting on him in fantasy football when he dragged Atlanta Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley (44) for a seven yard gain in the second quarter of the Sept. 27 Atlanta Falcons-Dallas Cowboys game. The Cowboys lost 39-28. Star-Telegram

James Foshea of Midlothian doesn’t have a lot of time or money to spare.

But he loves football and isn’t too bad cobbling together fairly successful fantasy teams.

So every week, Foshea bets $15 on teams he creates on FanDuel, a fantasy sports website that lets sports enthusiasts pick teams and play for real cash every day.

Sometimes he wins; sometimes he loses. But along the way, he became one of the nearly 57 million fantasy sports fans going online, making bets and hoping to score million-dollar prizes.

Now some members of the public and of Congress are questioning whether play-for-cash fantasy football is legal and whether the $15 billion a year it generates needs to be regulated.

“Despite how mainstream these sites have become, the legal landscape governing these activities remains murky and should be reviewed,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J.

There are nearly 57 million fantasy sports players now, up from around 500,000 in 1988, according to estimates.

Pallone has asked members of a House committee to look at the “relationship between professional sports and fantasy sports to review the legal status of fantasy sports and sports betting.”

The potential for a hearing is good news for some North Texas lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, who has long advocated for online poker, which some say resembles fantasy betting, to become legal.

While Barton has never played fantasy football, he’s open to both issues being reviewed and explored by Congress.

“Poker is random probability but fantasy football uses actual player data,” said Barton, whose district includes part of Arlington. “If we are going to look at fantasy football, then [we should] look at making Internet poker legal too.”

Not so fast, said Rodger Weems, chairman of the Arlington-based Stop Predatory Gambling Texas.

“When fantasy sports stopped being a hobby and became a business, it crossed the line and became illegal,” he said.

A big business

Fantasy sports websites have become big business, and commercials touting the opportunity to win lots of money are frequently broadcast during sports events on TV and radio.

It’s hard for many not to want to take a chance at winning when DraftKings, for instance, guaranteed that fans would win $10 million — including one $2 million prize — during the first week of the NFL season alone.

It has made NFL football more appealing for people to watch.

James Foshea, a fantasy sports enthusiast from Midlothian

The number of fans playing online has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, jumping from 1-3 million in the early 1990s to 56.8 million this year, according to estimates by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

Some say access to the online fantasy sites ramped up even more after Congress approved the Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act in 2006, which was geared to cut down on online gambling but carved out exceptions for horse racing and fantasy sports leagues. The number of online fantasy sports players has more than tripled since then, when an estimated 18 million people were playing.

There are many daily fantasy sports websites that collect and pay out real cash, but DraftKings and FanDuel are at the top of the list.

Overall, fantasy sports players spend about $257 online a year, up from $5 a year in 2012, estimates from the FSTA show.

Dozens of football, baseball, basketball and other professional sports teams have partnerships or investments with fantasy football companies.

The Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers have partnered with DraftKings; the Dallas Mavericks are among those paired up with FanDuel.

Questioning the system?

Pallone drew nationwide attention last month after sending a letter to Republican leaders of the House Energy Commerce Committee, asking for a review of the fantasy sports websites.

His request was as least partially prompted by the number of commercials that inundated fans during the first week of the NFL season.

The average age of a fantasy sports online player is 37.

“Given the professional sports leagues professional players deep involvement with fantasy sports, this committee … should examine the relationship between fantasy sports and gambling and the relationships between professional sports leagues, teams, and players and fantasy sports operators,” Pallone wrote.

Barton, chairman emeritus of the committee, notes that the software used for online poker and online fantasy sports is similar or the same.

And it’s time to formally declare both legal, he said.

Rep. Fred Upton, who heads the committee, has said the issue may well land before the committee.

“My sense it that we will do a hearing,” he has told news media. “There’s a lot of things on our front burner right now, but I think this is an issue that we ought to take a look at.”

That works for Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, who heads the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade.

Pallone’s letter, he said, “raised some interesting questions about the way fans engage with the sports they love.”

“But there are a lot of pressing and important issues before the subcommittee and full committee right now, as stressed by Chairman Upton.”

‘Tune in and watch’

Weems said he wouldn’t mind if Congress took action, as long as members make online fantasy sports betting illegal.

Online fantasy sports violates the Interstate Wire Act, he said.

Not only that, he said, but “for Texas residents, there are other violations.”

“When fantasy football was merely ‘friendly gambling,’ it may have been legal,” he said. “But anytime the ‘house’ takes a cut, it becomes a clear violation of the Texas Constitution, in that it falls under none of the exceptions to the constitutional prohibition against gambling.”

57 Percentage of online fantasy sports fans who have a college degree or higher

Foshea, who grew up in Tarrant County and graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington, said he hopes Congress doesn’t do anything keep him from playing fantasy sports online.

He has yet to hit a big jackpot. His single biggest win in years of playing was a $5 bet that yielded $125 in one week.

“Do I win every week? No,” he said. “So far this season, I’ve won $5 total” when bets, wins and losses are all tallied.

“To me, it’s really for fun.”

He said he understands that some people, just as they might at a casino in Las Vegas, could go overboard, spend thousands of dollars a week on hundreds of entries and get in over their heads.

But for many, moderate online fantasy sports betting has simply made weekends more interesting.

“It has made NFL football more appealing for people to watch,” Foshea said. “It gives people a reason to tune in and watch it a little more.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Who are the Fantasy Sports Players?

Here’s a look at who is playing online fantasy sports, according to research by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

Sex: 66 percent male, 34 percent female

Average age: 37

Education: 57 percent have a college degree or higher

Average household income: 47 percent earn $75,000 or more

Average annual spending per player 18 or older: $465

Favorite fantasy sport: Football, 73 percent