A Fan's Notes: Living In A Fantasy

May 19, 2015

Fantasy sports used to be the province of stat geeks, the kind who made a hobby of analyzing every last box score. But today, it’s a mega-industry unto itself that’s only gaining momentum, from the stadium to the statehouse. Commentator Victor Wishna explains in  “A Fan’s Notes.”

We sports fans love sports because they are at once games of skill and games of chance. Lacing a line drive past a diving third-basemen—that’s skill. But then, the wind pushes it just foul. Such are the chances.

But what if, you know, you’re just pretending?

Fantasy sports is bigger than ever. More than 41 million people in the U.S. and Canada take part in some form, masquerading as the manager of their own football, baseball, basketball team, etcetera, earning “fantasy points” for their roster of athletes’ real-life feats. On the surface, it’s just another way for fans to embrace the drama of their favorite game. But mix in some money—and recently, it’s become a lot of money—and the stakes get much more real: As entry fees and payouts rise, when does gaming become gambling?

Well, that depends whether you see it as more than a game of chance. Last week, Kansas came closer to being the latest state, and one of the last, to define fantasy sports as “a game of skill,” rather than an unlawful lottery. The bill passed both Republican-dominated houses with overwhelming support, and Governor Sam Brownback’s signature is a safe bet. State rep Brett Hildabrand explained: “So many Kansans participate in this and we want to make sure that they're operating on the right side of the law.”

Look, I’ve been in my share of fantasy football leagues, and I’m flattered that the honorable representative thinks I got skills. I mean, I did take my team—the Kansas City Mohels—all the way to the playoffs, when nobody thought they’d make the cut.

Still, I’m not sure why fantasy sports is a game of skill whereas, say, poker, according to Kansas law, is not. Is picking the right players at the right time really so different from knowin’ when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em?

Then again, it’s not me and the Mohels that are getting Topeka’s undies in a bundle. We play mostly for pride, and the camaraderie and competition that lasts a whole season.

But in just the last two years, something called daily fantasy sports is changing the landscape. Through sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, players can redraft teams whenever there’s a new slate of games—it only takes minutes, the results are immediate, and payouts in the tens of thousands or more give new context to the term “fantasy.” Ads on ESPN trumpet the average schmoes who turned a $2 entry fee into a million-dollar jackpot. Sounds a bit like a lottery, no? One columnist called daily play the “crack cocaine” of fantasy sports, and not disapprovingly.

This year, the daily fantasy-sports industry will collect more in entry fees than all the sports books at Las Vegas casinos combined. More than anything, it’s what’s driving the growth of the now $15-billion American fantasy market, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

The NBA has an official deal with FanDuel and when Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred stopped by Kauffman Stadium last week, he proudly touted his league’s partnership with DraftKings. “I think that fantasy space…is really important to the engagement of young people,” he said.

But for better, or for worse? John Kindt, a prominent critic of online gambling and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, claims that the younger generation, the one that can’t remember a world without the internet, is showing nearly double the gambling-addiction rate of their elders. FanDuel, DraftKings, and others may claim to be “games of skill,” and legislatures like the one in Topeka may back them on it. But for every new millionaire, there’s someone with a genuine problem, and the serious debt to show for it. That’s the cold, hard reality.

You know, the opposite of fantasy.

Victor Wishna​ is a writer, editor and sports fan.  He lives in Leawood.