Over the last few years, Fantasy sports have morphed into a much different enterprise. Oh sure, there’s still the die-hard, season-long players like The Old Duck who love being with friends and understand that you can’t duplicate the camaraderie of a live auction draft table by playing the game any other way.
First, the Internet allowed people to play Fantasy sports remotely and the dreaded “snake” draft became common place on sites like Yahoo, ESPN and the like. Then, real money became the lure with national contests such as the NFBC (National Fantasy Baseball Championship) running live drafts in Las Vegas and other cities with huge pay-outs for the overall winners. Now, we are inundated with advertising for Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS), where participants can choose a new team each day (baseball) or week (football) and put up their money against a group of anonymous opponents. As a result, when you tune into satellite radio or look at your favorite fantasy website, a large portion of the advice is geared toward this type of game.
Scribes more knowledgeable than me have written numerous articles about the positives and negatives of DFS and I won’t attempt to question their expertise on either side of the issue. One of the reasons is that as an Arizona resident, I’m not allowed to participate in DFS. Why, you ask? Because Arizona is one of only five States that consider this gambling, and therefore, illegal. In fact, residents of these five states can’t even go to Nevada and play in the NFBC. Obviously, 45 States consider it legal to “wager” on DFS sites and the basic criteria is that the authorities consider it a game of skill as opposed to a game of chance. This is where the waters become murky and many of my Fantasy Baseball brethren have taken opposite sides in the argument.
With no stake in the discussion, here’s my take. I’ve always thought of DFS participation as akin horse racing. You get a program, look over your research and place a wager on an athlete. If that athlete wins, you get paid an amount based on the wagering pool created by every other bet (pari-mutual betting) and the owner of the facility takes a percentage of the pool to cover expenses and make a profit. The “take” at most American tracks is an average of about 20%…DFS sites claim to take 10%. In either case, there is no “game of chance” involved such as a slot machine or a lottery ticket.
An ongoing discussion is the question of DFS being a game of skill. Some people argue that poker is a game of skill and those that feel that way more than likely think it takes more skill than picking horses or ballplayers. We’ve all known good poker players and bad poker players, but the real difference in the two pursuits is that you get dealt cards in poker before you even make a bet…that makes it different than sports betting. Your opponent may be dealt pocket aces at a Texas Hold’em table but nobody you’re competing against in Fantasy sports gets dealt Mike Trout or Aaron Rodgers. It seems that from a legal point of view, this may be the difference between a “game of chance” and a “game of skill”. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s all gambling, but the legal interpretation changes the landscape. What has changed the issue most dramatically is the Supreme Court ruling from last year that will open up the flood gates of sports gambling to the general public.
While DFS wagering or poker playing might fall out of my circle of my expertise, it is obvious to me that a form of gambling saved the baseball card industry and continues to drive the hobby today. After card manufacturers almost ruined the industry in the late 80’s and early 90’s by overproducing products and eliminating any type of scarcity, they were forced to reinvent themselves. Their method was to begin including authentic autograph and memorabilia cards randomly into packs. So, theoretically, you could purchase a pack of eight cards for $3 and pull a Derek Jeter autograph card worth $100 or more. Of course, the card companies also had to pay players to sign their signature and/or make game-used uniforms available and those costs increased the price of the product. Today, you can still buy $3 packs, but you can also buy products where you’re guaranteed autograph cards. The Topps company recently came out with a product that sells for $1,125 a pack! Inside, there are only eight baseball cards but six of them will have an autograph and the other two have premium relics imbedded in the cards. The players are random, of course, but every card is serial-numbered to 50 or less. Maybe your pack will include Mike Trout? If that isn’t gambling, what is? Last time I checked, however, buying baseball cards was legal in Arizona…and everywhere else.
As with all endeavors, someone is always willing to push the envelope. Now, there is a phenomenon known as an “online set break”. Let’s say you own a 250-card set of 1954 Topps cards and over the years, you’ve had all the cards graded. The grades range from EX 5 – to – NM 7 with an overall average of 6. The set has a book value of about $10,000 but finding a buyer at that price level might be difficult. In addition, if you tried to sell it on eBay or some other auction site, the fees could be 15% or more. Instead, you agree to break up the set card-by-card and sell shares in the endeavor. Would collectors pay $45 a chance to get one of the random cards from the set? After all, the possibilities include a Hank Aaron Rookie card worth over $3,000, an Ernie Banks RC valued at $1,000, an Al Kaline RC that books at $450 and cards of Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson & others. According to one recent story, the “break” for a set like this sold out in less than an hour. $45 times 250 cards equals $11,250…a nice haul for the owner and individually, a small investment for the collectors. You might end up with Solly Hemus or Rip Repulski for your investment, but you took a shot. How would this stand up to your definition of gambling? Or maybe, even though it is a random drawing, it doesn’t qualify as a lottery because every player wins a prize? I’ll bet you have an opinion.