By Dr. Andrew C. Billings
As the State of Alabama considers a law addressing Fantasy Sports, the topic frequently arises in my conversations with friends and colleagues. Given my decades of research in sports media, my love of everything Packers to Reds to Crimson Tide, and my long-held dedication to playing traditional Fantasy Sports, people are typically surprised when I tell them I’ve passed on daily Fantasy Sports. “Is it because you think it’s gambling?”, people will ask. I’ll tell them it’s actually the opposite: gambling involves games where luck has an inordinate effect on the outcome, whereas daily fantasy play is too multifaceted for me to invest enough time to have a realistic chance of winning.
Put simply, the skill involved to successfully play daily Fantasy Sports is so great, that I could have used just a bit more of the luck element to increase my chances. Let me explain.
For the uninitiated, fantasy sports involve selecting players from various teams within a league, drafting them as your own, and competing against others to become your own General Manager. Traditional, Fantasy Sports consist of typically 10-12 people in a league—mostly friends or family–building teams and attempting to claim league domination. Money is involved, but it’s negligible; 90 percent of traditional players spend less than $50 per season; half play for free.
Daily and weekly Fantasy Sports use many of the same mechanisms, but allow one to draft a new team for each game. In this model, players are assigned values, daily fantasy participants select athletes while under a salary cap and–much like traditional fantasy play—winners are determined via on-field performance.
Federal law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, created an exception, a carve-out, for Fantasy Sports participation, arguing that these games inordinately focus on skill rather than luck. Some states, including Alabama, have been recently deciding whether daily Fantasy Sports deserve room within this exception as well. Most states allow daily Fantasy Sports play, and 11 states –from large New York to our neighbors in Mississippi—have recently passed laws directly and affirmatively stating daily fantasy games are legal. I concur.
To answer this skill vs. luck dilemma, let us take, for a moment, examples from each extreme. We have games of pure luck. Slot machines. Roulette. Candy Land. These games have no professionals; there is no way to increase (or decrease) one’s odds. On the other extreme is a test of pure skill. These are honestly virtually non-existent, but one could argue chess fits this classification (though luck is even involved in chess, as the first move is determined by a coin flip or hidden pawn selection).
Where do traditional Fantasy Sports fall on this spectrum? Clearly, I would argue, far toward the side of skill. Place a sheet with all the NFL players’ names on a dartboard and select the ones where your darts land and the result will be an epically bad league record.
Daily and weekly games follow many of the same structures, yet change the equation in the number of permutations involved. The more decisions one has to make, the more skill is involved. Roulette has no decisions affecting one’s odds; poker has infinitely more (fold/play, amount of bet, raise, call, etc.). Daily fantasy play has more decisions each week than traditional fantasy play–the possible lineups in daily fantasy often number in the billions. Moreover, daily fantasy play tends to involve companies assigning differential values to players. In traditional leagues, I can tell you that Aaron Rodgers going to be a better play than Joe Flacco; in daily—where Rodgers will cost me significant more fantasy dollars—such decisions become exponentially harder.
So, are daily and weekly Fantasy Sports more skill than luck? Yes – by a substantial margin. The initial problematic marketing of daily fantasy made it seem much more like gambling, relaying a message of “sign up and win big”. The reality provides a stark contrast to those advertisements, as one truly must have expertise to have any realistic chance at large prizes. The lottery this most certainly is not.
Safeguards are important, and luckily the bill being considered in Alabama has them, assuring that those within the industry are banned from playing and that information about the games be made for public review. Arguably more importantly, Alabama will garner a 6 percent tax from gross daily fantasy revenues. In a time of depleted state funding, this should not be overstated.
Thus, I find myself supporting the legalization of daily Fantasy Sports in the State of Alabama. I won’t play them because I don’t have the time to do the research and hard work required to be skillful, but dedicated souls will. When they do, they’ll be paid back in enjoyment—and the State will garner revenues in the process.
Dr. Andrew C. Billings, Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting
Executive Director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication
The University of Alabama