Pick Eddie Lacy. That was the advice of at least one expert back in the summer. Not a single play of the regular NFL season had been run, but it was already a busy time for those who play fantasy football and the gurus who advise them. “Lacy’s mix of stability and upside over a full season” is unmatched, the expert wrote.
In the Green Bay Packers’ second game of the season, Lacy, a running back, went down with an ankle injury. Bad news for those among the millions who play fantasy football who had picked Lacy to play for their “team” and were counting on him to rack up some big yardage and score a couple of touchdowns and, thus, lead them to glory . . . or at least a serious cash payout.
And the Packers? Well, they put in James Starks, who ran for 95 yards, and they beat the Seattle Seahawks, 27-17. So the real team that depends on Lacy to carry the mail did okay, while lots of fantasy teams that were built around him took a hit.
An interesting anomaly. As is the fact that you can, in essence, legally bet on Lacy having a big game but not on the Packers, for whom he plays, to win. Not unless you make that bet in one of the four states where sports gambling is legal—Delaware, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon.
New Jersey is, conspicuously, not one of those states. But it is still a destination for gamblers. Which may account for this headline last week in the Hill: “Fantasy sports sites draw scrutiny from Washington.”
The chief scrutinizer, as it happens, is Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who “has called for congressional hearings into the topic, accusing the pro leagues and teams of hypocrisy for partnering with fantasy sites while opposing the legalization of traditional sports betting.”
If the question before the House is one of “hypocrisy,” then Rep. Pallone and his committee will be exceedingly busy for a long time to come. Because government is quite comfortable with hypocrisy on questions of gambling, as is well appreciated by anyone who had stood in a convenience store line for 10 or 15 minutes while people in front are buying lottery tickets with the grocery money. Lotteries are undeniably (a) games of chance and (b) government monopolies.
Even so, in 2006, the Congress of which Pallone is a member passed something called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The bill effectively shut down Internet betting operations of the sort that, had they been running during the week when Eddie Lacy twisted his ankle, you could have contacted online to put down a hundred on the Packers. Thanks to the law, the republic was spared consequences too horrible to contemplate. People might, for instance, have bet money on football games instead of on one of those state-run lotteries.
The same law, as it happens, carved out an exemption for fantasy sports. These were determined to be games of skill. Some people would be more skillful, one supposes, at divining when Eddie Lacy would roll up an ankle.
Special treatment, such as that given to fantasy sports betting, almost always proves (redundantly) the near-infallibility of another law—the one about unintended consequences. In this case, the law helped create a multi-billion-dollar gambling industry out of something that had once been a sort of idiosyncratic fringe passion, indulged in by people who just could not get enough sports. The fantasy leagues provided them with an outlet that justified their obsession with, among other things, sports statistics.
Into the opening provided by the legislative exemption rolled huge fantasy businesses backed by investors like Fox, NBC Sports, and Turner Sports. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, is an investor in DraftKings, one of the two big players in the business. The other is FanDuel. Between them, they spent $31 million on 9,000 ads during the first week of the pro football season. DraftKings plans to spend one-quarter of a billion dollars in the next three years on advertising with Fox alone.
So the fantasy websites will be to the contemporary NFL broadcast what beer and tires once were. With this difference: While Goodyear and Budweiser were trying to persuade you to spend money, DraftKings and FanDuel are telling you that if you really know your football, you can make money. It is, after all, a game of skill. Says so, right there in that 2006 legislation.
So the ads feature people who have, indeed, received some big paydays. And where the original, ad hoc fantasy leagues were organized among friends and colleagues and geared to an entire season, on the big sites, you can put together a new team every week, thus providing what gamblers crave above all else, including money—namely, action.