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Let the fans have their fantasy sports

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Tim Bedison illustration

As National Football League teams start to go into their “bye” weeks when they don’t have a game to play, fantasy sports fans are scrambling to find replacements for their starting lineups on the waiver wires.

More than 75 million Americans are participating in public or private fantasy sports leagues, drafting their dream teams of real-world professional football players and putting their football knowledge to the test, hoping their choices pan out this week and their players leave it all out on the field.

And many Americans put their sports knowledge and player-evaluation skills to a real test, competing with friends or workmates for agreed-upon cash prizes.

Fearful that too many people might be having fun watching football, state and federal lawmakers are cracking down on daily fantasy sports, doing their best to guard against the haunting fear someone, somewhere, might be having fun.

Daily fantasy sports (DFS), a type of fantasy sports game, has become popular this year. In daily fantasy sports, participants can draft a new team every week, instead of being stuck with the same roster over the entire season. Competition “seasons” in DFS last a single weekend: On Monday morning, it’s a new season and time to draft a new team.

Players are assigned a fictitious auction value, simulating the salary management concerns of a general manager on draft day; participants use their knowledge of National Football League statistics and player news to compete to build the best team possible within the constraints of the game rules.

Efforts are already underway in Michigan, Nevada and New York to ban daily fantasy sports, based on regulators’ mistaken understandings of American gaming law and the urge to stomp out fun.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), prohibiting “gambling businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the Internet” but exempting any fantasy sports competitions that “(reflect) the relative knowledge and skill of the participants and are determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of the performance of individuals in multiple real-world sporting or other events.”

Although his opinion lacks legal authority, as legal interpretations are issued by the state’s attorney general, Michigan Gaming Control Board Executive Director Rick Kalm told an industry trade newspaper, Gambling Compliance, he believes playing DFS for cash prizes is “illegal under current Michigan law.”

In Nevada, a state overwhelmingly dominated by commercial casino interests, gaming regulators determined DFS met the state’s definition of gambling because backing up one’s confidence in sports knowledge is “wagering on the collective performance of individuals participating in sporting events.”

Unless companies wishing to facilitate DFS agree to regulators’ demands for licensing fees, tax money and rolls and rolls of bureaucratic red tape, Nevadans who want to increase their enjoyment of NFL games by having a real stake in players’ performances will have to visit their neighborhood government-approved bookie to scratch that itch.

And in New York, the attorney general declared that payout fantasy football leagues are nothing more than illegal gambling.

Instead of blitzing daily fantasy sports, lawmakers should resist the urge to ban popular, benign activities and products. Leaving consumers alone and letting them spend their money in harmless ways they enjoy is a touchdown for everyone.

Jesse Hathaway is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute. Brad Bumsted is off today.

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