Gambling with fantasy

Walsh's Wonderings
Walsh's Wonderings

Baseball is back, and with it a new season of fantasy leagues for millions of Americans. Unfortunately, this “fantasy” is giving rise to an ugly reality: pay-to-play leagues online can be the Trojan Horse that exposes the vulnerable to gambling addiction. Mainstream media companies, and even sports leagues themselves, seem all too eager to participate in the fantasy they’re helping create. They’re also gambling they won’t be held accountable when people start losing their shirts.
Fantasy leagues typically consist of friends or coworkers huddling over a mock draft and talking trash for the duration of the season. Each player builds a team of unrelated players and engages in weekly matchups with other “teams” in their league by earning points from the real-life stats of the players they’ve chosen. These leagues offer a variety of different options in terms of scoring and format, some of them involving a pool of money from each participant. I spent years in fantasy football leagues with friends and loved it; however, my losses were measured in lost time and personal pride (I lost a tremendous amount of both). The rise of online fantasy leagues promises much more damaging losses.

In the last three years, fantasy leagues have become big business. New research conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs reveals more than 56.8 million fantasy sports participants in the United States and Canada, up 39% from last year. If you watched football at all last season, you couldn’t escape the ads that blanketed the airwaves and websites. Two of the top daily fantasy sports companies, DraftKings and FanDuel, spent $31 million on ads during the first week of the season alone, according to USA Today. The Wall Street Journal lists the combined value of these two companies at $2.5 billion, and they now assault the casual sports fan with banner ads on websites like ESPN or Yahoo Sports. In turn, these websites now offer top-of-the-page articles on how to bet that night’s big game while adding once-taboo Vegas odds to the game slate.

The mainstream media understands the game. “The more people play,” Fox Sports President Eric Shanks told Re/, “the more they consume our product on TV.” DraftKings recently raised $300 million in new funding from companies like Fox Sports, on which DraftKings will spend roughly $250 million in ads over the next three years. Major League Baseball, the NHL, and Major League Soccer have all purchased a financial stake in DraftKings, and the NBA partnered with FanDuel last summer in a deal that reportedly gives the league an ownership stake in the company.

These sports leagues now officially participate in bets on their own games. Fantasy sports are the perfect, legal gateway drug to more traditional sports gambling. Because fantasy gaming isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, service providers aren’t forced to prominently include warnings about playing responsibly or list resources for players who bet above their means. Dan Trolaro, program specialist at the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey Inc., points out a 2014 study that found fantasy sports participants were more likely to engage in other forms of sports betting than non-fantasy players.

Maybe that’s why creating an account on DraftKings is both easy and deceptive. After establishing a user name and password, the next screen offers a variety of deposit levels and the requirement to add credit card information (they promise to double your deposit up to $600), despite the fact it’s advertised as “free.” There’s no “Cancel” button to escape this screen. Only by clicking on a different page altogether can one avoid entering payment information, a convenient (if duplicitous) way to ensnare the unsuspecting. DraftKings does offer a tiny-font link to its “Responsible Gaming” disclaimer off to the side of this page. It offers the following sage advice for the problem gambler: “If, at any point, you think you’re spending too much time or money on DraftKings, you have the option of taking a break from DraftKings entirely. Self-limiting allows you to still play, however, within the parameters that you set for yourself.” Thank you, DraftKings, for allowing us the gift of limiting ourselves! Anyone who’s ever “chased” a bad string of bets on weekend games with a larger bet on Monday night’s game understands how quickly debt piles up. Like alcohol, online fantasy leagues aren’t inherently evil; everything depends on the user. However, these paid leagues should recognize the potential dangers and come with that same regulation.

Support for this argument comes from FanDuel Chief Executive Nigel Eccles himself. In a Bloomberg News interview, he referenced a recent survey that asked fantasy sports players when they expected to quit. “And the average response is, ‘Never.’”

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