They worship at the high altar of football. They're everywhere. I don't give a fig about football, but the cult surrounds me. In the offseason, the devotees were stomping the floor over Tom Brady and a football's air pressure. They demanded to know my opinion on the matter. That I had none amazed them.
The season is in full frenzy, and with it, a new controversy: the explosive growth of gambling on fantasy football. Run by such corporate giants as FanDuel and DraftKings, daily fantasy sports are Internet-based games where one assembles a virtual team of real players and bets on how well it will perform.
Football and gambling — two great American addictions working together. What could possibly go wrong?
Lots, mainly because of the supreme confidence of the zealots. They claim to know all the players and coaches, their weaknesses, their strengths, their girlfriends, their concussions. They know exactly which part of his hamstrings LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills pulled and what that means for the game. So if anyone can get rich betting on football outcomes, they can, so many think.
A 2006 federal law banned online games of chance but left a loophole for fantasy sports betting, viewing it as a game of skill. My friends who've played say they are competing with so many people and there are so many unknowns in the sport that winning is basically, excuse the expression, "a crapshoot".
In any case, few anticipated the boom in online sports betting and enormous profits to be made (for the "house," as always). For the month ended Sept. 15, the fantasy sports industry spent more on commercials during the games than pizza and beer companies.
Whether such online fantasy sports are about skill or chance, they are most certainly about competition for the gambling dollar. Many states have banned the game, including, to no one's surprise, Nevada.
The 2006 law was championed by former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. He recently criticized the carve-out for fantasy football as a mistake. "My intent in initiating the law was to constrain a growing gambling ethos in America," Leach said. Right. Iowa is home to over 20 casinos, making it the 10th-biggest gambling state.
When one puts big-time sports, gambling and online moneymaking together, fraud is inevitable. The FBI and New York attorney general are already looking into the possible use of inside information by employees at these online sports sites to wager at another.
A socio-economic question: We keep hearing about the financial squeeze plaguing America's middle class. Where is all this money for sports coming from?
Americans are being charged huge amounts to watch professional football in person, watch football on pay TV and not watch football on pay TV. (The huge sums that sports channels extort from the cable companies get tacked onto the monthly bills of all subscribers.) Never mind the $75 team sweatshirts and the $50 branded throw blankets.
Now there's all this online betting. The average spending per fantasy player is $465 a year, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. If you put $500 a year into an investment yielding 5 percent, you'd have $7,418 after 10 years. Think about it.
When I ask the guys — and they're mostly guys — why they care so much about seeing big men crashing into other big men over four glacially slow time periods, they say, "You'll never understand". And they're right.
What anyone can see is that football is a quasi-religious passion for many — and that the opportunity to bet on one's deeply held convictions about the game may be dangerously seductive. Small wonder the calls are getting louder to regulate online fantasy sports. In the meantime, tie these guys down.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)
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