Fantasy Sports: Only a Game, Or Is It Gambling?
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The U.S. House of Representatives expects to take up a bill soon to ban some forms of internet gambling, such as online poker. Fantasy baseball and other online sports are not on the list of activities branded as gambling under that bill, but one lawyer who practices gambling law says the House has it wrong.
As NPR's Libby Lewis reports, he filed suit this week to persuade a federal judge that those pretend sports are real gambling.
LIBBY LEWIS reporting:
So, the Atlanta Braves are in a bit of trouble, ten straight losses. But Braves pitcher Tim Hudson had a very good game against the Colorado Rockies last month.
ESPN documented every pitch.
(Soundbite of ESPN broadcast)
Unidentified Man: Well Hudson is known as a guy with electric stuff.
Unidentified Man: Colorada, the West leaders by a game and a half over San Francisco. And a swing and miss for Tim Hudson's third strike out tonight.
LEWIS: That was also a very good game for Ben Steele(ph), he's a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
Mr. BEN STEELE (Fantasy Baseball player): Right now my pitching staff is the strength of my team.
LEWIS: Tim Hudson's arm has helped keep Ben Steele in first place in the Ex-Copa fantasy league. Most of Steel's league members used to work at a Seattle ad agency called Copacino, used to, hence the ex. Welcome to the world of online fantasy baseball, where ordinary people compete by drafting rosters of real-life players to be on their fantasy teams. The better those players perform in real life, the more fantasy points owners like Steele stack up for their teams.
Mr. STEELE: My batters are letting me down a little bit but not so much that I haven't been able to barely hold on to first.
LEWIS: Steele and his buddies pay fees to media companies that operate pay to play fantasy sports leagues. It's a billion dollar industry. Winning teams at the end of the season can win anywhere from a few bucks to thousands of dollars. That's where lawyer Charles Humphrey comes in. He says online fantasy sports are gambling because, he argues, the results boil down to chance, not skill. Humphrey's sighting some real life evidence in his lawsuit.
Mr. CHARLES HUMPHREY (Plaintiff in gambling suit): Major League Baseball player John Smoltz burned his chest while ironing a shirt that he was wearing and Wade Bogs hurt his back when he lost his balance while trying to put on cowboy boots. How do you factor those things into the skill of selecting players to play that week, that game?
Mr. GLENN COULSON(ph) (Defense counsel): By that definition it would be gambling just to field the team and to put the Yankees or the Brewers or the Rangers on the field.
LEWIS: That's Glenn Coulson. He's a lawyer too. He represents the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Coulson said he's not too worried about Humphrey's lawsuit. He's certain a judge will find that online fantasy sports are driven by skill.
Mr. COULSON: When you study the various players, the trend analysis of their statistics, the soft information like playing time, injury history, things of that nature, and you're more scientifically trying to predict future performance, there's much more skill than chance in that.
LEWIS: Humphrey's lawsuit sites an 18th Century New Jersey law meant to protect poor souls from illegal gamblers. The law allows bystanders to collect illicit gambling winnings and share it with the government. Humphrey says he wants to make a point and some money.
Mr. HUMPHREY: Well I may be subject to criticism for that but I'm certainly not going to pass up the chance to profit.
LEWIS: Which is more than Ben Steele's doing. He says the prize he won from his league was a chintzy trophy and it's headed for a yard sale. He says he must be in the wrong league.
Libby Lewis, NPR News.
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