Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass students question how much skill is involved in daily fantasy sports

Daniel X. O'Neil/Flickr
(Daniel X. O’Neil/Flickr)

For many college students, the fall semester marks the return of the National League Football and – perhaps more important to some – the return of fantasy football.

The fantasy football routine is almost second nature for regular players: form a league with a dozen friends, draft players from different NFL teams and spend each week of the regular season competing against your friends, scoring points based on how well your players perform individually.

Every league has a different buy-in, but in many leagues, the winner can come away with a couple hundred or even a thousand dollars.

With money and bragging rights on the line, many fantasy football participants say they take pride in drafting the most valuable players and setting their lineup each week. They use their knowledge of how players are performing and what teams they are playing against to maximize the amount of points they score. Many would argue that winning in fantasy football takes skill and knowledge of the sport.

University of Massachusetts accounting major Jacob Lurie, for example, said he spends several hours each week setting his lineup, monitoring league transactions and communicating with other members of his league.

Recently, however, questions have been raised about a new type of fantasy game that has become popular on college campuses – daily fantasy sports, like DraftKings and FanDuel.

Daily fantasy sports sites allow users to compete in abbreviated competitions, drafting players to their teams each day or each week and going up against other users from around the country and across the globe. And these sites boast huge payouts; FanDuel’s homepage says that a $25 entry fee for a daily fantasy football contest could result in a $1 million payout.

As daily fantasy games’ popularity rises, so has the debate over whether these sites are indeed a form of fantasy sports or whether they are, like other contests that have high payouts for short-term time commitments, a form of gambling.

Stephen McKelvey, associate professor in the department of sports management, said that the dynamic of daily fantasy sports gives it the feel of being something more than the traditional definition of fantasy sports.

“It’s advertised as, it smells and it looks like gambling,” he said.

The question ultimately is whether daily fantasy sports are based on skill or luck, a question that the Massachusetts Gaming Commission will have to answer as it examines the legality of these sites. The topic of daily fantasy sports is on the Gaming Commission’s agenda when it meets Thursday, Oct. 29.

Legal status

Per a carve-out in the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, daily fantasy sports are not considered gambling as, “All winning outcomes reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants and are determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of the performance of individuals (athletes in the case of sports events) in multiple real world sporting or other events.”

The exemption also states that the payout cannot be a function of how much money a person pays to play or how many people participate.

The carve-out, according to McKelvey, was based on two factors: the idea that daily fantasy sports were indeed skill-based, and the traditional conception of what fantasy sports are – season-long competitions played among friends where payouts rarely exceeded a couple of hundred or a thousand dollars.

Yet the influx of daily fantasy sports advertising this fall, which McKelvey said promoted the message that anyone could win a lot of money with little to no knowledge of the sport, has caused legislators to do a double-take.

In addition to states that have started to look into the gambling-exemption status of daily fantasy sports, the FBI and Department of Justice have also launched an investigation to determine the legality of these games.

McKelvey said these investigations will be tasked with determining how much skill it takes to play daily fantasy sports and whether that amount of skill would be small enough for them to be considered gambling.

“No one has figured out what percentage of skill (daily fantasy sports) is yet,” he said.

Several states have already declared daily fantasy sports to be a form of gambling, including Nevada who made its ruling on Oct. 15.

McKelvey said states could decide to regulate these daily fantasy sports through their gaming commission, which would act as another source of revenue, similar to the lottery and scratch-off tickets.

“This is exciting for states – if (daily fantasy sports sites) advertise paying out $1 billion, that means they get a lot more in and there is a big revenue source,” he said.

Recently, the relationships between college and professional sports and daily fantasy sports sites have also been called into question. This month, the NCAA withdrew from conversations it was slated to have with DraftKings and FanDuel about incorporating daily fantasy sports into March Madness.

McKelvey said many professional leagues, including the NFL, have been put in a tough spot. On one hand, fantasy games drives interest in the sport and the leagues receive a lot of advertising from these sites. On the other hand, leagues consistently express a desire to preserve the integrity of the game.

“Leagues tend to talk out of two sides of their mouth: ‘We are totally against gambling because imputes the integrity of the game, but we’ll gladly take advertising from casinos,’” he said.

Student input and long-term implications

As daily fantasy sports have become more popular, many UMass students have begun to play them, including microbiology major Josh Weinstein and sports management major Connor Walker.

Weinstein recently began playing daily fantasy football through DraftKings, while Walker has been playing daily fantasy hockey, golf and baseball through both DraftKings and FanDuel for roughly a year.

Walker said he spends about 15 to 30 minutes looking at what players to draft and setting his lineup each week.

“I do some research,” he said.

Weinstein said he spends 30 to 45 minutes a week because he has to draft new players each week and he typically enters teams into five to seven leagues.

“I do a lot of estimating based on opponents. I always have to take that into consideration. It takes a little more time also because you have a salary cap (on DraftKings), so you have to think about, ‘Is this player worth this amount of money?’” he said.

Walker said that he had won some money from playing daily fantasy sports before – including a $200 payout he got from a game with a $5 entry fee. Weinstein said he recently won $90 from a game with a $3 pay-in.

Walker added that, for him, one of the main reasons he plays is to compete with people he knows. He said he typically plays $0.25 games or free games within his friend group for bragging rights.

Despite all admitting to take time to strategically set their fantasy lineups, Weinstein, Walker and Lurie believe that fantasy sports involve a large amount of luck.

Lurie said drafting players who perform well takes “a lot of luck,” while making in-season transactions for season-long fantasy sports involves some amount of skill.

Walker compared daily fantasy sports to betting on horse racing – a form of pari-mutuel betting.

“I think it’s more of a gambling game,” he said. “I guess there is skilled involved, but there is skill involved in all sorts of gambling.”

Weinstein, however, was more blunt in his analysis of daily fantasy sports and gambling.

“My friends and I always joke around – but it’s entirely true – that fantasy sports are really like 70 to 80 percent luck,” he said. “In that sense, it is gambling. It does take skill have to pick the best-valued players for the lowest price … but that is really only 20 to 30 percent of fantasy. I do think it is mostly gambling and I do think, if a state wants to, it has the right to limit or expel daily fantasy sports.”

While the future of daily fantasy sports’ gambling-exemption status remains unclear, McKelvey doesn’t believe the presence of these games will have a major impact on sports fandom, the topic of a paper he is currently working on.

He said that, while fantasy sports have spurred interest in professional sports, especially the NFL, regulation or expulsion of daily fantasy sports would not negatively impact viewership of professional sports.

What McKelvey said might change, provided that daily fantasy sports continue to grow in popularity, is the style in which sports are followed. He noted that, at its logical conclusion, the rise of fantasy sports could lead to a sports community that is less interested in following teams and more interested in following the players on their fantasy teams.

Cofounder and CEO of DraftKings Jason Robins will be on campus Tuesday, Nov. 3, for a moderated discussion hosted by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. The discussion will be held in in Mahar Auditorium at 7 p.m.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.

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    Sporty CrisFeb 16, 2016 at 12:53 am

    I Agree with you that fantasy football requires skill and knowledge about the game.