Embracing the Inescapable

Other than the NFL, major sports were very slow to welcome fantasy sports. Commissioner Bud Selig hesitated to align his sport with any method of gambling; thus, it wasn’t until 2004, nearly 25 years after the concept for fantasy baseball was created, that Major League Baseball’s official website offered fantasy baseball. NBA.com and NHL.com shortly followed suit.

The trepidation by the league commissioners seems logical. On one hand, they were worried that their sports would turn into gambling arenas, much like horse racing. The violent 2007 NBA All-Star Game contributed to these fears. Las Vegas does not own a professional sports team for one reason: fear of gambling corruption. The commissioners also worried about potential athlete involvement. Could fantasy sports invite professional athletes into another Black Sox Scandal? These potential pitfalls were nullified by one overriding force: money.

The NFL recognized the potential revenue that fantasy sports would bring to the league. Not only would fans watch complete games (including blowouts) in order to follow his/her fantasy player, they would be willing to watch all of the games instead of just the one. Fans expanded their interest beyond one hometown team. NFL officials could only imagine the advertising opportunities. So, the NFL indirectly partnered up with fantasy sports. On television, NFL games began scrolling updated players statistics across the screen of live games. Even the professionals started playing. Ultimately, the league linked fantasy football to NFL.com.

It is hard to lose sight of the enormous effect fantasy sports has had on their professional counterparts. At their core, fantasy sports give novice fans a chance to learn about the sport. According to Mike Beacom, president and chairman of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, fantasy sports induced more knowledge in the average fan and, more importantly, “made the Green Bay Packer fan a fan of all the NFL.” With Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League all witnessing the positive monetary effect of fantasy sports, they expanded the idea, seeking creative alternatives to classic fantasy leagues. MLB.com introduced Beat the Streak and MLB.com Survivor. Likewise, NBA.com established Stock Exchange and Pick One Challenge, all various alternatives to the traditional fantasy games.

All of this was made possible by a 2006 federal law that exempted fantasy sports from the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, according to Mitchell Stein of Sport Litigation Alert. While Congress made it illegal to use a credit card to bet on sports, fantasy sports was considered “a game of chance,” and therefore legal. This controversial decision is still an ongoing argument.

“The problem is that fantasy sports still may qualify as illegal gambling under state laws and a host of other federal laws, none of which are affected by the 2006 Act,” Stein said.

With states debating the ethics and legalities of fantasy sports, the real/fantasy sport relationship may not be everlasting. Therefore, it’s no surprise to see the commissioners capitalizing on its popularity now.

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