Fantasy online sports betting getting closer look by Florida

Powerful forces are gathering to make sure that Florida doesn’t regulate online fantasy sports gambling.

If you’ve turned on a television set during the past month, you’ve probably seen ads by FanDuel and DraftKings, two online betting companies that have saturated the airwaves at the start of the National Football League season.

These gambling juggernauts spent $26.1 million in ads during the first week of the season alone, and have outpaced beer and automobile advertising in recent weeks.

All to get millions of Americans to imagine that they can, on any given week, pick a collection of players around the league that will perform better than any other collection. Daily leagues. Instant cash payouts. Testimonials from big winners.

The New York-based FanDuel and the Boston-based DraftKings provide websites that host these wagers, which range in entry fees from $1 to $250 — with about 10 percent of the fees going to the companies.

With millions of armchair football experts wagering every weekend, each of them spending an average of nearly $500 a year, these companies are each worth an estimated $1 billion.

So where does Florida come in?

Well, it’s legal in Florida to wager online on fantasy football. For now.

But this year, Florida’s gambling pact with the Seminoles, a multi-year deal that allows the tribe to run blackjack and other casino table games in exchange for a $1 billion payment to the state, expires.

That means Florida’s lawmakers will review the state’s entire gambling picture, an always contentious collision of cross purposes. And one of Florida’s leading voices in gambling legislation, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who chairs the Florida Senate Regulated Industries Committee, has started raising questions about fantasy sports wagering.

“They are promoting a product that looks a lot like sports betting,” Bradley told The Miami Herald.

Fantasy sports gambling is illegal in just five states: Montana, Washington, Louisiana, Iowa, and Arizona.

But this month, an insider-trading-like scandal hit these fantasy sports companies. An employee of DraftKings used the inside information he had on betting patterns to make a bet on the rival FanDuel site and win $350,000.

It has prompted investigations by the attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts. And a federal grand jury in Tampa has been empanelled to look into daily fantasy sports wagering in Florida, according to Florida gambling law attorney Daniel Wallach.

Florida used to take a dim view of fantasy sports betting.

In 1991, an advisory opinion of then-State Attorney Gen. Bob Butterworth concluded that Florida law “prohibits the operation and participation in a fantasy sports league whereby contestants pay an entry fee for the opportunity to select actual professional sports players to make up a fantasy team whose actual performance statistics result in cash payments from the contestants’ entry fees to the contestant with the best fantasy team.”

But the federal Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act of 2006 was passed, a heavily lobbied law that specifically excluded fantasy sports from banned online gambling under the theory that fantasy sports betting relies more on skill than chance.

It has been a questionable, but lucrative justification.

By virtue of that exception, the gambling in fantasy sports has blossomed, creating a nation of transformed sports fans who watch games not to see which team wins, but to see how well the members of their fantasy rosters are doing.

This has increased television ratings for professional sports, especially football, and prompted the leagues to become business partners with these gambling websites.

Two months ago, FanDuel, DraftKings and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association started hiring some of the most influential lobbyists in Florida, even though no legislation is pending in the state. It’s a sure sign that when Florida’s gambling future is hashed out, fantasy sports will have some seats at the table.

George Orwell would find this fitting.

I found myself looking back at the words of Orwell, who in his novel, “1984,” created a Dystopian society where gambling played a key role in maintaining order.

“So long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance,”Orwell wrote. “Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern … Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.”

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