Alabama professor: There’s a lot more skill than luck in fantasy sports (opinion)

Shelby TaussigUncategorized


As a sports media scholar who has conducted research on fantasy sports play, I find myself fielding quite a few questions from a variety of constituencies relating to the rapid explosion of daily, weekly and season-long fantasy games. Usually, it’s the core question: “Do you think this stuff is gambling?” My response is usually some variation of: how much time do you have?

One thing is clear: fantasy sports are now mainstream. Just because Alabama doesn’t have a professional team doesn’t make it immune; 56.8 million North Americans now play fantasy sports in some form—and that covers every state including, most certainly, Alabama. Want an extra reason to root for Julio Jones? Fantasy football could be for you.

For the uninitiated, fantasy sports involve selecting players from various teams within a league, drafting them as your own, and competing against others to become your own General Manager. Traditional fantasy sports play consists of typically 10-12 people in a league, most of whom are friends or family, building teams and attempting to claim league domination. Money is involved, but it’s negligible; 90% of traditional players spend less than $50 per season—half play for free.

Daily and weekly fantasy sports use many of the same mechanisms, but allow one to draft a new team for each game. They also are much more fee-driven. FanDuel and DraftKings have quickly emerged as billion-dollar companies. In this model, players are assigned values, daily fantasy participants select athletes while under a salary cap and–much like traditional fantasy play—winners are determined via on-field performance.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 created an exception, a carve-out, for traditional fantasy participation, arguing that these games inordinately focus on skill rather than luck. The crux of the arguments today pertains to whether daily and weekly fantasy leagues should be part of this exception as well.

To answer this skill vs. luck dilemma, let us take, for a moment, examples from each extreme. We have games of pure luck. Slot machines. Roulette. Candy Land. These games have no professionals; there is no way to increase (or decrease) one’s odds. On the other extreme is a test of pure skill. These are honestly quite rare—one could argue chess fits this classification.

Where do traditional fantasy sports fall on this spectrum? Clearly, one could argue, toward the side of skill. Place a sheet with all the NFL players’ names on a dart board and select the ones where your darts land and the result will be a truly epically bad league record.

Daily and weekly games follow many of the same structures, yet change the equations in three noteworthy ways:

1. Repetitions. The more you play a game, the more the cream rises to the top. Witness the rankings in college football—by the end, some of the more familiar names tend to be separated from the rest. The same is true with fantasy play—less games in daily means more randomness.

2. Permutations. The more decisions one has to make, the more skill is involved. Roulette has no decisions affecting one’s odds; poker has infinitely more (fold/play, amount of bet, raise, call, etc.). Arguably, daily fantasy play has more decisions each week than traditional play–the possible lineups in daily number in the billions.

3. Financial wins/losses. The quicker the cash turnaround, the more likely people are to equate it with gambling. No heavy gambler generally joins a fantasy football league in August hoping for a profit by Christmas. They want profits in moments. With daily fantasy sports, that quick payment is very real.

So, are daily and weekly fantasy sports more skill than luck? I would argue yes.

In many ways, the trouble lies in the advertising more than the core of the game itself. However, the advertising seemingly plays to the “just sign up and win big” crowd, which makes it feel much more luck-based than it actually is.

So many legal things have a fair bit of luck involved (stock markets) or are entirely based on chance (lotteries). Meanwhile, many forms of illegal gambling, such as Texas Hold ‘Em poker require odds calculations, nonverbal communication decoding, and a vast sense of factorial math. There’s a lot of variation, which means many shades of gray.

What is clear is that whatever definition one uses should not be based on the amounts of money involved. Whether one is winning one dollar or a million dollars, the elements of luck vs. skill do not change.

What is also clear is that the daily industry needs some sort of sensible safeguards and regulation. For this, we look to states like Florida and Illinois who have proposed bills that would establish common sense regulation that protect not only the game but consumers. How that happens is still evolving. In the meantime, the games play on.

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