Baumgartner asks: Should Washington legalize fantasy sports gaming?

OLYMPIA… As tens of thousands of Washington citizens play fantasy football this season, state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, says it’s about time the Washington Legislature considers making it legal.

Baumgartner, chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, plans a work session Nov. 20 to discuss proposals allowing operators of fantasy sports games to offer prize money. Options range from small-scale pools to the wide-open daily gaming offered on national websites.

“Thousands of Washington citizens break the law every day when they play fantasy sports games for prize money,” Baumgartner said. “When so many people ignore a law, we ought to recognize there’s a problem with it.”

The work session begins at 8 a.m. in Hearing Room 4 of the John A. Cherberg Bldg. on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. Speakers will include representatives of the national fantasy-gaming industry and local experts in fantasy sports. Representatives of sports teams have been invited, and public testimony will be welcomed.

Washington is one of just five states with gambling laws that prohibit fantasy sports gaming when money is involved. Yet money is an integral part of fantasy sports. Players typically pay an entry fee to join a “league” and assemble a make-believe team by “drafting” players. A team’s performance is determined by the performance of individual players on the field. Prize money is awarded by dividing the fees collected from players, typically at the end of a season.

Fantasy gaming became widespread in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the national Fantasy Sports Trade Association now estimates that more than 10 percent of the U.S. population participates. Until recently the stakes were small enough to escape most law-enforcement attention. But in 2006 fantasy gaming was exempted from a federal law restricting Internet gambling. That has allowed Internet operators to commercialize the field with big-money games, where distinctions between skill and chance have been blurred by daily contests. Today every nationally-televised sporting event features advertisements from websites offering enormous prizes. State law prevents Washington residents from playing.

“Millions of Americans enjoy playing in fantasy sports leagues,” Baumgartner said. “We need to decide whether this is really gambling or a game of skill. And if this is something the state ought to sanction, should we keep it at the level of the office pool? Or should we allow the wide-open daily gaming we see advertised on TV? I hear from people every day who think fantasy sports gaming ought to be legal in this state, and it’s about time we settle the question once and for all.”

The issue surfaced this year when state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, introduced a bill sanctioning fantasy sports gaming. Roach’s proposal, SB 5284, will be discussed at the Commerce and Labor work session, but Baumgartner said he is not wedded to any particular approach.