The debate over whether Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) is a game of ‘skill or luck’, and whether it should be defined as a form of ‘gambling’, has become a burning question across North America. The US government and multiple states are scrutinizing the online betting activity, and it’s becoming a progressively prominent issue in Canada as well.
Andy Billings (left), a credited author, self-professed sports media scholar and the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting at the University of Alabama since 2011, chimed in on the topic Wednesday. Having conducted rigorous research on the topic of fantasy sports play, his opinion on the matter has been requested time and again.
Most often, Billings said he’s asked if fantasy sports—particularly daily fantasy sports—is a form of gambling. He says there’s no quick answer to that question, but his estimation of the subject leads him to conclude that DFS is, at the least, a game of skill, not luck.
Fantasy sports involves drafting teams that play out across an entire season, such as the NFL’s 17-week regular season play lasting from September to December. Daily fantasy sports, on the other hand, allows players to draft teams for a single day or week worth of action.
Billings said the money involved is “negligible” in season-long fantasy sports, where half of the participants choose to play for free, and 90% of those who do play for money spend less than $50 per season.
DFS, says Billings, uses “many of the same mechanisms, but allow one to draft a new team for each game.” He added, “they also are much more fee-driven,” but also noted that, “whatever definition one uses [gambling or not] 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.”
DFS Sill or Luck?
Billings specifically named three strong points that he says should put DFS into the category of skill-based gaming, not luck. They include “repetitions”, “permutations” and “financial wins/losses”.
In terms of repetition, Billings said, “The more you play a game, the more the cream rises to the top.” Since DFS allows bettors to choose their players each week, those who are paying attention will be able to skillfully select the players who are most likely to perform well each week.
“Consider college football,” he said. “By the end, the contenders have generally been separated from the pretenders. The same is true with fantasy play — less games in daily means more randomness.”
His permutation argument relates to the abundance of choices involved. “The more decisions one has to make, the more skill is involved,” he said.
“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,” said Billings, noting that “the possible lineups number in the billions.”
The sports media scholar said financial wins and losses must be factored in as well. “The quicker the cash turnaround, the more likely people are to equate it with gambling,” he said.
“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.”
In answering the question of whether DFS is more skill than luck, Billings said, “I would argue yes.” However, as for whether it’s a form of gambling, he said “I’ll leave that to the experts defining gambling.”
Billings detailed the “many shades of gray” within existing law. “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.”
He did conclude, however, that “the daily industry needs some sort of safeguards and regulation.”
Billings also stressed that, due to the skill factor involved in DFS, and the UIGEA of 2006 that specifically carved out a legal place for traditional fantasy sports as a non-gambling activity, there’s no reason the DFS industry should not carry on as usual until those regulations are in place.