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Every Sunday, Americans gather to watch football. The one thing we all (it seems) have in common is this Sunday ritual. When Dr. King called Sunday the most segregated day in America, he couldn’t have imagined the unifying force football would become. It dominates popular culture and conversation in a way few other forces can. In fact, of the 50 most popular programs last year, 90% of them were professional football games. Perhaps, in a world of DVRs and on-demand programming, football may be our last shared live event.

We’ve found a variety of ways to enjoy our shared obsession, from tailgating to fantasy football. Recently, a new way to enjoy football has dominated every commercial break, ESPN segment, and preview article: daily fantasy sports. Daily fantasy sports is similar to fantasy football, but it’s a weekly rather than being a season-long experience. Nevada just declared it “gambling,” which is an interesting development for the rest of the country. If you’re curious about it, this article explains what it is, why it’s controversial and outlines its potential pitfalls.

Daily Fantasy Sports – what is it?

For fantasy football enthusiasts, daily fantasy sports seem like a natural evolution. Traditional season-long fantasy football has some major issues. For instance, a single injury can ruin a season and no two leagues have the same rules. In addition, the whole season can swing from a waiver wire pickup of an unknown running back. Most of these issues are rectified by a universal scoring and the one-week duration from sites like FanDuel and DraftKings. If your fantasy football season has gone awry, joining a daily fantasy sports league can seemingly ease the pain. In addition, if your fantasy season is going great, daily fantasy sports can be an appealing way to win money.

Why is it controversial?

The controversial issue, of course, centers around money, because it currently exists in a legal gray area. While it may look like gambling, it emphasizes skill over luck, so it is not technically gambling. While the state of Nevada has ruled daily fantasy sports as such, that doesn’t change a whole lot, since gambling is legal in that state.

Fantasy football players know that success requires both luck and skill, which is why this issue is so sensitive. For instance, if Cleveland’s tight end catches a touchdown with his knees, that’s worth a lot of points, but it is unlikely anyone who selected him had predicted such a play. Similarly, when the booth reviews a potential fumble at the goal line, it can be worth enough points to swing a match up from victory to defeat – a touchdown is worth 6 more points than a fumble in most leagues, which is a substantial amount. That booth review can take several minutes to determine the result of a play that consisted of a split second or a few inches.

At the same time, there is a lot of skill in determining which quarterback/receiver tandem will hook up for multiple scores or which defense is undervalued each week. Because of these random occurrences, fantasy sports is what economists and game theorists refer to as a “knapsack problem” because it considers each player – in effect – a weighted random number generator.

What do the numbers say?

The MIT Sloan conference is dedicated to advanced analytical research into sports, and if you’re the kind of person who watches football with a spreadsheet open you may believe skill outweighs luck. However, one of the most interesting things about fantasy football is that the more skilled players tend to think the game is driven by luck while the less skilled think it’s driven by skill. Matthew Berry of ESPN, one of the biggest names in fantasy sports, has argued for years that fantasy players should view each player as a lottery ticket and collect as many as they can, while his colleague at ESPN, Tristan Cockroft, has created what he calls “Fantasy Consistency Ratings” to account for the random variance from week to week.

What are the potential pitfalls?

The issue remains whether the pursuit is more similar to free fantasy football leagues or sports gambling. Congress will have to decide, it appears. Powerful lobbying groups already exist to benefit daily fantasy sports, so the sites may remain legal for a while. Before you spend $200 to get a “free” entry, however, it’s a good idea to remember that even if daily fantasy sports isn’t gambling, it’s still a way to spend money. It can make an otherwise dull football game between two lackluster teams into something more exciting, but it can also fall nicely into a perfectly legal space where powerful people profit by exploiting human addictions.

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Sources:

http://www.phil.vt.edu/JKlagge/ConductorChurch.htm

http://espn.go.com/fantasy/football/story/_/id/13371473/fantasy-football-matthew-berry-draft-day-strategy-revealed-draft-day-manifesto

http://espn.go.com/fantasy/football/story/_/page/consistency141223/2014-fantasy-football-consistency-ratings-entering-week-17

http://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/will-ruling-daily-fantasy-sports-are-gambling-blow-whistle-games-n446111

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