Bill Would Make Fantasy Sports Legal in Washington

Washington state Senator Pam Roach (l.) has introduced a bill that would remove the state’s strict restriction on playing fantasy sports games.

Right now, if you play fantasy football in Washington it’s a felony and you could face charges for violating the state’s gambling laws. You could pay a hefty fine or go to jail, although no one can remember anyone being prosecuted under the law that an estimated half million Evergreen state residents violate every year.

A Washington lawmaker, Senator Pam Roach, wants to change the law. She told “Our state sees fantasy football as a game of chance—a felony crime. Congress has long considered fantasy football to be a game of skill. My bill will change the state’s definition.”

Most states and indeed the federal government see fantasy sports leagues as games of skill, rather than luck. The Washington State Gambling Commission disagrees, although it concedes that skill plays the largest factor in determining winners and losers.

On the commission’s website is this ominous declaration: “For Washington State residents, all gambling on the Internet is illegal, including all types of sports betting.”

Under the current law, Washington residents can play fantasy sports on sites such as FanDuel, DraftKings and ESPN, but are not eligible to win prizes.

Under the senator’s proposed bill sports on the outcome of real-world games would still be banned. Her bill would legalize real money play on fantasy sports sites.

The bill seems to have bipartisan support and similar bills have been introduced in the House and Senate. Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, told the Seattle Times: “It’s always been something that’s been going on around me all the time. People are always talking about their fantasy sports leagues.”

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), which claims that 41 million people play fantasy sports, supports the bill. It released a statement last week: “We think citizens of Washington should be able to play the full array of fantasy sports contests offered in 45 other states and be able to win prizes in free contests offered by major media companies.” Fantasy sports is a large industry. FanDuel has estimated that it paid out $400 million in prize money last year.

FSTA Chairman Peter Schoenke told the Seattle Times: “There’s also a lot of advertising and activity that would happen in the state of Washington that isn’t happening right now.”

Washington’s Indian casinos have so far been silent on the proposal. The Indian casinos could stand to lose some revenues to competition from fantasy sports, unless they choose to host them, in which case they could make money.

An editorial in the Seattle Times, however, noted that state Gambling Commission Chairman Chris Stearns, a Native American, has suggested that, if big-money daily online contests are permitted, perhaps the state should license and regulate them.

“That’s an idea worth exploring to see if it would better protect consumers,” the Times editorial said.

According to Senator Roach, “I don’t believe it would diminish in any way the income or the traction that there is for tribal gaming.” She added, “It’s a different type of gambling. Fantasy sports are being done anyway. The fact that you’re decriminalizing fantasy football—since nobody really knows it is a crime—wouldn’t increase participation.”

Several other states ban fantasy sports, but there appears to be a bow wave being created to free those fans from looking over their shoulders when they sit at their computers. In Montana, for example, a legislator recently authored a bill that would allow playing in contests where the entry fee was under $100. Similar efforts are underway in Arizona, Maryland and Iowa.