Thursday, February 11, 2016

Frontline: “The Fantasy Sports Gamble” (WGBH/PBS-TV, aired February 9, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the February 9 showing of the American Experience show on Leopold and Loeb PBS ran a Frontline episode called “The Fantasy Sports Gamble,” which had the same problem as the American Experience show on James Garfield: it leaped around from topic to topic. It was based on a series of investigative articles in the New York Times and was directed by Frank Koughan from a script by himself and Walt Bogdanich, one of the Times reporters who also wrote the articles. The problem was it kept flitting from the offshore gaming sites set up to avoid the 2006 law passed by Congress to outlaw online betting on real sports events — many of which are at least formally based on Curacao (pronounced “Kura-sow,” with “sow” pronounced like the word for a female pig), an island off the shore of Venezuela which is its own independent country and which seems to exist as a place for banks to incorporate if they think the Cayman Islands’ banking laws are too transparent, to the big “fantasy sports” operations like FanDuel and Draft Nation. The gimmick behind “fantasy sports,” and the element that gives it that name, is that instead of betting on real teams playing real games, you’re supposed to make up your own roster of professional players in a particular sport, then see how your team does against other players’ fantasy teams in computer-generated competitions based on how the actual players do in their actual games. Because the initial selection of the players is your responsibility, and because fantasy sports became so popular so quickly, the fantasy companies were able to get what they do called a “game of skill” rather than a “game of chance” and therefore win exemption from the 2006 law declaring Internet gambling illegal. However, in order to attract more players (and especially attract players who aren’t sports nerds interested in in-depth study of real players’ statistics to assemble their “fantasy” rosters), the fantasy outfits have altered the rules to make it more like out-and-out gambling, from randomly choosing your “fantasy” teams for you (the fantasy-sports equivalent of a “quick pick” in a lottery draw) and awarding prizes daily instead of waiting until the end of the season to declare the winners. This show suffered from the flaw of a lot of investigative reporting: they built up a good prima facie case that something about this situation is wrong and deserves a social response, but it’s not clear just what we’re ought to be outraged about. Is it that fantasy sports attracts people who will develop gambling addictions and lose scads of borrowed money they’ll have no way of paying back, thereby wrecking their lives? Yes, but so will every other game in the world that people can make bets on.