Florida's top law enforcement officer concluded a quarter-century ago that pay-to-play fantasy sports games are illegal under state gambling laws. Now fantasy sports websites are flouting the law, Attorney General Pam Bondi is conspicuously silent and legislation pushed by industry lobbyists would legalize the fantasy games even as other states are trying to shut them down. Florida is further clouding its own tortuous policy toward gambling with its inaction, and it should start enforcing the law.
Companies like DraftKings and FanDuel flood the airwaves promoting the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar online fantasy sports business. The companies advertise daily and weekly sports leagues in which participants pay an entry fee to draft football or baseball players for a make-believe team. The real game statistics from those players are compared to those chosen by other entrants for a chance to win prizes. The industry's trade association reports that as many as 3 million Floridians take part, with companies promising billions in payouts this year.
Why are these games going on when Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth flatly declared in 1991 that such games violated the state's gambling laws? Butterworth dismissed the claim advocates still make — that the outcomes rely on the skill of choosing players. He found that picking players was tangential to the element of chance involved in the actual performance of the actual athletes. A spokesman for Bondi's office told the Associated Press in September she had no plans to revisit the issue. So why has not a single company been prosecuted in Florida?
Other states are not rolling over. On Tuesday, New York's attorney general told FanDuel and DraftKings to stop taking bets, charging the games are illegal gambling. Nevada gaming regulators shut down the games in October, ordering operators to obtain a license. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa has reportedly opened an investigation. And this week, a St. Petersburg resident filed suit against the two companies in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
It shouldn't fall to the federal government and private citizens to enforce Florida law. Bondi has an obligation to either act on her predecessor's finding or issue a new one herself. There are also other issues beyond the legality of these games and their impact on consumers. With Florida in the middle of negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida on a new gambling compact, having these games continue will only inspire the Seminoles to make new requests for "parity," which could expand gambling in the state even further. This is a fast-evolving policy arena with real implications to residents and the government that the state cannot ignore.
Legislation filed this week by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, would legitimize these games on the cheap by charging operators a tiny fraction of their hefty income for a license to do business. Florida shut down the Internet cafes in 2013 because the virtual arcade games amounted to illegal slots that preyed on older people. Yet the state is turning a blind eye to fantasy sports games that are equally out of synch with Florida's limited and highly regulated (if complex) policy on gambling.
Rather than wait on federal authorities to act, Bondi should reaffirm that fantasy sports games are illegal in Florida and the Legislature should drop the effort to legitimize them.