The Future of DFS

If you watch any sports television, you’ve almost certainly seen commercials for the two leading daily fantasy sports (DFS) sites, DraftKings and FanDuel. Last week the Nevada Gaming Control Board announced that DFS is gambling under Nevada law. The Nevada Attorney General’s office released a 17-page review of DFS that thoroughly explained the reasoning. What does this mean for the future of DFS in both Nevada and the US?

First, none of this should have been a surprise. In February 2014 I wrote,

Unfortunately, many states look at just an element of chance to determine if something is gambling. And there’s no doubt that daily fantasy sports have such an element. The problem is that these sites are starting to bring in large dollars. That attracts attention, and some state attorney general is going to wonder the same thing that I am. He or she will conclude that the Duck Test applies and that these are gambling sites in violation of his or her state’s laws. [emphasis in original]

Nevada is not going to be the only state that concludes that DFS is gambling. The head of the Michigan Gaming Control Board has publicly stated that DFS is gambling. Other states will conclude that under their laws that DFS is gambling and either needs a license or should be banned from the state. Nevada may have been the first state to draw this conclusion but it will not be the last.

The problem is how regulators look at something new. Generally, the view of a regulator is that if it hasn’t been made expressly legal under the law that it should be (and is, in their view) illegal. The mindset of most regulators will start with a “DFS is illegal” view. In my first job I learned that perception of reality is far more important than the reality itself. This does not bode well for DFS.

Meanwhile, there’s a federal grand jury investigation of DFS that’s ongoing in Tampa, Florida. This has caused some operators to pull out of Florida. While the DFS sites have proclaimed that the UIGEA (the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006) made DFS legal, the analysis of the Nevada Attorney General puts a stake in that argument. DFS is exempted from the UIGEA but not from other federal and state laws related to gambling.

There’s also a huge risk for DFS from the IRS. What if the IRS concludes that DFS is gambling and that instead of issuing Form 1099-MISC’s to winners they should issue Form W-2Gs? This would be a national conclusion, and give a prima facie case that DFS is gambling. And this could easily happen.

There’s also reality: the duck test. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just might be a duck. Many DFS participants view it as gambling. Apparently the executives at DraftKings share that view (see the Nevada Attorney General’s report). In the United States gambling is regulated at the state level (along with the federal level). Unless authorized by a state, most gambling in that state is illegal. DFS has not been authorized by any state. (The Massachusetts Attorney General recently stated that DFS was legal in that state. However, it has not been expressly authorized.)

So where does that leave DFS? Someone I know said, “In like 25 years when everyone with any power will have grown up with the Internet, will things be different?” That’s easy to answer: Yes. But we have to live in today’s world, not what it will be in 2040. I expect DFS to follow two different paths in the majority of states. Some states will simply declare it as gambling, making it effectively illegal in those states. Other states will tacitly declare it as gambling but allow regulation of the activity. There will be a minority of states that allow DFS to continue as an unregulated activity. Where one month ago you could play DFS in 45 of the 50 states, that number is down to 42 to 44 states (depending on the DFS site). I expect that number to continue to fall.

Could federal regulation happen? Certainly, but not out of this Congress in the next year. This isn’t a major issue for either party, and 2016 is an election year. Additionally, it’s possible that the next Speaker of the House will be Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah); he’s definitely not pro-gambling. There’s a better chance of the IRS budget being increased (and that has just about a 0% chance of happening) than pro-gambling (or pro-DFS) legislation passing Congress.

Overall, I’m painting a bleak future for DFS in the United States. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but the signs are there. Perhaps it was P.T. Barnum who said, “All publicity is good publicity.” (Like the duck test quote, this, too, has been attributed to many individuals.) The advertising and publicity have helped DFS short-term profits. The current publicity has not, though, helped DFS’s future.

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