Sport psychology and the problem of fantasy sports gambling

The Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology should join with other sports science and medicine organizations to state that fantasy sports games increase the likelihood of developing pathological gambling problems.

By Shane M Murphy, PhD

If you are a sports fan, you have been subjected to a ceaseless barrage of ads this past year for the fantasy sports gambling sites FanDuel and Draft Kings. Their ubiquitous ads feature young men of college age (who are shown by studies to be frequent gamblers: 80-90 percent in most research; Ladouceur, Dubé, & Bujold, 1994; Winters, Bengston, Door, & Stinchfield, 1998), apparently winning large sums of money with minimal effort. Recently, this apparently frivolous entertainment has emerged as having a dark underbelly. The fantasy gambling industry is now under investigation by both the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine whether it operates in violation of federal law. This law, adopted by Congress in 2006, makes it illegal for companies to transfer money to online gambling sites, but it has an exemption for games "of skill" (Reagan & Barrett, 2015). Besides objecting to fantasy sports gambling because the ads are extremely annoying, are there other reasons why those of us in the sport psychology community should be prepared to take a stand on these issues?

Of course there are. The Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology should join with other relevant organizations in the sports science and medicine field and issue a clarion call stating that daily and weekly fantasy sports games are indeed gambling and are increasing the likelihood of the development of pathological gambling problems, especially in the young college student population, many of whom are our clients and students. And while the scourge of gambling cannot be easily eradicated, it should be possible to shine a light on a sleazy industry that dresses up a previously harmless activity, fantasy sports, and turns it onto a huge income generator for some of the biggest names in sports. For the investors in DraftKings include Fox Sports, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, The Madison Square Garden Company and Legends and The Kraft Group (owners of the New England Patriots). And those organizations who have financially backed FanDuel include the National Basketball Association, NBC Sports Ventures (Comcast), Comcast Ventures, Google Capital and Time Warner/Turner Sports. We should call on these companies to stop supporting gambling, to divest themselves of these investments and to cease the shameful process of legitimizing gambling by running these relentless ads and sponsoring shows and segments that actively promote fantasy sports gambling.

Because these fantasy sports activities are gambling. Which is not what DraftKings and FanDuel would have you believe. Their chief litigator, David Boies, hired to represent DraftKings in the court case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, calls daily fantasy sports "a game of skill." “Anyone who believes that DFS [Daily Fantasy Sports] players don’t control how they do in the contests has never played those contests,” Boies said (Gershman, 2015). He stated that the best players keep winning because they have more knowledge about the sport and the players.

Which is where we can step in as experts and say, "rubbish." There are two reasons why DFS games are based on luck, not skill. First, they depend on how well individual players in professional sports leagues do in their games that week. And as we know too well as sport psychologists, despite all the best physical and mental preparation in the world, when the ball is kicked off or the puck drops, what happens next depends an awful lot on luck and how the ball bounces. And individual performances in team games are even more highly dependent on random variables, such as a field goal attempt being blocked and run back for a touchdown on the game's final play or a player being in the right place to haul in a desperate 60-yard Hail Mary pass as time expires. No amount of "game knowledge" or "skill" can overcome the myriad of factors that determine game performances, such as coaching decisions, sudden injuries, weather, personnel decisions, game strategies and flow, officiating, and of course, deflated footballs (I couldn't resist). A second reason that obviates the skill argument is that many DFS game payouts are based on pools of participants, so that those who gamble on less-frequently chosen players stand to win much more than those who bet on the popular stars. This is where insider trading has become a problem, as employees of DraftKings and FanDuel with knowledge of which players are chosen more frequently have won large amounts of money on the games.

Given research which shows that about 6 percent of undergraduates, especially males, gamble on the Internet every week, and that of these weekly gamblers almost two-thirds (61 percent) have pathological gambling problems (Petry & Weisntock, 2007), we should be forthright in calling for more transparency from companies who are selling young people a bill of goods. I've played fantasy football with the same group of friends for 20 years, and I enjoy the weekly trash-talking and gloating as much as anyone, but these new forms of DFS games are not fun and harmless. They are gambling, and should be regulated, taxed — and studied — along with other recognized forms of gambling. I have previously called for more research by sport psychologists on Internet and video games (Murphy, 2009), and here is an issue right in our area of interest that is crying out for serious study. I hope we can step up to the plate.

References

Gershman, J. (2015). Daily fantasy sports: Games of luck or skill? The Wall Street Journal, Law Blog. Retrieved Nov. 20, 2015, from http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2015/11/20/daily-fantasy-sports-games-of-luck-of-skill/.

Ladouceur, R., Dubé, D., & Bujold, A. (1994). Prevalence of pathological gambling and related problems among college students in the Quebec metropolitan area. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 39, 289-293.

Murphy, S.M. (2009). Video games, competition and exercise: A new opportunity for sport psychologists? The Sport Psychologist, 23, 487-503.

Petry, N.M., & Weinstock, J. (2007). Internet gambling is common in college students and associated with poor mental health. American Journal on Addictions, 16, 325-330. 

Reagan, B., & Barrett, D. (2015). FBI, Justice Department investigating daily fantasy sports business model. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved Oct. 15, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/fbi-justice-department-investigating-daily-fantasy-sports-business-model-1444865627.

Winters, K.C., Bengston, P., Door, D., & Stinchfield, R. (1998). Prevalence and risk factors of problem gambling among college students. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 12, 127-135.