Bill would let fantasy sports winners earn cash prizes

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Local,Jason Flanagan

The performance of sports stars like Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis could mean big bucks for fantasy sports buffs in Maryland.

Del. John Olszewski, D-Baltimore County, is proposing to remove fantasy gaming from the state's anti-gambling laws and allow Marylanders to earn cash prizes for winning an online fantasy sports league.

CBS' online fantasy league disclaimer lists Maryland along with Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and Vermont as the states where participants can play for a fee but not win prizes.

"This is an issue where Congress said this isn't gambling, a vast majority of states allow it, and it seems to make sense to allow Marylanders to have the same opportunity," Olszewski said.

Fantasy sports were excluded from the federal Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act of 2006, which was aimed mostly at online poker and casino games.

Advocates say fantasy sports aren't addictive, and that more than half of the estimated 22.4 million gamers nationwide play for fun and not money.

"My brother plays in a $100 buy-in league, and the winner gets $800. He may be excited to win the league, but prizes are incentives -- not the reason -- why he and millions of others get into fantasy sports," said Justin Cleveland of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

Fantasy sports typically award points to a person who manages a team of players based on how well the players perform each week. The game is not based on an actual team and is dependent on multiple players -- reasons that Olszewski says show fantasy gaming is unlike sports betting.

Olszewski's bill would require games to be based on real, multiple players and the prizes to be announced in advance.

But Cleveland acknowledged that some gamers do constantly monitor sports Web sites to find an edge over opponents.

"Fantasy sports can be an obsession, just like anything else," said Christine Hurt, a University of Illinois professor who studied online gambling.

"But games don't happen all the time -- there are off-seasons -- and it's not like poker where you can play every minute and go down, down, down until you spiral."

Fantasy sports leagues offer prizes up to $3,000, and cover a wide variety of sports as well as nonathletic competitions such as the television show "American Idol."

Olszewski, who said he enjoys "games permissible by law," added that his bill may encourage more people to participate in sports.

"For me, it's a matter of equity," he said. "If people in Virginia and D.C. can play for prizes, why can't we?"

jflanagan@baltimoreexaminer.com

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