Just fun or real danger? Voters to decide Louisiana's fantasy sports future at polls Tuesday

Louisiana is all but certain Tuesday to become the 42nd state that allows residents to play online fantasy sports for cash prizes.

The question is where in the state it will be legal.

The measure, which voters decide on Tuesday, is a local option for residents of all 64 parishes.

Those that endorse the concept will see a new form of gambling, likely in 2019 after the Legislature hammers out rules to govern the contests.

The two major online fantasy sports firms -- DraftKings and FanDuel -- have donated $1 million to bankroll the campaign, which is being run by a former top aide to ex-Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Ryan Berni, president and chairman of the committee behind the ballot measure -- Fairness for Fantasy Sports Louisiana -- declined to say how many parishes he thinks will approve the measure.

"We know that there are tens of thousands of fantasy sports fans across the state," said Berni, former press secretary and deputy mayor for Landrieu.

While critics do not have an umbrella organization, the measure is opposed by the Louisiana Family Forum and the Louisiana Baptist Association, which includes about 500,000 adults.

Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, hopes voters will reject any expansion of what he calls gambling.

"We think it is a bad bet for Louisiana," said Mills. "This is simply foolish."

The LFF says it is committed to defending faith, freedom and the traditional family in Louisiana.

What the measure would legalize is sports enthusiasts crafting teams of players from the NFL and other sports, paying an entry fee and hoping to win prizes based on how those players perform.

The games are played on smartphones and computers.

DraftKings has paid out $5 billion, features 20,000 public contests per day and 750,000 gamblers have won money on their first paid contest, according to its website.

FanDuel offers a similar appeal.

"FanDuel is more than just fantasy sports," according to its website.

"It's the best way to watch the games, win real cash and bring the action right into your living room," it says.

Mllls says there is a reason FanDuel and DraftKings is spending $1 million on the Louisiana campaign -- looming profits.

"They know that there is a virtual goldmine on the other side," he said.

Voters are deciding the ballot measure, as well as six constitutional amendments, because of legislation approved earlier this year.

State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge and sponsor of the sports plan, said earlier it is easy to see why the contests should be legal.

"It is just fun," Talbot said of fantasy sports.

Aside from Louisiana the contests are illegal in Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nevada and Washington.

The format of the proposition is similar to video poker, which was decided parish by parish in 1996.

A total of 31 parishes endorsed that form of betting, and some contend Tuesday's vote will follow a similar pattern.

Mills said the contests may be embraced more in heavily Catholic south Louisiana and less so in Protestant-dominated north Louisiana.

The $1 million behind the campaign has rolled in since Sept. 26.

The last contribution was by DraftKings on Oct. 23 for $358,500, according to campaign finance records.

Much of the money is being used for TV, Facebook and other advertising.

The TV ads began on Oct. 8 and are airing statewide.

Berni said what voters are being asked to legalize are games of skill, not chance.

"There is no 'house' that you're playing against," he said in an email. 

"You compete against other fans based on your player selections and their performance based on statistics generated by the athletes' real-game performance," Berni said.

"You can play in a private league against your friends or in contests with thousands of other fans from across the country," he added.

Will Hall, director for the Office of Public Policy of the Louisiana Baptist Association, said the state already has the fourth highest incidence of problem gambling in the U. S., including 179,000 problem gamblers and 96,000 pathological gamblers.

A report by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette said 40 percent of sixth-graders are involved in some form of gambling, Hall said.

He said that, despite what backers say, the games represent gambling.

"We see it as risking something on an uncertain outcome," Hall said.

The association includes 1,650 churches.

"We are going to use our organization networks to get the word out and get people out to vote," he said.

Mills said his group is communicating with leaders in about 1,500 churches.

"It is our hope that they take the message to their people," he said.

Mills said legalizing fantasy sports would prey on minors and others inclined toward addictive behavior.

"We know what the virtual environment does," he said. "It is going to do to gambling what the internet did to pornography."

Disputes remain on whether residents of parishes that reject the measure can be kept off the sites.

Berni said the wherewithal to do so -- called geofencing -- is as common as Uber pinpointing the location of a rider.

"It is not complicated technology," he said.

Hall disagreed.

"No one has shown that to be effective yet," he said.