- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Maryland lawmaker will introduce a bill this year that would allow the state’s sports fans to brag a little more openly about winning their fantasy leagues.

Delegate John A. Olszewski Jr. will sponsor a bill in this year’s General Assembly to explicitly legalize pay-to-play fantasy sports leagues — in which entrants build teams of real-life players and compete against one another for cash or prizes, with outcomes determined by the players’ real-life statistical performances.

Maryland does not technically outlaw money leagues, and thousands of residents play in private leagues in which money changes hands. However, the state’s laws are so vague that residents are often ineligible for official cash-and-prize leagues sponsored by such popular sports websites as ESPN.com and CBSSports.com.

“It’s really just about freeing that restriction in Maryland,” said Mr. Olszewski, a Democrat. “We should be explicit about it and give our residents the same opportunity that other states have.”

Fantasy sports — played mostly on the Internet and often for no monetary prize — have become a growing national obsession among diehards and even casual sports fans, with participants spending as much as $1.5 billion a year on league entrance fees, research materials and other expenses.

A study commissioned last summer by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association found that 32 million people in the country — including 20 percent of males ages 12 and older — had played in at least one league during the previous year.

Pay-to-play fantasy leagues are legal under federal law, which exempts them from gambling restrictions, and most states allow fantasy gaming on grounds that it is a game of skill rather than chance.

However, Maryland’s law is less clear, which has led some of the country’s most popular fantasy websites to err on the side of caution and bar that state’s residents from receiving prizes sometimes worth thousands of dollars.

Maryland is one of nine states in which residents can enter fantasy leagues run by ESPN.com but cannot win the cash or prizes. The website sponsors fantasy football, basketball, baseball, hockey and other leagues — typically awarding a nationwide grand-prize winner a gift card worth as much as $3,500, and giving league winners “points” redeemable for merchandise.

“Maryland is widely regarded as a sketchy state for contests,” said FSTA president Paul Charchian. “We really hope this legislation passes so people can play and enjoy the same games that the rest of America can.”

The state has done little to address Internet gaming, even as other states have embraced fantasy sports and begun looking to online gambling — which the Justice Department announced last month is technically within federal law and can be legalized by states — as long as the games stay within the state.

Mr. Olszewski, who said he competes with friends each year in a free fantasy football league solely for “bragging rights,” unsuccessfully sponsored similar fantasy sports legislation in 2009 and 2010, with neither bill being put to a committee vote.

He said he hopes this year’s bill will at least be voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee, and that the only objections he has heard have been from people strictly opposed to gambling.

Mr. Olszewski added that while the bill mainly intends to expand opportunities for fans, its passage could potentially boost revenues for state businesses.

“It’s a fairly popular game and this could generate more interest,” he said. “If that leads people to buy additional jerseys or team gear and spawns economic growth, then that could have some spin-off benefits.”