By DYLAN WAUGH
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 25, 2009)—A Maryland lawmaker wants to make sure state residents can own football teams and boss around millionaire athletes—at least in the fantasy realm.
Delegate John Olszewski Jr., D-Baltimore County, presented a bill Wednesday to a House committee to exempt fantasy sports from state gambling prohibitions, showing humorous fantasy football commercials on YouTube to emphasize the growing popularity of the Internet-driven pastime.
While fantasy sports are exempted from federal gambling restrictions, the issue is not specifically addressed in state law. The bill would not affect popular college basketball office pools, which are illegal under state law.
"We're just taking this (federal) language and inserting it into Maryland law," Olszewski said.
Olszewski gave a brief explanation of fantasy sports and showed members of the House Ways and Means committee his personal fantasy football team, the "Outlaws."
Fantasy sports allow individuals to compete against others based on statistics accumulated by real professional athletes or teams. Owners draft, own and trade athletes from most professional sports, in either free or pay leagues with prizes.
Olszewski's explanation might have been helpful for some of the committee members, including Delegate Bill Frick, D-Montgomery, who prefaced a question by admitting his weakness in the field.
"I don't know fantasy stuff very well because I'm very bad at it," Frick said.
Several national organizations offering fantasy gaming opportunities have limited Maryland residents from fully participating due to concerns over the ambiguity of state law, Olszewski said. Maryland is one of six states whose residents are ineligible to win cash prizes from CBS Sports' fantasy football pay-to-play leagues.
The legislation is critical to giving Maryland residents the same opportunities to win prizes as fantasy owners in many of their neighboring states, said Justin Cleveland, association manager for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
"It allows Maryland players to be able to participate in what has become a national pastime," Cleveland said. "If this legislation goes through ... then they're just going to bring the state of Maryland into sync with the majority of the country."
The state has issued a report claiming fantasy sports would "probably not" be considered illegal gambling under state law. But the report also says "there are benefits to stating this finding explicitly in the Code."
The YouTube videos—one portrayed a groom apologizing to friends mid-wedding ceremony for missing a fantasy draft—drew laughs from the committee.
"What I'm picking up is the audience would like us to vote for this," joked Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery.
More than 27 million people nationally play fantasy sports, which is an $800 million industry, said Cleveland, who offered written testimony in support of the bill.
Solidifying the legality of fantasy sports might also bring in more money for the state through the sales tax.
"It's hoped that passage may also serve in some ways as a stimulus to Maryland's economy," Olszewski said. "You follow your teams closer, you might be buying additional jerseys."
Fantasy players are more likely to spend money going to games, buying big-screen televisions and extra cable packages, Cleveland said.
And while football and baseball are generally considered the most popular fantasy sports, Olszewski recognized the wide range of games available.
"There's fantasy fishing, there's fantasy U.S. Congress," Olszewski said. "For all I know there's fantasy Maryland General Assembly."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.