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Money makes fantasy sports so very real

Fate dealt me a cruel blow last Sunday when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a season-ending knee injury, not just because I'm a Ravens fan but because Flacco was the starting quarterback on my fantasy football team.

Yes, I freely admit to being one of those guys in the office who talks about the fortune of his make-believe team in the same way John Harbaugh does about the Ravens. If there's any difference, my team is actually winning this year. (Yeah, we brag a lot about our teams, too.) I've been playing in fantasy sports leagues for decades, back when you had to look at newspaper box scores to see how you did instead of paying some online service to track it for you. For those who are too young to know what a box score is, find the nearest man over 50. Then just be prepared to be regaled at the intricacies of box scores, what someone once called the Pythagorean theorem of sports analysis.

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For the uninitiated, fantasy sports enables you to build a team of players to compete against other "owners" over the course of an entire sports season. It doesn't matter if your players win in real life. It just matters if they put up good stats, which is why Flacco mattered to the Blue Meanies, the name of my fantasy team. (Yes, we name our teams as well, mine after a mythical creature in the Beatles movie, "Yellow Submarine.") While the real-life Ravens were losing, they had to pass the ball a lot and it helped Flacco put up a lot of good stats for my Blue Meanies. So, he wasn't a bad guy to have around.

While playing fantasy sports might seem a bit geeky, what some people don't realize is that fantasy sports is big money. Forbes estimated in 2013 that fantasy football alone is a $70 billion a year business. This doesn't take into account fantasy baseball, basketball, or any sport you can imagine, including, yes, fantasy golf. That's because to get into most leagues, players put up a modest entry fee with winners taking home a large chunk of that kitty. Most players will tell you, winning is more about bragging rights, though the prize money doesn't hurt either.

This past year, two companies, FanDuel and DraftKings, entered the national market, offering a way for sports fans to build teams on a daily or weekly basis with prize money in the millions. Entry fees are as little as $1. Their game is played basically the same way, though the sheer volume of advertising and sponsorships by these two companies has taken fantasy sports to a whole new financial level. Is it gambling? Well, sure, in the same way those NCAA tournament pools are that people fill out every March. But in most states, including Maryland, it's legal, thanks here to a 2012 bill that considers fantasy sports leagues not as betting but as a game of skill and not a form of luck. Though if you saw some of those who won in my leagues, you might dispute that luck doesn't have something to do with it.

The state of New York has already sacked the daily fantasy sports business following news that a DraftKings employee won $350,000 in a FanDuel game, leading some to question if the employee benefited from insider information. Now Maryland legislators are looking into whether the 2012 law needs to be revised. Last week, Comptroller Peter Franchot weighed in, saying that he wants to make sure that Maryland consumers are protected. And, as you might expect him to say, he wants to make sure the state's getting its cut with taxes. Expect more legislation and hearings in early 2016.

Giving the state a cut might be the ultimate end game. We've already seen the willingness to expand gambling if it benefits the state's coffers just the same way we've seen professional and college sports leagues benefit from the fans' interest in fantasy sports. For the record, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, owners of two National Football League teams and media companies that broadcast games have partnerships with FanDuel or DraftKings, according to a Baltimore Sun story published last week.

Money, as it did in real sports, has taken over fantasy sports in a major way. And it's now a different game. But it won't go away. Too much money is at stake. You can bet on it.

Paul Milton is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at pmilton@carrollcountytimes.com.

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