Andy McGeady: Fantasy becomes reality in India but runs into trouble in US
Fantasy sports firms in crosshairs of New York attorney general
India captain MS Dhoni in action during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup match against Zimbabwe. Photograph: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
The Bosman ruling, made 20 years ago this week, was a watershed moment in European football history. From that moment a player once out of contract could leave their club without that club being owed a transfer fee. Football had true free agency, granted by right rather than by club decree.
Jean-Marc Bosman was not the first to challenge the game’s rulers. In order to engineer a transfer to Arsenal, George Eastham went on strike in 1959 after his contract expired with Newcastle United. He would then challenge via the courts the entire “retain and transfer” system. Eastham was not entirely successful, but concessions were granted.
Baseball’s equivalent of retain and transfer had the “reserve clause” whereby a player’s rights were owned by the team that drafted him until they said otherwise. In 1970, St Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood legally challenged that reserve clause rather than accept a trade to Philadelphia. While he lost, his brave act set his sport on an journey that ended with pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally being declared baseball’s first free agents six years later.
Each breakthrough, along with the work of others like Jimmy Hill, moved the scales a bit more in favour of the worker over the sports teams and their owners. But there is a balance to be struck.
Chaos is no good to anybody. So each sport has certain rules that prevent completely unfettered player movement from undermining the competition as a whole.
The triennial “big auction” of the Indian Premier League thus holds great curiosity to your scribe, who twice a year can be found upstairs in Slattery’s of Bath Avenue taking part in fantasy sports auctions. Baseball in the spring; in autumn, the NFL. Both times groups of men (they are always men) gather to spend a set budget of $260 (€240) on a roster of players for the coming season.
No copycatting salary cap leagues here; if you sign a player, he’s on your team alone. Sportswriters, IT consultants, marketeers are some of those that sit with laptops or printouts keeping pace of who needs what, how much cash everybody has left and who might overreach for a favourite son from their favourite team this season.
There are bidding wars. There is drink taken. There are slags and barbs hurled around the room while bidding moves on and players are signed up. The nerdery might be strong but for the sports fan with a numerical bent, draft day is one of the more enjoyable days of the year. And perhaps a small entry fee to liven things up and ensure everyone keeps paying attention.
That fee is taken as a given for those who take part in the enormous fantasy sports industry in the US, and it is not considered as sports gambling. The desire to harness that friendly but earnest competition of fantasy sports while taking advantage of a small but significant loophole in US anti-gambling legislation led to the emergence in recent years of Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS). That industry is now running into choppy waters as the attorney general of New York, Eric Schneiderman, has deemed that Daily Fantasy companies operating in the state of New York are gambling outfits and therefore not able to take advantage of said loophole.
This case will impact those sports leagues that became partners with – even investors in – DFS companies. Gambling scandals in US sport include the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, NBA referee Tim Donaghy, “point shaving” in college basketball, and Pete Rose. “Charlie Hustle”, he of more base hits than any player in MLB history, continues to be barred from baseball (and therefore ineligible for its hall of fame) for betting on the Cincinnati Reds while he was their manager. It’s believed he did it as a player too. This week Rose failed once again to be reinstated by baseball into the realms of the forgiven.
As a direct result of betting on sport, yesterday saw a real-life player draft in India. The Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals are suspended from the IPL until 2018 for betting and spot-fixing respectively. Two teams down, with replacement franchises lined up from Pune and Rajkot, the IPL adopted a solution straight out of a fantasy league to assist the new teams.
Each was given the chance to choose up to five players each from the Chennai and Rajasthan rosters before the 2016 player auction. Indian limited-overs captain MS Dhoni was picked first, as was widely expected. All this before the “big auction” in 2017, where hundreds of players will released back into the auction pool and each franchise starts again. Sounds like chaos?
Possibly. But intriguingly so.