Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The Fate of Sports Gambling in Delaware Might Rest in the Hands of...Bill Simmons
He might now know it yet, but Bill Simmons (aka, espn.com’s “Sports Guy”) could play an important role in the outcome of the lawsuit filed by the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and NCAA against the Delaware Sports Lottery. The leagues claim that the single-game bets offered by the lottery violate federal and state law. The federal claim deals with the scope of the grandfather clause contained in the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (“PASPA”). Unless he has quietly gained an expertise in federal statutory interpretation , Simmons won’t play a role in that claim. He might, however, find himself playing a key role in the resolution of the state law claim.
As I discussed in an earlier post, the state law claim will require the court to answer the classic legal question—How much skill is involved in picking the winner of an NFL game with a point spread?* If chance, or luck, is the predominant factor, the single game bets will constitute a legal “lottery” game under the Delaware Constitution. If skill controls, then the single games are not a “lottery” and are therefore illegal.
So, how would a court determine whether betting on NFL games is mostly skill or luck? In a 1977 case involving the original Delaware Sports Lottery, a federal court noted that the “results of NFL games are a function of myriad factors such as the weather, the health and mood of the players and the condition of the playing field. Some educated predictions can be made about each of these but each is also subject to last minute changes and to an element of the unknowable, or to put it another way, to an element of chance.” That is not a particularly controversial conclusion, and the NFL has worked very hard to create a league where any team (even my beloved Jets) can win on any given Thursday, Sunday, or Monday.
The court also relied on some interesting “scientific” evidence—the success rate of “Jimmy The Greek,” the (in)famous sports handicapper, in picking NFL games. The court determined that the Greek’s mediocre record in picking NFL games supported its conclusion that betting on NFL games was more chance than skill. After all, if an “expert” could not get more than 50% of the games correct, how much skill could really be involved? Notably, all of the games in the original lottery were parlays, which required players to pick the winner of multiple NFL games, so the court never addressed the issue of the amount of chance involved in picking the winner of a single game with a spread.
How will the court decide that issue here? How will it determine if the point spread turns each game into a 50/50 bet, or if it merely ensures that equal amounts of money are bet on both teams? The court might turn to Bill Simmons. Simmons is not quite a modern version of Jimmy the Greek—the 2000’s version of the Greek is probably charging a fee for his betting advice somewhere on the internet. I’m not even sure Simmons considers himself an “expert” NFL gambler. On the one hand, he spends a fair amount of time touting his skill as a sports gambler and has published an “NFL playoffs gambling manifesto.” On the other hand, one of the rules from the manifesto is: “Never bet heavily against a playoff team that has a coach and an owner whose last names both end in a vowel.” And, he frequently reminds his readers: “The lesson, as always? I’m an idiot.”
That said, my guess is that his NFL picks column on espn.com is more widely read than any other gambling column on the internet. While the court (and the parties in their briefs to the court) may look to the pay sites for the results from the “real” experts, Simmons’ success rate may at least be instructive (in a "people's champ" kind of way). So, how did Simmons do? From 2006-2009, he picked the winner of every NFL game against the point spread. He finished with 478 wins, 461 losses, and 32 pushes (the data from 2006-2008 was taken from here) That’s a 51% success rate (49% if you include the pushes), not much better than chance. In fairness, Simmons picked every game, and part of the skill in picking NFL games is knowing which games are “good bets” and which games are toss-ups. So, it’s not entirely fair to judge Simmons—or the amount of skill involved in picking games—by looking at the results of every game he picked. He may have had a much higher success rate if he were able to choose only one game per week.
We might be able to learn something more from the results of the 2007 season, when Simmons’ wife (aka, the “Sports Gal”) also picked every game of that NFL season against the spread. The Sports Gal finished 137-110-9, while Simmons finished 119-128-9. And, it is fair to say that the Sports Gal is not the female Jimmy the Greek. Here are explanations for some of her picks:
BUCS (+2.5) over Panthers
The “expert” was 9 games under. 500 (48% correct) while the blissfully unaware novice was 27 games over .500 (55% correct). I’m pretty confident that the Delaware District Court won’t cite to the Sports Gal’s picks, but Simmons’ mediocre record may just help push along legalized single-game betting in Delaware.
In fact, the very existence of Simmons’ popular weekly picks column may hurt the NFL’s case. The NFL has claimed that legalized gambling on the NFL will cause irreparable harm to the game. In a letter to Delaware Governor Jack Markell, Roger Goodell wrote that “[t]here is no issue of greater importance to the league. That is why the NFL’s position on legalized sports gambling has remained consistent for decades. State-promoted gambling…creates suspicion and cynicism toward every on-the-field mistake that affects the betting line.”
Yet, as Governor Markell noted in his response to Goodell,
As I understand it, the NFL negotiates contracts with all of the principal broadcast networks and those contracts generate billions of dollars in revenues for the NFL and the team owners. Importantly, each of these companies owns and operates websites that provide the betting lines which are viewed by bettors in every state in the nation, regardless of whether the viewers in that State can legally wager on the games. For example, ESPN's "Pigskin PICK "EM" offers would -be bettors analysis by "Hector the Projector" for each game, including which team to pick with the spread….
So, even if Simmons’ .500 record isn’t enough to doom the NFL’s case, the very fact that Simmons is picking games against the spread on the site might do them in.
Roger Goodell will now light himself on fire…
*The case actually involves NCAA, NBA, MLB, and NHL games, but I have limited the discussion to the NFL.