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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — On the last weekday before the Super Bowl, legislators wearing Seattle Seahawks gear made noise over a bill to allow Washington state residents to legally play fantasy football.
The activity has become increasingly popular in recent years with an estimated 40 million players participating each NFL season, often for money.
There has been debate, however, over whether it should be considered illegal gambling, based on luck, or a game of skill, which rewards knowledge.
Fantasy sports leagues invite players to compete against one another by selecting athletes from a league-wide pool and tracking how well they play. If Seattle's Marshawn Lynch has a big game, the fantasy football team manager who selected him will get a boost.
The federal government and 45 other states consider fantasy sports as legal games of skill. Washington, Louisiana, Montana, Iowa and Arizona — site of Super Bowl 49, where the defending champion Seahawks will face the New England Patriots on Sunday — all consider fantasy sports illegal.
Bills that would legalize the practice are pending in Iowa and Montana. And on Friday, Washington state Sen. Pam Roach asked her legislative colleagues to support a plan to join the larger group.
Wearing a blue and green Seahawks scarf, Roach told the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee that her bill would formally define fantasy sports as games of skill. She supported the position, saying fantasy football is based on understanding factors including a player's abilities and individual matchups.
"We don't want to expand gambling," said Roach, a Republican from Auburn. "That's not what this bill is about."
Committee chairman Michal Baumgartner, a Spokane Republican, said he was surprised by the complexity of the debate around "what we thought was going to be a pretty simple bill."
Officials from the state Gambling Control Board and a lobbyist for fantasy sports leagues turned up for the hearing to describe the issues involved.
A key topic of debate is whether season-long fantasy leagues should be regulated the same way as day-to-day leagues, which are popular online partly because of their money-earning potential.
The daily games have "all the same aspects of a game of skill" as longer leagues, Fantasy Sports Trade Association lobbyist Noah Reandeau said. "It's not like there is a random number generator."
State Sen. Steve Conway, a Tacoma Democrat, was skeptical. "For many of us, it's hard to understand how a daily game is a fantasy league game," he said.
Baumgartner said he expects the issue to require more work before the committee can decide whether to advance the bill, which would face several more legislative hurdles before it could become law.
"We certainly are hoping that fantasies come true this weekend," he said at the end of the hearing. He later added that he'd be putting on a Seahawks necktie for the rest of the day.
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