Sports leagues mobilize against Frank’s gaming bill

A coalition of major amateur and professional sports leagues is urging members of the House Financial Services Committee to oppose legislation unveiled by Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that would undo last year’s crackdown on illegal online gambling.

The first stab by the sports industry at the bill provoked a searing response from one Hill staffer, revealing divisions over the legislation, which passed the House overwhelmingly last year.

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“Our sports organizations would very strongly oppose any effort to legalize any online sports gambling,” Martin Gold, a lobbyist at Covington & Burling who represents the National Football League (NFL), stated in a letter sent by e-mail to the offices of Financial Services Committee members.

“We would also oppose any legislation that would legalize and regulate non-sports gambling online, because we do not believe that differential treatment of sports gambling and other gambling online would be sustainable in the current environment,” Gold wrote.

The letter, which was signed by five major sports organizations, including the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball (MLB), prompted a biting reply from Tom Lizardo, chief of staff to avowed libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who sits on the Financial Services panel.

“So the professional sports leagues are directly opposed to the interests of the fans who pay their bills? Is there any explanation of this?” he responded the next day.

According to the e-mail provided to The Hill, Lizardo continued, “Please don’t tell me something about the altruism of professional sports, especially the NFL. Maybe they could spend a bit more time and effort making sure your retired players are not living in poverty with the billions you make on the Super Bowl.

“Oh, I see ‘keep government out of pro sports’ but have it regulate my personal use of my home computer? Nice,” he concluded.

Norman Singleton, another staffer to Paul, sent the e-mail to the rest of the committee. Less than two hours later Gold responded, asking the pair to forward his reply on to the other members. But they didn’t.

Asked for comment, NFL Vice President Joe Browne said, “Marty Gold’s views represent the position of amateur and professional sports leagues as well as the more than 300 members who voted for the Unlawful Internet Gambling Bill last year. That number included majorities in both parties. I am certain that Congressman Paul’s views were expressed by his staffer.”

Offshore Internet gaming companies and poker enthusiasts have led the charge in opposition to last year’s crackdown, which made it illegal for credit cards and banks to make payments to online gambling companies. Federal and state laws have long prohibited the activity, but were not enforced. Frank’s bill would set up a regulatory scheme to allow Internet gambling by adults through companies registered with the U.S. Treasury.

Critics of last year’s crackdown on online gaming complain about a carve-out in the legislation for fantasy sports leagues, which they say bear a close resemblance to sports betting.

“You ask any 10 guys who are in a fantasy league, they don’t play for a color television, they play for money,” one online gambling industry lobbyist asserted.

The fantasy leagues not only produce millions of dollars for MLB; they also stir interest in baseball, football and other sports, he added. “I just think it’s somewhat hypocritical that they stand up and say, ‘We don’t want betting on the sport’ when these fantasy leagues drive revenue.”