A $1 million campaign to make online sports fantasy games for cash prizes legal in Louisiana paid huge dividends Tuesday night when 47 of the state's 64 parishes endorsed it, often by lopsided margins.
The vote may also boost efforts next year to legalize sports wagering here, officials said, which would allow residents to bet on football and other games like they already do in Mississippi.
The ballot measure made a clean sweep of south Louisiana, capturing 61 percent of the vote in East Baton Rouge Parish, 73 percent in Orleans and 69 percent in Jefferson.
It garnered 57 percent support in Lafayette Parish, 62 percent in St. Tammany and 66 percent in St. Charles.
State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, legislative sponsor of the ballot measure, said he thought support would top out at 40 parishes.
"For one thing I don't think people view fantasy sports as quote, unquote gambling," Talbot said Wednesday.
"There are so many people that play it now on free sites or their own office pool," he said. "I don't think it has the stigma of gambling."
The push to legalize the games was largely bankrolled by the two major sports fantasy firms – DraftKings and FanDuel.
The change means that, possibly by Aug. 1, 2019, sports enthusiasts will be able to craft teams of players from major sports, pay an entry fee and chase cash prizes based on how those players perform in actual games.
Louisiana is all but certain Tuesday to become the 42nd state that allows residents to play online fantasy sports for cash prizes.
They can do so on computers and smart phones, and technology is supposed to limit participants to those in the 47 parishes that backed the measure.
The 17 parishes that rejected the proposal are mostly rural, sparsely-populated parts of north central and western Louisiana.
Ryan Berni, president and chairman of the committee that pushed the measure, said parishes that approved it represent 92 percent of the state's population.
Opponents of the games blamed their losses on the big bucks behind the drive, and vowed to be heavily involved next year when the Legislature draws up required regulations and tax policies for fantasy games.
"We were not really surprised," said Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, which advocates for traditional family values.
"There was a large sum of money expended, largely in parishes that have already said yes to gambling," Mills said.
Mills said that, when the issue is debated in 2019, his group will work to ensure that minors are kept off the games, that regulations and tax policies mirror current practices for other gambling and that parishes that rejected the measure are kept off the fantasy sports grid.
Backers say technology – called geofencing – is readily available to do just that, with the costs borne by the sports fantasy companies.
"It is not a proven technology," Mills said.
Earlier this year a bid to legalize sports wagering in Louisiana died in the Legislature.
State Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, a major supporter of that push, reiterated that he will bring the issue back in 2019, and that Tuesday's vote will help the cause.
Martiny said Wednesday the vote on fantasy sports points up how the state's mentality has changed from one leery of any gambling expansion to one that sees it as a way to generate revenue for a state beset by recurring revenue problems.
"I am encouraged by the vote," he said.
Legal sports wagering in Louisiana could raise up to $62 million per year, according to the American Gaming Association.
State lawmakers are betting that they can successfully revive efforts to legalize sports wagering in Louisiana, as neighboring Mississippi rea…
Talbot agreed that Tuesday's lopsided vote could have a ripple effect.
"Maybe crack the door open a little on sports betting," he said. "That is a whole different animal."
The vote Tuesday was a sharp contrast to the 1996 parish-by-parish tally on video gambling.
Voters then approved video gambling in 31 parishes and rejected it in 33 others, including East Baton Rouge, Ascension, St. Tammany and Livingston parishes.
Talbot said he does not think hammering out rules to govern fantasy sports will spark a major controversy next year.
The two-month session ends on June 6.
Most bills that win approval take effect in August.
"As long as we get it before football season starts," Talbot said. "I think that is what we are shooting for."