Florida or Kansas? North Carolina or Memphis? We’re not getting any work done this week because we’re too busy filling out our brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament pool.
The local paper will glibly inform you that these office pools are legal in Colorado. But close study reveals that the issue is not so clear cut. Colorado gambling laws, like state gambling laws everywhere, are a tangled mess of contradictions that are officially resolved mostly by ignoring the issue altogether, apart from occasional pious news releases.“Social gambling” — Thursday night poker, penny-a-point cribbage — is legal. According to the Colorado attorney general’s office, an NCAA office pool is “social gambling” if the participants have a “bona fide social relationship.” All the money wagered has to be paid out in prizes. There can’t be any profit to the organizer. Nobody can take a cut of the action for running the pool.
So far, so good. Sort of. I mean, do you really have a bona fide social relationship with all 350 people who filled out the office pool on ESPN.com? But let’s concede that you’re social butterfly who knows the affectionate nicknames of every one of them.
The profit motive criterion has some hidden teeth. According to this FAQ on the AG’s web site, an establishment may not profit from gambling activity even indirectly. For instance, a tavern can’t run a poker game to bring in business from which it profits by the sale of beer and nachos.
But this is exactly what CBS Sportsline and ESPN.com are doing. They are handling the bookkeeping for the bracket gambling pools in order to bring in business to increase their advertising revenue. If there’s a difference between this and an enterprising tavern owner selling boilermakers to the poker players, it’s pretty hard to see it.
For the average player, their real legal protection is that the gendarmes can’t arrest everybody in Colorado. CBS and ESPN can probably take care of themselves.
The NCAA is against gambling on college sports. It cautions even high schoolers who might want to play in college against participating in the bracket pools. But if you want to get tickets for the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, you have to send them a nonrefundable $5 entrance fee and enter — guess what? — a lottery.
The NCAA’s Final Four ticket lottery would appear to be illegal under Colorado law. You place a five dollar bet to win a prize in a game of chance. It isn’t social gambling (you have no social relationship with the other entrants or the NCAA) and the NCAA keeps all the proceeds. The only legal lotteries in Colorado are Powerball and those run by the state.
The NCAA lottery fits Colorado’s legal definition of “professional gambling,” which is “aiding or inducing another to engage in gambling, with the intent to derive a profit therefrom.” The NCAA is inducing you to gamble so that it can sell tickets. And this difference between this and the poker game at the corner bar is …?
I called the Colorado attorney general’s office to get the authoritative answer to all of these questions, but they never called back. Too busy filling out their NCAA brackets, I suppose.
By the way, the answer to the questions posed in paragraph one is: Georgetown. Hoya saxa.