One of the longstanding traditions on Super Bowl Sunday are squares pools (sometimes known as “box pools”), in which fans purchase one of 100 boxes on a 10 x 10 matrix.
The horizontal and vertical axes of the matrix are then each given a random number from 1 to 9, with one axis representing the last digit of the AFC team’s final score, and the other representing the last digit of the NFC team’s score.
The owner of the box that matches the last digit of the final score of both teams wins.
On the surface this all seems like a lot of fun.
However unless a Super Bowl squares pool falls within a state-specific “recreational gaming” exception, the contests probably violates the law.
Under the gaming laws of all 50 states, any contest is deemed to be illegal if it involves three elements: consideration (generally an entry fee), prize, and chance. Although the definition of “chance” varies by state, all 50 states recognize that any play-for-cash contest that is based entirely on chance is illegal. Because squares pools involve randomly assigned numbers, the contest is entirely based on chance and thus illegal unless it falls within a state-specific “recreational gaming exception.”
Meanwhile, under federal law the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 disallows individuals from “engaging in the business of betting or wagering [through the knowing use of] a wire communication for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce.” Based on this law, any Super Bowl squares pool conducted across state lines, or on the Internet, would seem to violate federal law. Behaviors that could bring a context under legal scrutiny would be collecting money and paying out winners via money payment sites such as PayPal or LeagueSafe.
Another federal law that seems to prohibit online, pay-to-enter NCAA Tournament pools is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (“PASPA”). Passed in 1992 at the behest of America’s five premier professional sports leagues (including the NCAA), PAPSA makes it illegal for any private person to operate a wagering scheme based on a competitive game in which “professional or amateur athletes participate.” Because the results of squares pools are based on the final score of the Super Bowl, such pools are very likely to violate this statute.
Of course, none of this means that state and federal governments are using their resources to detect and prosecute Super Bowl squares pools.
However, those who expect a future background check should perhaps be careful before leaving markers of technically illegal behavior on the Internet.
And those who decide to join Super Bowl squares pools should recognize they will likely have no legal remedy if the contest host does not pay out the winner as promised.
Marc Edelman is an Associate Professor of Law at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, Zicklin School of Business, where he has published more than 25 law review articles on sports law matters, including “A Short Treatise on Fantasy Sports and the Law.” Nothing contained in this article should be construed as legal advice.
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