Technical issues with geolocation prevent gambling in practice long before legal questions about vertical jurisdiction come into play

SpaceX Mission Commander’s Sports Bet Raises Questions About Regulated Gambling At Altitude

Space is no longer the final frontier for online gambling. SpaceX mission commander Jared Isaacman just placed an out-of-this-world bet on the Philadelphia Eagles to win the Super Bowl on Feb. 13.

So now, online bettors are airing questions like:

  • “Does geolocation work on an airplane?” or
  • “Can you place a sports bet from space?”

The answer to both questions is “yes,” at least legally speaking. The practical issues involved are more difficult.

For a longer explanation about midair betting on US online casinos and sportsbooks, read on.

BetMGM Sportsbook wager from space

Taking a peek at an American billionaire’s list of New Year’s resolutions, being blasted into space is probably No. 1.

“Keep up with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos” might follow.

However, online gambling probably isn’t on that list. Yet space betting is exactly what Isaacman did during his SpaceX mission, Inspiration4.

The Pennsylvania resident-turned-mission commander not only joined the billionaire space race, he placed two bets with BetMGM Sportsbook.

On Sept. 30, BetMGM announced Isaacman’s choices:

  • $4,000 on the Over (40.5) in the Washington Football Team vs. the New York Giants Week 2 game
  • $4,000 on the Philadelphia Eagles to win the 2022 Super Bowl

While betting on the Eagles may have seemed like a long-shot then, the NFL team is now in the running.

According to Katie Kohler of Play Pennsylvania:

“The Philadelphia Eagles will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the defending Super Bowl Champions, in the wild card round of the NFL playoffs.”

BetMGM wagers could have tested online gambling laws

At one time, Americans had to venture onto riverboats to gamble. Cruise ships in international waters continue to provide legal retail casino routes.

Now with online gambling spreading across the US, simply standing on land in a state with legal online casino and sportsbook options offers anyone within its borders betting opportunities. That means the remaining question is: What do online gambling laws say about betting in midair?

An attorney with McCauley Law Offices of Chadds Ford, Penn., told Online Poker Report that betting in outer space is an open question, but that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would probably settle legal matters simply by seeking tax dollars on wins, regardless.

So now the only question is whether the next billionaire in space will decide that simply flying isn’t enough and that they need to test the limits of legal online gambling while they’re at it.

Isaacman didn’t set any such precedent, however, because he didn’t bet directly. Rather, he placed his wagers via a terrestrial human proxy. The proxy walked into the BetMGM Sportsbook at MGM Grand in Las Vegas to place Isaacman’s bets. Any winnings will benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

While it’s an antiquated custom, the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) allows proxy betting.

Legal and practical issues with in-flight gambling

Most discussions about gambling on airplanes center on retail casino options. Those experiments tend to fail, mostly because machines are heavy. However, retail gambling in some airports flies well – especially in Nevada.

Meanwhile, the air over a state still counts as being within its borders. If GPS is working on a phone and an online betting app can find the bettor, that bettor can theoretically gamble.

After all, geolocation features on apps like BetMGM Casino, DraftKings Casino and FanDuel Casino do facilitate bets from skyscraper inhabitants.

In practice, however, people in the US can’t currently gamble online while on commercial airlines. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits passengers from using cell phone data during flight. So while the phone is in “airplane mode,” chances are online casino apps won’t work.

Online gamblers can get access to WiFi on many flights. However, a combination of site blocking by those services and geolocation issues make it practically impossible to place wagers at regulated sites while devices are in airplane mode.

So theoretically, the air over five states is fair game for regulated online casino wagering and sports betting:

  • Connecticut
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia

Plus, the skies over 20 states and the District of Columbia may functionally allow online sportsbook operators to accept bets.

Of course, any app user needs to pay taxes while legally betting online, if they come out ahead on the year. The IRS isn’t concerning itself with technicalities about airspace. If the user is able to bet on a state-regulated app, they’re considered to be in that state for the purposes of taxing their winnings.

Is the sky the limit?

As for space flight gambling, geolocation technology definitely doesn’t reach up high enough for even low-Earth orbit bets. Even if it did, there comes a point at which it seems absurd to talk about which state a spacecraft is “over.”

Exactly how high borders extend is an open question. When it comes to international law, there’s no agreement on how high sovereign airspace extends. Various countries and organizations have proposed limits ranging from 30 to 160 km. At 585 km, Inspiration4 was clearly outside of US airspace by anyone’s definition. However, Blue Origin only goes just outside the 80 km boundary that the US defines as the beginning of space.

So, there is a potential gray area, but US law considers the jurisdiction for most legal matters aboard a commercial flight to be that of the point of departure. Thus, if he’d placed his wagers directly, Isaacman would’ve been considered to be in Florida, where the flight took off. That would have left him unable to place a bet, since Florida’s online betting is currently on hold due to a legal challenge.

Practical issues aside, then, Isaacman would have had to use a proxy regardless. Hypothetically, however, a space flight launching from a legal online gambling state might allow for in-flight bets up until a certain altitude. Exactly what altitude that would be isn’t a settled matter, but at the moment, practical technological issues would make betting impossible long before the legal question could arise.

Who would decide these issues?

Counterintuitively, the FCC has more control over gambling aloft than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, the FAA’s legal oversight of everything from skydiving to required distance between planes while in flight ends at 18,000 feet above the mean sea level (MSL).

International airspace appears to be mainly related to international water. It’s perhaps easier to think of international waters and international airspace as sharing … space.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) didn’t return Online Poker Report‘s request for comment.

However, UNOOSA does provide basic information about Space Law and seemingly endless links to each country’s take on its recommendation to not get in wars in space.

In part, UNOOSA says:

“Space law addresses a variety of matters, such as, for example, the preservation of the space and Earth environment, liability for damages caused by space objects, the settlement of disputes, the rescue of astronauts, the sharing of information about potential dangers in outer space, the use of space-related technologies, and international cooperation. A number of fundamental principles guide the conduct of space activities, including the notion of space as the province of all humankind, the freedom of exploration and use of outer space by all states without discrimination, and the principle of non-appropriation of outer space.”

In other words, it’s not a question many authorities have even considered yet, and it may remain up in the air until the need arises.


- Heather Fletcher is the lead writer with OnlinePokerReport. She's a career journalist, with bylines in The New York Times, Adweek and other publications. Reach her at [email protected]
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