Matthew Berry is Senior Fantasy Analyst for ESPN. He also wrote, Fantasy Life, a book about his experiences in fantasy sports. He gave us a few minutes of his time via phone and talked about putting together his book, why he thinks fantasy is so popular, and his relationship with Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
NIS: You talk a lot about the different types of people that play fantasy. What is it about Fantasy Sports that has made it so universally appealing?
MB: It’s fun. That’s the number one thing. We like fun. That’s what fantasy sports ultimately is. You enjoy the competition with your friends, your co-workers and your family. You enjoy the camaraderie. You’ve had people refer to it as the “new golf.” Instead of going to golf with the boss, you play in a fantasy league with your co-workers and the boss. People refer to it as “this is my fraternity now.” That’s a quote from the book. Once you get past college this is the reason to hang out with your buddies on the weekends, to get drunk, to go to Vegas for your draft. It’s the new family reunion. It’s a way to keep in touch. I’ve heard of so many leagues with cousins of families scattered across the country.
Long before Facebook, MySpace, or even Friendster fantasy sports was the original online community. I think because it give you a running interest in games that you wouldn’t normally care about. If you’re a sports fan it gives you more of a reason to watch, if you are not a sports fan it gives you a reason to watch. It’s all sort of slices from the same apple which is, it all equals fun. We’re a country of people that like fun.
NIS: A team name you list in the book is “I blame Matthew Berry,” how do you handle bad picks with your broad audience with ESPN?
MB: As soon as I make one I’ll let you know, ha ha ha.
No, one of the great things about my job is that ESPN allows me a fantastic platform. One of the tough things about that is that when you make a bad pick, you swing and miss, which obviously happens, you miss and you miss big. I’m trying to predict the future for about 250 players every single week. So obviously you’re not going to nail everything right. It’s hard to believe, but not everyone on social media is super kind and polite. Especially when they get something as passionate as fantasy football.
You learn to develop a thick skin and you learn to realize that it happens to everyone that is in the public eye. You take certain measures, like I won’t ready my Twitter starting Sunday at one-o-clock. I’ll tweet, but I won’t read my mentions for a couple of days. If you tweet something at me on Sunday or Monday I won’t read it. If I did that, it would just get too depressing. You just get so many reactions and even if you get five hundred tweets and twenty of them are negative, that’s a very small percentage of the overall tweets, but it’s twenty people telling you that they they don’t like you or being cruel. There’s certain steps you take to sort of disassociate yourself.
You do what you can. To answer your question, I get bummed about it. You want your picks to be as right as possible, so I get bummed
when my picks miss as well.
NIS: Have you gotten any sort of gratitude from fantasy sports players when you pick a sleeper and that guy goes off?
MB: I get unbelievable tweets and messages. Over the years fans have sent me all sorts of stuff. I was on my book tour and people brought me gifts and pictures. I’ll get Redskins or Angels or Lakers memorabilia because people know those are my teams. It’s amazing. People are very kind. I probably get a ratio of ten-to-one kind notes or gratitude to hate mail.
NIS: One of the interesting parts of your book is when you mention pro athletes like [noted fantasy player] Maurice Jones Drew. How has your relationship with athletes changed as the popularity of fantasy sports has increased?
Athletes are a lot more aware of what I say, which is something that I am always surprised about. Fantasy has become so popular. Thanks to ESPN, people are aware of it. You mention MJD. We’ve become friends. We were on a panel together about fantasy sports. At the end of the panel we opened it up to the audience for questions and answers and MJD raises his hand.
And the moderator says, “Maurice?”
“Yeah, my question is for Matthew,” I turn and look at him. “Where you have me?”
“I have you four”
“Four! Who do you have ahead of me?”
This was preseason a couple of years ago. I have Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy.
He starts arguing with me about his own ranking right there.
I’m going back and fourth with him about stats. “Blaine Gabbert’s your quarterback. You’re going to get eight men in the box. Dude, you missed two games last year.”
It was all done in good fun. Afterwards, MJD gave me his phone number. And he gave me a blurb for the book. He’s been real kind and supportive.
His agent told me later after the thing that MJD knew I had him at four. He said MJD knew the answer to that question before he asked, that’s why he asked it.
There’s definitely been times like that. It’s a fun version of it., There’s been times where athletes have asked me about rankings or why I’ve said something about them. That’s definitely something to get used to.
NIS: You were a screenwriter in Hollywood and you got burned out on that. How do you prevent you work with fantasy now from becoming just another job?
MB: It’s tough sometimes. Because there are things you have to do as part of a job. It’s a challenge. What it is is not going overboard. This is the first year I am not playing fantasy basketball, first year in 15 years. And I’m cutting way down on my fantasy baseball leagues. I want to keep it fresh and I want to keep enjoying it.
What you try to do is get new challenges. A couple years ago where I was started I edged towards feeling that way about it a little bit. Then I got into a fantasy league here, a sixteen team league with all of the fellow ESPN analysts, Adam Schefter, and Chris Mortensen, and Trey Wingo, Mark Schlereth, and Ed Werder, and Trent Dilfer, all these guys that have played in the NFL and won Super Bowl rings, reporters who are the ultimate insiders that know everyone in the NFL, all these guys and me.
It’s a super competitive league, it’s a sixteen team league and it’s really deep. That sort of re-energized me. I’m in to that league in a big way. Just getting in to different leagues and trying to find new challenges are what keeps it fresh. At the end of the day, I’ve been playing fantasy sports since I was 14 years old. I’m 43, so if it hasn’t worn off by now, it’s probably never going to.
NIS: Outside of the normal big fantasy sports, What is your favorite iteration of a fantasy-type tournament?
Fantasy movies. You can play it yourself if you want to, summermovieleague.com. Me and my friends from college have done it for years now, we do a summer movie league pool which is really fun. You pick movies in the summer for your fantasy studio and how much money they make in real life is how much they make for your fantasy studio.
NIS: Did your experience in Hollywood help?
Yeah it does, but the people I do it with are all screenwriters and directors and everyone like that. It would help me more here in Connecticut. than it would with my friends in LA.
NIS: What was your favorite part about putting this book together?
The stories. My favorite part of the book was the stories. I was amazed at some of the stories. The heartfelt stories and the people I sort of got to meet through them. When I started the book, I thought there would be wacky stories but or some crazy stories, but I wasn’t prepared for the tattoo league guy. I wasn’t prepared for the guy who drafted from his hospital bed a week after getting paralyzed and credits fantasy sports for helping him walk again. I wasn’t prepared for stories like the husband and wife, who were in a league together and the wife dies in the middle of the season and the husband suddenly starts trading the best players from the wife’s team to his team. That was the best part for me, the stories. I was like, I’ve played fantasy sports for 30 years and I haven’t heard that one before.
Fantasy Life is available now.