Fantasy sports were once wonky obsessions for statistics-crazed fans, but in the last two decades they have become a $7 billion industry and a staple of contemporary Americana.
Across the US, friends, families, and coworkers are gathering to participate in their annual fantasy football drafts, a ritual for many ahead of the National Football League season, which kicks off on Sept. 9.
If fantasy sports has a face, it might be Matthew Berry. Berry, who started his career as a TV sitcom writer, has become a sort of fantasy ambassador as ESPN’s senior fantasy football analyst and a constant presence on its broadcasts. When he joined the sports network in 2007, there were an estimated 19.4 million fantasy players. Since then, that number ballooned to about 60 million as of 2017, and surely many more since. Meanwhile, daily fantasy sports (DFS), in which users draft a team for a single game or tournament as opposed to a whole season, has grown into a $3 billion industry, expanding the scope of fantasy even more.
His 2014 memoir Fantasy Life documents his own fantastical rise. Berry spoke with Quartz about his career, the rise of fantasy, and sports betting, which has been legalized in much of the US in the past few years. Berry also consults for the stars, texting with celebs about their fantasy squads. So I asked him to grade my newly drafted team too. Let’s dig in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the first year you played fantasy and what was it like back then?
In 1984—I was 14 years old and it was very different than it is now. I played in a fantasy baseball league, a 10-team National League-only fantasy baseball league that played by the book—and by the book I mean the original Rotisserie League Baseball book that laid out the rules.
Information was very hard to come by: I grew up in Texas, so you’d have to wait for the newspaper to get the box scores to see how your team did. And in Texas, the papers would miss out on the West Coast games. It’d be like two days later before you get the results of all your teams. Originally we had to calculate the standings by hand and wait for USA Today or Sporting News—once a week, they would put all the statistics. Eventually there was a company that would do it for you and fax you the standings.
The first year I did fantasy football was 1990 as a sophomore in college with a group of buddies from Syracuse University—a league that is together to this day. I just got an email today about the draft.
How did you make fantasy your job?
In 1999, there was a low-traffic website named RotoWorld and they were advertising for writers. And so I wrote them and I said, “Hey, my name is Matthew Berry. I’m a professional writer in Hollywood. I write for sitcoms and movies, but fantasy sports is my passion and I just think it would be so much fun to do a column. Can I try out and send you a sample?”
They said to me, “We looked you up on IMDB. Married With Children is our favorite show of all time. You’re hired.” So, because I wrote for Married With Children, I got a chance to write for free for a low-traffic website about fantasy sports.
The classic Married With Children-to-fantasy sports pipeline.
Right—writing mean wife jokes for Al Bundy. But whatever, I was thrilled.
Eventually, I got up to $50 a column. After four and a half years there, it was 2004 and people were starting to make money on the internet. So I left RotoWorld and I went to start my own website called TheTalentedMrRoto.com, which was my nickname. I didn’t have any money for marketing, so I went to every website, TV, and radio station I could find and said, “I will come on your air for free. I will write for you for free. Just link back or mention my website.” A lot of people said yes and I did stuff on MLB.com and NBA.com and Sporting News. But also on ESPN. There’s a radio host in Los Angeles named Steve Mason and he was a fan of my work. So he invited me to come and do a segment on ESPN Radio in LA. One segment led to a whole hour, which led to fill-in jobs, which led to a weekly show, then segments on ESPN News and writing for ESPN The Magazine.
At some point around 2007, ESPN came to me and said, “We think fantasy football is popular enough and continues to grow. We need to find somebody that could be kind of a Mel Kiper (ESPN’s NFL draft guru) for fantasy football. We want to buy your website, move you to Connecticut, and make you the guy.”
That was 2007. And at the end of my current contract, I will have been with the company for 17 years.
What was that moment like in fantasy?
Up until that point, fantasy football had been relegated to this niche in the sort of back corners of the internet. It’s nerdy, geeky, maybe it’s gambling. The leagues held it at an arm’s length. Athletes certainly looked upon it with disdain. I felt like there was real potential, because all of a sudden ESPN was willing to invest in fantasy football—they recognized how important it was to their fans.
The average football fan watches about three hours a week of football; the average fantasy player watches well over six hours a week. Fantasy players are the most highly engaged fans, the most aware, the most loyal, the early adopters. From ESPN’s point of view, the more people play fantasy sports, the more they’re going to care about sports. And the more they care about sports, the better it is for ESPN.
But I spent my first two years at ESPN going around and meeting with every executive, every programming executive, every producer, every radio producer, every editor for ESPN.com—anyone in the building that would take 15 or 30 minutes to meet with me—to explain to them, here’s what fantasy sports is, here’s how it’s helpful to our company, here’s why fans love it, here’s a way that I think fantasy can integrate into what you do and help you accomplish whatever goals you have. So with the support of a bunch of people internally, we were able to get the company really excited about fantasy and start promoting it. We got SportsCenter anchors to play in leagues and start talking about their teams over highlights and radio shows.
How did the rise of daily fantasy sports and sports betting change fantasy in the last 10 years?
I get a lot of questions like, “Are you worried about fantasy football now that sports gambling is legal?” That presupposes that literally no one’s been gambling on sports until now, which is just silly.
Fantasy football is still popular and continues to grow. I think that there are different value propositions for all three formats but they share this one similar value proposition: Whether you play all season-long fantasy football or you gamble on sports or play DFS, it gives you a rooting interest in the game that you otherwise might not care about.
That’s a great point. Do you feel like fantasy has changed the way people watch sports?
It certainly has added to the way that people consume sports. Some people just say, “You know, I grew up a Steelers fan. My dad’s a huge fan, my grandfather’s a Steelers fan. I was a Steelers’ fan.” They’re just hardcore fans of a team. There are other people that really enjoy the social aspect of it. My wife is not a huge fan of any one particular team, but she loves going to football games and tailgating. She understands the sport and enjoys watching it for what it is; she’ll pick a team to root for. But is she on the message boards of a team talking about who they should pick in the first round? No. And then there are people that watch it because they have a player in the game on their fantasy team. So I just think there’s a lot of different ways that people consume and enjoy sports.
How many season-long leagues do you play in now?
I’ll probably be in about 15 leagues this year. And then there’s 10 or so that I’m not technically in the league, but I help with for celebrities and VIPs and stuff. So I kind of keep track of their league for when they ask me for advice.
Okay, time to name-drop.
Seth Meyers plays in a 12-team standard scoring league where there’s a limit on the number of positions you have. They can only have four running backs on the team at any time. Chris Pratt is in a 12-team three-wide receiver, half-point-per-reception league. And Jay-Z is in a 12-team, three-wide receiver half-point-per-reception league with no flex spot. The CEO of one of the largest companies in the world is in a 14-team two-quarterback league and we email about advice.
I just drafted last night in a 10-team point-per-reception league with one quarterback and two flex spots. Will you rate my fantasy team?
Quarterback Justin Herbert, wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Mike Evans, running backs Derrick Henry and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (CEH) at running back. Mark Andrews is my tight end. Miles Sanders and Odell Beckham Jr. in my flex spots and Yunghoe Koo is my kicker. My bench has Leonard Fournette, Michael Gallup, Michael Carter, Michael Pittman, and Darnell Mooney.
Overall, I like the team. I think you potentially have running back depth issues. You’ve got two guys in Carter and Fournette who are in committees. You have two guys in Sanders and CEH who are coming off seasons in which they underperformed. And Henry is of course a beast. All you need is Sanders or CEH to hit and you’re golden. Your receivers are great. Herbert is solid. I have Andrews as a top five tight end. Your lineup has a bunch of upside, but not a lot of depth. Gallup and Pittman, and I love Darnell Mooney, but they’re all fliers. You don’t have a lot of proven production beyond your starting lineup, but because 10-team leagues are shallow, that’s something I would watch out for. You might need to get at least one guy who you can plug in and get some guaranteed production from. But overall I think it’s really good. I’d give it a B+.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story quoted Berry saying he was a Steelers fan. It has been updated to clarify that he was referring to Steelers fans in general, not himself. Berry is a fan of the Washington Football Team.