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Fantasy football, fantasy baseball, fantasy basketball, even fantasy sumo wrestling: the world of fantasy sports is huge, and still growing. Today, more than 35 million people in the United States and Canada spend hours upon hours each week on their fantasy sports teams. And as the Senior Fantasy Sports Analyst for ESPN, Matthew Berry is on the front lines of what has grown from a niche subculture into a national pastime.
In his New York Times-bestselling Fantasy Life, Berry celebrates every aspect of the fantasy sports world. Brilliant trash talk. Unbelievable trophies. Insane draft day locations. Shake-your-head-in-disbelief punishments. Ingenious attempts at cheating. And surprisingly uplifting stories that remind us why we play these games in the first place.
Written with the same award-winning style that has made Berry one of the most popular columnists on ESPN.com, Fantasy Life is a book for both hard-core fantasy players and people who have never played before. Between tales of love and hate, birth and death, tattoos and furry animal costumes, the White House Situation Room and a 126-pound golden pelican, Matthew chronicles his journey from a fourteen-year-old fantasy player to the face of fantasy sports for the largest sports media company in the world.
Fantasy will save your life. Fantasy will set you free. And fantasy life is most definitely better than real life. You’ll see.
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Universally regarded as one of the leading voices on fantasy sports, Matthew Berry is ESPN’s Senior Fantasy Sports Analyst. Known as the “Talented Mr. Roto,” he’s an Emmy winner for his work on ESPN2’s Fantasy Football Now. As one of the most popular columnists and podcasters on ESPN.com, he appears regularly on ESPN television and radio shows, including Sunday NFL Countdown, SportsCenter, and NFL Live. He is one of only four people to be in the Hall of Fame of both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It Starts with a League
Everyone Remembers Their First Time
They were in a hot tub, and they were drunk.
Good friends from college, they played in a 10-team fantasy football league together. And as the drinks kept flowing, so did the trash talk.
“Everyone in the league was a college athlete, so egos are pretty big,” Quin Kilgore remembers. “No one could even consider the thought of losing.”
Trash talk leads to bets, and bets lead to rules, and by the end of the evening the group had come to a very simple, but very real, agreement.
Last place in the league . . . has to get a tattoo.
Not some lame-ass henna tattoo that fades in a few weeks. No, we’re talking a legit, full-on, chosen by the winner, for-the-rest-of-your-life tattoo. Nights that start drunk in a hot tub often end in regret, but “sobering up the next morning, we stuck with it,” Quin tells me. “One of the guys in the league, Spud Mann, was in law school at the time and drew up a contract dictating size, placement, and tone of the tattoo.”
The basic parameters: embarrassing tattoos are allowed, racist ones are not, and no going all Mike Tyson and putting it on the face. “Just before the draft that year, we all signed it. And of course, the first year the loser was the guy who drew up the contract . . . Spud Mann.”
Basically, the way the Tattoo League works is, in weeks 15 and 16, the top four play for the right to choose the tattoo and the bottom four are playing to avoid the tattoo. In year two, the loser was a guy named “Ron.”
And in year three Adam Palmer got the, uh, honors.
Now, sometime between two-time league winner Dusty Carter explaining to a tattoo artist exactly what a “Tebowing Care Bear” should look like and then a year later trying to find the best picture of Justin Bieber to copy, JJ Dunn was in Spokane, Washington, working on one of his 10 fantasy football teams.
“I had stayed up an hour longer than I was planning to adjust my roster, and because of that I was able to hear a very quiet sound coming from my son’s room in the basement.”
JJ decided to check out the sound before he went to bed. “I found my 13-year-old boy without a pulse. I started CPR and yelled for my wife to wake up and call 911. Paramedics got there quickly, and after a lot of effort, Jake’s heart started pumping on its own. Jake has since been declared all but a miracle kid, suffering no brain damage. If it wasn’t for fantasy football, I never would have been up at that hour and heard that. It may seem like hyperbole, but fantasy football helped save my son’s life.”
Getting the word LOSER permanently inked on your body and being the reason your child is still alive are polar opposite stories, but in the world of fantasy sports I got news for you: neither one surprises me. When you’re done with this book, you’ll realize the same thing I did:
From birth to funerals and everything in between, there is no aspect of life that fantasy doesn’t touch.
Most important, it touches people. I’ve said this a million times in interviews over the years. Long before Twitter, Facebook, or even MySpace and Friendster, fantasy football was the original online community. And now there are millions of people with the same shared experiences.
From friends from high school, college, or work, to couples, families, and even people you’ve only “met” online . . . I know of leagues from every walk of life. Heikki Larsen and the “Margarillas” play while on tour with Jimmy Buffett. Many major league baseball players have a clubhouse fantasy football league with their teammates, including CC Sabathia, who would like you to know he’s the 2012 New York Yankees clubhouse champion. There are leagues with prison inmates and leagues done on Army bases overseas. Dr. Melanie Friedlander plays in a league of all orthopedic surgeons. All 10 owners in Don Carlson’s league are from Fire Station 1 in the Los Angeles Fire Department. And Miss January 2010, Jaime Edmondson, plays in a league with fellowPlayboy playmates.
I’ve heard of leagues in the White House and US Senate; leagues with all female lawyers, with Hollywood agents, and high stakes ones comprised of Vegas casino owners. David Bailey runs a 12-person league with six real-life couples. The trash talk gets pretty intense in that one. The cast of the Broadway playRock of Ages has a league, as does Petty Officer 2nd Class Dick Shayne Fossett and the squadron aboard the USS George H. W. Bush. Jay-Z plays in a high-stakes league with music producers, record execs, and the people who run the 40/40 club. In fact, many celebrities play. Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers is a longtime player, as are actors Paul Rudd, Jason Bateman, Ashton Kutcher, and Elizabeth Banks. Daniel Radcliffe, “Harry Potter” himself, once told my podcast audience that Anquan Boldin was his “Fantasy Voldemort.” Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the pit-crew guys at Hendrick Motorsports have a league, and there are tons of high-stakes Wall Street leagues. Priests, Rabbis, and Ministers sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s actually three different fantasy leagues I know of.
The best part of fantasy is that it gives people who normally would not have a reason to interact an excuse to talk. From the CEO and mailroom guys to long-lost cousins to everyone in between, they all have one thing in common:
Fantasy brings them together. And it keeps them together too. That feeling of belonging is certainly what drew me to the game.
From the time I was born in Denver to when we moved to Richmond, then Atlanta, then Charlottesville, Virginia, and finally to College Station, Texas, I had moved around a lot as a child by the age of 12. My big frizzy hair didn’t help, nor did always being the new kid. Add thick glasses (I’m nearly blind without contacts), plus a general sense of being socially awkward, and the prom king I wasn’t.
Now, College Station is known for lots of things: Texas A&M University, where my father is a professor, is the big one. The George Bush Presidential Library, its sister city of Bryan, Texas, and the fact that singer Lyle Lovett got his start there all make the Wikipedia page.
But among the things College Station is not known for?
Only a few handfuls of them live there, so that was yet another thing that made me feel different when I arrived. For as long as I live, I’ll never forget one of my first days in Texas. I was sitting at lunch with some classmates, including a girl I had just met. It was during Passover week, and I mentioned that the odd bread I was eating was called “matzoh” and that I was Jewish:
HER: What what?
ME: You’re staring at me.
HER (genuine curiosity): I’m trying to see your horns.
HER: My dad said all Jewish people have them.
Half the table nodded. True story. Welcome to Texas, Berry.
So as a bit of an outcast, perhaps it was only natural that I would be drawn to a brand-new, niche game like fantasy baseball and that I was so willing to try something, anything . . . as long as it included me.
It was early spring in 1985, and I was actually a high school tennis player. Yes, that’s right. In football-loving Texas, I played tennis, a sport you play without teammates. Looking back, it’s amazing I had any friends at all.
I took tennis seriously. Won some tournaments, ranked as a USTA junior in the state of Texas, went to the state finals in high school, etc. This is only important to our tale for this lone fact:
As a result of being good at tennis, I took private tennis lessons. And that’s only important because of the guy I took them from, the local tennis club pro, a man named Tommy V. Connell. Or as I prefer to call him, owner and general manager of the always plucky TV Sets.
I was walking up to see him for my lesson one day, and he was talking to his best friend, a guy I would later come to know as Beloved Commissioner for Life Don Smith, owner of the Smith Ereens. They were talking in a strange language that felt newly familiar, and going through names of guys they could ask “to join.” What they were discussing would set my life on a course I’d never imagined.
“Are you guys talking about Rotisserie League Baseball?”
They were just as shocked that I knew what they were talking about as I was that anyone besides me read Rotisserie League Baseball, a weird little green book that had just been released detailing the rules, spirit, and advice about how to play “The Greatest Game for Baseball Fans Since Baseball.”
Don, Tommy, and their friends were forming a league, and they needed a 10th guy who had both heard of this weird thing and was willing to try it. It was to be a National League–only fantasy baseball league. They would have to do stats by hand because in 1985 there was no Internet, no one had cell phones, and people still bought magazines for their porn.
I was 14 years old.
The other guys in the league were in their twenties and thirties, and I was a freshman in high school. But we’ve all been in leagues where you just need one more guy—any guy—to play, and that first year the Fat Dog Rotisserie League was no exception.
I joined because it seemed like a helluva lot of fun.
Almost 30 years later, I can confirm it is, in fact, ONE HELL. OF A LOT. OF FUN.
Fifteen years after my initial fantasy auction (blurrily pictured here), I would get my first job writing about fantasy sports. Four and a half years after that, I would start TalentedMrRoto.com, and in 2006, just a scant 22 years after this picture was taken, I sold the site and came to ESPN as its senior director of fantasy sports.
Along the way, a bunch of things happened. There were wars and presidents, and apparently some big wall overseas fell at some point, but probably most important, fantasy sports became not just mainstream but a way of life.
Fantasy sports are popular for lots of reasons. The competition with your friends, family, and even strangers. The rooting interest it gives us in sporting events we would normally never care about or the athletes we never dreamed of cheering for. The ease of it, thanks to the Internet and other technology.
But more than anything, it’s fun.
For many people—and I’m in this group—it’s all about your league. The guys and gals who are your league-mates. The good times, the bad times, the highs and the lows, it all comes back to someone’s league. A bad league ruins the experience for so many, which is why I was so lucky that the Fat Dogs, my original league, is such a great one.
It’s where I learned not only how to play but how to play the right way, to enjoy the game with a good group of guys who want to win, sure, but who mainly just want to laugh and have fun.
We draft on the same days every year. (Traditions are crucial for any good league.) The Friday after opening day we do the Lone Star American League auction (started the year after the Fat Dogs). Then on Saturday we do the National League. We sit in order of last year’s standings, with the champion at the head of the table, second place sitting to his right, third next to second, and so forth.
Twelfth place gets to throw the first guy out for auction, and the pizza is delivered promptly at 12:30. Even though I live in Connecticut now, I fly back to College Station every year. That’s right—the league still exists.
In fact, get this: 6 of the original 10 guys from 1985 are, many, many years later, still in the Fat Dog League. And two others have been in it for 20-plus years. For all the amazing advances the Internet has made to help the growth, popularity, and ease of fantasy sports, I see one major downside. That folks no longer have to be in the same room to draft. It’s just not the same.
Especially when you get to draft with people you’ve known for more than a quarter-century. Because when you do something embarrassing at the draft—and we all have over the years—it gets remembered. Forever. And the amount of trash talk is both hilarious and awe-inspiring.
To this day, fellow Fat Dogger Woody Thompson, owner of the Thompson Twins, is reminded of the year he tried to draft promising youngster Ryan Howard to his minor league team, only to be told Howard was already owned. By him.
When we started, we didn’t draft with personal computers because they didn’t exist. Standings came once a week . . . by mail.
As for transactions, well, let Beloved Former Commissioner for Life Don Smith tell you.
“Originally, if someone wanted a player, they just called the commissioner. First to get to me, first served. Anyway, one Monday during that first year I was sitting in my office, and I heard a commotion. My brother Terry, owner of Smitty’s Grills, was running down the hall with his five-year-old daughter in tow. ‘C’mon, Heather, hurry, we’ve got to see Uncle Don! Hurry!’ There were no cell phones, of course; it was about 8:30 AM, and he was taking her to school, but he’d heard on the radio that San Diego had a new starting outfielder. He was huffing and puffing, dragging his kid into my office. ‘I claim Carmelo Martinez!’ he wheezed as his confused daughter looked at her out-of-breath father. The Grills got their outfielder but Heather didn’t make it to school on time. And we enjoyed the craziness of that moment for the next 26 years.”
Yeah, we did, Don, and it was with great sadness to all the Fat Dogs when Terry passed away in March of 2011. I’ll never forget Terry dragging his young daughter down the hall.
You know, since that first year, I’ve lost my glasses and a good chunk of the hair, I’ve gained experience, perspective, and weight, but most important, I have played in hundreds of fantasy leagues covering all kinds of sports and entertainment. I’m pretty sure I even played fantasy hockey once. What can I say? I was young and experimental.
But the best league I’ve ever played in is still the first one. As a league, we’ve been through marriages and births, heart attacks and deaths, and a three-week email war over who owned Manny Ramirez. They are great guys, they are pains in the ass, and I wouldn’t trade my sense of community with them for the world. Recently, in a public study, ESPN found that the average sports fan spends more than six hours a week with ESPN on one of our many platforms—TV, radio, dot-com, the magazine, our mobile apps, etc.
But the average fantasy player?
He or she spends over 18 hours a week with ESPN. Almost a full day a week!
Oh yeah, people are into it. But while stats like that are impressive and speak to the broad appeal of fantasy, the truth is it’s all about the people. It’s not the draft, it’s not the trash talk or the punishments, it’s not even the winning (okay, maybe it’s a little bit the winning). It’s the people. It’s the people who make the draft and the trash talk and the punishments and the winning what it is.
Consider the story of Kevin Hanzlik from Northfield, Minnesota. His team, Hanzie’s Heroes, lost in the finals of his 2011 10-team fantasy football league. It happens. The fact that he lost to his 87-year-old mother, Pat Hanzlik? Not as common. Grandma Pat, as she is known, rode Cam Newton’s rookie year ...
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