It’s the fourth most popular sport in the United States and more than 30 million people play it in the United States and Canada. Around 13 percent of Americans played it in 2012. There are hundreds of variations across multiple sports, but football is by far the most popular.
And it’s pure fantasy.
Matthew Berry is the senior fantasy sports analyst for ESPN (yes, that’s a real job), and he wrote a book delving into fantasy sports game that’s captivated millions. The book, Fantasy Life, looks at stories around the country of different people from all walks of life playing fantasy sports.
For those who are still lost, here’s a basic rundown of how fantasy sports work:
1) You draft a team of real-life athletes in a particular sport for your “team.”
2) Your “team” plays against other “teams” from your league each week.
3) The points your “team” receives for that week depends on how well the real-life athletes on your “team” fair in their real-life games.
It may seem as though there is a perception that only nerds and dorks play these fantastical sporting games, but Berry thinks that idea has faded as the game rises. From CEOs to kids to grandmothers to prison inmates, Berry tellsMorning Editionhost David Greene that everyone and anyone plays because it’s fun and because America likes to root for things.
“And there’s nothing better,” he says, “than rooting for your own fantasy team.”
Even senators play fantasy sports. One of the stories from Berry’s book is about former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Moments after Santorum announced his removal from the race, he drafted players for his fantasy baseball team over the phone on the ride home. But just like in the Republican candidacy race, Santorum only finished in second.
“It never occurred to me that I would have something in common with Sen. Santorum,” Berry says. “And I had a great conversation with him all about fantasy baseball. It’s amazing how fantasy sports can bring the most people together and sort of give them a common bond.”
Stories Of Obsession And Heartbreak
Sometimes, people find it difficult to prioritize between fantasy sports and real life. Berry recounts the story of one man who, on the way to the hospital with his pregnant wife, stopped by a friend’s house to make his draft pick. His wife was having contractions in the car.
“He delayed the birth of his child,” Berry says, “for fantasy.”
Another story is marked as a day of infamy in fantasy football. On Dec. 16, 2007, the Philadelphia Eagles led the Dallas Cowboys 10-6 with a little more than two minutes left in the game and were driving down the field. Brian Westbrook, the Eagles’ running back, had a chance to score a touchdown, but instead elected to stop himself at the one-yard line and get tackled instead of scoring what would have been an easy touchdown.
While a strategical football play (it allowed the Eagles to run out the clock and end the game without giving the Cowboys another chance to score and win the game), Berry describes the play as “the most famous play in fantasy football history,” because thousands of fantasy players who owned Westbrook lost because he didn’t score.
“I heard from thousands of owners that they were down by five points and as he ran in the end zone, they’re like ‘I’m gonna win! He’s gonna run in, I’m gonna get six points, I’m gonna win,’ ” Berry says. “And then he falls at the one. UGH! Heartbreak! It affected tens of thousands of leagues that had Brian Westbrook and lost by 5 or less points.”
Berry met Westbrook years later and asked about the play.
“He [Westbrook] said, ‘Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t bring that play up and mention fantasy football.’ “
An Untraditional Way To Watch Sports
Some people like watching a game simply to see which team wins and loses. Some just like the social aspect, the tailgating and bonding with friends and family. Some don’t want to worry about which player scores a touchdown or which player catches the ball. For some, the appeal of rooting for individual players rather than teams is not attractive. But, Berry says that’s the best part about sports.
“There’s a lot of different ways to enjoy sports,” he says. “So there’s lots of different ways and reasons that people enjoy sports and experience sports. But one of them in a big way is obviously fantasy.”
At ESPN, Berry plays in the “War Room League” with other NFL analysts. There are Super Bowl-winning coaches such as Mike Ditka and Hall of Fame players like Cris Carter who play in this league.
And then there’s Matthew Berry.
Berry remembers trying to trade one of his wide receivers to another analyst, but the analyst rejected the trade. Berry later found out the analyst sent a text message to the receiver’s real-life quarterback, who didn’t like the receiver. Nevertheless, Berry ended up coming in first place that year.
“That was a big moment for me because all these guys here are super smart about football,” he says. “And I’m the dorky little fantasy guy.”