ESPN’s Matthew Berry set out to be the Martha Stewart of fantasy sports, and though he’s never been legally required to wear an ankle bracelet, he’s achieved his goal. Known as the Talented Mr. Roto to millions of fantasy players who read his blogs, listen to his podcasts, and watch him on ESPN, Berry is simply the most-ubiquitous and influential voice in a massive business that has changed the way fans consume and follow sports. In his new book Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports From the Guy Who’s Lived It, Berry intertwines his own personal story and ascension to the summit of sports geekdom with the mainstream proliferation of the fantasy sports that now permeate every corner of our entertainment culture. A former Hollywood screenwriter, Berry also mixes in tales from his days working on Married With Children and his not-so-smooth working relationship with Paul Hogan on Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. Below, he discusses the nexus of fantasy sports and celebrity.
“Call me Meat.”
It was 2006 and holding out his hand, in front of me, was the rock singer Meat Loaf. As we shook hands, I looked around the draft room in Las Vegas, taking it all in. Meat, you see, was there to draft a fantasy football team and I had just started working for ESPN as their Senior Fantasy Sports Analyst. Yes, really.
I was excited to… uh… meet Meat because he was the first celebrity I had heard of that played fantasy sports. And he was hardcore about it too, often ranking among the top players on all of ESPN.com. Fantasy was still considered nerdy back then, so having a celebrity, any celebrity, playing was awesome for those of us trying to change that perception.
Since that time, Meat Loaf has been joined by tons of other celebrities that play. I’ll never forget a call I got last year.
Guy on phone: Hey man, enjoy your stuff. We’re having a fantasy draft in New York in late August and we want you to come host it.
Me: Thanks, but I’m super busy in August and I don’t really do that sort of–
Guy on phone: It’s for Jay-Z’s league.
Me: What time do you want me there?
I couldn’t believe it. We can have different definitions of what is cool and what isn’t, but if Jay-Z is playing fantasy football, I assure you, it is most definitely NOT nerdy. It was a great night and not surprisingly to anyone that’s followed his career, it turned out that Jay is also a very shrewd and successful fantasy footballer.
In doing research for my book Fantasy Life, I came across tons of celebrities who not only play fantasy sports, but love it. Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers is a long time player, as are actors Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks. Michael J. Fox plays fantasy hockey. Ashton Kutcher is so into fantasy football that he once hosted an online fantasy sports advice show. Jesse Williams is a frequent guest on ESPN’s Fantasy Focus podcast, and in fact, Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter himself, once told my podcast audience that Anquan Boldin was his “Fantasy Voldemort.”
Rainn Wilson likes to poll his Twitter followers on who to start or sit for his fantasy team, Zooey Deschanel used Twitter to get advice when she decided to try fantasy baseball for the first time in 2011, and in what has to be a fantasy-sports first, Sen. Rick Santorum had to do his 2012 fantasy baseball season draft on the same day he dropped out of the Presidential race.
Many major league baseball players have a clubhouse fantasy football league with their teammates, including C.C. Sabathia, who would like you to know he’s the 2012 New York Yankees clubhouse champion. Lots of famous athletes enjoy fantasy football, from NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. to tennis’ Andy Roddick to even Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who plays fantasy football and gets mad when people won’t let him draft himself.
From legendary rock stars like Geddy Lee of Rush to Playboy Playmates like Kendra Wilkinson and Jaime Edmondson to politicians to movie stars like Jason Bateman and Demi Moore, the most surprising thing about celebs and fantasy sports isn’t who plays, but rather who doesn’t.
One of my favorite stories involves Sal Iacono, better known as “Cousin Sal” from Jimmy Kimmel Live!, who is a member of an 11-team (yes, 11) league with some other celebrities and one very specific rule. “Whoever wins the league gets to vote a team out the following season, Survivor-style. Then the owner who was voted out gets to return the following season replacing the newly ousted owner.”
The best (or worst) part of this rule? The champ doesn’t announce his decision until the draft the following season. So all 11 team owners have to prepare and show up to the draft in September. Sal remembers that in 2010 “Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame texted me that he was going to be 30 minutes late because the shoot that day was running long.”
Thirty minutes pass. More texts, more frantic calls. The shoot’s still going. Finally, after two hours, Jon arrives. “He was out of breath and very apologetic (clearly having made an effort to be there), and then… promptly voted out by the winning owner. In very cavalier Don Draper fashion, Hamm took a swig of beer, flipped the room the bird, and took off.”
Yep. A beer swigging, bird flipping, angry fantasy football owner. Who says celebrities are different from the rest of us?
Matthew Berry’s book, Fantasy Life is available in stores today.