An Unreal Sport: Mixing 'Fantasy Life' With Reality ESPN's Senior Fantasy Sports Analyst Matthew Berry's new book Fantasy Life is a look into the world of fantasy sports, which draw in tens of millions of players and ranks as the fourth most popular sport in the nation.
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An Unreal Sport: Mixing 'Fantasy Life' With Reality

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An Unreal Sport: Mixing 'Fantasy Life' With Reality

An Unreal Sport: Mixing 'Fantasy Life' With Reality

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We're going to hear now about one of the most popular sports in the country. It's one in which players need never touch a bat or a ball, or set foot on a field or a court. Sounds kind of like a riddle, doesn't it, Renee?


Well, actually, it sounds a bit like a fantasy to me.

GREENE: Fantasy is right. This is fantasy sports, where you are the owner of a virtual team made up of real-life athletes.

MONTAGNE: So, OK. For fantasy football - which I never played, but I'm certainly game to try right now - pick maybe, I could pick a quarterback from the New England Patriots, let's say.

GREENE: You could, but if you did that, I would take my running back from Pittsburgh.

MONTAGNE: Nice try, Steelers fan.

GREENE: That's right. Yeah, the fun of fantasy sports is tracking the stats of players you choose based on their performance in real games, and you hope your combination of players fares the best against other fantasy team owners. People usually play in leagues of maybe 10 or 12 people, and you can play in all sorts of sports, even baseball and golf. And we wanted to learn more. Matthew Berry is the senior fantasy sports analyst at ESPN, and he just wrote a book called "Fantasy Life." And I was surprised to learn how many people play fantasy sports.

MATTHEW BERRY: Recent studies suggest over 30 million people in the United States and Canada play some form of fantasy sports. Thirteen percent of all Americans played fantasy sports in 2012, and football is by far the most popular.

GREENE: Dare I say there is a perception among some that nerds and dorks are the ones who are playing fantasy sports?

BERRY: There used to be. Certainly, that was one of the big perceptions. And I'm not going to lie: not everyone who plays fantasy sports is the coolest guy ever, OK? I mean, listen, I'm a...

GREENE: Let's get that out of the way.

BERRY: Yeah. I'm a geek. Having said that, it has now become so mainstream and so widespread, I actually think the dorks are the people that don't play, because it's all walks of life, you know, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, kids, grandmothers, Playboy playmates, prison inmates, you know, men overseas fighting for our country.

GREENE: That's quite a list.

BERRY: Like, it's everyone and anyone. And the reason people play it is because it's fun. We are a country that likes the root. And there's nothing better than rooting for your own fantasy team.

GREENE: Yeah. I raised my eyebrow when you wrote about Rick Santorum, the Republican presidential candidate, working his fantasy sources the day he dropped out of the presidential race.

BERRY: So, Senator Santorum, he is a hardcore, long-time fantasy baseball player. He does an American League-only league, so that he doesn't have to pick against the Pirates or...

GREENE: The two National League teams in Pennsylvania, Pirates and Phillies. So he only does American League.

BERRY: Yeah, right. He didn't know what it was. He joined it because he thought it would be good for office camaraderie, and then he got super into it. So, the day he dropped out of the presidential race was the same day as his draft. So, he had the press conference, he announced he was removing himself from the race, and then in the car...

GREENE: An emotional moment for him.

BERRY: Right. And now he's got to draft a fantasy baseball team. And he did it on the drive home. Like, he's being driven and he's doing it on the phone, which is not an easy way to draft to begin with. To his credit, though, he ended up finishing second that year. It's weird, David: It would never occur to me that I would have something in common with Senator Santorum, and I had a great conversation with him all about fantasy baseball. It's amazing how fantasy sports can bring the most disparate people together and give them sort of a common bond.

GREENE: But also complicate things like marriages. There were some stories about guys who were trying to do their draft, even when their wife was giving birth.

BERRY: There's a lot of stories that I found that were stories of obsession. One guy - his wife is being induced. So the plan is that he's going to do the draft, and then he's going to pick up his wife. They're going to drive to the hospital, and he's going to finish the draft on the phone while he's driving his wife.

GREENE: And had this whole plan worked out.

BERRY: So, he goes, he picks up his wife. Phone rings and, like, dude, you're up. And he's just, like, I thought we were going to wait until I get to the hospital. You know, like, I'm not even past you guys' house yet. And at this point, she's started her contractions. And they're, like, well, just come by and make a pick. Come on, you're holding the draft up. And he's just, like, well, it is on the way. Honey? I can make a pick. Honey? So while his pregnant wife is sitting in the car, he stops there, he makes his pick, and then gets back in the car, drives to the hospital. Now, she was being induced. The contractions were still far apart. But understand this: He delayed the birth of his child for fantasy.

GREENE: Matthew Berry is talking to us about his new book "Fantasy Life." And, Matthew, you have a lot of these dramatic, game-changing plays in the book that caused people playing fantasy a lot of heartbreak. And one that stood out to me: 2007 - the Philadelphia Eagles playing against the Dallas Cowboys. Remind me what happened.

BERRY: It's the Brian Westbrook play, and it's the most famous play in fantasy football history. The Eagles are leading with just about two or so minutes to go. And Brian Westbrook breaks free, and he's heading to the end zone, and he can easily score. But he does the unthinkable. At the one-yard line, he downs himself. He basically falls to the ground and allows himself to be tackled. And the reason...


BERRY: Well, because they didn't want to give the ball back to Dallas. If they had scored, the Cowboys would have had the ball back, and they could have potentially come back and won. But by hanging on there - and they were only up by three points at the time - the Eagles were able to run out the clock and get the victory.

The problem is, is that for people that owned Brian Westbrook in fantasy, that drove you crazy. I heard from thousands of owners that they were down by five points, and as he ran to the end zone, they're, like, I'm going to win. He's going to run in. I'm going to get six points. I'm going to win, and then he falls at the one. Heartbreak. It affected tens of thousands of leagues that had Brian Westbrook, and they lost by five or less points, that had he just walked into the end zone like anyone would have, they would have won their game. It's interesting. Years later, I met Brian Westbrook, and I asked him about that play, and he just laughed. He says not a day goes by that someone doesn't bring that play up and mention fantasy football.

GREENE: You know, I have to say, this is one reason that I haven't become addicted to fantasy sports. If I'm watching a game like that, I'm watching to see who wins, who loses. I don't want to worry about what one individual player's doing versus the other. I don't want to worry about, you know, which receiver's going to catch the touchdown pass. I mean, are there some people who just would rather look at sports in the more traditional way?

BERRY: Of course there are. The great thing about sports is that there's a lot of different ways to enjoy sports. Some people enjoy it for the reasons that you just said. Some people enjoy the social aspect, and they like going to the game and tailgating and hanging out with their friends. And some people like it because it bonds them with their family. So there's lot of different ways and reasons that people enjoy sports and experience sports. But one of them, in a big way, is obviously fantasy.

GREENE: And a lot of the book is not about millions of other people, but it's about you, your life, your career. And I wonder, what's the, I don't know, single-best play or moment in your fantasy life?

BERRY: It's been amazing. We have a league here that we call the War Room League. And it's with all of the ESPN NFL analysts. So all these people that are, you know, former players, Super Bowl winners and me. And I remember one time I was talking to one of the guys in the league, I was trying to trade him a wide receiver. And he said no. I said, why don't you like him? He says, well, I texted his quarterback. His quarterback doesn't like him. You know, that doesn't happen in most leagues, where one of the guys literally text the real-life NFL quarterback and say, like, what do you think of this wide receiver?

And last year, I won that league, and so that was a big moment for me. Because all these guys here that are super-smart about football, and, you know, I'm the dorky little fantasy guy and they're so - they're Super Bowl winners. They're all former NFL players, or in-deep insiders, and they all think they know fantasy, too. So, that was cool for more to win that game last year - win the league, I should say.

GREENE: Matthew Berry. His new book is called "Fantasy Life." And Matthew, thanks so much for coming on.

BERRY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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