At first glance, America’s growing interest in fantasy sports might just seem like an expansion of what it means to be a fan. If cheering for your favorite team and watching your favorite highlight programs isn't enough to sate your fandom, you can join any one of millions of online fantasy leagues, where you can draft your favorite players from across the league and make their triumphs (and failures) count for you.
But according to fantasy-guru Matthew Berry’s new book "Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who's Lived It," it’s not just “geeks in black shirts in their mom’s basement” playing in fantasy sports leagues anymore — it’s 13 percent of the American population and growing. To what does he attribute this increasing fascination?
“Ultimately it’s about fun and friendship,” says the ESPN senior fantasy sports analyst (he would know — the 43-year-old is still playing in the same league he joined as a teenager). Moreover, he says it's something that has to be experienced to be truly understood.
“It’s like going to your first Bruce Springsteen concert. You can be a Springsteen fan and love his albums, but it’s not until you’ve seem him up on stage, absolutely pouring his heart out for four hours that you can truly understand how awesome he is.” That’s pretty high praise for online fantasy sports, but Berry’s book makes a compelling case for the new American pastime’s most dedicated believers.
“The craziest story I know is about this one soldier who was in Afghanistan on his fantasy draft day,” says Berry. “There was only one place outside where he could get a connection, and a bomb went off 60 yards from where he was standing.” Luckily, the soldier was unharmed, but the story highlights how a true fantasy obsessive will never miss their draft day — even by peril of death.
With obsession also comes dedication. Berry knows of a tattoo league, where the losers have to get a humiliating tattoo of his league’s choice? Even Berry can’t abide that one. (“Imagine a Justin Beiber tattoo on a grown-man,” he muses, with a shiver.)
For most of us, the stakes will never as high as death or Bieber, but Berry promises that there's plenty of fun to be had, even for the most casual fans among us.
Berry says that ESPN is always trying to figure out ways to grow the fantasy industry, from including fantasy segments in “real” sports programs to making sure that web and mobile applications are easy to use, and appeal to everyone from grandmothers and rabbis to college girls and even pro athletes themselves. And it’s not just sports like football that define the world of fantasy.
“You can play fantasy anything,” says Berry. “There are fantasy movie leagues where people win points depending on how successful the movies are. In Japan, fantasy sumo is huge. Any place where people can complete, there is an opportunity for fantasy.”
So, what’s next? Fantasy lay-offs? Fantasy obituaries? Only time will tell.
Matthew Berry will stop in Boston to discuss his book on Friday, Nov. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre :: 40 Brattle St., Cambridge :: $5 :: brattlefilm.org.