From ESPN To NBC, Berry Still Turning His “Fantasy” Into Reality

From ESPN To NBC, Berry Still Turning His “Fantasy” Into Reality

Growing up, Cheshire’s Matthew Berry found success on the courts as a tennis player. But now, it’s a different kind of sport for which Berry is best known, one that has turned “fantasy” into a reality for the veteran broadcaster.

Berry, who spent 15 years at ESPN and now works for NBC Sports, has become one of the most recognizable names in the world of fantasy football, and helped take the pastime from niche to mainstream.

For those unfamiliar, fantasy football allows individuals to “draft” NFL players onto virtual teams and keep track of their performances per week. Their accomplishments on the field — touchdowns, interceptions, etc. — equal fantasy football points, and the more points one garners, whether playing in a league against other teams or in a daily-wager capacity, the better they do.

“Fantasy football is an easy game to play. It is a harder game to master,” said Berry.

For those just starting out, he suggests joining a group of people with the same ability in terms of football knowledge.

“There are a lot of smart people who do fantasy analysis,” stated Berry.

Berry should know. His weekly analysis of who to play and who to sit has become vital to many who are setting their rosters for each week of competition. And what started as a small activity among rabid fans has ballooned into an industry that, according to Forbes, rakes in more than $15 billion per year.

Berry has been interested in fantasy sports since the age of 14, when he first read the book “Rotisserie League Baseball: The Greatest Game for Baseball Fans Since Baseball” by Glen Waggoner. The inventor of fantasy baseball, writer Daniel Okrent, also contributed to the book.

“They made it so much fun and talked about this league they created,” explained Berry.

One day, while attending a tennis lesson, Berry overheard his coach talking with a friend about Rotisserie League Baseball and Berry quickly shared his interest. The teen was given the chance to join.

“It (the league) was a bunch of 30-year-old guys and a 14-year-old,” recalled Berry.

“We were one of the first 50 leagues in America,” added Berry, who had a chance to meet Okrent years later through ESPN. “I had to drop out due to time commitments, but I ended up competing in that for 33 years.”

Yet, while Berry enjoyed the fantasy world, he didn’t envision it becoming his profession. In fact, Berry had other dreams for his future — west-coast-style dreams.

After graduating from Syracuse University in New York, Berry moved to Hollywood, California, and worked as a screenwriter for television and movies. He wrote for the popular sitcom “Married With Children,” a show that ran from 1987-97. Berry also worked on shows like “Ink,” and “Conrad Bloom” in the 1990s, while co-writing the feature film “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles” which came out in 2001.

For “Ink,” Berry had the chance to work with Diane English, who also produced the sitcom “Murphy Brown.” From his experiences in Hollywood, Berry learned how to craft a sentence, a joke, and a story, as well as fit the material into the time constraints of an episode.

“I learned how to write and express myself in a structured way,” explained Berry. “You need structure. It (the material) doesn’t work if you don’t have a beginning, middle, and end.”

While writing in Hollywood, Berry was drawn back to fantasy sports. He became intrigued by the content being produced by the website Rotoworld (now named NBC Sports Edge). He chose to reach out to them in 1999.

“I wrote that I’m a professional writer writing in Hollywood, but fantasy is my passion and I’d like to write a column on the side,” recalled Berry.

After providing a sample, he was hired as a columnist and spent four years at Rotoworld, where he developed a following. It prompted him to start his own fantasy website in 2004.

A year later, he found that he cared more about his website than working in Hollywood.

“I learned what makes me happy and what doesn’t,” reflected Berry. “I enjoyed the process of sitting in a room (with writers) and coming up with jokes and what we can do with the characters. I didn’t enjoy the business side of it.”

After dedicating himself to the role of fantasy football writer, Berry had a breakthrough in 2007. To promote his website, he appeared on places such as ESPN Radio and ESPN News. The company, known as the “Worldwide Leaders in Sports,” decided they needed an expert and offered him a job.

“They said, ‘We need to find our (NFL Draft Expert) Mel Kiper Jr. for fantasy football,’” said Berry.

ESPN offered to buy his website and bring Berry to Connecticut. Though there were no guarantees the venture would be a success, Berry believed that the opportunity was worth the risk.

In working to build fantasy football at ESPN, he described his early years as exciting and challenging.

“It was exciting because you are at the World Wide Leader in Sports,” said Berry. “It was challenging because in 2007, people thought fantasy football was nerdy and niche. I spent the first two years knocking on doors with my hat in my hand, saying this was an opportunity to engage our fans on a higher level.”

During his presentations, he would talk about how fantasy football fans are often younger and more affluent.

“The average football fan watches three hours a week and average fantasy football (player) watches six hours,” added Berry.

In 2010, he started on the show “Fantasy Football Now,” which aired on Sunday mornings on ESPN2, just a few hours before the kickoff of Sunday NFL games. Berry was pleased to see that the show garnered good ratings for the company.

“It validated that there is an audience for it,” said Berry, of fantasy sports. “You saw ESPN start to embrace it in a big way.”

Berry spent 15 years at ESPN, where fantasy sports became one of the driving forces for sports discussions. Yet, Berry admits that what he enjoyed most during his time was forming relationships.

“I made long-life friends and met my wife (Beth) there,” stated Berry.

In 2014, his book “Fantasy Live: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It” was published by Riverhead-Penguin Books and immediately made the New York Times Best Seller list. Berry counts it as one of his top-three proudest achievements.

“We pushed it to a bunch of publishers,” recalled Berry. “The book was the story of my life and funny stories from fantasy football. I was told that the majority of people that buy books are women and they didn’t believe that people would plunk down $30 for a book with no fantasy advice.”

Upon reflection, he is glad that his work has proved a lot of people wrong.

“To have it debut at number five and spend multiple months on the (New York Times) Best Seller list was a great feeling,” stated Berry.

When his ESPN contract came up last year, Berry chose to leave for the opportunity to sign with NBC Sports.

“NBC was aggressive in bringing me in,” recalled Berry. “They have lived up to everything and been so gracious to me and my family.”

Last fall, Berry joined the broadcast team for “Football Night in America,” the pre-game show for “NBC Sunday Night Football.” His first appearance was for the NFL Hall of Fame game held on Aug. 4 in Canton, Ohio.

Berry reunited with friends like Mike Tirico and Maria Taylor, who had previously worked with him at ESPN.

“It (the transition) was surprisingly easy,” recalled Berry. “I thought it would be harder.”

For Berry, one of the biggest factors in choosing NBC was the opportunity it afforded him to have an expanded role in NFL programming. On Jan. 21 at Arrowhead Stadium in Missouri, he was on the sidelines for the American Football Conference (AFC) divisional playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“It was important for me to be part of NFL coverage,” said Berry. “‘Football Night in America’ is the highest-rated show in television. The only thing higher is the Sunday Night Game.”

Berry feels that it was important for fantasy football to make an inroad at NBC.

“It should be a part of every pre-game show and not just one,” stated Berry. “We had our highest ratings since 2017. NBC added fantasy and sports betting to their show and the sky didn’t fall. I hope that other pre-game shows follow that.”

NBC Sports isn’t broadcasting this Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles, but Berry has traveled to Glendale, Arizona, for a show called “Fantasy Football Happy Hour.” This week, the program is running through Friday on Peacock.

“We’ll look back for the NFL season, fantasy football, football squares, and other things,” stated Berry, in anticipation for the show.

This is Berry’s first time broadcasting from the Super Bowl, but he has attended the game and multiple events before.

“It (the Super Bowl) is exciting,” said Berry. “It is a lot of glitz and glamour with athletes and celebrities. It is incredible who you see at these things. There is an energy to the city that is palpable.”

After the big game, he plans to spend more time with his wife and children. With one of his stepsons, Connor, being a senior quad-captain for the Cheshire High School boys’ lacrosse team, he will be attending all of the games in the spring.

Berry has co-founded fantasy football teams with his stepsons David, Connor, and Matt. Their father, Dave, is also part of the league.

“I have a good relationship with him and it has brought our two families closer together,” Berry said.

Berry will still be active during the football off-season. For the NFL, he will be working a live broadcast from the combine and the draft.

Berry will also be offering betting advice for the 2023 Kentucky Derby on NBC.


The Herald Buzz

Follow the Cheshire Herald on Facebook & Twitter