SBJ/November 12 - 18, 2007/SBJ In Depth

How Mr. Roto came to live a life of fantasy

Matthew Berry was living in Los Angeles, working as a card-carrying Hollywood screenwriter and operating a small, fantasy sports Web site on the side, when he realized that his avocation was creeping steadily toward vocation.

“When I was waking up in the morning and going to bed at night, all I was thinking about was my little site,” said Berry, a chronic fantasy player whose film credits include a widely panned “Crocodile Dundee” sequel and a stuck-in-limbo project for The Rock. “The screenwriting was something I had to do to pay the bills. And it was getting in the way of my Web site, dang it. I came to that realization one day and I was just like, wow.

“That was the moment when I decided, you know, I’m going for it.”

That he had even come to that point wasn’t something that Berry could have predicted. Projecting that it would lead him to where he is, at the helm of all things fantasy for ESPN, would have been akin to pegging Derek Anderson as a top-flight fantasy quarterback heading into this year’s fantasy drafts.

Berry got started down this path in 1999, when the fantasy site he visited most often, rotoworld.com, posted a note looking for writers. Berry, who was working as a story editor on “Married with Children,” sent an e-mail saying he was a comedy writer who’d love to pen a column for kicks.

They hired Berry at the princely rate of $100 a week. His first task was to come up with a name for the column. Smitten by Matt Damon’s portrayal of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Berry’s then wife suggested the Talented Mr. Roto. He thought it fit nicely.

Matthew Berry followed his passion for
fantasy sports all the way to ESPN.

Berry was still writing scripts for a living and fantasy columns on the side four years later when Rotoworld told him it was cutting his pay from $100 a week to $25 a week. His column was popular, but the site was bleeding money and needed to turn its finances around.

Berry refused and Rotoworld fired him. He didn’t want to stop writing, so he set off on his own, launching TalentedMrRoto.com.

“That changed my life,” Berry said. “I started it as a lark, like a side thing. Maybe I’ll make a little extra money on the side and have a creative outlet where I can do what I want.”

The outlet would prove to be an inroad.

Early in 2005, Berry told writing partner Eric Abrams that he wanted to segue from comedy scripts into fantasy sports. He suggested they sign on for one more job. Then, he’d take off his joy buzzer and move on. Abrams, a college buddy who had collaborated with Berry ever since, agreed.

Giving up his day job allowed Berry more time not only to work on the site, but to promote it. He did more radio and TV, making inroads at ESPN with appearances on “Cold Pizza” and ESPNews. ESPN The Magazine tossed him some work. His site also provided all fantasy content for the NBA for two years, and he appeared regularly on NBATV.

All the work on ESPN led his agents at Creative Artists Agency to wonder whether there could be a more formal arrangement. They landed a meeting for Berry with John Kosner, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN digital media.

“When I first met Matthew, he was a ball of fire,” Kosner said. “I was mesmerized by his passion for fantasy.”

Kosner wanted to hear more. He suggested Berry commit his ideas to paper. When they next met, Berry showed up with a binder that Kosner likened to a Bill Walsh playbook and Berry referred to as his “Jerry Maguire Manifesto.”

Kosner liked his ideas enough to offer him the keys to the fantasy kingdom. ESPN would buy his site, make his the face of fantasy sports across all its platforms, and give him a role as an executive overseeing its fantasy games.

“He came in with a plan,” Kosner said. “Some of that was moving more fantasy content out from behind the pay wall. But more broadly, it was about his making fantasy mainstream.

“There are some people who never thought we’d have fantasy on ‘SportsCenter,’ ‘NFL Countdown’ and so forth. But he was absolutely tireless making the point about how important fantasy is to so many of our fans.”

Berry would not disclose the terms of his deal with ESPN, but estimated that his salary and the purchase price, spread out over time, leave him ahead of where he was as a screenwriter.

“But I’m so much happier doing what I do now than I was in Hollywood that it’s apples and oranges,” Berry said. “Don’t tell Kosner that. I like my salary. But I’d do it for free.”

Every movie gets a tag line, something catchy to run across the top of the poster, and then on the DVD cover. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” had this: “How far would you go to become someone else?”

Berry spends his Sundays watching football at the ESPN studios with Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Chris Mortensen and Bill Parcells.

Each Sunday morning, during the “NFL Countdown” pregame show, Berman turns it over to Berry, who advises fantasy players on whom to start or sit.

“My dad still says to me, ‘Every Sunday, it blows my mind,’” Berry said. “‘What’s Boomer doing talking to my kid?’

“It’s bizarre. … I mean, it’s like, nuts.”

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