In 1998, just a year out of college, I took an entry-level job at The Sporting News. I had the night shift; my job was to log all the Associated Press recaps and box scores into the website after the night games were over and slap on headlines, like “Schrempf, Baker Lead Sonics to Romp Over Kings.” It was a terrific year to be an entry-level journalist because all the new (read: cheap) jobs were Web jobs, and if you knew how to update the website, you had more secret power than anyone else at your publication.
Because the Web was such new ground, we all sort of created our own beats. One guy took NASCAR. One woman took hockey. (I would end up writing a nightly baseball column; it took my bosses two weeks to figure out they were publishing it.) But my friend Matt was smarter than all of us: He chose fantasy football. Matt was around my age, had been working for the website for two years and figured, “Well, no one here is writing about fantasy football, and I like fantasy football. So, why not?”
That was the extent of his credentials. He played fantasy football, he read a lot about football, he was able to write with conviction and certainty (which is hard, actually). I knew that was the extent of his credentials: I commonly beat him in our own leagues, and I’m terrible at fantasy football. Yet I still trusted him explicitly on the subject. It was his cheat sheet I took with me to drafts, and I’d always ask his advice when I competed in leagues that he wasn’t in.
And it wasn’t just me. Ten years later, because he made the right choice in the late ’90s, he had made a career out of fantasy football. My friend Matt had become Matt Pitzer, fantasy football writer for USA TODAY Sports Weekly. Pitzer left the business a few years ago, so even though he’s the same person he always was, I no longer trust him with my fantasy drafts. He’s no longer an “expert.” And why was he an expert in the first place? Because he said he was. I gleefully believed him.
Like the rest of you, my next two weeks are chock-full of fantasy football drafts, and I’m cramming like crazy. Ernest Hemingway’s texts were never studied more intensely than I’ll be poring over the words of Eric Karabell and Evan Silva and Andy Behrens and Matthew Berry. Karabell wrote last week that “Andrew Luck and Donald Brown are becoming underrated,” and those eight words sent me into a tizzy, updating my depth charts and cheat sheets and tier rankings and the other nonsense I treat like the Shroud of Turin this time of year.
Fantasy football is a nearly billion-dollar business -- you know it’s a big deal because ESPN is now forcing its former-athlete analysts to talk about it, something they’re clearly uncomfortable doing -- and you can make a strong argument that many sports fans enjoy fantasy football more than they enjoy actual football. Ask a guy in your office what defense the Ravens run and you’ll get a blank stare. Ask him to go five-deep on the Packers’ wide receiver depth chart, though, and he’ll rattle off names. Which means that guys like Karabell and Silva and Behrens and Berry are, for this fortnight, probably the most important sportswriters in the country. Even though they are, essentially, no smarter than the rest of us.
The dirty secret about fantasy football writers is the same as the dirty secret about sportswriters, but more so: You do not, in fact, require any particular expertise or specific degree to do this. You do not have to pass a test to become a fantasy football expert; you don’t have to go to practice or interview coaches. It’s often just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and acting like you always know what you’re talking about. Rotoworld’s Silva, who might be my favorite fantasy writer, told me, “I graduated college in '06 and immediately began begging Gregg Rosenthal to let me write for him on Rotoworld. I finally got Gregg to cave and let me write for six months for free, and eventually they hired me full-time.”
None of these guys possess any grandiose knowledge of football. This doesn’t mean that they don’t provide an extremely valuable service, though: I truly rely on them. Their expertise, such as it is, comes from information saturation and confidence. They read every tidbit about every player on every team, and then organize it in a way I can use. I’m not paid to follow fantasy football, so I don’t have time to steep myself in information the way they do. In a way, the best fantasy football writers are essentially opinionated aggregators -- The Huffington Post with power rankings.
And we need that. Fantasy football is so random, and so much decided by luck, that I basically want someone to tell me what to do. That’s what these guys do.
There are movements to make the study of fantasy football more scientific, similar to the work that Ron Shandler has done in fantasy baseball. Leading this charge is a company called numberFire, founded by a man named Nik Bonaddio, who started the business with $100,000 he won on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Bonaddio is trying to win fantasy football with science.
“There's so much data being created around sports, so why is it that only front offices are crunching the information to make decisions?” he asked me. “I used to, and still do, hate it when these ‘expert’ analysts say things like, ‘I like so-and-so this week,’ because it's really just so anecdotal. We dig into the numbers and really try to look for trends, advantageous matchups, and so on.”
I have no doubt that Bonaddio is right, that these guys are all talking anecdotally, drawing on second-hand knowledge, and sometimes just guessing. But on draft day, I need to know what to do. I trust them, because I have to trust somebody.
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I should probably explain what I’m doing here: My column here at Sports on Earth is essentially going to be a consumerist one. I’m going to be writing about how people consume sports, how media -- all media, from Chris Berman to anonymous Twitter handles, because today they’re essentially all part of the same experience -- functions, what fans love about the sports media experience, and what they hate about it. I consider this something of a public advocate position, albeit less altruistic and more sophomoric.
They’ve told me that I can write about whatever I want, and I’m going to take their word on that: Nothing should be off-limits, including the place(s) that pay me for this column -- in Allagash White and foot massages -- and even some of my colleagues. (If this turns out not to be the case, trust me, you’ll hear about it.) But I’m a friendly, affable guy. I’m not out to get anybody, because sports is too much fun to approach as some sort of hatchet man.
I love sports as much as anyone, and am as avid a consumer of media as you’ll find. I’m writing for fans because I’m one of them, and the things that bother you, I suspect, are the same things that bother me. I’m hesitant to call this a “media” column, because I don’t think most people care about media the way it’s covered in media columns -- who’s moving up the ladder, who got hired by whom. I just want to talk about what it’s like to experience sports in the year 2012, as a consumer, as a fan: everything there is to love about it, and everything that drives us nuts.
I imagine this column as a valve, a release, for what you’re yelling at your television during games, or why, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter @williamfleitch, or even through the mail, if you’re one of those people who still mails things. I am at your beck and call.