When I started playing fantasy football around the turn of the century, the advice you could get was pretty limited. There were printed guides available at local bookstores, a few websites on the internet, and what data you could collect yourself from the box scores in USA today or the local newspaper. There certainly wasn’t much available at the time through radio or TV shows, podcasts, etc.
The industry grew rapidly, as companies like ESPN and Yahoo began to see dollar signs associated with more fantasy sports coverage. ESPN’s fantasy boom introduced us to a whole new cast of talent. Love him or hate him, the talented Mr. Roto, as many knew Matthew Berry, was one such individual. It became synonymous with fantasy sports coverage on the ESPN website and later on their network programming and podcasts.
Last month, that all changed when Berry left the company after 15 years and recently announced he had signed a multi-year contract with NBC Sports. The move brings Berry full circle, as he began his fantasy career with Rotoworld, and makes him the face of fantasy news and sports betting tips for the company. Not only will Berry be involved in their Sunday night football air during the NFL season, but it will also have a daily show on their Peacock subscription service, which they will simulcast on their SiriusXM channel. Berry will also host a Sunday morning show that NBC says will not only be fantasy-related, but will also be a “sports betting show.”
This is a massive shot across the arc of NBC, whose partnership with PointsBet is significant during their NFL coverage. Whether you like betting or not, most people who have played fantasy football know who Berry is. His name brings some weight to the move and gives NBC a personality to base its sports betting coverage on. It also provides them with more content for Peacock, a service that many have had trouble with and is in desperate need of unique programming.
Sports betting and fantasy sports are intertwined, and I’m not sure you could untangle them even if you wanted to. The only reason fantasy football exists is to bet. This is what helped make it popular among the masses, especially at a time when soccer betting was not legal in the United States outside of Vegas sports betting. Whether it’s money or not, you always bet you knew more than your friends, or you bet you wouldn’t finish dead last and had to do something embarrassing – or get a permanent reminder of your failure tattooed on your body.
The line got even blurrier when everyday fantasy sports came into play. Now you have shows on multiple networks that mix fantasy advice with gambling advice – exactly what Berry will do. Even pregame shows on networks like NBC and Fox feature betting lines and promote betting, whether it’s for cash or a free contest like the NBC Sports Predictor game.
The networks know that their audiences, especially the younger generation, want information and advice on placing bets, and recognizable names and faces offer a huge advantage in the growing arms race of sports gaming content. Comments from Disney CEO Bob Chapek last week underscored that, as he doubled down on his plans announced last year to get more involved in the sports gaming space.
On an earnings conference call last week, Chapek said, “We’ve found that fundamentally our under 30s sports fans absolutely need this kind of utility in the overall portfolio of what’s going on. ESPN offer.” Many believe that the company plans to introduce a bookmaker in the near future as ESPN and Disney continue to expand into the sports betting market. Whether that comes through a brand partnership or the potential acquisition of a smaller bookie remains to be seen, but it’s clear that ESPN sees the space as a space with plenty of profit margin and a space where they must be aggressive and competitive.
To that end, ESPN quickly filled Berry’s vacancy, announcing the hiring of Liz Loza last week. The old Yahoo! fantasy sports expert has been heavily involved in their weekly Fantasy Football Live show, as well as a podcast with current NFL running back Austin Ekeler. She’ll go straight into content on the network, which is expected to be involved in ESPN’s Fantasy Football Draft on Tuesday as the culmination of their annual Fantasy Football Marathon which began last night. She will also join the talented rotation of their daily bet show, which continues to add new perspectives.
These companies are looking for every advantage they can get, and NBC knows what they’re getting with Berry. They get a built-in following of people who will likely navigate more to NBC Sports Advantage site – which may well be reverted to Rotoworld, according to some reports surrounding Berry’s hiring – that swore by its content on ESPN. To sweeten the deal, they also have access to the over one million followers he has on Twitter.
There is an ongoing growing battle over engagement and views for sports betting content, a battle that involves not only linear channels but also sports betting itself, in addition to unaffiliated content creators (like evidenced by the announcement of Jake Paul last week). Everyone involved in sports betting content seeks to poach talent from competitors, especially known products with established followers. The acquisitions of Berry and Loza are the latest moves on the chessboard, and I anticipate more salvos to be launched in the near future.