Getting real at the inaugural Fantasy Sports Combine

From left, Terrell Davis, Adam Schefter and Mike Shanahan brought their professional firepower to the Fantasy Sports Combine panel.
Adam Candee

Hoots and hollers greet the co-writer of Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles in a Wynn ballroom on this Saturday morning. Maybe cinephiles fill this TED Talk-styled space for the inaugural Fantasy Sports Combine, but that’s not why these enthusiasts forked over $895 apiece. They crave fantasy football wisdom, and their spirit animal just arrived.

The dark-suited 40-something onstage is Matthew Berry, better known as ESPN Senior Fantasy Analyst. In this room, he’s a personified cheek swab of Jim Cramer, Taylor Swift and Tom Brady, playfully excoriating a fan who asks advice on kickers. “Bad question! Stop it—you shouldn’t be here.”

They eat it up, as they will hand-sliced prosciutto and béchamel-laced lasagna at lunch. Charging nearly a month’s rent for two full days of schmoozing with fantasy experts and former NFL stars, event founder Bo Brownstein will not sling hot dogs to aspiring savants paying for guidance on how to win million-dollar prizes in daily fantasy games.

“The first part of this is, you’re making an investment,” Brownstein says between breakout sessions. “We’re about premium education and experience.”

This hobby, once hidden from wives, morphed long ago into a multi-billion dollar business with 57 million players in the U.S. and Canada. At 27, FSC panelist Peter Jennings quit a stock-trading job after starting to amass his $10 million in career winnings, thanks in part to a proprietary algorithm he developed for daily fantasy baseball.

“It’s a lucrative business,” Berry says. “We monetize fantasy sports and our [ESPN] games, so there’s a business component to it, but obviously it’s a game.”

The premium angle tempered turnout expectations for Yahoo! Sports fantasy analyst Brad Evans, who recalls previous failed attempts at fantasy conventions billed as the insider’s edge. “My concern was that it was a high price point,” Evans says. “But given the intimate experience this particular event provided, it ended up working. The fact that [Brownstein] got as many people as he did to show up was remarkable to me.”

Brownstein conceived of the combine a year ago, bringing together the dreamers and the dudes with help from big-dollar sponsors and former Denver hedge-fund partners. Attendees include an LA investment analyst breaking into the booming daily segment, a Naval veteran dreaming of opening a fantasy-themed sports bar in Seattle, and a North Dakota power-plant worker wanting an edge in his “money” league—a $200 entry.

Each listens intently throughout an eight-hour day jammed with film breakdown and panel sessions devoted to fantasy football, as analysts casually fill notebooks with esotery like “target monster,” “injury-agnostic” and “Gronk-dependent.” The tone strikes well, as each man expresses some interest in returning for the 2016 event.

Jonathan Ma, the 29-year-old investment analyst, views his $895 as an outlay into profiting at the daily games that grew from 8 to 18 percent of the market last year. “It’s similar to how you would invest in the stock market,” Ma says. “If you have a friend that works at a hedge fund, it helps you to understand the market dynamics a little bit better.”

The day concludes with hosted vodka cocktails in the foyer. As glasses drain, Berry exits the fantasy area last. He walks through the casino to his ride without being stopped once.

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