Fantasy football is around the corner, which for owners means a Fall filled with draft cheat sheets, waiver wires, weekly rankings and excessive banter. And for successful owners it also means devoting ample time to one woman – ESPN Injury Analyst Stephania Bell. Since August of 2007, Bell, a physical therapist, has been delivering injury insights (and fantasy advantages) to ESPN viewers, podcast listeners and ESPN.com readers alike.
In the following Q&A, we discuss the origins of Bell’s unique position, ESPN’s infamous “War Room” fantasy league, how men and women approach fantasy differently, the future of fantasy and so much more.
(Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)
Melissa Jacobs: Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. How did you go from physical therapist to ESPN analyst?
Stephania Bell: It wasn’t quick. Starting in 2000, I played in a pretty competitive coed fantasy league and because I worked in sports medicine people in the league would often ask me what the real deal was with injury reports. And I don’t even know if we knew how much they were practicing then so they’d come to me and ask, ‘How long does it really take a guy to come back from this type of injury?’ They knew I was following the players closely so I knew about their histories. And they would ask me on the side and make me swear not to tell opponents and the like. It was that sort of chatter that made me realize that this sort of information was useful. I started to think ‘Hmmm. This is a marketable bit of information.’
At the same time I was a huge sports fan and would watch games and get frustrated when injuries were mispronounced and described incorrectly. Now we know what an ACL is, but back then it would described with a creative pronunciation or explanation of what they thought that injury might be. I would often think that it would be helpful if they had someone who could explain the injury And because I played fantasy football I could really see not only the injury, but how it impacted a particular player at a certain position. Putting it all together I saw that this had value; it was just a matter of translating it into something that was real.
MJ: So then how did it become a career?
SB: It just so happened that a friend of mine, Eddie Aparacio, was starting up a draft board business as drafts were really starting to get online, and he had gone to a meeting of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA). He was the commissioner of our league and knew I was thinking about this so suggested the next time he went to a meeting that I come. The first meeting I went to was small – less than 200 people – and many were there to shop their fantasy wares. It was mostly mom and pop outfits. But there were some bigger companies there who started to realize the value of fantasy sports. After that I went to several meetings – they were every six months – and I would chat with people, pitch them. People were intrigued by the concept but what I kept hearing was, ‘That’s interesting information to have but no one is going to pay you for it.’
But everyone told me it was a good idea so I thought someone might pay me at some point. I started doing a spot within someone else’s column on KFFL. At the next meeting, Rotowire approached me and said they really liked my stuff and gave me a column of my own. So I started working for them writing football and baseball and they developed a radio partnership with Sirius. One thing led to another as I got exposure through the magazine and the radio hits. It all coincided with ESPN trying to build up their fantasy games department. [ESPN Executive Editor] John Walsh was very involved in the development. And being a woman, who played, who was competitive and had a unique niche really got their attention.
They brought me out for an audition and the rest is history.
MJ: So it was Walsh who brought you into the fold?
SB: Actually my friend who got me into all of this had talked with Matthew Berry at one of the meetings I was unable to attend. They had an exchange, so really Matthew was my entrée into the company, and then he went to John Walsh.
MJ: Beyond Matthew, did you have to prove your worth to your new ESPN colleagues or were you easily accepted?
SB: I don’t think anyone put the pressure on me that I put on myself. I wanted to prove that I belonged there. But I think once they decided I should be there everyone was supportive; they bought into the concept. They marketed it as ‘Hey, we’ve got someone who has unique information as part of our fantasy product’ I felt very welcomed there. There was an element of me jumping in full board into a medium I was unfamiliar with – television – and everything else that went with it. I had watched ESPN at home for years and thought about how awesome it would be to be there. And then you’re here.
MJ: Talk about the infamous heavy hitter ESPN fantasy football league. Who is in it, and how have you fared?
SB: Oh, there’s already chatter about this year. This league is called the ‘War Room League’ because we’re all in a war room of sorts in Bristol watching games on Sundays. It’s very entertaining but there’s so much noise from the yelling, the chatter. There’s so much stimulation, you really need to go home and recover at a certain point. We’re all watching games for things we can report on later as well.
The people involved in the league are mostly analysts and producers and reporters in the field like Ed Werder. It’s a sixteen-team league so it’s difficult because it’s so deep. It is pretty funny because the banter, the smack talk is quite entertaining. What’s funny is you have insiders like Werder and Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen, yet Ed who played for the first time last year is an insider but came in last because he was decimated by injury. I think he made a big trade to get DeMarco Murray because all his running backs were down. That week Murray had a large number of fantasy points by halftime and Ed was so proud of himself and patting himself on the back, and then Murray goes down with a foot injury in the third quarter and is lost for nine weeks. He could never catch a break.
It’s a fun league. You have a lot of competitive people, but it proves that no matter how much information you know you can’t predict what will happen on Sundays. The people with the most information are not the ones winning the league.
MJ: So how did you fare?
SB: I did not do well last year because in Week 1 my running back left the game in the, I think, first quarter with injury. That was Fred Jackson. So that was the end of Fred. I thought he was going to have good year and wasn’t worried about him being a little older. I had been at Bills camp and seen him. Of course if you’re a podcast listener you would have said of course I shouldn’t picked him since I’m known to bring the curse wherever I go. That being said, my team lost a lot to injury early on and couldn’t catch up. People who do well have the best health for the longest. And unlike some leagues were you can manipulate some unsuspecting teams, everyone knows what is going on at all times here.
MJ: Who won?
SB: Matthew won the league last year.
MJ: A couple of years ago you and I co-authored an article for espnW illustrating the growth of women who play fantasy and encouraging more to do so. How surprised were you by the number, which was 5.4 million then and has grown to 5.8 million?
SB: As a percentage of the total, knowing that it’s roughly 33 million, that seems like the percentage I would expect. Of course I’d like it to go up more. What you and I learned was the hardest part about attracting women to fantasy football is initially just getting them in. Once they’re in, they like it. They commit. They’re very analytical about how they play. By and large they do well. We just need to work to get women to try it because once they try it they’re in.
MJ: What do you think are the main barriers for women?
SB: The perception that it will take too much time and be too complicated. It’s all about the unknown. I think guys don’t care and just say ‘sure, I’ll make time for that.’
MJ: And let’s face it, men tend to have more free time than we do.
SB: Of course they do. But I think a lot of women really enjoy it. I don’t know if there’s a perception that they need to play in an all girl’s league. I got my start in a coed league and that made it really fun for me. Getting started with friends is important. But overall, with advances in technology you don’t need to commit as much time to fantasy as you did back in the day.
MJ: How do you think men and women approach fantasy differently?
SB: I don’t know if it’s that’s much. I feel that most women who do it really want to do it well so they will commit to studying the rules and taking it seriously. Where I think men are more comfortable being casual players.
MJ: Do you think fantasy football may be approaching a ceiling of sorts? I mean, how many more leagues can people play in? How many more angles can fantasy analysts take? How many more derivative leagues can be invented?
SB: I don’t know about that. I’ve heard about a lot of families playing now. So kids are getting into it. That draws in a different sub-group. They want to play against family members so maybe the league is a kid, parents, an aunt, uncle, grandparents. That’s going to inherently draw in more women and different age groups. I have a friend who teaches math and has brought some elements of fantasy into his teachings. That’s another way to reach a more diverse audience. I know the FSTA has targeted enhancing the breadth and diversity of fantasy.
MJ: Recently you’ve been able to branch out a bit at ESPN, working on a couple of features and the like. How did that happen?
SB: Based on what I was saying before about watching sports and thinking about better ways to discuss injuries, I always hoped and thought that when I got to ESPN that fantasy would be an entrée to more.
So at ESPN, where the campus is like a small college, you walk around and you meet people. You talk to people from different shows. It was funny when I first got there because people would ask, ”This is a basketball injury. Can you talk about basketball?” And I said “sure” because as a PT your job is to figure out what that patient needs to do to get back. I found myself taking calls for baseball, basketball, even NASCAR like when Denny Hamlin tore his ACL, how long would it take him to get back into the car? It was fun to use my PT brain to try and figure this all out. It evolved into all the sports, including the NFL Draft. The medicals at the Combine are one of the most important things that take place there.
The last thing is the storytelling. One of the things I like learning is the personal stories and what they’ve had to overcome. Bringing that side of the story is something I’ve wanted to do for a while and now I’ve been able to with a few pieces. This year a big story I did was a feature on Marcus Lattimore, the South Carolina running back who dislocated his knee this past fall. Some with the injury don’t walk normally again and in a worst case scenario, you can lose your leg. No one knew what was happening with him and he was considered a top prospect coming into the draft this past fall. He had already come off an ACL surgery on the other side. Plus his story was compelling because he was such a talent. We were able to go down and see him in rehab, talk to his surgeons and explain the subtleties with his injury and why his injury was one he could overcome and how could be productive with an NFL team. Of course at the time I had no idea it could be for my team [49ers]
MJ: Speaking of the 49ers, how do you separate your job from your Niner fandom, especially in the war room?
SB: I’m pretty good. Of course, I hope there are no injuries on the 49ers. In all seriousness, it’s funny because when I first got to ESPN the 49ers would be on a small television in the corner. But over these last few years they’ve moved to a larger, central television. So I’ve been watching their progress as their status in the “war room” has gone up. I used to get mocked a bit for my 49er love. But when you put the job hat on, you really report on every team. I don’t find it a challenge to separate the two.
MJ: As you know I interviewed Colin Kaepernick’s mom during the playoffs last year. One of the more striking elements of that interview was how she noted that Colin had a clean history when it came to injuries. People talk about Kaepernick as an injury risk because of his playing style and thin legs. What’s your take on his injury risk? And please don’t go visit the 49ers in training camp!
SB: So I’ve been told. They’ve already had their big injury with Michael Crabtree so I don’t think I can do much more harm.
If we had the answer for why some people could avoid injury over others, that would be put in a bottle and marketed everyone. There are some thoughts about genetics where collagen, which makes up most of your connective tissue, is stronger in some people where a player can take a blow and be fine. But sometimes it’s just about physics and luck. I mean, if Marcus Lattimore’s foot had not been planted he would not have dislocated his knee. On the other hand, if RGIII’s foot had been on the ground for the hit, his injury would have looked a lot like Lattimore’s. I will say, though, we look at quarterbacks and they have to be sensible and not just welcome the contact. Physical training, nutrition, all that stuff helps, too. But I am very reluctant to put an “injury prone” label on any player.
MJ: Five years from now, how many fantasy outfits have an injury specialist on staff?
SB: I don’t know about five years but ten years from now everybody does. It’s a tricky one because you have to have seen enough patients to have the experience to understand injuries and how they respond. I do this full-time so I’ve made a unique transition. I definitely see some PTs being hired on at least a part-time basis in the future.
MJ: And for you, what are you doing in five years if you had your druthers?
SB: I’d really like to do more in-game injury commentary because I think even though there’s a lot not known at the time of an injury, there’s a lot of context that can be provided. Especially if you have a critical injury situation coming into a game, that would be very fun. As PTs, we’re looking at movements and functionality. That’s what I’m already doing on Sundays. And I’d like to do more storytelling. There are a lot viewers can learn from seeing an athlete’s recovery; plus it really humanizes the athlete. You see vulnerability but you also see athletes overcome adversity.
For more from Stephania Bell:
Read her blog.
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