A.J. Mass and John Hansen both started their fantasy football careers in Atlantic City.
Mass was working as a dealer at Bally's Atlantic City when a college buddy, Matthew Berry, brought him to ESPN.com. Years earlier, Hansen had talked his way into a spot on a local TV station by joking that he was a fantasy guru - a phrase that eventually made him a household name among fantasy sports enthusiasts.
Both men's careers will come full circle when they are among the featured guests at this weekend's Fantasy Football Fest at the Atlantic City Convention Center. Berry is the keynote speaker for the two-day event, whose guest list also includes a plethora of current and former players ranging from Lawrence Taylor to Michael Vick.
The convention, organized by the company behind New York's annual Comic Con, is the first of its size for the booming fantasy sports industry. Analysts make up just as much of the guest list as the athletes themselves, something that is surreal to Mass.
"I think it's hysterical to see, 'Come see Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy and Matthew Berry.' Really?" said Mass, 41, of Galloway Township. "The fact that fantasy writers are being listed above the fold is crazy to me. It's not something I'm used to."
Neither Mass nor Hansen, who have met only once or twice, set out to make fantasy sports their careers.
Mass recalls inviting Berry to join a league with some of their buddies from Syracuse University. Berry, who had played fantasy baseball before but never football, got hooked. When Berry started a website, Mass wrote for him on the side while working at Bally's. Then ESPN bought Berry's site, and both men were hired by the sports-media juggernaut.
"I wouldn't still have the job if I wasn't good at it," Mass said. "But it all fell into place for me."
Hansen, meanwhile, learned fantasy football at a Galloway Township bar called the Arrowhead Inn, now known as Tailgaters. He worked as an on-air jockey for Atlantic City's WMID-FM, which shared a building with the Ch. 53 television station. Hansen joked to the host of a Ch. 53 sports show that he was a fantasy "guru." An appearance on the show led him to start a newsletter, then a website, and now he hosts a radio show on SiriusXM.
"I kind of found a backdoor into broadcasting through fantasy football," said Hansen, 44, who graduated from Absegami High School and now lives in Haddonfield.
Hansen gets recognized frequently, especially after his cameo on "The League," a sitcom on FX about a fantasy football league, but he's not entirely used to it.
"It's kind of weird because people look at you like you're a rock star and it's kind of odd because I'm not," Hansen said. "People ask me for my autograph, and I just can't do that because it's dumb."
Hansen and Mass are among 24 experts scheduled to attend this weekend, according to the event's website. The guest list includes 32 current or former players, including Hall of Famers Taylor, Bruce Smith, Tony Dorsett and Jim Kelly. Joe Montana had been on the list but pulled out this week.
"It really was about the balance," said Greg Topalian, senior vice president of ReedPOP, which is organizing the event. "We actually asked the question (to fans), and they were excited to see John Hansen. They were excited to see RotoExperts and Matthew Berry. And we think we've gotten the absolute best analysts and experts in the field. So to a certain audience those guys are the rock stars.
"But we did also feel like, for just the general football fan, being able to have the likes of Phil Simms and L.T., and LeSean McCoy and Brian Dawkins, and people like that, for the more casual guy, that that was a really exciting thing."
Hansen, who has more than 30,000 Twitter followers, has attended smaller conventions and said he isn't surprised that the industry appears to be taking the next step.
"It's certainly representative of what's going on out there," he said. "The popularity hasn't sizzled at all. I think fantasy has steadily kind of grown in a way that is so strong that it's just embedded now in the culture. It's not going to go away."
The NFL season starts Sept. 5 when the New York Giants host the Dallas Cowboys, so most fantasy leagues will hold their drafts in the next few weeks. That means this is one of the most important times of the year for experts such as Hansen and Mass.
Hansen will do on-site broadcasts for Sirius from the convention. His website, FantasyGuru.com, will have an exhibit and will hold a panel discussion about player personnel and what makes players elite.
Mass will take part in an experts draft as well as a panel discussion. He plans to stick around even when he's not working, just to "soak it in" - after all, he only lives a few minutes away.
"It certainly made it easy to decide where I was going to stay," he joked. "It's cool. It's a good location for it. ... I'm hoping it's successful because it'd be kind of cool to have a go-to place, like Comic Con, every year."
"It's rewarding to be asked to be a part," Mass said. "The fact that people are going to spend a weekend in the summer listening to me talk about fantasy sports is pretty cool."
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