Fittingly, Etta James’s “At Last” boomed through the speakers at the Brooklyn Expo Center Friday night, as the eager crowd patiently waited to be greeted via video message by Arlo White, BlazerCon’s grand marshal.
The event, spawned from the soccer blog/podcast/television show “Men In Blazers,” packed a couple thousand people into three tents over two days. For many, it was a validation of their experience as a fan of the world’s game, no matter how long or short of a time span that may have been.
While Michael “Davo” Davies and Roger “Rog” Bennett have succeeded in extending their brand of bespoke sports comedy to a group of fans thirsty to set themselves apart, the ultimate appeal of the event was hard to determine. There were stars, experts and players there to mingle and share their thoughts on the game, which for hardcore purists provided some interesting insight into the business of the game. Interesting footy publications like Howler, Eight By Eight and Associated NYC had stands featuring their work. Overall, you could get a haircut, drink a beer, eat a pie, play “FIFA” and feel like a real, card-carrying “soccer fan.” They were broken into two sections: good friends of the pod (GFOP) and *very* good friends of the pod (VGFOP).
“I want to thank you all. All of you GFOP’s who traveled across the country by plane, by train, by automobile, by steamboat to explore with us, the shifting tectonics plates of global football,” Bennett said to open. “We find it very surreal. We find it incredibly poetic, and very humbling. So, thank you.
“This event is about soccer,” Davies added in his trademark American-mocking style, “but it’s also about you the GFOPs who traveled from all over the country and all over the world, my nephews, to celebrate with us.”
There was a feeling of wonder to the event, which featured a live viewing of the US Men’s national team’s World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and Grenadines. Giving up the opening goal led to a couple “Not good enough, Klinsmann!” yells and by halftime, most were out in the main halls, drinking beer and comparing notes. But after that, for the rest of the time, there was one noticeable absence: soccer itself.
As it was an international window weekend, there were no club matches to discuss. The more important qualifiers for Russia in 2018 weren’t screened anywhere, understandably. So, while it was great to hear the wealth of knowledge being shared on the stages, at some points, there was longing for actual competition. The knighting of broadcaster Ray Hudson was a great bit, and playing T-Pain’s “All I Do Is Win” to introduce members of the U.S. women’s national team was a strong move, too.
As for the crowd, various people showed up for different reasons, some soccer related, some not. Jason Kennedy, 45, who flew out from Chicago, interacts with the hosts on Twitter and has followed their rise.
“When I saw them on the World Cup I was like, ‘Yeah, these guys are about to break,’ ” Kennedy said.
His loud clothes certainly made him a stand out at the event. “This is an Indiana Hoosier-inspired blazer, but it’s multi-functional. It’s the kind of thing that when I come to these events, it always gets noticed. So, I always proudly wear only the Men in Blazers patch on it. In New York, riding the train over here, it was funny. People would look and just kind of shrug their shoulders like, oh, that’s unusual. And I’m not in a barbershop quartet.”
For others, it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage. Andrew Sullivan and Justin Chen became friends when they worked together as teachers in Houston, Tex. Sullivan has since moved to Boston, but the two effectively stay in touch through soccer. They went to the World Cup in Brazil together, and made it a point to get to BlazerCon, as well.
“We talked about this a couple months ago, and we were like, ‘Dude, we got to do this,’ ” said Sullivan, 32.
“I think it’s a little bit of emergence of the culture, as well. American football tends to be very localized and you enjoy your home team with your friends from home, and I think the global nature of it makes it that much more appealing,” added Chen, 35.
But something felt a bit off. The notion of Barclay’s Premier League followers validating themselves through an irreverent and genuinely smart television program is not easy to swallow. The show works because Rog and Davo respect and understand just how ridiculous the culture surrounding the game can be. While they genuinely love soccer, the entire bit is intentionally parodying a certain effect. Yet, it’s not clear that everyone gets the joke.
For one family, it was an outing like any other, that just happened to involve footy. “We watch on the weekends. It’s the first time, and we wanted to be part of anything that’s the first time. And secondly, I’m actually learning a lot. It’s been wonderful having managers, coaches, people who can tell us a bit more behind the scenes, it’s great,” said Catherine Klein, 70, who was there with her daughter, Kara Benson. “As a much older person, not having grown up with soccer at all, except through our children and my husband, who, at 70 is also a referee. My daughter here is the translator of the insider jokes.”
They started following the show during the 2014 World Cup and are Manchester United fans. They had just made friends with a woman who grew up in the D.C. area, and went to Washington Diplomats games as a kid, but that was it.
“There’s Men In Blazers, the show, but there’s also the fact that this is the first convention sort of its kind for soccer, and for English Premier League soccer, in this country that I’m aware of,” said Benson, 30, who lives in D.C. “So, I think some of its the ‘Men in Blazers’ sort of show and comedy and football references. Some of it’s just the fact that this doesn’t exist for soccer in this country yet. I think it draws not just the ‘Men in Blazers’ fans but also the sort of general EPL in the U.S. fans.”
Whether or not “Men in Blazers” becomes the cultural hit that they “make soccer mainstream in America” is irrelevant. What they’ve tapped as a niche corner of the soccer world is impressive enough. The fact that there are that many people who want to stand around under a tent and eat pies and drink Guinness on a cold day is as much a testament to Rog and Davo than it is to any sport.
As a fan of both the sport and the show, BlazerCon was necessary. The two hosts had been having live events for a while, and this was a natural next step. It will develop with time and depending on the location, the crowd likely will too. The programming quality was solid, even if not heterogeneous, and interestingly, the “State of U.S. Soccer” was probably the weekend’s most well-attended panel. For a nation that seems bent on constantly finding new ways to define its soccer identity, this event provided a way for people to feel like they were a part of something.
For Bennett and Davies, the weekend has to be considered a rousing success. For lifelong soccer fans, it was a sight to behold. Whether or not you liked what you saw, however, is a different question.