Men in Blazers: Soccer’s Outlier Sportscasters – Wall Street Journal
The two hosts of “Men in Blazers,” a scrappy soccer-analysis show on the NBC Sports Network, wave handmade signs on the air and broadcast from a room so cramped that guests have to sit behind the duo like children in the back seat of their parents’ car.
But behind all the low-tech trappings, the Men in Blazers are a valuable brand. The TV show and podcast have emerged as a conduit for soccer’s top teams, corporate sponsors and the sport’s growing legion of American fans, much to the exuberance of the show’s England-born, New York-based hosts and creators, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies.
“I’m enjoying their success,” says Richard Scudamore, chief executive of England’s Premier League, the high-profile home to clubs such as Arsenal and Manchester United. Like “Men in Blazers,” Premier League games air on NBC Sports, which recently beat out rival networks to extend broadcast rights to the league for another six years in a deal estimated at close to $1 billion. Though “Men in Blazers” is zealous in its coverage of other bodies, including the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, the Premier League is the show’s North Star. Mr. Bennett recently compared the league’s season opening to “Christmas Day, Rosh Hashana, Churchill’s Day and Secretary’s Day crushed into one.”
Mr. Scudamore says he has been following the show since its inception, not least because the hosts have the ear of a U.S. audience that his organization hopes to expand. “I liked them first as a fan, and maybe next as the CEO of the Premier League,” he says.
In their splashiest effort to boost what they call “America’s sport of the future since 1972,” the Men in Blazers are adding a new venture: a live convention this November dubbed BlazerCon. The two-day gathering in Brooklyn, intended as soccer’s answer to Comic-Con, will feature speeches and panel discussions from a who’s who of pundits and European soccer executives, including Mr. Scudamore. True to the lens of pop culture through which “Men in Blazers” views the game, BlazerCon will also feature some of the soccer-loving celebrities who frequent the show, including star novelist (and Liverpool Football Club loyalist) John Green.
“The tectonic plates are shifting just below the surface of global football and changing the way America reveres the game and how the game is now looking at America as its final frontier,” says Mr. Bennett, the Men in Blazers member most prone to flights of hyperbole and metaphor. Major European teams and leagues, he adds, are treating soccer’s surging U.S. popularity “like a gold rush, and that made BlazerCon the next logical progression for us.”
After the event was announced earlier this week, some observers complained online that ticket prices (set at $225 and $425) were too high. The hosts say BlazerCon is competitively priced with similar events, and that they expect to lose money on it.
“We always take seriously and are unbelievably sensitive to the thoughts and concerns of our listeners. Less so the people who aren’t our fans and never have been,” Mr. Bennett says. Highlights from BlazerCon are expected to air on NBC Sports and online.
The “Men in Blazers” podcast first appeared during the 2010 World Cup and found a home on ESPN’s Grantland website. It now reaches between 250,000 and 350,000 listeners weekly, Mr. Davies says. Running close to two hours each, the podcast offers the Men in Blazers perspective in uncut form—digressions on players’ hair styles run as passionate as those on world soccer’s scandal-ridden governing body, the International Federation of Association Football, known as FIFA.
In recent “Men in Blazers” episodes, the hosts described Manchester United player Bastian Schweinsteiger as “the greatest German sub since ‘Das Boot’ ” and likened an overhead view of the team’s stadium to an erotic image in a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. They invited Emmy-winner Laura Linney to critique players’ melodramatic on-field flops. TV writer David Simon played along as they matched the traits of certain players to characters on his series “The Wire.”
The Men in Blazers’ big break came during last year’s World Cup coverage in Brazil, where their wit (and diminutive studio space) stood out on ESPN. Soon after, they were picked up by cable network NBC Sports, where their Monday-night show routinely rates higher than the channel’s other programs (except for soccer matches themselves) among young men. Of the 59,000 total viewers for this week’s show, 76% were adult men under the age of 35. As part of its contract, the duo’s future on NBC was contingent on the network’s retaining its Premier League rights.
“If the Oprah Winfrey Network had won the rights to the Premier League, we’d be there,” Mr. Davies says.
A Londoner who moved to the U.S. in 1989, Mr. Davies is a prolific TV producer who introduced “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and helped launch Jimmy Kimmel’s TV career. Mr. Bennett, a Liverpool native, has lived in the U.S. since 1994, and is also a writer and a producer of sports documentaries.
As British expats obsessed with the U. S.—as Mr. Bennett puts it, “we love America more than Kid Rock loves America”—their unique perspective has been key to welcoming new fans into their fold, known as the GFOPs, or “great friends of the pod.”
“One thing they do very well is translate for Americans what it’s like to be English fans of English teams,” says George Quraishi, founder of the three-year-old soccer magazine Howler, also part of the cottage industry of U.S. soccer coverage.
The show’s value as a cultural go-between has attracted sponsors including Adidas, Nike, Mini Cooper and Guinness beer, which the hosts quaff during their show. From merchandise sales (including limited-edition ties) to production fees, the Men in Blazers brand is expected to hit $10 million in annual revenue within the next few years, Mr. Davies says.
Videogame giant EA Sports, whose popular FIFA soccer series has served as a backdoor introduction to the sport for many U.S. fans, signed on as BlazerCon’s lead sponsor. EA Sports senior marketing manager David Pekush believes Messrs. Bennett and Davies (better known as Rog and Davo) “are speaking to the same person we’re trying to speak to in North America, someone who is truly a fan of sports and would be more than happy to add soccer to their list.”
The success of “Men in Blazers,” like the blossoming of regional rivalries between Major League Soccer teams and the record TV ratings for the U.S. women’s team recent triumph in the FIFA World Cup, signals the sport is hitting its stride in the U.S. Recalls Mr. Davies, “We lived through the dark ages of soccer in America.”
Write to John Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
A caption in a previous version of this article referred to pillows as merchandise. They were made by a fan.
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