They talk soccer, and they wear blazers—usually at the same time. And they’ve been touting soccer as “America's Sport of the Future, as it has been since 1972." When Michael Davies and Roger Bennett began their project, the Men in Blazers podcast, it had a smattering of regular listeners (known as GFOPs, or Great Friends of the Pod) and a cult following. Now the popularity of the Men in Blazers franchise has grown into a weekly TV show on NBC Sports Network (CMSCA), one that melds highlights of English Premier League (EPL) games of the past week with pop culture references and inside jokes their fans have come to know and love.
The rise of the Men in Blazers podcast, satellite radio show and current TV show coincides with the growing popularity of soccer (or as the rest of the world calls it, football) in the United States. Witness the steady growth of Major League Soccer, founded back 1993, along with rising U.S. viewership of international tournaments such as the World Cup, Gold Cup, and the European Championships.
For Davies and Bennett, Men in Blazers as we know it began in 2010 from humble beginnings—they just wanted to talk football, or “sahccah” as Davies jokes. “I think what has been sort of magical about Men in Blazers is it started as a hobby,” Davies says. “It was really something which we started doing because we really liked each other, [and] we love talking about football.”
Their passion attracted hard-core U.S. soccer fans, and as the sport has become more mainstream (I can now count three Arsenal bars on my small block in New York’s East Village), the podcast grew from a World Cup segment on ESPN to a full-blown cable show on NBC Sports Network. “The show grew into something quite organically," Davies says, “and very few things in show business, as you know, get to grow organically.” Now the show counts big name brands like Adidas, Mini Cooper and Guinness as sponsors.
In addition, NBC Sports Network revealed ratings for EPL have grown 19% since last year, potentially turning NBC Universal’s billion dollar investment in EPL TV rights from a loss leader to a potentially profitable one. The ubiquity and rising bandwidth of the Internet has helped too.
“The Internet makes soccer the perfect sport—you can now follow Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern [Munich], Real Madrid ... as if you lived a stone's throw from the [pitch],” Bennett explains. “EA Sports’ FIFA games made the whole country learn the characters who were involved in the game, and just the access on television—World Cup to World Cup of incredible football—that's what's really changed the game as well.”
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While the Men in Blazers show and podcast focus primarily on the EPL, Davies and Bennett say fans can go as deep as they want into the football universe. “We are not soccer exceptionalists. We don't believe that that only one league is going to work,” Davies explains. “We actually believe the rising tide carries all boats, and actually what's good for the English Premier League is actually really good for Major League Soccer, really good for [Germany’s] Bundesliga, really good for everything.”
Which brings us to BlazerCon, the two-day, global soccer-palooza kicking off this weekend (November 13th) in Brooklyn, New York. The two men concocted BlazerCon as a way to bring their fans and other soccer fans together with leading figures from the world of soccer. The CEOs of big clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City will be speaking to fans, and so will the chief executives of EPL and Germany’s top-flight Bundesliga.
The project has been a labor of love for the two men. From securing guests, sponsors, and a suitable location, the work has been nonstop. But Davies and Bennett say the endeavor will be worth it. “BlazerCon is the natural outgrowth of American soccer,” Bennett says. “NBC’s record rights deal for the Premier League, the incredible ratings for the U.S. women who made this country delirious over the summer, have shown Americans now love the sport.”
And the convention is not just for fans. “The elite global brands in football: the Chelseas, the Tottenhams the Real Madrids, the Paris St. Germains, they are all eyeing America, and they’re seeing it as the new frontier. They've long dreamed of building support for their teams here. They see the moment is now,” Bennett explains, driving home the point that the biggest names in world soccer are seeking a beachhead to expand in the lucrative U.S. market.
Ultimately BlazerCon is an opportunity for the show’s fans from across the country, as Bennett says, “to come together and celebrate the sport for which they have fallen truly, madly, deeply in love with.” Oh, and there are going to be some very tasty pies too.
The Men in Blazers airs Monday nights at 11:00p ET on NBC Sports Network. Information for BlazerCon can be viewed here.