Men in Blazers tour the States as America embraces soccer (again)

Men In Blazers' Michael Davis (left) and Roger Bennett (right) perform their
Men In Blazers’ Michael Davis (left) and Roger Bennett (right) perform their “This Cup Is For You” live show at Capital Turnaround on Saturday, November 26, 2022. (Sam Mallon/For The Washington Post)

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It was nearing midnight when Roger Bennett slipped into a booth at a bar in Southeast D.C. on Saturday night. He finished a live recording of his soccer podcast and took a morning flight to Austin, the next stop on his 10-city World Cup tour, where there will be another live show, a Twitch stream of the US-Iran game and more podcast recordings.

Bennett was dressed in khakis and wore red, white and blue striped fur. His bald head glistened under the fluorescent lights and there were thin rings under his eyes. He was glowing.

“I’m depressed now,” Bennett said in his Liverpool accent. “But it was the most joyous fatigue I ever felt.”

Bennett, along with Londoner Michael Davies, is one half of the duo known as Men in Blazers, who have been providing football commentary in their trademark droll, no-nonsense style to a steadily growing global audience since 2010. On Saturday’s show, Bennett referred to Lionel Messi as Argentina’s custodian bear and sang Spanish forward Alvaro Morata’s name in falsetto to the tune of “If you like pina coladas.”

Bennett and Davies has a team of 12 production staff; Their live shows draw between 500 and 1000 people at each stop. They released a book detailing the best soccer players of all time and a pantheon of podcasts to cover every aspect of this World Cup. Bennett is joined by former Obama White House staffer Tommy Witter to address the geopolitical issues of the Qatar tournament, and Brendan Hunt, co-founder of Ted Lasso, to chronicle the journey of the men’s national team.

The goal is to make Men In Blazers a full-fledged media company powered by the growing popularity of soccer in the United States. Soccer has been America’s sport of the future since 1972, Bennett likes to joke, but he swears this World Cup is really the moment (or at least the moment before).

“The 1994 World Cup here was supposed to bring football to the top, but it was like a wave that hit the shore,” he said. “Each World Cup since then has been a big wave that hits the beach and leaves a huge crowd. It’s not a straight line by any means, but with the World Cup coming up [to the U.S.] It’s 2026 and the women’s sport is thriving right now, it’s about to really pop. I mean, this is a business.”

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Data points are continuously collected. Fox said the US-England match was the most-watched soccer game on English-language television in American history. NBC, which paid $2.7 billion for a new six-year rights deal, says the Premier League reached more than 30 million viewers last year, up from about 13 million in 2012. Ted Lasso wins Emmys and Ryan Reynolds buys less. Division Welsh Club, Wrexham, and made a series of documents from it. American players are listed on top European teams, and European soccer leagues have become the primary offerings of streaming services that battle each other for dominance in American media.

Ahead of this World Cup, Netflix aired a documentary on corruption at FIFA, and Meadowlark Media produced a documentary on the USA-Mexico soccer rivalry in English and Spanish for Amazon Prime.

For Bennett, it’s all a bit of a dream. He recalled going to bars in Chicago during the 1994 tournament and finding them empty. The following year, when his favorite club, Everton, played an important FA Cup match, he could follow his father in Liverpool, holding the phone up to the radio. As recently as 2006, the World Cup was a “time buy” on ESPN, meaning the network did not pay a rights fee to broadcast the tournament.

“Who wants to be a millionaire?” A veteran television producer who brought Bennett & Davis to the United States and is now the executive producer of “Jeopardy,” he has often been at the center of the game’s journey over the past two decades. Future ESPN president John Skipper hired Davis to write daily reaction pieces for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The skipper tracked page views that helped inform his decision to replace ESPN’s hunting and fishing programs for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup titles and the Premier League weekend. “I think the ratings tripled,” Nayak said.

ESPN, Skipper recalled, spent about $40 million to produce the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the same amount it paid for the rights. “We decided to make the World Cup one of our three-quarters priorities,” said Skipper, who now runs Meadowlark Media. “Was there resistance to that? Yes, there was. “

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Bennett and Davies met at a World Cup premiere in 2006 and felt the same moment. Bennett is a freelance writer and editor, including for ESPN, who launched a podcast in 2010 with Bill Simmons’ boutique ESPN site, Grantland. During that World Cup, Bennett appeared regularly on Morning Joe, translating the tournament for American viewers. Between sections on stagnation and horse race politics. (Tom Brokaw once asked him live why football deserved his attention; a few years later, Brokaw talked to him about the family trips he would take to Premier League games.)

The American media has been trying to sell the game to the American public for years with varying degrees of success. Bennett said an ESPN executive lectured him years ago about how important Major League Soccer was to the growth of the sport in the United States. “If you were in Houston, whose jersey would you want to wear – Real Madrid or the Houston Dynamo?” The executive asked seriously. But Bennett recognized that the Premier League is the best soccer game in the world and that it captures the attention of many Americans.

When EA Sports’ FIFA video game introduced a generation of Americans to players like Messi and Ronaldo, Bennett realized his role was to look beyond the X’s and O’s. Part of that was playing football for the Premier League, curiously enough, Helping them identify a side they can reliably give loyalty to.

“I’m from Boston, so a little self-loathing … but still part of the lovable loser from the Red Sox before 2004,” Vietor said. Bennett had just the team for him. “He said, ‘You’re an Everton fan!’

“Anyone in England understands the game as well as American fans,” Bennett said. “What the American fans didn’t have much of, because they haven’t lived it, is a description of what the difference is between Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. What is the difference between Inter Milan and AC Milan? What is history? What is culture? What is the political reality? That’s the background and historical arc we’re leaning toward. “

American networks have seen it, and they use Bennett and Davis extensively to enhance their properties. ESPN sent them to Brazil in 2014 for a late-night wrap show. NBC hired them to do a TV show about the Premier League; CBS now sponsors podcasts about the Champions League and the National Women’s Soccer League. The players have too. “They gave us a platform to tell our stories,” said women’s national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, a recurring guest on the show. “It gave us and the women’s game more support.”

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Saturday night in DC, about 700 people, decked out in Men In Blazers merch and Team USA scarves, packed Capitol Turnaround for the live show. Later at a bar, Davis and Bennett are mobbed like real celebrities. Bennett called out a nice man to almost everyone he met, posed for photos, and spoke optimistically about his adopted Team USA’s chances moving forward. (That opinion was pretty much unanimous in the crowd. “I find it a little disturbing,” British transplant and loyal listener Claire Bates said of Bennett ditching English for Team USA.)

That scene is one photo from the game; Another step would be for the mainstream sports media to think of football and its fans less like the theater children of the game, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless argue about the merits of the 4-4-2 formation or Gio Reyna’s place in the American lineup the way they do the Dallas Cowboys and LeBron James.

Bennett thinks it’s coming.

“Stephen A. Smith talks about what interests him,” he said. “And the tectonic plates are shifting. Money in this game in America is rising in a remarkable way. When that happens, to his shock and surprise, four or five American players playing for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United on a Wednesday night, Stephen A. Smith will break down and say, ‘I don’t know how we got here, but here we are.’ .

Until then, Bennett’s Twitch streams will have to suffice. During games, Bennett’s eyes widen and he gestures in a way that would surely make Smith proud. “Don’t let them treat you like the Dream Team treated Toni Kukoc,” he pleaded with the United States in the draw against England. “I peed my pants!” He shouted when Christian Pulisic scored against Iran.

Back at the bar, now past midnight, he takes a last sip of beer and announces that he has a script to write before his flight. He ran out of the bar to find his Uber, a blur of khakis and Americana.

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