Roger Bennett and Michael Davies have helped to boost soccer's popularity in the U.S.
English duo host podcast and TV show
They created platform for fans to meet key figures in the game
For many people, the lasting memory of the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy was Zinedine Zidane’s shocking headbutt.
For two Englishmen – who were attending a wedding on a boat in New York – the only solace they could take from missing the climax to global football’s biggest game was that in each other’s company a new friendship was formed.
It’s a friendship that has borne some serious fruit for Roger Bennett and Michael Davies.
Their love of football was turned into a podcast called the Men in Blazers – an in-joke referring to U.S. sports broadcasters, who Bennett and Davies noticed were always men wearing blazers.
Football was (and remains) the main item on their agenda, juxtaposed against a pop culture background, with “Downton Abbey” references making happy bedfellows with quotes from Philip Larkin’s poetry, and their enduring love affair with the United States, where they have spent half of their lives.
“When we first came here,” Bennett told CNN, “football was not just unpopular, it was derided. But we’ve witnessed its inexorable rise.”
Davies concurs: “The country we love is falling in love with the game we love.”
One can measure the MIB’s progress by World Cups. They met on the night of the 2006 final, were podcasting four years later, and had their own TV show on ESPN in 2014 (they’ve also covered women’s World Cups).
By the time of the Brazil World Cup in 2014, NBC had become the rights holders for the English Premier League in the U.S., and offered the MIB their own weekly show, looking back on the weekend that was, delivered out of the so-called “panic room” in “the crap part of SoHo” in New York.
“There’s so much football available on television now in America,” Bennett points out. “There’s more on here than in England. You could say it’s the true home of the sport.”
Their self-deprecating humor – “We are aiming to make the least technically ambitious show in the history of television. One camera. One guest. Two bald blokes,” said the 2014 press release sent out by NBC – masked the fact that “Rog” and “Davo” are savvy operators. Davies is a highly successful TV executive, while Bennett is a journalist and filmmaker.
They may play up the supposed “suboptimal” content they’re making for their devoted audience of “GFOPs” (Great Friends Of the Pod), but there was nothing suboptimal about BlazerCon, a two-day football convention that took place in Brooklyn this month.
The latest brainchild of the MIB, BlazerCon was intended to be an opportunity, in the words of Bennett, to “have the fans meet the stakeholders and global thinkers” of the football world.
A sellout crowd of 1,300 people made their way to the Brooklyn Expo, shelling out either $225 for general admission, or $425 for VIP access.
Though some of the online reaction to the price policy was critical, the list of names the MIB persuaded to attend was undeniably impressive.
Split over “Home” and “Away” stages, the likes of English Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano, Everton manager Roberto Martinez, Liverpool chairman Ian Ayre – as well as his counterparts at Southampton, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth – spoke eloquently about the beautiful game to a mainly American crowd.
“They’re evangelists for what I do,” Scudamore told CNN about the MIB. “We put on the show, but they are the ones who brought it to new audiences in the way they’ve gone about it.”
U.S. speakers weren’t neglected either.
MLS commissioner Don Garber, former U.S. internationals Brad Friedel and Alexi Lalas, as well as members of the 2015 World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national side, were on hand to represent the home team, as it were.
But what and who do the MIB represent?
An affluent fan base has latched on to them, with their 91% male following (on Twitter) being 25% more likely to buy “premium brands,” and 25% of their followers having a net worth in excess of $1 million.
By all accounts, BlazerCon was a success, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was the first of many.
But perhaps its founders’ smartest move is to be constantly on the lookout for the next trend, to make themselves as relevant as possible.
To that end, just this year, they’ve traveled to Pamplona in Spain to cover the “Running of the Bulls” for Esquire Network, and were commissioned by NFL Films to cover one of the London games.
The irony surely wouldn’t be lost on the MIB.
It would possibly be their most suboptimal moment if the NFL’s continuing outreach in the UK results in these two Brits becoming flag bearers for America’s version of football in the country of their birth.