If you're an American soccer fan, you should know the Men in Blazers
How two soccer-obsessed Brits found fame through sharing their passion with America. We asked them all about it.
Roger Bennett, left, and Michael Davies have a kick-around in Davies’ SoHo office / Axel Dupeux
Michael Davies is a busy TV executive who has a flight to catch to Austin, Texas. Roger Bennett, seated at a small round white table in the corner of Davies’ office, is more relaxed but is also on a tight timetable. He is hard at work on a documentary about L.A. Galaxy star Landon Donovan, arguably the greatest American soccer player ever. But the pair have taken time today to talk about their alter egos—the Men in Blazers, two expats who serve as Pied Pipers to football-aware Americans — for two reasons. One, as a million-miler, Davo (Davies’ nickname) loves American Airlines. Two, I’m a day-one listener of their four-year-old podcast, a GFOP, or Great Friend of the Pod, and the Men in Blazers love their GFOPs.
“The podcast is a three-way connection,” says Bennett, sitting in the same seat he does when they record the pod every Tuesday. “It’s between me, Davo, and the GFOPs. The GFOPs are always in this chair, where you’re sitting, when together we talk about the things we love: football and America.”
If you watched the football World Cup last summer, you probably saw Davies and Bennett in trademark navy blazers, adorned with patches of their own design, discussing everything from the tiny bananas of Brazil to the Fred-Flintstone-come-to-life character who is Mexican coach Miguel Herrera and the ever-changing hairline of Shrek-like England striker Wayne Rooney. Off the back of those appearances, the Men in Blazers earned themselves a weekly Monday night football show on NBCSN, in which the pair chortle over highlights from the weekend’s action in the Barclays Premier League, the British professional soccer league that houses well-known teams like Manchester United and Arsenal. They also bring on guests who sit behind the pair in a deliberately awkward one-camera set-up, adding to the purposeful “sub-optimal” feel of the show.
Anyone who discovered the Men in Blazers on television could be forgiven for thinking of the duo as a self-effacing comedy team that mines the foibles of footballing prima donnas for laughs. But for the growing legion of GFOPs, the pair has always been defined by the podcast, which is at once far deeper and broader.
“For us, the podcast is sacrosanct,” Davies says. “It is the holy text. It is the sacrament.” The pod is a culmination of a journey, adds Bennett. It’s about two people who look at world football—and thus the world — through a shared prism. To hear Men in Blazers tell it every week, in football it is possible to find all that is noble and loathsome, cataclysmic and brilliant, absurd and sublime.
“The truth is that some people watch football tactically, and they can tell you exactly when the formation has changed,” Bennett says. “Some have a database of facts in their head, like people do with baseball. When we watch football, we see all that, but we also see life, culture and history. The [English] Premier League is part elite athletic pursuit, but it’s also a telenovela, complete with heroes, villains and neck tattoos.”
Thus can the Men in Blazers not only discuss the holes in Manchester City’s defense, but also how it’s somehow still acceptable to mock gingers (redheads). They discuss overlapping fullbacks and the poetry of Philip Larkin. They laugh over strikers whose shots are so weak they seem to be a pass (a “shass” — see more MiB vocabulary words on at left), and they giggle over all things British (like how Davies’ father once derisively called pasta “ethnic nosh.”)
At heart, Men in Blazers is the story of two blokes who grew up in England playing Subbuteo (a soccer board game with small figurines) and watching bad American sitcoms, and who dreamed of crossing the Atlantic. It’s the story of two men who met accidentally at a wedding and who are now closer than most married couples. It is, Davies says, the story of two immigrants coming to America to make good.
“For me, that story is Yentl,” Bennett says. “For Davo, it’s the British version of Scarface.”
Michael Davies and Roger Bennett were angry. It was summer 2006, and over in Europe the football World Cup final between Italy and France was underway. It was as dramatic as it gets: French captain Zinedine Zidane, one of the all-time greats, was sent off for head-butting an opponent, and the game finished with a nail-biting penalty shoot-out.
Davies and Bennett didn’t see any of this. They were on a boat, at the wedding of a mutual friend who had not consulted the World Cup schedule when planning his nuptials. Bennett was upset and acting like “a petulant teen” when he noticed Davies, whom he did not then know, behaving in the same sulky manner. They hit it off right away.
Bennett, a “North-of-Englander” from Liverpool, was a lifelong Everton fan. Davies, a Londoner with an admittedly more posh upbringing, was a Chelsea supporter. But the common language they spoke was football.
Bennett likes to quote Camus when he describes himself: “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.”
At the time the two met, football was still soccer in the U.S., a definite minority sport to the extent it was difficult to even find a way to watch games. Bennett, then living in Washington, D.C., used to go to a local pub every Saturday morning for the soccer scraps being televised there. “They’d show one game a week and it was always Southampton versus Leicester [the most minor of encounters], but I didn’t care.” By 2006, though, when he went there for the Italy vs. USA game during the World Cup and saw the line to get in wrapped around the block, he knew he was looking at a country of potential converts.
Bennet and Davies continued their friendship as Davies, who had already contributed essays to ESPN.com during the 2002 and 2006 World Cup, looked for ways to formalize their yin-yang partnership. By the time the 2010 World Cup came around, the relationship begat their lives as ESPN correspondents for the World Cup in 2010, which led to their first co-written blog articles and a podcast, each titled “Off the Ball.” When the Bill Simmons-led website Grantland launched in 2011, it added the podcast to their lineup with the new name: Men in Blazers.
“For so long, finding good content about football was difficult,” says longtime U.S. soccer writer Steve Davis. “Then the Internet and blogs happened, and great information and analysis could be scooped up pretty easily. Roger and Davo took the next step, combining good knowledge of the game with John Oliver-esque humor and intellect, all while never taking themselves or the game too seriously.”
“I flat-out love those guys,” says Marc Stein, ESPN’s senior basketball writer and a decades-long Manchester City fan. “They have a great ability to relate all the traditions, flavor and quirks about the English game —and English fans — to American sport and our culture. They do that better than anybody who’s even been part of the U.S. soccer press. But they’ve also enthusiastically embraced the American game and make you think they’d like to see it succeed and keep growing as opposed to constantly giving the impression that it’s beneath them.”
Stein sees a comparison to two well-known American writers whose camaraderie also helped them launch TV careers. “I see them as soccer’s answer to Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on Pardon the Interruption. Mike and Tony had been having these arguments for years at The Washington Post [where they were both writers] before they ever got on TV. The Men in Blazers have been bantering the same way long before they ever became a show.”
The combination of humor, honesty and insight has given them a special relationship with fans. “We are incredibly moved by the ravens [MiB-speak for letters or e-mails] we receive,” Davies says. It’s very much a two-way conversation: Americans, who look at the game through fresh eyes, have also taught Bennett and Davies to see football in new ways. Bennett cites the example of a query the duo received that asked why the fans at Norwich were all squinting into the sun. Why, in other words, were the Brits not wearing sunglasses? “We’d never noticed that before, but it was true,” says Davies. “And it’s simply because we [Brits] never see the sun.”
The pair’s media growth is inexorably tied to the growth of soccer in America, which appears unstoppable (at least for the Barclays Premier League, as NBC saw its ratings for the BPL double last year; ratings for Major League Soccer remain flat). In less than two years, the rights to broadcast Barclays Premier League games, currently held by NBC, will be out for tender again, and Davies suspects the fight will be fierce and expensive. Meantime, the Men in Blazers continue to expand their social media presence: they have talked often about doing more live events, like the shows on Broadway and in pubs around the country they’ve done. Another frequently aired idea is to open a Men in Blazers pub (every Englishman’s dream is to have his own pub), although for the moment limited-edition clubwear MiB ties sold via the website is as far as they’ve got. “The obvious progression is Men in Blazers as a lifestyle brand,” Davies says. “We want fans to live in a Men in Blazers world.”
“Whatever the future holds,” says Bennett, “there will be a lot of tweed.”
Men in Blazers
Big Bottom Smalls: short players with large derrieres (e.g., Eden Hazard) Small Bottom Talls: the opposite (e.g., Peter Crouch) Courage: the final word Davies plans to utter at the end of all his planned Emmy acceptance speeches Judge Ivor Bennett Time: Named after Bennett’s father, who says a goal just before or after halftime is most deflating to the opposition Size the Day: What coach Bora Milutinović said to the U.S. Men’s National Team games in the 1994 World Cup, when he meant “seize the day” Warpig: the nickname of former Belgium footballer Marc Wilmots