On the front page of the Men In Blazers’ website, a note explains that the four-year-old soccer podcast and accompanying TV show, which debuted in September on NBCSN, is “driven by the belief that soccer is America’s sport of the future. As it has been since 1972.”
Lately though, Michael “Davo” Davies and Roger Bennett, the English-born New Yorkers behind MiB, are facing the realization that the future may finally be here – more Americans watched the U.S.-Portugal World Cup match this summer than any game of the NBA Finals – and strangely enough, they may be its voice.
“People say, ‘You’re two English people talking about soccer to Americans. How on Earth is that working?'” says Davies. “I really don’t know.'”
The pair met at a wedding on a boat during the 2006 World Cup final – “I couldn’t believe we were missing the final and was in no mood to socialize,” says Bennett. “I remember Davo being similarly petulant.” – after which they got together for what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting.
“We started a conversation in that meeting that we’ve been having ever since,” says Davies. Though that conversation revolves around English Premier League and international soccer, it’s hardly constrained by it. Inside jokes abound, as do references to everything from Downton Abbey and Miami Vice to Drakkar Noir and the poetry of Philip Larkin.
“We’ve tried to revel in the narrative of football, which for us, is like an elite athletic competition fused with the storylines of a telenovela,” says Bennett. “Albert Camus had a great quote, ‘Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.’ We agree with that. For us, football is life, like it was for Camus, I guess. Never met the bloke. Would’ve loved him to come on the show.”
Production for the podcast, the album it spawned (which topped the iTunes comedy charts), occasional live shows (the last one sold out in minutes) and now the TV show, is all defiantly amateurish – or “suboptimal” in MiB parlance. Their fans – affectionately known as GFOPs (“Great Friends of the Pod”) – treat the duo’s inside jokes like a secret language and connect to MiB’s underdog spirit.
“It taps into an American soccer culture that for so long has been downtrodden and discarded,” says ex-U.S. National Team defender, ESPN analyst and GFOP Alexi Lalas. “When you’re a fan, you get the jokes and the jargon. That makes it our thing, Like Cosa Nostra.”
Although their fan base has been growing for a while now, this summer’s World Cup represented a giant leap forward for the duo. Holed up in a tiny studio – really no more than a storage closet – in ESPN’s headquarters in Brazil that they dubbed “Bob Ley’s Panic Room,” Davies and Bennett discussed the games with the kind of wild-eyed glee that hardcore fans who were skipping work back in the U.S. to watch them could relate to.
“From a sports broadcasting perspective, you can build a massive set with Leni Riefenstahl-esque architecture and incredible video boards where the hosts paratroop onto the field and use touch screens where they can almost be part of the play,” says Bennett, “but at the end of the day, when it comes to soccer, Americans are also willing to watch two balding English blokes, trapped in a closet like R.Kelly, with a fixed camera, just talking to each other.”
The World Cup spots led to the NBC deal, and though there was some fear among their fans that the network might meddle with their formula or at least spruce it up a bit for TV, their first couple of shows have put those fears to rest, trading on-screen graphics for information scribbled on poster boards with a Sharpie, and sporting lite-reggae intro music that Davies calls “the most suboptimal theme tune in the history of sports television.” The results imagine a cross between Mike & Mike, Wayne’s World and Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.
“We’re not trying to pretend to be sports broadcasters,” says Davies. “We look at what [soccer commentators] Rebecca Lowe, Kyle Martino and Arlo White do on NBC and are blown away by their professionalism. We don’t want to be judged by those standards. We just want to have a conversation with each other and with our GFOPs.”
As Bennett puts it, “NBC knows that every team has a weak link and I think they hired us to be NBC’s weak link.”