Updated December 2, 2022 at 1:53 p.m. EST|Published December 1, 2022 at 8:00 a.m. EST
It was approaching midnight when Roger Bennett slid into a booth at a bar in Southeast Washington on Saturday night. He had just finished a live taping of his soccer podcast and had a dawn flight to Austin, the next stop on his 10-city month-long World Cup tour, where there would be another live show, a Twitch stream of the U.S.-Iran game and more podcast tapings.
Bennett wore khakis and a striped red, white and blue fleece. His bald head gleamed under the fluorescent lights, and there were faint rings under his eyes. He was glowing.
“I’m a mental wreck right now,” Bennett said in his lilting Liverpool accent. “But it’s the most gleeful state of exhaustion I’ve ever been in.”
Bennett, along with Londoner Michael Davies, is one half of the duo known as Men in Blazers, who since 2010 have been delivering soccer commentary to a steadily growing global audience in their trademark droll, whimsical style. At Saturday’s show, Bennett called Lionel Messi an “Argentinian Care Bear” and sang the name of Spanish forward Alvaro Morata in falsetto to the tune of “Escape”: If you like piña coladas ...
Bennett and Davies have a team of 12 production staffers; their live shows are drawing between 500 and 1,000 people at each stop. They just released a book chronicling the best soccer players ever and a panoply of podcasts to cover every aspect of this World Cup. Bennett has teamed with former Obama White House staffer Tommy Vietor to tackle the geopolitical questions of the Qatar tournament and with Brendan Hunt, the co-creator of “Ted Lasso,” to chronicle the journey of the men’s national team.
The goal is to turn Men in Blazers into a full-fledged media company powered by the growth of soccer’s popularity 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 Moment).
“The 1994 World Cup here was meant to put football over the top, but instead it was like a wave that hit the beach and went,” he said. “Every World Cup since has been a bigger wave that hits the beach and leaves a bigger audience. It’s not been a straight line in any way, but with the World Cup coming [to the United States] in 2026 and the women’s game flourishing in this moment, it’s about to really pop it. I mean, this is a movement.”
The data points continue to accumulate. Fox said the U.S.-England match was the most-watched soccer game on English language TV in American history. NBC, which just paid $2.7 billion for a new six-year rights deal, said the Premier League reached more than 30 million viewers last year, up from around 13 million in 2012. “Ted Lasso” is winning Emmys, and Ryan Reynolds bought a lower-division Welsh club, Wrexham, and made a docuseries out of it. American players dot the rosters of top European teams, and European soccer leagues have become core offerings of the streaming services battling each other for supremacy in American media.
Ahead of this World Cup, Netflix aired a documentary about corruption at FIFA, and Meadowlark Media produced a documentary on the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry in English and Spanish for Amazon’s Prime Video.
To Bennett, it’s all a bit dreamy. He recalled going to bars in Chicago during the 1994 tournament games and finding them empty. The next year, when his favorite club, Everton, played an important FA Cup match, his father in Liverpool held the phone up to the radio so he could follow along. As recently as 2006, the World Cup was a “time buy” on ESPN, meaning the network didn’t pay a rights fee to air the tournament.
Bennett and Davies, a veteran TV producer who brought “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” to the United States and now is the executive producer of “Jeopardy,” have often found themselves in the middle of the sport’s journey over the past two decades. For the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, future ESPN president John Skipper hired Davies to write daily reaction pieces. Skipper noticed the page views, which helped inform his decision to push for World Cup rights in 2010 and 2014 and the Premier League to replace hunting and fishing programming on weekend mornings on ESPN. “I think the ratings tripled,” Skipper said.
ESPN, Skipper recalled, spent some $40 million on World Cup production in South Africa in 2010, about the same amount it paid for the rights. “We decided to make the World Cup one of our topmost three to four priorities,” said Skipper, who now runs Meadowlark Media. “Was there resistance to that? Yes, there was.”
Bennett and Davies met at a wedding during the 2006 World Cup and sensed the same opportunity. Bennett had been a freelance writer and author, including at ESPN, and they launched the podcast with Grantland, Bill Simmons’s boutique ESPN site, in 2010. During that World Cup, Bennett made regular appearances on “Morning Joe,” translating the tournament to American viewers in between segments on stagflation and horse race politics. (Tom Brokaw once questioned him live on the air about why soccer was worthy of his attention; several years later, Brokaw gushed to him about the family trips he had been taking to Premier League games.)
American media has for years tried to sell the game to the American public with varying success. Bennett said an ESPN executive once lectured him years ago on how Major League Soccer was all that mattered for the sport’s growth in the United States. “If you’re in Houston, whose jersey do you want to wear — Real Madrid or the Houston Dynamo?” the executive asked, apparently serious. But Bennett recognized the Premier League was the world’s best soccer and would most capture Americans’ attention.
As EA Sports’ FIFA video game introduced a generation of Americans to players such as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Bennett realized his role was to look beyond X’s and O’s. Part of that was to play soccer sommelier for the Premier League curious, helping them identify a side to which they could credibly pledge loyalty.
“I’m from Boston, so a little self-loathing ... but still part lovable loser from the pre-2004 Red Sox,” Vietor said. Bennett had just the team for him. “He said, ‘You’re an Everton fan!’
“American fans understand the game as well as anyone in England,” Bennett said. “What the American fans didn’t have as much — because they’ve not lived it — is a narrative of what’s the difference between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. What’s the difference between Inter Milan and AC Milan? What’s the history? What’s the culture? What’s the political reality? It’s the backstory and the historical arc that we’ve leaned into.”
American networks have noticed, and they liberally use Bennett and Davies to boost their properties. ESPN sent them to Brazil for a nightly wrap-up show in 2014; 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. Players have, too. “They gave us a platform to tell our stories,” said U.S. women’s national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who has been a repeat guest on the show. “That opened up more support for us and the women’s game.”
On Saturday night in D.C., some 700 people, dressed in Men in Blazers merch and Team USA scarves, packed the Capital Turnaround for the live show. At a bar afterward, Davies and Bennett were mobbed like genuine celebrities. Bennett called nearly everyone he met a beautiful human being, took photos and talked optimistically about the chances for Team USA, his adopted team, to advance. (That view was almost unanimous in the crowd. “I find it a bit annoying,” said Claire Bates, a British transplant and loyal listener, of Bennett dropping the English for Team USA.)
That scene was one snapshot of the sport; another step would be getting mainstream sports media to think of soccer and its fans less like the theater kids of sports, to get Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless arguing about the merits of a 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 grabs an interest,” he said. “And the tectonic plates are shifting. The money in this sport in America is ticking up in a remarkable way. And when that happens, Stephen A. Smith will be breaking down, to his shock and wonder, the four or five American players who are playing for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United on a Wednesday night, and he’ll be like, ‘I don’t know how we got here, but here we are.’ ”
Until then, Bennett’s Twitch streams will have to suffice. During matches, Bennett’s eyes widen and he gesticulates in a manner Smith would surely be proud of. “Do not let them treat you the way the Dream Team treated Toni Kukoc,” he implored the United States during its draw against England. “I’ve pissed my pants!” he screamed when Christian Pulisic scored against Iran.
Back at the bar, well past midnight now, he took a final sip of his beer and announced he had a script to write before his flight. He sprinted out of the bar to find his Uber, a blur of khaki and Americana.