Men in Blazers' Roger Bennett discusses soccer in America, Ann Coulter, BlazerCon cosplay

Written By Cory Collins

From Liverpool lad to popular podcast personality to NBC-sanctioned soccer analyst, Roger Bennett — alongside "Men in Blazers" co-host Michael Davies — has become synonymous with soccer in America.

The duo saw its Q score skyrocket during the 2014 World Cup, bringing lighthearted analysis to ESPN's coverage from a broom closet. Now that the once-underground podcast hosts have gone big time as a part of NBC's English Premier League package, they're looking to host a new-age tea party for the American soccer revolution.

MORE: Women's World Cup flashback, in photos | Premier League's record-breaking summer

It's called BlazerCon — an event taking place at Brooklyn Expo Center on November 13 and 14 billed as soccer's Comic-Con. The two day event, sponsored by EA Sports, MINI and Adidas, will feature a who's who of soccer personalities including the World Cup-winning U.S. Women's National Team, with proceeds benefiting Hope for the Warriors.

Sporting News spoke with Bennett about BlazerCon, the growth of American soccer, the Ann Coulter curmudgeons of the world, the amount of tee shirts in his closet and his unlikely path from just another podcast to national notoriety. He's bullish on MLS's future; he might hold power over the Mets; and he's not afraid of a little cosplay.

Roger Bennett, ladies and gentleman:

SN: BlazerCon. This feels kind of huge. You're getting the English Premier League CEO (Richard Scudamore). The Women's World Cup team. Panel discussions galore. So tell me, what's the endgame here? An education? A proclamation of the American arrival of soccer as mainstream? What's the endgame of this event?

BENNETT: It just felt like a logical development. We've been doing a series of large shows over the past couple of years where we've had two or three guests on stage. And people were flying in from across the country. A large group would fly in from Los Angeles. A large group would fly in every show we did from Chicago. And honestly, we were feeling a bit embarrassed that people were flying in for two hours of us interviewing someone at a large show. 

The second realization: It wasn't just for the couple of hours of the live show, but the notion of being together. This notion of the listenership, who are mostly American who have fallen truly, madly, deeply in love with football. A lot of them have loved football for a long time. But the 2010 World Cup was an incredible watermark in terms of America's ongoing love affair with global football. And the thing that changed was, we realized that not only do Americans now love global football, but global football loves America, which is a different, but deeply connected reality. 

We wanted to create something that was worth flying in for, that was worth crossing the country for, that was worth taking the time and the energy to come together for.

SN: Now, you all are kind of billing this as a Comic-Con of soccer, of sorts. Should we expect cosplay? Or everyone wearing blazers? Is this more a fun atmosphere or an academic atmosphere? A little bit of both?

BENNETT: We've always tried to offer great content. With Richard Scudamore, the guys who run Liverpool, the guys who run Manchester City, the guys who run Southampton and the U.S. Women's National Team players, the MLS owners and some of the celebrities we've got coming in, we think we'll have very thoughtful, insightful conversation.

Nighttime is going to be more like when we have a live show, where we have celebrities, sporting figures and some of the characters that have become popular through our show, like the former Leyton Orient owner Barry Hearn. So we'll do a couple of shows in the nighttime and there will be beer. And there will be pies. 

But the response from our listeners has been amazing. When we talked about it on the pod this week, a lot of them are debating the cosplay that is popularized at Comic-Con. And we've heard from many of them that are coming as their favorite Premier League football characters, from a dressed down Jose Mourinho, sideline Jurgen Klinsmann, but also some of the characters that we've introduced America to through the show like a famous pie-eating Manchester United fan who the cameras always catch. Or the tiny dog that runs on the advertisements on Premier League games this year. But I think there will be a mix of amazing content, candid presentations and an audience who will be dressed in their favorite kit, their favorite tweed and their favorite full-kit wanker. It will be high-level football content meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

SN: You mention that America loves global football; global football loves America. You said that. But there's still this strangely prideful contingent of curmudgeons that like to diminish soccer's popularity in the U.S. They like to compare it to ratings of NFL and basketball. Is that fair? Is that shortsighted? In 2015, how should we be measuring the sport's popularity in America?

BENNETT: I think you can actually name the person that is a curmudgeon about the rise of football in this country and that person is Ann Coulter. I think we've joked always that football is America's sport of the future since 1972. But that future is very much now.

You look at the rise of the World Cup here, World Cup to World Cup. You look at the ratings, Cory, of the Women's World Cup this summer, where they outstripped the NBA Finals' ratings. You look at the records rights purchase of the English Premier League by NBC, and just the numbers of people engaging with the sport. And the numbers of young individuals 18-30. Look at EA Sports' FIFA game and just how massive that is in America. I think America is the second-biggest territory for the game, globally, which is a massive statement about the number of young Americans day in, day out spending on average three hours playing this game.

I think for a long time, America has been the sport's final frontier. And I think right now when you look at how Barcelona, you look at how Liverpool, you look at how Manchester City or Chelsea are looking at America now, building strategies to try to conquer it. I think it's the final frontier. 

SN: Your official website lists your aim as, "nothing less than to enlighten the masses to the wildly entertaining world of soccer." So for the Ann Coulters of the world that might recycle those old, annoying arguments such as 'too much flopping,' 'too little scoring,' 'too many well-groomed European men' — whatever it is — what are they missing? Is that perception starting to change?

BENNETT: I remember when the World Cup was given to America in the late '80s (to host in '94), Jack Kemp — the congressman who was a former NFL quarterback — felt moved to say, 'It's important to all those young people out there who someday hope to play real football, where you can kick it and run it and put it in your hands, a distinction should be made. Football is democratic capitalism. Whereas soccer is a European socialist sport.'

That's a distinctly minority opinion, now. It's absolutely a non-issue. We're well beyond that. Jack Kemp would not believe the American we're living in, in many ways. That would probably be predominant among them. 

Thanks to the internet, Americans have become incredibly accessible. They're able to engage with the soccer narrative as easily from Los Angeles as you could in Leicester. So if you're a Leicester City fan living in Los Angeles, you can follow the club now as well and as passionately and as maddeningly as those who live in the same zip code as the team that you follow. 

It's a famous adage. Baseball grew up in the golden era of radio. It's a perfect radio sport. Football took off in the golden era of television. It's such a telegenic endeavor. And soccer, football, global football is almost a perfect sport for the internet age, in terms of the volume of games you can access, in terms of the volume of information you can gain.

When I first moved to America, when my team Everton played in the finals of the FA Cup — big game, massive game — it wasn't on television. I had to phone my father and he held the telephone up to the radio so I could follow along. Now there are more games broadcast on a weekend in America than there are even in England. 

In a funny way, America has become a global football epicenter. In terms of accessibility to global football, there's no finer place to live. 

SN: You mention the America we live in now. On a scale of three to infinity, how many centuries away are we from the MLS being seen as a peer among top flight leagues?

BENNETT: How many centuries?!

SN: Unless you're more optimistic, of course.

BENNETT: For me, the question is decades. MLS is just 20. English League has been going on since the late-19th century. I grew up in England, when the English Leagues were not a European powerhouse. When I grew up, Italy was the best. league. in. the world. The best league in the world. 

I was speaking with an Italian journalist this week. He talked about the early '90s, about the rise of the Premier League. At the beginning, the English Premier League was — it's hard to believe now, Cory — it was a dinosaur's graveyard where players would go when they were kind of tapped out.

Football leagues — they're not static. Their tectonic plates shift all the time. And what people are saying about MLS right now — that it's the elephant graveyard where Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard come at the end of their careers — it's exactly what Europeans said about the English Premier League in the early 1990s. 

First, the dinosaurs come. The elephant's graveyard. Then you get players like Sebastian Giovinco with Toronto, who are terrific European players. Younger players coming over. Then very quickly, it changes, momentum builds and leagues flourish.

SN: Well, as long as we're on the topic of underdogs with the potential to do great things, I'm going to ask you a few questions about you. You start with this podcast that has become huge. You have a prominent place within NBC Sports Network. There are people looking to you each week to be their conduit of global soccer to America. Does that weigh on you at all. Is it exciting? Overwhelming? 

BENNETT: The honest truth is I love football. I love watching football. I love talking about football. And from the very beginning of "Men in Blazers," we used to talk to each other. There's nothing I love more than to talk to Davo (Davies) about football. And we turn the microphones on. 

To start off with, we always joke: 'We have seven listeners and one of them was my mother-in-law.' Our listeners were always, from the beginning, very vociferous, very engaged in the narrative of football. Very socially active in terms of their creativity, what they'd send us, their ideas and responses. So it became a three-way conversation. And that's how we see everything we do. A conversation in which I talk to David, but we're really talking to a third person, our listeners.

That's never changed. To a large degree, my life is exactly what it was when we first started. I watch a huge amount of football, I read a lot about football, I talk a lot about football with Davo and to our listeners. So life is exactly the same for me in every regard.

I'm a balding man. A balding, middle-aged bloke. Very little has changed in my self-image. I watch a lot of football. I talk about it. Thank God it never ends.

SN: This "Men in Blazers" title, does that ever become a burden? Do you feel compelled to wear blazers in any weather? Are fans disappointed when they find out you own a jumper or a tee shirt?

BENNETT: (laughs) That's funny. I don't own any tee shirts. It's the honest truth. That's probably one thing that's changed; I've got a much bigger tie collection now than when I started. We're shooting so much, we are recording so much, we've got so many interviews ... some nights I sleep in a tie shirt and blazer. 

SN: Staying true to yourself. That's good. So you've had some pretty big interviews lately, people like Noel Gallagher, David Simon, John Terry. Who has been the most intimidating interview for you?

BENNETT: The only intimidating interview was Manny Pacquiao. He's a fantastic bloke. A fantastic bloke. But he doesn't speak much English. So after every question, he kept just leaning over into the microphone and shouting in his Braveheart Scottish accent, "I hate the English! I'm here to kill the English!" (Laughs)

SN: We here at Sporting News, we used to be known as the baseball bible. I know you have some baseball fandom in you. I feel we'd be remiss if we didn't ask you what's brewing in that mind of yours regarding the baseball world.

BENNETT: We adore the baseball. Both of us. When we moved to this country, we fell in love with American sports, very hard and very fast. 

I moved to Chicago during the Frank Thomas-White Sox era and I fell in love with watching baseball. I've always said it's like chess with chewing tobacco. So we adore it. We've had a lot, a lot of great baseball players come on over time at "Men in Blazers." 

One of the first podcasts we did, for our intended audience, I tried to think about who we were talking to; I always pictured Billy Beane in my head. Because I knew he was falling in love with football. He was always my mentally-pictured audience member. After the first season, I got a text professing to be from Billy Beane. Turns out it was Billy Beane and he'd been listening to the podcast. 

He's come on seven times. What Alec Baldwin is to Saturday Night Live, Billy Beane is to "Men in Blazers." 

I watch a lot of NFL. I adore NFL. As I speak to you, I'm looking over and I see a grainy photograph of Mike Ditka walking on the field and giving the finger to Green Bay fans when he's walking off the pitch. 

The one guilty thing I feel about my life is that there's so much football on, so much football on American television — the English Premier League, La Liga, MLS, the National Women's Soccer League — that the one thing I've been lax on is my baseball watching. I used to watch a lot of baseball. 

And I've not been this season to watch the Mets. Which I've felt very guilty about. But maybe, it may be the reason the Mets are doing so well this season.

SN: Getting back to "Men in Blazers": You talked about BlazerCon being a natural progression for what you all do. So what's next?

BENNETT: Wow. Well, the immediate next natural progression will be me sitting on my couch, cracking open a Guinness and watching some football. Just relaxing. But I'll say, having lived in this country since right before the 1994 World Cup and witnessing football's rise...

When I first came here, Premier League football was so hard to access from America. I remember grim days when there would be one game on on a Saturday morning. Always one of the minor games. And I'd go and watch it in a bar in Washington, D.C. with the same nine or 10 ex-pat English guys. We'd watch silently and we'd feast upon it, as if we were watching Boca play River Plate. It was just so exciting. 

Then, during the 2006 World Cup, I went back to the same bar. I happened to be in D.C. And the U.S. were playing a very important game ... and there was a line around the block. It was as if the Beatles had performed. 

Then in 2010, ESPN put the World Cup over the top in America as a massive cultural happening. And by 2014, it had stopped being a one-off cultural happening, but thousands and thousands of Americans had become hooked on week-to-week narratives from the major leagues of the world. And having witnessed that, we marvel at the explosion of the sport in the last 20 years.

Thinking about what's next, all I can say looking at the trajectory we've lived and the trajectory going forward is that it's incredibly thrilling to have witnessed it all and to have played a small part in it all.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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