The World Cup isn't over for another 13 days, but for Americans who've been devouring every last televised morsel of this year's tournament, there's already a clear winner: a madcap duo of soccer-obsessed British ex-pats who call themselves the "Men in Blazers."
Tucked tightly away inside ESPN's head-spinning 290 hours of original World Cup programming, the Men in Blazers have become the network's breakout stars of the tournament, charming both ardent soccer fans and the casual watchers alike with their passionate love for American soccer and somewhat unhinged takes on the high and low culture of the tournament. More importantly, their formidable presence online (a Grantland podcast, where they got their beginning, constant tweets, and several video segments per day) as well as appearances on ESPN's World Cup Tonight show, have in no small part assisted the sport's recent boom in the country.
For the uninitiated, the duo of Roger Bennett, a writer for ESPN, and Michael Davies, a TV executive and CEO who's produced, among other things, Wife Swap and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, bring a level of weirdness and sport savvy that's been compared to the 1990s SportsCenter glory days. Chock-full of idiosyncrasies born from their podcast — they have their own vocabulary (emails are "ravens," GFOP stands for "Great Friend of the Pod") — Davies and Bennett are a refreshing break from ESPN's sometimes bland talking heads.
"For us, football makes us feel feelings that you're meant to experience in real life that neither of us are capable of," said Bennett. Things like happiness and excitement and loss and joy and disappointment. "Dav-o and I are ultimately wedded by the fact that we're most alive when we're watching football. We always say we'd watch two horses play football, if that's all that was available."
Their obsessions this World Cup include the hyper-combustible, sometimes rain-soaked Mexico coach, Miguel Herrera; tiny Brazilian bananas; the interplay between the "smalls and talls" of the French national team; and the always visible protruding nipples of each team's players. Try for a moment to imagine Chris Berman discussing Tom Brady's nipples and you'll understand why the "Men in Blazers" are like nothing ESPN has seen in years.
"Authenticity is an important trait for me, as someone who consumes a lot of sports media and viewers are too often treated to manufactured, ego-driven, self-serving buffoonery," said Sports Illustrated media columnist Richard Deitsch. "That's why I like what ESPN has done with Michael Davies and Roger Bennett. They are decidedly different from what we are used to seeing on television and their passion for soccer blows through the screen. As I've written this month, ESPN's World Cup soccer coverage is the network at its best and World Cup Tonight (where the Men in Blazers appear) has been sensational sports television because it's authentic. Undoubtely, MiB (and a ton of others) have helped push the world soccer to the American sports fan."
Beyond witty commentary, the duo has helped to ignite a very real passion for soccer in America — their motto is "driven by the belief that Soccer is America's Sport of the Future. As it has been since 1972."
"Their witty and undeterred support of American soccer has been invaluable," Dan Wiersema, a member of the American Outlaws, a U.S. national team fan club, told BuzzFeed. "As a popular show in both the U.S. and across the pond, they've done immeasurable positive work in creating new fans at home and abroad for the USMNT."
Part of what makes Men in Blazers so special is the duo's genuine interest in the cultivation of an informed and passionate American soccer culture.
"In 2008 and 2009, Americans felt lesser," Bennet told BuzzFeed via phone from Brazil. "They felt that if they liked football, the football world was like a big lecture hall and they just and to sit in the back and they were lucky to be there and they had to keep their hands down and not have questions. What's changed in 2014, there's a large, sentient intelligent football audience in America now and they're ready to enjoy it, savor it, high culture, low culture, ask great questions, and enjoy the great moments and savor the unbelievable goals and laugh at the villains," he said.
"I remember being in Brooklyn with Rog on the first day of the World Cup in 2010 and you could feel it in the bars, but what happened in 2014 is Americans are taking it on and embracing it in their own, very American way," Davies chimed in. "We see the shots of Grant Park and Kansas City, and the people we're hearing from on social media aren't just L.A., NY, San Francisco, and Chicago people. They're from all across the South and the Midwest and across the States. You know, it's building a culture with their own friends families and friends."
Ironically, Davies and Bennett are somewhat isolated from the U.S. soccer boom they've had a hand in shaping. "We're in the jungle. We have access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane. It's like Heart of Darkness," Bennett said. "And amazing as it is we've arrived in Brazil on the day of the kickoff of the World Cup, which already is a once in a lifetime nipple tingler, and it's the ultimate privilege, but we are kind of unaware as to what's going on around in America — you know, the smell of it, the taste of it, the electric feel of it."
Regardless of the geographic disconnect, Bennett and Davies are continuing to fan the flames by relentlessly engaging their audience via their podcast, web show, and Twitter, asking fans to participate in caption contests and submit fan art. On USMNT game days, @MeninBlazers tweets photos of fans wearing their US Men's team gear at the office, something the group refers to as "full kit wankers."
"One thing we are really focused on is we make our podcast and now our daily World Cup work in communication with our audience," Davies said. "It's their tweets, their content, their 'Ravens,' and that's why we do the live shows and go for a drink with everybody afterwards — we are always in communication with our audience."
And with that audience growing rapidly (the Men in Blazers' Twitter account has doubled in size to over 60,000 followers in the past two weeks), many have questions about what comes after the World Cup, with some wondering if a possible TV show is in their future. When asked, Davies noted that the podcast will continue to evolve with the fans, perhaps focusing more on the American MLS league. "I would imagine if the audience are really looking for us to take to a new place to talk about something new, we will."
As for their own TV future, Bennett played coy. "We have measured Bob Ley's panic room [the name the duo has for the closet-sized studio where they tape their web show] foot-for-foot, and are building an exact replica in the crap part of SoHo as I speak. One fixed-camera broadcasting when trapped in a closet is the future of sports broadcasting."