Men in Blazers, Hollywood’s Favorite Soccer Podcast, Aims for a Global Empire
Roger Bennett, one half of the podcast frequented by stars like John Oliver and Matthew McConaughey, is signing new talent — including superstar Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano — to build a “full-throated media network.”
Roger Bennett, the indefatigable co-founder of the soccer podcasting franchise Men in Blazers, has never played a second of competitive soccer. Since 2011, when he launched a lo-fi weekly(-ish) gab session with fellow bald British-expat soccer obsessive Michael Davies, a successful television executive and producer, Bennett has focused on the human stories behind the game rather than the intricacies of field strategy, of which he admittedly knew little at first. But as he demonstrated on a recent Zoom meeting with a current member of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team who shall remain nameless, he has mastered the X’s and O’s of the charm offensive.
His objective for the meeting was to persuade the player to join the growing roster of voices featured on Men in Blazers as it seeks to expand beyond “Rog and Davo,” as the two hosts call themselves. Bennett laid his best lines on the player: “Tell me what you would like to do, and then we’ll talk about how we can pull this off, because we want to do it by sea, by land, by air.”
For the most part, the player appeared to let the flattery wash over him. But his interest was visibly piqued when Bennett mentioned several other marquee partnerships Men in Blazers had just signed. The next day, former U.S. Men’s National Team defenseman and current ESPN commentator Herculez Gomez would premiere his own podcast on the Men in Blazers network, Vamos!, targeted at Hispanic soccer fans. Women’s National Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn will chronicle the run-up to this year’s Women’s World Cup, while her teammate Sam Mewis, who is recovering from injury, will co-host a show on Twitch during the tournament. Milan-based Fabrizio Romano, arguably the most influential soccer journalist in the world, known for his coverage of big-money player transfers, will be bringing his massively popular podcast to the network.
The player nodded in admiration. Men in Blazers, it was clear, had global aspirations and was well on its way to achieving them. “You’re the only network I would consider doing this for,” he said, even as he explained that his training schedule might make it difficult to commit.
Bennett pressed on: “On this show, I’ve always joked that soccer is America’s sport of the future, as it has been since 1972,” he said. “That’s changing. The future really is now.”
After decades of being tantalizingly on the cusp, soccer seems to finally be reaching a critical mass of popularity in the U.S. Attendance for Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League are at an all-time high, and there are more American players than ever in the high-stakes European leagues. Broadcast networks are now showing top games during primetime, while the streaming revolution has made it possible to watch pretty much every game from every significant league on the planet. At the same time, soccer has infiltrated popular culture, as evidenced by Emmy-winning phenom Ted Lasso and Hulu’s Welcome to Wrexham, the feel-good docuseries about Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s efforts to turn around the fortunes of a plucky, fifth-tier Welsh team.
As soccer has grown, so has Men in Blazers, which has thus far covered primarily the English Premier League, the MLS, the NWLS, the Champions League and the U.S. National Teams. The network’s podcasts — many of which initially air live on Amp or Twitch — get between 1 million and 1.5 million downloads a month, with listeners predominantly in their 20s and early 30s and based in the U.S. The franchise’s dominance in its field positions it perfectly to take advantage of what promises to be an explosion of stateside interest in soccer in the coming years. After the Women’s World Cup, in which American women are — as ever — expected to go far, will be the 2024 Copa América, bringing some of the globe’s biggest superstars, including Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, to the U.S. Then comes the 2026 World Cup, of which the U.S. will host the majority of matches.
The moment couldn’t be more auspicious. Then again, the story of Men in Blazers has always been a story of timing — though one that started with remarkably bad timing. Bennett and Davies met on a boat at a wedding taking place at the same time as the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy; they commiserated over the lack of TVs on which to watch the game. Bennett was then a freelance journalist in New York covering various topics including soccer. (Disclosure: I was his editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.) Davies was a television producer, best known for producing the U.S. version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, who had blogged about the World Cup for ESPN. (He sold his production company, Embassy Row, in 2008 to Sony Pictures Television, which has enlisted him as executive producer of Jeopardy!) From their shared annoyance and passion, a friendship developed. In 2010, ESPN approached the two of them to cover the World Cup. The experience would lead the two to start their own podcast, which they called Men in Blazers, “out of reverence for the old American network tradition of putting sportscasters in brightly colored blazers,” says Bennett. They launched right as podcasts were becoming a thing. “We made a bet, and it was an uninformed bet, but it was a very blessed bet,” says Bennett. “Podcasting is a low-barrier-to-entry technology but easy to grow.”
After NBC acquired the rights to air English Premiership games in 2014, Rog and Davo became the natural choices to host a weekly TV show about the league for NBC Sports Network (since that channel’s demise, it now streams on Peacock and has appeared on network NBC). “They had exactly the kind of audience we were hoping to attract for the Premier League,” says Jon Miller, president of acquisitions and partnerships at NBC Sports.
The pandemic, finally, marked a turning point. “My staff realized that, even with sports stopped, we needed to double up,” says Bennett. “Our audience needed us. They needed a sense of connection to each other. And in that moment, we decided to start going daily. We did a pod every day,” a pace that they’ve maintained. The increased output allowed for a greater range of subject matter, encompassing stories beyond the pitch, such as sportswashing, the reputational laundering that owning a successful sports team can provide, a topic Bennett explored in a series with Pod Save America’s Tommy Vietor.
“No one is more shocked than me how far the show has come,” says Davies. “Rog and I started doing this, not as a lark, but I would say as something of a hobby. The business it’s evolved into, and the content and marketing machine it’s evolved into, is a testament both to the growth of soccer and the amount of work that Rog has put into it.”
Up until mid-March, when Gomez’s podcast premiered, Bennett hosted or co-hosted every episode on the network. In addition, Rog and Davo hold regular boisterous live events around the country. (“We always laughed when we started that we knew the names of all seven of our listeners,” says Davies, “and they’re still the people who sit front-row at our live shows.”) That brutal schedule — to say nothing of a social media operation that garners 100 million impressions a month — is another reason Men in Blazers is looking to expand the business into what Bennett calls “a full-throated media network.”
Bennett, 52, is eager to bring on different voices, even if it means relinquishing some control. “The key to growth is when you can move beyond just that one person,” says Marshall Lewy, chief content officer at Wondery, Men in Blazers’ ad-sales partner and podcast distributor. “Like Team Coco can become more than Conan O’Brien.”
And yet Bennett’s humorous, idiosyncratic tone remains a major part of the podcast’s appeal. He is a deft improviser, quick with wide-ranging pop-culture references. In his telling, Manchester City’s Erling Haaland, the Norwegian goal-scoring machine, is “ChatGPT in cleats.” Haaland’s teammate Jack Grealish, who seems to play the game with childlike enthusiasm, is the “Tom Hanks in Big” of soccer stars. From the beginning, Men in Blazers has abounded with allusions to Game of Thrones. (The network’s newsletter is titled The Raven.)
This liberal sprinkling of pop culture invites in casual fans who might not follow the day-to-day of club soccer. But they tend not to stay casual for long. “Our audience, most of them can’t believe how hard and fast they’ve fallen for this sport,” says Bennett. “The progression to getting a Tottenham Hotspurs crest tattooed on your forearm is crazy quick.”
The show has become an essential stop for soccer-mad celebrities. Repeat guests include Will Ferrell (a minority owner of LAFC), Matthew McConaughey (a minority owner of Austin FC) and John Oliver, who doesn’t own a team but harbors a lifelong love for Liverpool FC.
“He is a brilliant writer and a deeply thoughtful and empathetic interviewer,” says Oliver of Bennett, who ardently supports Liverpool’s struggling cross-town rival, Everton FC. “He’s also extremely funny. Football has a way of forcing you through a kaleidoscope of emotions, and he’s somehow able to capture what that can do to the human soul. … He’s incredibly sensitive — you’re not going to find many sportswriters who are as prone to bursting into tears at the drop of a hat as Rog is.”
Brands, too, have taken to Bennett’s personality, none more so than Budweiser, which has sponsored the show since 2018 and appears sometimes to sponsor his life. On the back cover of his best-selling memoir, Reborn in the USA, Bennett brandishes a Bud, a symbol of his adopted home. (He came to the U.S. in 1993, overstayed his tourist visa and became a citizen in 2018.) At the THR photo shoot, he and his staff made sure to order Bud Lights. “I don’t think there’s anyone more authentic to our company and our brands than Roger Bennett,” says Matt Davis, head of U.S. sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch.
In the World Cup year of 2022, Men in Blazers’ revenue — driven mostly by ads and brand partnerships — was in the mid- to high-seven figures. All profits have been reinvested into the company in large part to acquire new talent. (The management team owns the brand and says they have not accepted any outside investment so far.) Yet despite its success, the show has clung to the scrappy, shambolic aesthetic of its early days, broadcasting seemingly out of a broom closet.
“I’m English and full of self-loathing,” Bennett says by way of explanation, not obviously joking. “Plenty of people think I spend all my time drinking beer, watching television with Matthew McConaughey and John Oliver on my couch,” he tells me between Zoom sessions at a bar near Men in Blazers’ offices in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, over a double scotch he’d follow with a black coffee. “The reality is that I’ve worked quite hard, for life is very short.”
Gomez launched Vamos! on March 9. He says he felt shaky with his first podcast and cringed at the sound of his own voice. But he expects to grow more confident with each weekly show and hopes to build a broader platform around U.S. and Latin American soccer fandom, the way Joe Rogan built his podcasting behemoth from a core of MMA enthusiasts — a strategy that Bennett would welcome. “The Men in Blazers guys want everybody in the continental United States to be represented in some way under the Men in Blazers banner,” says Gomez, who is Mexican American. It’s also just good business: “The No. 1 consumer [of soccer programming] has been, for quite some time, the younger Latino American here in the States.”
Among the other top-level hosts Bennett plans to fold into the Men in Blazers extended universe is Sauerbrunn, who will co-host a series about her preparations for the Women’s World Cup. “The way that [Bennett] covers the women’s game I really appreciate because I think he’s brought a lot more fans to the women’s side of it,” she says. “He’s brought so many more of those casual fans that were, like, the once-in-a-while fans and turned them into really die-hard fans.”
The jewel of the new Men in Blazers media empire, without question, is Italian journalist Romano, whose deeply sourced chronicling of big-ticket player transfers has earned him 16 million Twitter followers: more than Rachel Maddow, more than Tucker Carlson, far more than Men in Blazers. Romano’s must-listen twice-weekly dispatch, The Here We Go Podcast, will now be absorbed into the Blazers family.
Bennett first approached Romano in October, shortly before the World Cup. Speaking from his home studio in Milan, the 30-year-old Romano says he jumped at the chance to tap into the growing American market, eager for the guidance that Men in Blazers could supply. “Honestly, all the offers I received were always coming from traditional sponsors,” says Romano. “They wanted to sponsor the podcast because, of course, the platform, the numbers and everything. But they were not prepared to have an exchange with me. So they were not creating something new with me; they were just putting the branding on my podcast, and nothing else. But now at this stage, it’s almost four years around the podcast, and I wanted something different.”
Romano’s podcast so far has been singularly focused on transfers, loans and multimillion-dollar contracts. His clinical, just-the-facts style has little in common with Bennett’s more emotional approach. Gomez, likewise, makes no attempts to be a jokester in the vein of Bennett and Davies. But to Bennett, they and the other voices he intends to invite bring a necessary diversity of tones and perspectives.
“Global soccer’s a Star Wars cantina,” he says. In addition to the MLS and Premier Leagues, “there’s the Spanish, German and Italian leagues, men’s and women’s international, global club competition, continental competition. … I want to have a property against all of them.”
After finishing his coffee, Bennett offers a parting thought. “As Albert Camus, who was a great goalkeeper, is alleged to have said, ‘Everything I know about humanity’ — he actually said, ‘Man,’ but I change it to ‘humanity’ — ‘I learned by watching football.’ And I believe it. It’s really just a mirror against which is reflected the good and bad of humanity. And that’s the joy of the currency that I’m plying a trade in.”
This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.