I shall wager to say, after a Guinness-soaked weekend in Greenpoint, we may have reached "peak Blazer."
Writer-filmmaker Roger Bennett and TV executive Michael Davies, who launched the cheeky, whimsical Men in Blazers podcast out of the ashes of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, likely never envisioned that their little fiefdom would expand into an impressive empire that includes a weekly television show on NBC Sports, a hefty list of international sponsorships, and an entire lexicon of inside jokes and SportsCenter-y catch phrases echoed in unison by a gleeful army of "GFOP's" (Great Friends of the Pod).
It's official; these two English expats have cultivated an unavoidably massive following, the kind that belies their repeated insistence that their entire mythos, to hear them say it, is "sub-optimal crap."
There are a few key reasons why the sub-optimal moniker is no longer appropriate: EA Sports, Guinness, Mini Cooper, NBC, Topps, and more than 1,300 fans quite willing to pay between $250 and $450 to attend soccer's answer to ComicCon. Some traveled over a thousand miles to do so, decked out in their Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders shirts.
Indeed, peak Blazer.
Davies has introduced every Men in Blazers podcast as originating from "the crap part of SoHo," referring to the offices of his production house, Embassy Row Studios, on Hudson Street in Manhattan. Tonight, the gracious hosts insisted that this particular corner of Greenpoint was "the crap part of Brooklyn." A cursory look at local real estate prices will confirm that this is the absolute opposite of the truth.
And any suggestion that the Men in Blazers' very presence in Kings County somehow lowered the place to temporary crap status was equally false, because this was the weekend when Bennett and Davies went Hollywood. Not only did the heads of the Premier League and the Bundesliga and Major League Soccer come to speak to the effusive masses alongside a platoon of team owners and media stars; not only did folks like U.S. Soccer boss Sunil Gulati and comedian Nick Kroll mill about purely as spectators; sponsor Mini Cooper even brought a car with a tweed paint job.
I wish I made that last part up, but the damage is long done.
Face it, blokes: you've arrived.
FRIDAY: "Don't go 'Lord Bendtner' on night one."
Half of everything you need to know about BlazerCon is derived from the fact that, when the doors opened at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, the first event on the docket was a happy hour in a pop-up Guinness beer garden. Yes, before anyone had a chance to hear Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore give the opening talk, before St. Vincent and the Grenadines struck first against the U.S. men in World Cup qualifying only to give up the next six, the faithful would be duly lubricated.
(This is a dilemma for a journalist -- or, rather, a destitute blogger who often pretends to be a reporter -- ostensibly working the event. All this beer makes for something of a ticking clock, which admittedly works great in the movies: gotta get some good quotes and steady-handed photos before drowning in a frothy deluge of stout!)
Scudamore, who proudly announced riding the subway to the event, spoke alongside soccer monarch Rebecca Lowe of NBC Sports. He was particularly bullish about the growth of the English game among U.S. audiences. That was really the gist of the whole event, given Davies' and Bennett's national origin (the latter a long-suffering Evertonian, the former a recently-suffering Chelsea supporter). Despite the hosts' hopeful proselytizing for Major League Soccer, the Premier League undoubtedly ranks first among the bulk of the Men in Blazers faithful.
Rebecca Lowe kicks off the proceedings.
Any potential doubts to that end were quashed as soon as I saw two different humans wearing Wigan Athletic shirts in the same damn building in America. They weren't even trying to impress Roberto Martinez; he wouldn't arrive until the following day. This is akin to religious devotion-- there's no purely logical explanation, nor is one required. There is, quite simply, profound truth in the rite and ritual itself.
The context of the soccer fan in America, against the greater international backdrop, is still some ways away from ironing out a fully coherent identity-- the game generally lags behind hockey and NASCAR in domestic popularity, after all. But the Men in Blazers have been more than happy to allow themselves to be fully consumed with the idea that soccer is America's sport of the future (as it has been since 1972).
It's strange to see such commitment to, say, the U.S. National Teams, by two English blokes who have only lived in America since the merciful end of the Reagan Administration. Why not support England? Is national pride so cheap as to be transferable? This is clearly a matter of faith alone. But where does the faith come from?
— RayHudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 14, 2015
Oh, right. It comes from Jozy Altidore. I can't believe I forgot!
The masses watched and drank and mingled while the U.S. men opened World Cup qualifying with a 6-1 disemboweling of hapless St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It wasn't a terribly encouraging win, but don't tell that to Bennett and Davies. They're too busy believing, awash in a kind of optimism that doesn't feel the least bit English.
Friday closed with a live podcast event featuring London businessman and former Leyton Orient owner Barry Hearn, a gruff chap who appears at all times equally likely to either offer you some investment advice or stab you in the shoulder with a pen knife. The talk was entitled "Ten Things I Learned from Owning an English Football Club," but the lessons were readily appropriate for the ongoing effort to grow the beautiful game here in America. It's that bullish sense of belief again.
BARRY HEARN: "Fucking amazing." DAVO: "Children, you might hear some language tonight." BARRY HEARN: "Children, become adults." #BlazerCon— RayHudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 14, 2015
Hearn's former Leyton Orient, who came within a loss-on-penalties of promotion to England's second tier in 2014, sound as American as they come. Led by a self-made mogul, they scrapped their way to the brink of glory on a limited budget in a city already packed to the brim with Arsenals and Tottenhams and West Hams and Chelseas and Fulhams.
Really, the Mighty Leyton Orient are the perfect club for Major League Soccer fans: they'll never be Arsenal, just like Sporting KC will never be the Chiefs and FC Dallas will never be the Cowboys.
But, on one day in 2011, the Orient drew 1-1 against Arsenal in the FA Cup thanks to a dramatic 89th minute equalizer. It wasn't a win in the record books, but it was the kind of cultural victory MLS likes to celebrate in fits and starts; the kind that says, "It just got a little bit harder to ignore us."
In his business circles, Michael Davies is known not just as "Davo," but "Positive." And although the dominant p-word for the weekend was undoubtedly "pie," there was an unavoidable feeling of a rising tide.
Because we live for that draw that feels like a win. It's manna from heaven. We tasted it in the FA Cup that evening four years ago, just as we did following New York City's dramatic 2-2 finish against Chicago in May.
"Owning a football club is like having a mistress," Hearn quipped. "It costs you a fortune, and you have three good days a year."
Even if it is only three, it doesn't matter a lick: we put up with all the losing and the injuries and the devastating ride home, against all earthly rationality, just to know that feeling really does exist. Are we crazy to keep chasing that holy immaterial essence? Perhaps. But show me a soccer fan that isn't totally nuts and I'll show you someone who just doesn't get it.
* * *
Stay tuned for Part Two, in which we'll deliver all the sights, sounds, and sub-optimal crap from a BlazerCon Saturday packed tighter than sardines in a tin box. Don Garber! The victorious U.S. Women! Ray Hudson, the one true voice of La Liga! It's all here-- pour yourself a Guinness; you're gonna need something to chase this high-proof shot of HRB.