SBD/June 26, 2014/Media

ESPN's "Men In Blazers" Go From Cult Podcast Hosts To Mainstream Soccer Personalities

The '14 FIFA World Cup has introduced millions of Americans to ESPN's "Men in Blazers," Michael Davies and Roger Bennett, "two scruffy, balding Britons, clutching a miniature banana as a make-believe microphone, riffing on the day’s games," according to Jonathan Mahler of the N.Y. TIMES. Davies and Bennett until recently were best known for their weekly 'Men in Blazers' podcast on Grantland.com "with a small but devoted following of American soccer geeks." But with the sport "now dominating the American sports conversation, they are off the margins and in the mainstream, doing daily online video reports for ESPN and popping up" on shows like MSNBC's "Morning Joe," PBS' "Charlie Rose" and "CBS News Sunday Morning." Bennett and Davies are "less sports analysts than cultural observers, looking for amusing ways to frame the most compelling story lines of the tournament." The "casual repartee" between Davies and Bennett is "reminiscent of the days when Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann anchored a more free-form version of ESPN’s 'SportsCenter'" (N.Y. TIMES, 6/26). Davies and Bennett previewed today's U.S.-Germany match, with Davies saying, "Brace yourself, huge game coming." Bennett interjected and said, "Bigger than that." The two hosts exchanged joking banter while also offering commentary on what the U.S. team needs to accomplish in order to defeat or draw with Germany. Davies said the U.S.' performance against Portugal was the "best performance we've seen, certainly going forward, in a World Cup game." Bennett: "That is how you walk through the shadow of the valley of the group of death." Davies said of today's game, "So many people are going to be calling sick out of work." Bennett noted, "Including us" ("Men in Blazers," ESPN FC, 6/26).

SEVERAL REASONS FOR BIG RATINGS
: SI's Richard Deitsch appeared on the Fox Sports podcast "The Buzz with Jimmy Traina" and said there are a "number of reasons" the World Cup has gotten such high ratings. The time difference "is phenomenal," as Brazil is "one, two hours ahead of the Eastern Time zone." He said, "Generally speaking, ESPN could not have gotten a better time zone, so the ratings had to go up just because the time difference is better. That’s where it starts." Another factor is that the U.S. "is a big event country." Regardless of whether it is "soccer or basketball and obviously football, we tend to as a culture watch big sporting events on TV," and the World Cup "is a big event." Meanwhile, Deitsch notes ESPN's "commitment and marketing to this event is unbelievable." He said, "They can dictate sporting conversation in this country. ... Whether its written or sort of assumed that soccer has to be a conversation point during the day, this country’s talking about soccer. Then everyone follows” ("The Buzz with Jimmy Traina," FOXSPORTS.com, 6/26).

IT'S ALWAYS SUNIL
: U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati called the U.S. TV ratings for the World Cup "fantastic." In a wide-ranging interview with the WASHINGTON POST's Steven Goff, Gulati said, "It’s one of those few times where it’s predicted. I said if the U.S. does well here, we are going to set ratings records, and we have. I think it will continue if we do well. Thursday will be a little trickier because it’s a day-time game on a weekday." He also addressed other World Cup-related activity in the U.S., including "fanfests, stadiums opening up to put on the games, water-cooler talk, bars that aren’t traditionally showing soccer, where you (used to) have to bay the bartender to put soccer on." Gulati: "Hopefully we can keep that level of intensity where it is. That won’t continue after the World Cup; no one imagines that is what it’s going to be like the following week for national team games. But we’re on a positive trend line in this sport; what this does is jump us up to a much higher trend line" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 6/25).

VIRTUAL REALITY
: USA TODAY's Laine Higgins notes EA Sports' "FIFA" videogame is the company's "best-selling title, accounting for nearly 25% of its revenue," and it is "helping boost interest in the World Cup." Although the "FIFA" game "has been around for nearly a decade, it did not take off" until the '10 World Cup. EA Sports Senior Producer for "FIFA" Nick Channon said, "We saw a huge influx of fans coming in from World Cup product." He added that 60% of those who played the "FIFA" '10 World Cup edition "had never previously played a 'FIFA' game." While "FIFA" does not have one target group, "one of its biggest markets is the college-age player" (USA TODAY, 6/26).
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