A couple of weeks ago, the popular soccer podcast Men In Blazers, hosted by Michael Davies and Roger Bennett, took to Twitter to announce BlazerCon, a two-day conference for soccer fans.
The two British men, who also have a weekly television show on NBC Sports, are hoping to eventually make BlazerCon a tentpole event in American soccer fandom, not unlike what Comic-Con is for comics and movies or VidCon is for online video. Guests for the November event to be held in Brooklyn include Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore and Liverpool Chairman Ian Ayre, as well as celebrity GFOPs (Great Friends Of the Pod) like ESPN anchor Bob Ley and New York Times Bestselling Author John Green.
Even with the very preliminary details on guests and programming, there’s a lot packed into this event for American soccer fans and/or fans of the show to enjoy. Yet there were quite a few people, like writer Alicia Rodriguez, who were vocal in their criticism of the steep price tag; $225 for base admission, $425 for VIP access and perks, and a discounted rate of $125 for students and military personnel.
The base admission price is comparable to that of San Diego Comic Con, which lasts five days and has become a major media and pop culture event. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine BlazerCon having much appeal to those outside the Men In Blazers fan community. Furthermore, while the event is being marketed as more of a fan convention, the guest lineup and programming seems to more closely resemble an industry conference, but without any networking opportunities for working professionals.
This all makes BlazerCon an odd gamble. Men In Blazers is betting that their core audience is made up of the kind of people who are able (and willing) to shell out over $200 for a weekend event. If they’re wrong, BlazerCon won’t be particularly well-attended, and this could amount to a miscalculation and mistake severe enough to do irreparable damage to the “Men In Blazers” brand. But if they’re right, then it points to an ongoing cultural divide in American soccer and suggests that Men In Blazers is firmly planted on one side of it. This divide is between those for whom football is part of their culture and those embrace soccer as part of a sub-culture, who follow soccer as they would Doctor Who or Harry Potter.
There is something to be said for examining whether this squares with their desire to grow the sport in America. While their core demographic is certainly growing, it does not represent the alpha and omega of soccer fans in the US. Americans who love the beautiful game transcend class, race, ethnic, and gender barriers. “Growing the sport” may likely be as simple as acknowledging that these people exist.
Since at least the 1970s, soccer in the US has been stuck with the perception of being a pastime and children’s after-school activity for upper-middle class suburbanites. Franklin Foer discusses this perception at length in his book How Soccer Explains The World. When examining why middle- and upper-middle class families took to the sport in the 60s and 70s, Foer described soccer as “... a tabula rasa, a sport onto which a generation of parents could project their values. Quickly, soccer came to represent the fundamental tenets of yuppie parenting, the spirit of Sesame Street and Dr. Benjamin Spock.” Whether this perception is deserved or not, it’s managed to persist in the intervening decades, and soccer in America has been stuck with the impression as a leisure activity for suburban kids even to the present day.
It may not be merely an “impression,” either. Howler Magazine featured an excellent article last year detailing how the pay-to-play model of youth soccer development keeps poor kids out and ultimately hurts the USA’s ability to compete internationally. This setup increasingly makes being born into a family of means—the kind that can afford to buy the latest Puma EvoSPEED cleats and join travel teams—an essential qualification for participating in the youth development process.
There is another effect of this class-based divide in American soccer, one that we’re starting to see manifest today. The upper-middle class suburban kids who grew up playing soccer in the 80s and 90s, the kids carted to practice by their doting soccer moms and enrolled with travel teams if they showed legitimate talent, are now adults with disposable income. These young American adults live in a time where MLS has managed to survive for a generation and is likely here to stay, a time where the United States have developed a good-but-not-great national team that can be reliably counted on to survive the group stages of a World Cup, a time where they can watch every single Premier League game on TV and the internet. When people talk about the “growth of soccer” in the US, they really mean the growth of this consumer demographic. The kind of consumer that maintains their cable subscription just for NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1. The kind of consumer that joins a local chapter of the American Outlaws. The kind of consumer who would be willing to pay $225 to attend a fan convention for a soccer podcast.
Of course, the reality of soccer fandom in the United States reaches well beyond this particular consumer demographic. For all the growth in viewing figures for the Premier League and MLS, there is still a soccer broadcast product that reliably blows them out of the water: Liga MX, a dependably lucrative property for Univision and Telemundo. The former’s coverage of the 2015 Clausura season in Liga MX posted viewing ratings that beat NBC’s Premier League figures by double- and triple-digits. Yet when someone like Don Garber or Sunil Gulati (or even Davies and Bennett) talks about “growing the sport in the US,” ratings figures like these are often not part of the conversation. Liga MX fans don’t exist in some alternate soccer universe. They’re part of American soccer too, and they represent a side of it that so often gets overlooked— a side given life by Latino families, for whom playing and watching the sport is an indelible part of the fabric of everyday life.
Indeed, the current media narrative of the “growth” of soccer in the United States seems to be chiefly concerned with suburban kids. And while there isn’t much in the way of empirical market research for Men In Blazers’ audience, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine who their core demo might be. That MiB dedicated fanbase, their GFOPs, consists primarily of the now-grown suburban middle class kids who grew up with the game within the past generation.
The people behind Men In Blazers are no fools— the cost of the fan convention is clearly a case of charging what the market will bear. And to be perfectly clear, there’s nothing wrong with MiB’s approach. They know who their audience is, and they know who they need to reach out to in order to grow that audience and their fan community.
Building an audience and a community is hard, even when you have the backing of corporate sponsorships and a major media outlet. Yet throughout the lifespan of the podcast and associated projects, “Men In Blazers” has been first and foremost about accessibility and bringing their love of soccer to the uninitiated. In an interview with the New York Times, Bennett reiterated his and Davies’ commitment to helping build a soccer fan culture in the US. “We will do anything to grow the game in this country, so for us this is the logical next step.” If they’re truly focused on growing the sport in America, they’ll need to make their corner of the fan community more open to a wider range of people. It’s unclear whether charging over $200 for a weekend event is consistent with that goal.