NEW YORK - Those of you who follow European soccer, and English soccer in particular, have likely heard of a podcast and NBCSN TV show called "Men in Blazers." It's hosted by two English expatriates, documentary filmmaker Roger Bennett and television producer Michael Davies. In the last few years, they have parlayed their roles as media influencers and their love of the world's game into a platform for sharing their views with what has grown into a pretty big audience across the United St...
Okay. Enough with the overarching setup lede. You know who these guys are, and you know how big they've become. And you almost certainly heard about BlazerCon, the big soccer convention/party they threw over the weekend. Everyone there was tweeting up a storm, and a decent number of people who weren't there were tweeting at the attendees to shut up and stop gloating about it.
I was there, and I definitely contributed to that storm. It was a perk of being able to get a press pass to things, because I wouldn't necessarily have paid to go. But I accepted the invitation when I got it from one of the event's organizers, and bought myself a train ticket to New York.
Because of previously scheduled commitments Friday night, I was only able to attend Saturday's events instead of the full weekend slate. There was still plenty to take in.
To be totally honest, I had no idea what to expect. To be even more honest, I ended up quite enjoying the thing.
There were a lot of big-time speakers, and many of them made newsworthy remarks. There was also a celebration of the growth of soccer in America - including, but not limited to, the growth of American soccer. And as you might imagine, there were many opportunities for a professional cynic to have some fun in chronicling the occasion.
So allow me to put on my Sociologists SC (not FC, thanks) scarf for a few minutes. Here's a look back at the events of BlazerCon as I saw them.
The venue was Brooklyn's Expo Center in the fast-gentrifying Greenpoint neighborhood. I arrived at about 8 a.m., with plenty of time to get my bearings before the doors opened. It turns out that said hour on a Saturday is one of the few at any point during the week at which you can find some peace and quiet in New York. This is a really good thing, because I don't do well in super-trendy hipster enclaves, and Greenpoint is definitely one.
As I walked up to the venue, there were only a few fans outside. Considering that Friday night's events didn't officially end until 10:30 (and unofficially decamped to a nearby bar thereafter), this wasn't too surprising.
One attendee was wearing a Manchester United jersey, another a Liverpool hat. A third bore one of the Men in Blazers' trademark (presumably) American States United scarves.
The first person to arrive in any kind of gear from an existing American soccer team wore a Portland Timbers jacket. Given the location of the moment, the joke wrote itself within seconds after I tweeted a photo. But it was better than nothing.
Inside the glass-walled and wood-floored hall, the scene was one of quiet but determined last-minute preparation. Well-dressed production staff scurried here and there, many unsurprisingly bearing trays loaded with coffee cups. Food stalls set out their breakfast offerings; the proprietor of a custom tailoring stand made sure all the shirts and ties on the table were neatly arranged.
(For the record, the tailoring stand proprietor told me that his sportcoats were $995 and his suits were $1400, but show attendees got a 30 percent discount off the list price.)
As I was making my way around, Bennett emerged from a backstage corridor.
I've gotten to know Roger well over the last couple of years, especially during the time when he was filming behind-the-scenes documentaries for ESPN on the U.S. men's national team's preparation for last summer's World Cup in Brazil. Whatever you may think of his line of work, I can tell you from experience that he works tremendously hard at everything he does, and this weekend was no different.
On this day, his attire was just so: tweed jacket, open-necked shirt, loosely-tied tie, jeans. We exchanged pleasantries, and he went on his way to prepare for the morning's first events.
I headed from the main hall to a secondary open space that featured a range of vendors. At the center was a big display for a soccer trading card manufacturer. That paper trading cards still exist in our digital age warmed the heart of this former longtime collector.
Elsewhere in the room, there was a high-end dress shirt retailer, a well-known soccer gear website and the American branch of an English Premier League supporters' club. There were multiple food vendors, the most promiment of which sold English-style pies. There were multiple beer bars, with big-name European imports given pride of place.
All were set to angle for the attention and wallets of the young and affluent demographic that the Premier League is renowned for attracting in the United States.
Oh, that crowd. It was a marketer's dream: almost all under 40, almost all white, almost all male, and universally willing to pay anywhere from $125 (for students and veterans) to $475 (for the VIP package) in order to spend the weekend in the company of their fellow self-affirming soccer fans.
I saw a lot of longtime friends (I accept that this judges me) and made some new ones. Many attendees (too many, frankly) came up to me to note that they appreciate my work.
Among the familiar faces early in the day was Paul Carr, ESPN's renowned soccer statistician. We chatted for a few minutes, or at least tried to as he was beseiged by fans and well-wishers.
Carr makes regular appearances on the Men in Blazers show, even though it isn't ESPN's property anymore. It's a testament to the popularity that Bennett and Davies have gained that in this era where ESPN, Fox and NBC work hard to keep their top talent exclusive, the Men in Blazers show is easily able to transcend corporate boundaries.
Back to the fans, though. While there was serious work to do in covering the day's many seminars (reports on which will be published here over the next few days), the obvious sporting event of choice was people-watching.
Ticket sales were capped at 1,200, which gave the event space a sense of bustle without being as overwhelming as New York's waves of humanity so often are.
Late last week, I noted on Twitter that I wasn't sure what to wear to BlazerCon. I did so, as many followers knew, because I figured it would be the sort of event where people - whether wearing the eponymous article or a soccer jersey - would be very conscious of that sort of thing.
(Then again, I could argue that's everyday life in Brooklyn.)
Ultimately, since I was there in a professional capacity, my choice was easy. But I could tell that the choices of more than a few attendees were not. To wit:
The clear majority of the fans in attendance were wearing attire of big-name Premier League clubs. Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, and Everton were especially prevalent. So was Arsenal, though their fans seemed to keep their affiliation more discrete. I couldn't tell you whether that stemmed from a taste in understated fashion or a desire to avoid being trash-talked. I'd believe either.
Chelsea and Tottenham, somewhat to my surprise, were less represented.
There were also pockets of colors from smaller English teams, such as Crystal Palace, West Ham, Leicester City, and Norwich. The Palace fans got some special time in the spotlight, as club chairman Steve Parish was a guest of honor at a prime-time podcast taping. Parish and Davies are former schoolmates, which gave Parish liberty to throw an impressive amount of shade about the current struggles of Davies' beloved Chelsea.
Parish was one of six Premier League club bigshots who gave remarks Saturday. The others were Liverpool CEO Ian Ayre, Bournemouth chairman Jeff Mostyn, Everton manager Roberto Martinez, Southampton chairman Ralph Krueger and Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano. On Friday, Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore was the keynote speaker.
Because I wasn't there Friday, I wasn't able to ask Scudamore what he thought of BlazerCon, and whether he agreed with my theory that the event was largely of his making. It would have made for a nice bookend to a question I asked him a few years ago about countries whose domestic leagues play second fiddle to his within their own boundaries.
Except a funny thing happened on the way to drawing conclusions about the Premier League's dominance of America's English-language soccer scene.
Outside of the prime-time session (which included Fox's Katie Nolan hosting a hilarious panel discussion with U.S. women's national team stars Becky Sauerbrunn, Heather O'Reilly and Ali Krieger), the most-attended events Saturday were about Major League Soccer.
Wait, what? The American league whose TV ratings are half of what the Premier League draws in America got more attention from the cognoscenti?
Yes, it really did. And that wasn't all. As I walked around the hall at lunchtime, I took an unofficial census and found more fans wearing New York City FC gear than Manchester City gear. Not by much, but by enough that I wasn't the only person who noticed.
There were fans of Orlando, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Kansas City and the Red Bulls. Portland was well-represented by fans in those lovely green-and-gold throwback third jerseys.
There were a few D.C. United fans, though the attendee who was in line first thing in the morning and carried a trendy bag decorated with a map of the District's neighborhoods didn't appear to be one of them.
There were Union fans, one of whom belted out "Trust the Process!" when Bennett started to ask Parish about 76ers owner Josh Harris' recent purchase of an ownership stake in Palace.
And there was one Columbus fan:
The aforementioned folks and many others were present for an early-afternoon roundtable with three prominent MLS club owners: Seattle's Joe Roth, Orlando's Phil Rawlins and New England's Jonathan Kraft. They cover a wide spectrum of MLS executive viewpoints: Seattle's big-spending establishment mentality, Orlando's expansion sizzle and New England's long-term view as one of the league's original teams.
The subject of discussion, with Lalas as moderator, was what MLS will look like 20 years from now. All offered a lot of optimism. They did not always offer a lot of detail, but there was just enough to make some headlines.
Kraft, surprisingly, made some of the biggest. The first came when Lalas, whom the Kraft family signed to be the Revs' first ever star, put his former boss on the spot by asking whether the time is officially coming when the team will at last build a soccer-first stadium in or close to downtown Boston.
There have been countless rumors, plans and dreams over the years, but the team is no closer to putting a shovel in the ground than it has ever been. And every day that the Revs remain at cavernous Gillette Stadium, with its far-flung Foxborough setting and its long-reviled artificial turf, is another day that the team and MLS as a whole is dragged down.
Conspiracy theorists would argue that it makes financial sense for the Revs to stay at Gillette, which stands at the heart of the Kraft family's sporting empire. But Jonathan insisted that isn't the case.
"Not to make any excuses, but the prior mayor who left office two years ago and had been there for 20 years had no interest," he said. "And he was the same mayor who, when we were trying to build a stadium for the Patriots and were willing to spend $400 million of our own money in the city, 20 years ago, he just refused it on a vacant piece of land."
That Kraft left out Tom Menino's name caused a bit of a stir, but it was mitigated by his not mentioning current mayor Marty Walsh by name when discussing the present state of things at City Hall.
"There's a great new mayor," Kraft said. "We feel very good about a couple of things that we are working on. I absolutely guarantee that by year 40, we'll be in Boston - I think it will be much closer to year 20 than year 40."
Kraft concluded by noting that when the stadium is built, it will be "for MLS" in a way that it might not have been if built sooner.
Rawlins brought the house down by expressing a hope that MLS soon reaches a point where it "never plays another game again where there are [gridiron] football lines on the field."
The Revolution and Sounders have done just that many times, as they share their homes with NFL teams. Kraft and Roth both pledged to do their part to fulfill Rawlins' wish.
As for the players on those fields, Kraft said he believes the single-entity structure will still exist in 20 years, but that MLS will significantly raise its spending on players in order to attract better talent.
The latter assertion came in an unexpected circumstance. As the panelists took questions from the audience, MLS commissioner Don Garber rose to ask what one thing the owners would change.
Roth emphatically called for a significant increase in the salary cap, not just to spend more on stars but to spend more on the rest of the roster too. Kraft concurred, which was news to those who've criticized the Revs for being among MLS' thriftiest spenders for much of their history.
"It's not about spending huge amounts of money on one or two players," Kraft said, noting New York City FC specificially. "I'm not criticizing them for what they did, because it was a great way to introduce the team into New York. I mean that with the utmost sincerity. Ultimately, if we're trying to raise the quality top to bottom across the league, if we're going to spend more money, when we spend more money, it should be across more of the roster."
We'll see if Kraft lives up to his word.
Earlier in the day, Garber had the spotlight to himself as he sat with Bennett for a wide-ranging conversation. I will have a separate post about that event in the coming days, because it's going to take me a while to transcribe the whole thing. For now, I want to focus on one subject in particular.
It is a subject that Garber doesn't enjoy talking about, but knew he'd have to discuss. It is a subject that especially arouses the passions of those who follow the English and American games, but take to the former with more gusto - the demographic has fueled so much of Men in Blazers' popularity.
It is the subject of whether American soccer should have promotion and relegation.
For years now, almost every attempt at civil discourse about pro/rel on these shores has been torched to ashes by a caucus of social media zealots who believe with a religious fervor in the need to institute the system.
Should you dare to disagree with them, you will find your Twitter feed besieged by claims that you are a heretic, inauthentic, fraudulent, unenlightened, inherently inferior, and/or on Major League Soccer's payroll.
Dare to disagree with them more than once and they might retaliate not just with further ad hominem attacks, but by tweeting out highlights from your wedding registry - as happened to a good friend of mine a while ago.
You'll have to trust me on the wedding registry story, but for ample further explanation of the matter, read Kevin Koczwara's Howler Magazine profile of chief executive rabble-rouser Ted Westervelt.
The funny thing is, a lot of people who aren't zealots aren't against the concept either - and I count myself in that number. It's simply a matter of pragmatism: can soccer as a consumer sport in this country survive if top-10 television markets are relegated, and is there really enough money to go around so that teams which go down won't immediately go out of business?
Right now - and I emphasize right now, because it likely won't always be this way - the answer is no. Until we can concretely say otherwise, pro/rel won't happen.
Bennett framed the question as one of a contrast between what fans want and what club owners want. He wasn't wrong. Garber replied that pro/rel is what some fans want, but not all fans - and perhaps not even a majority of his league's fans. He wasn't wrong either.
An intelligent discussion of the subject - which Bennett and Garber accomplished - requires allowing for a significant amount of nuance. That's difficult on social media, and the flame-throwers who constantly poison the well have proven that they have no interest in even allowing for the possibility.
Garber's signature line on stage was this: "If you were to create professional football in England today, or in Italy or Spain today, I don't think there would be promotion and relegation."
He later reiterated his long-held view MLS will not have promotion and relegation on his watch. But he also made it clear that some day, the decision won't be up to him anymore - and at that point, he doesn't know what will happen:
What I will say is, life is a long time. I will be managing this one chapter in a big, fat book. At some point, that book will have another chapter in it, which will be the continued evolution of MLS. Who knows what that will look like in time? I have learned that forever is a long time, and you never know what the future is going to hold. So for now, it ain't happening. Legally it's not happening - U.S. Soccer is not going to create a dynamic where it has to happen, FIFA isn't going to create that dynamic. But who knows what the future looks like?
After Garber's event ended, he met the press (myself included) in a back-of-the-house workroom. While we were all there, Mostyn was on stage, and he was asked about pro/rel.
No club in England is more of a poster child for the virtues of the English system than Bournemouth. It has risen four divisions since 2010, and is currently in the top flight for the first time in its 125-year history.
Yet when asked to judge America's soccer structure - franchises, playoffs, and each league run by its own commercial entity - against his own, Mostyn rendered a surprising verdict.
"I would give everything to change this system now," he said. "Bring on the franchise!"
Mostyn - who fit in with the day's fashion theme by wearing a sensational three-piece suit - did a few interviews in the early afternoon. He told me that his pro/rel remark was "a jocular statement," though multiple fans who attended the event told me Mostyn came across as being serious.
"It needs to be reported in context - the jocularity is that we're currently in the relegation zone," Mostyn told me. "So if I could go from the pyramid to a franchise [system] tonight, I would. But it was literally in jocular terms. We would never, ever want to change the system. So in the nicest possible way, I would rather not be quoted on that, because it could be taken out of context."
Unfortunately, Mostyn's request came too late. Thanks to social media, the proverbial horse had left the barn well before he attempted to close the door.
Even with his clarification, Mostyn acknowledged something that a lot of observers have felt for a long time: there are plenty of people involved with the Premier League who would shut the relegation door in a heartbeat if they could get away with it. And most of them, like Mostyn, are connected to clubs who are constantly threatened with going back down as soon as they come up.
"From an elite club point of view, there wouldn't be a need to," Mostyn said, betraying another sentiment worthy of many column inches. "The only people that would ever really have an interested in changing the system would be those currently in the Premier League who have an odds-on chance of being relegated, and would want to retain their position."
He proceeded to make the romantic's argument that ceasing relegation from the Premier League would "end English football as we know it."
"The system has stood for 150 years," he continued. "The irony is, I would be the last chairman to want to change the system, having come up [from the lower divisions] to the Premier League in such a short space of time. Without aspiring to that dream, why would you continue to play football?"
Yet when I asked Mostyn about Garber's claim that MLS won't have pro/rel on his watch, Mostyn again sang the praises of the American way.
"The franchise system works very, very well in the United States, because it mirrors the other sports here - why would soccer be any different?" he said. "I think the franchise model works well in the United States, and I think the pyramid system works well in England... We are used to having a competitive league, and part of that competition is aspiring to the dream. We don't believe in just playing each other week in and week out... That does not work with the British public."
As the dinner hour approached, I sought out Lalas and NBC's Kyle Martino to get their perspectives on the day's events.
Lalas also noticed the big crowds at the MLS panels, and the big number of MLS fans in the crowd all day.
"It portends well for the future of MLS, because even if people aren't necessarily MLS fans - and maybe even some that are completely against the way that MLS is doing things - there's a recognition and maybe even at times begrudging respect, and/or concern, so much so that people want to know how MLS is thinking about progressing and what they are doing," Lalas said. "This is a battle for hearts and minds, and the ownership understands that - and I think the general soccer public understands that. Even if MLS isn't necessarily their league of choice right now, there is a recognition that if this is a stock, it's headed in the right direction, and therefore it behooves them to have a general understanding of what it does, and to keep an eye on it as it progresses."
Or, as he concluded: "It's a 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer' situation."
I put it to Martino that for as much positive representation of MLS as there was at BlazerCon, the event - like the success of Men in Blazers in general - was nonetheless a creation of the Premier League's success.
If anyone could answer that question well, it would be Martino - a former MLS stalwart player who is now the lone American voice on NBC's Premier League studio set. He did just that.
"As much as there's market share, and there's competitors with networks versus networks and leagues versus leagues, at the end of the day we really are all in the business of soccer," he said. "As much as the Premier League maybe guided [Bennett and Davies] here and guided their brand and what they've been doing, soccer is what's important to them, and growing it in this country is what's important to all of us."
Martino called the weekend "a Comic-Con of soccer," and he wasn't the only one who did so. BlazerCon was of a far smaller scale than San Diego's famous bonanza, of course, but the comparison was plenty apt.
"The commissioners of great leagues come together to discuss what's working and what's not working," Martino said, "and do so in a forum where the people who are important - the fans - have an opportunity to raise concerns, to pass on compliments, and to do it in a very accessible space."
It's fair to believe that there will be another BlazerCon in the future, and likely a few more BlazerCons after that. It's also fair to wonder whether, as the event grows in prominence, it will be able to maintain that sense of accessibility.
Coincidentally, MLS has faced that very same issue as it has grown and matured. And while I'm sure that most GFOPs would never deign to need advice on anything, if this particular issue should happen to vex them, here's a little something to keep in mind:
Ask the fans of American soccer. They know more than you might think.