What’s Going on Here? Premier League Fandom in America
A police officer pulls up and rolls down his window.
"What's going on here?" he asks.
It’s a fair question for the more than 150 people lined up outside the front gate of the British Embassy along Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue on a recent summer evening.
"It's a soccer thing," a guy in line ahead of me responds. It is enough to satisfy the officer, who offers a semi-shrug and drives away from the fans dressed in jerseys and blazers -- both worn over work attire and over jerseys.
We are used to questions from onlookers. We're used to expressions of confusion. Because we do look crazy. And we kind of are.
The crowd is comprised of American fans of Premier League soccer who have come to hear two of the most prominent voices in U.S. soccer fandom, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, record their popular "Men in Blazers" podcast.
Through their whimsical podcast, the duo have rapidly grown into the self-deprecating British ambassadors of soccer to the United States, acting as guides through the intricacies of the English game, the absurdity of British culture, and the joys and sorrows of soccer fandom.
Riding dual media waves -- the growing accessibility of games to American viewers via online streaming and basic cable packages, in addition to the podcasting wave -- the Men in Blazers found their niche spreading the gospel of the game they love.
But who exactly are these people lined up on this hot August evening?
From Podcasts to Pubs
Most American Premier League fans -- who excitedly wake up early every weekend from August to May for a 90-minute rush of emotions from anxiety to depression to elation -- began their journey toward soccer obsession in solitude, taking in the games in islands of quiet early morning insanity.
Every one of them has a story to tell about their journey from those solo weekend mornings at home to a growing community of fanatics and believers in dark neighborhood pubs.
"My origin story comes from watching my baby daughter on Saturday mornings 10 years ago to let my wife get some additional sleep," said Arsenal fan Brian Kelly. "As a sports fan, it's great to have world-quality athletics on at 7:45 a.m."
Bennett and Davies helped grow their fan base by providing the lonely American hermits of English football fandom a broader sense of community. The cliche of soccer is that it is a game that is passed down between fathers and sons, with the Men in Blazers playing the role of the weird English uncles.
"I think that’s just the starting point," said Bennett in a 2012 interview. "It's what you do with that relationship, the energy you invest in it, and the joy that you allow it to give back."
The path from podcast listener to pub patron can be a circuitous one, but it's a familiar story that involves a pseudo-underground network of bars with flexible morning hours and accommodating barkeeps.
"I often marvel at the fortitude of American fans," Bennett told me. "There's something deeply collective, almost religious, about getting up out of bed at 7 o'clock [in the morning] to go to a bar and commune with … other lunatics who have caught the bug."
It's that community that helps take what for many is an arbitrary choice to support a particular Premier League team and allows it to grow into a meaningful emotional connection, making all of those solitary moments worthwhile.
And it is fitting that the Men in Blazers held an event in an embassy, as many of their fans are used to turning random bars into little outposts, consulates of British communities like Wolverhampton, Newcastle, or Bournemouth.
Soccer Ambassadors to America
Inside the embassy, the fans were made to feel at home -- tuxedo-wearing men carried around hors d'oeuvres of meat pies and sausages and poured Guinness. The visitors stuck out like sore thumbs.
Picture the back garden of the residence at the British Embassy in all of its resplendent swankiness filled with beer-drinking Americans in soccer jerseys. (Those Americans would go on to finish all of the embassy’s beer. Britain used to have an empire, and now can’t even get enough beer for a party.)
Like every comedic duo, the two share a common bond, but at the same time are almost entirely different. Bennett, affectionately known as Rog, supports Liverpool-based Everton, and plays the role of Chicken Little pessimist. He has joked he is most comfortable in the fetal position, welcoming defeat. Davies, known as Davo, supports London-side Chelsea, and has all of the confidence in soccer, and life, that Rog lacks.
"To become an Everton supporter," Bennett told me, "sets you up perfectly for the challenges and harsh realities of life."
As the duo takes the stage to roars from the crowd, Davo beams and Rog blushes like a child unbelievably tickled that all of this is actually happening. The pair's Bert and Ernie act was on full display, and was only interrupted by the night’s three guests: CBS News' Major Garrett, CNN's Chris Cillizza, and the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch.
The three guests were perhaps the only "elites" at the event, and many in the crowd seemed annoyed when the conversation strayed from the action on the field.
The evening closed with a Bennett soliloquy about how the two came to be, professing that "through soccer in the United States … anything is possible."
It was radio that helped make baseball, and television crowned football the king of the American sports landscape, but it is the internet that has helped accelerate the rise of the global game in the United States.
And for the American fans who have embraced the game already, in some cases, the action off the field has been far more rewarding than success on it.
"It's the feeling of camaraderie with other fans, sharing hope and then the inevitable disappointment," Kelly said. "After a crushing loss, it's comforting to know millions of folks around the globe feel as bad as you."