From Bravo’s “Watch What Happens: Live” to GSN’s “The American Bible Challenge,” prolific producer Michael Davies has had no less than half a dozen series and pilots in the hopper at any given time during the past few years at his Sony Pictures TV-based Embassy Row banner.
With all this activity, what could make Davies take a detour into working as on-air talent himself? In a word: soccer. A podcast that Davies started with friend and fellow soccer nut Roger Bennett has evolved into a half-hour weekly series that bows tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC Sports Network. “Men in Blazers” will run Monday nights throughout the Premier League soccer season, which wraps in May.
“It was really very organic,” Davies said of the program’s transition to television. “It wasn’t any sort of grand plan. We just wanted to see where it took us and this is where it has.”
Joked Bennett: “We’re beneficiaries of the fact that they’ll let anyone on American television nowadays — even bald people.”
For Davies (pictured left) and Bennett (right), it all started with a chance meeting at a wedding during the 2006 World Cup final, where they commiserated over having to miss the big game. “Missing the World Cup final is like missing your own bar mitzvah,” remarked Bennett. “It doesn’t happen. I was a horrible person to be around, but misery loves company and I found another gentleman who was bent out of shape and it turned out to be Davo.”
With laughs and a bit of self-deprecation the two told Variety that they never intended to become a sports brand. The podcast began simply as a way to talk about the sport and subjects they found interesting.
“The fact is that Roger and I enjoy talking to each other about football and ‘Downton Abbey,’ and we’re also very interested in ‘Game of Thrones,’ said Davies. “It wasn’t really a plan to set up a global sub-optimal soccer business; it was really about wanting to have a conversation with my mate Roge. …If no TV network had come to make a deal with us we’d still be meeting every week and talking about all of this stuff.”
Following the creation of their podcast, “Men in Blazers” was featured on SiriusXM, and then the two found themselves creating content for Grantland, the sports and pop-culture blog associated with ESPN. This year, ESPN sent Davies and Bennett to Brazil travel to cover the World Cup on-camera. Those telecasts caught the attention of producers at NBC Sports, which has invested big in Premier League rights.
The latest incarnation of “Men in Blazers” on NBCSN will break down the action for American soccer fans through what Davies describes as “the least technically ambitious show in the history of the medium.” It’s still quite a commitment for Davies, who is on the set most nights with Andy Cohen on “Watch What Happens: Live,” in addition to juggling exec producer duties on other shows.
The show will also continue to be filmed from their “studio” – better described as a closet in Davies’ New York City office. The hosts explained that the set-up was initially an accident at the World Cup in Brazil, though they have stuck with it for the intimacy it provides.
“We’ve done some things in larger spaces — we’ve even gone into the big studio, but it suddenly felt like it wasn’t me and Roger having a conversation with each other about football, or indirectly with our audience being the third person at the table,” said Davies. “In order to have the intimacy that we have in our podcast we just felt that being really close to each other in a really small space with the camera also incredibly close — as close as we are to each other, that that was the only way we could assimilate the feeling of making a podcast for television.”
Added Bennett, “It’s gotten smaller and smaller and smaller the more successful we become.”
Davies and Bennett have taken inspiration from the slightly goofy approach to sports highlights and game previews featured on “The George Michael Sports Machine,” a mainstay of syndication in the 1980s and ’90s. The hosts will discuss the matches as well as more esoteric topics, explained Davies. “The haircuts, the way people pull up their shorts, the goal celebrations,” he cited, interrupted by Bennett’s exclamation: “The neck tattoos!”
“We’re very obsessed with neck tattoos,” Davies said.
In a nod to their roots, “Men in Blazers” will continue as a weekly podcast bowing Tuesdays on NBCSports.com. That format helps them stay in tune with what makes the show click with soccer fans.
“I think the biggest thing is that when Roge and I are making each other laugh, making points that we’re interested in, talking to each other openly about our own lives, that on the whole – the most authentic stuff is the most entertaining,” said Davies. “We just focus on trying to make each other laugh – and when we make each other laugh it seems to work with the audience.”
But a big part of the new show will also be to try to spur more interest among American sports fans in soccer. They are well aware that this remains an uphill climb.
“When we started the show we had the tagline ‘Soccer: America’s sport of the future as it has been since 1972,’ and we introduced that as a joke,” said Bennett. “But it does feel as if its time has come. And we’re very grateful and very lucky to be here now, in this country we love where the sport we love is really starting to grow at such a fast pace.”