Comedy, soccer, mental health, activism, and relatability. Reminiscing on the show that allowed American viewers to finally fall in love with soccer
WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Season 3 of Ted Lasso
There are moments when the world of television or cinema collides with the sports world. Where a creation becomes significant in the context of athletics that it is bigger than just a movie or a show. Recently, we saw one of these shows come to an end. The Apple TV+ original Ted Lasso wrapped up its third season in May of 2023 and with it closed the book on a series that catapulted Apple into the original series ladder and gave Americans a lovable face to a sport that the society as a whole had rejected in soccer.
In only three seasons, Ted Lasso tapped into and weaved topics that are present in sport but also present in day-to-day life. As lovable character Dani Rojas proclaims throughout the series, “football is life”. In the wake of its finale, Ted Lasso wasn’t merely a show about a Midwest American man finding new life and purpose as a coach in the English Premier League. It was a commentary on culture, the sports we love, the players we admire, and everything in between. In addition to that, Ted Lasso has contributed to something that many theorized could not be done: make soccer a popular sport in America.
The Genius of Ted Lasso
The story of Ted Lasso is a truly fascinating one. A bit character in an ad campaign to promote the Premier League on NBC turned into a full fledged TV show. That process is an incredibly interesting one, and one that Joe Pompliano has chronicled fantastically in his newsletter Huddle Up. Lasso is a character that is lovable with his infectious positivity, southern accent, and rhyming one-liners. He is the frontman of this show, its namesake, and someone that feels accessible to the average viewer.
This is an important quality when you are pitching a show to Americans about a country that they have likely never visited with a sport that many have taken pleasure in mocking over the years. But we quickly find out that Lasso is more than a two-dimensional slapstick joke machine. He is a character with depth, one that is dealing with his own struggles. He provides a commentary on dealing with a divorce, mental health issues, and his own upbringing in a way that is palatable and to be quite frank, not too real for the viewer.
The true magic of the Ted Lasso character isn’t that he is an American that is bridging the gap with a sport and culture that he doesn’t understand, but rather that the character is able to make professional soccer feel more accessible to Americans, and at the same time able to share very human stories throughout the team that are incredibly relatable. Where many Americans view soccer as a boring game, with players and storylines that are somewhat unrelatable, this character and this show brought it all together in a way that very few have done in the past. Once the American viewer let their guard down with the goofy lead man, the true stories that the writers of the show had to tell were able to shine through.
Understanding Soccer Culture
Something that may be lost on many Americans is just how tied to their cities soccer clubs truly are. This is illustrated by the fact that teams in European soccer almost never relocate to a new city, contrary to their American counterparts. This is because a city’s club is a part of the fabric of the city. People are raised in these clubs and idolize their favorite players at a very young age. Soccer is inherently the game of the common man, because all it takes is a ball and a few markers as imaginary goalposts to start playing. It can be a one on one game or a full on 11 on 11 game. Ted Lasso illustrates this passion incredibly well.
Throughout his day, Ted is often seen walking to the AFC Richmond facility and is greeted by fans in either disdain or admiration, depending on how the team is doing on the pitch. It is a connection that simply isn’t found in American sports and as a result may be a concept that is foreign to many American viewers. What you see in Ted Lasso is a bond between a city and a team that engenders loyalty and passion that engulfs an entire town on match days.
A key cog in this feeling is the existence of the local pub, where quite a few iconic scenes from the show occur. If you’ve never been to a pub during a match this might seem drawn out or overacted, but the reality is that it is an accurate description of just how badly the fans crave success from their soccer club. The pub is a dreadful place when the club is losing, and pure nirvana when they are winning. So much of the fabric of this little patch of London is dictated by this one club, which is a perfect description of the way the beautiful game becomes an obsession in Europe.
Behind the Scenes
An interesting figure early on in the series is the owner of AFC Richmond, Rebecca Welton. Welton inherited ownership of the team after her divorce from former owner Rupert Mannion. Rebecca is painted as a woman scorned, adamant about embarrassing Rupert by sabotaging the team into ruin by hiring Lasso, a man that knows nothing about English soccer. Welton is eventually won over by Lasso’s charm and positivity and makes it her new mission to succeed and show Mannion what she is capable of.
The evolution of Rebecca from a begrudging entity looking for revenge to an accomplished owner is a fascinating one. We see her form a partnership with Lasso, someone that she despised and didn’t respect. It is a commentary on the fragile nature of the behind the scenes happenings at a professional sports team and also the ego-driven decisions that accompany them. Where Welton began as someone looking for the satisfaction of short-term spite, she evolved into someone that made Richmond her own and defined her second chapter.
She is a figure that is also defying stereotypes throughout the series. She challenges the notion that women cannot own professional teams. Additionally, she challenges the notion that she cannot rebound from a very public and humiliating divorce. Rupert Mannion is at first portrayed as a sort of charming silver fox, while Rebecca is the classic woman scorned. But eventually we see Rebecca thriving and becoming an iconic modern woman that is synonymous with success.
Through this transformation, Rebecca is linked with Ted and the show illustrates just how important synergy between ownership and management truly is in professional sports. But beyond that, Rebecca represents the shifting tide in sports. Away from the good old boys club of the past into one that allows for new voices and faces to define it. Her separation and eventual triumph in perception over Rupert shows this and tells the story of sea change in ownership in sports. It is a story that is a modern victory that transcends the normal path that has been placed by society into one that shows women that anything is possible, even in a space that has been dominated by older white men for years.
We All Need Therapy
Throughout the series, Ted has an external persona much like we all do. He is seen as a jovial and positive man that is unflappable. But as we learn throughout the series, that perception is merely scratching the surface. Throughout the series we see Ted struggle with the pressures of anxiety and panic attacks. We see him coping with the struggles of being someone in the spotlight that is dealing with a divorce and his ex-wife moving on with another partner. It is a commentary that is often missed in our observation of athletes and coaches, that they are also humans and face the same problems that we face.
In a recent study, it was found that 35% of current athletes experience some sort of disorder or mental anxiety, and yet only 10% of those athletes seek treatment. Why is this? The answer could be that there are assumptions that are placed on athletes to be almost robotic in their execution. That we are allowed to deride them and ridicule them because they are being paid millions of dollars to play “a child’s game”. We have seen moments where athletes' frustrations bubble over (we see this from the character Isaac McAdoo in season 3) and they challenge fans for their cavalier criticism of them in-game and on social media.
Ted Lasso as a whole demonstrates that people around a team feel this daily, especially in the social media era. In a time where a platform like Twitter is filled with faceless avatars constantly nitpicking an athlete's every move and performance, it is important to be able to illustrate what that feels like. The demonstration of Ted coping with his personal life troubles and being overwhelmed, or Sam Obisanya getting into a war of words with a politician, shows that there are pressures that we would never understand. A lesson we all learned from this show is that people on the teams that we love are humans just like us, and understanding those complexities were beautifully illustrated by the writers.
Fighting the Stigma
A couple of years ago, former Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib made history: he became the first openly gay man in NFL history. It was a big moment in a sport that was considered the ultimate “man's game”. In the past, the discussion about gay men in sports was met with the typical low-hanging fruit stereotypes about the overly sexual gay man and that being a concern. Despite all the progress that has been made by leagues to be more inclusive, the thought from many was that players did not share the same values.
Ted Lasso tackled this very real issue through the lens of Colin Hughes. Hughes is an integral part of the team's success and is revealed to be gay but not quite ready to come out. When he is seen to be kissing his boyfriend by journalist Trent Crimm, the viewer immediately thinks the worst. The thought is that Crimm will use this as a scoop to get clicks on an article. Similarly, when the team captain and Colin’s best friend on the team, Isaac McAdoo finds out that Colin is gay through a picture on his phone, we are made to assume that their friendship will be terminated because of intolerance. We feel this way because this is the assumption that we have about players and media in today’s world. In short, we assume intolerance and self-interest.
To our surprise, Trent admits that he is also gay and wants to be an ally for Colin. Isaac gets mad at Colin, not because he is gay, but because he didn’t confide in him. And while it might be easy to say that this is simply a writer angling for inclusion, we saw a similar reaction from players in the real world with Carl Nassib. When Nassib came out, many teams and coaches expressed their support for him but he also received praise from contemporaries like JJ Watt and Saquon Barkley. This moment in the show is meant to dispel the notion that modern athletes are homophobes.
The more important lesson here may be one of comradery, however. In the context of AFC Richmond, these players endured a lot together. They experienced an ownership shift, a radical coaching change, relegation, promotion, and everything in between. They experienced all the great moments and all the difficult moments together. They are intimately familiar with one another and know the character of each other, which means that they are accepting of one another. This is a lesson that we may discount when it comes to our views of teams in this age of player movement and empowerment. At their core, the team concept is incredibly strong and with that comes a level of support that many may never experience.
Bigger Than Sport
One of the more interesting characters in the Ted Lasso universe is Sam Obisanya. In him, we see the pressures of representing your country, the sense of activism, the athlete entrepreneurship dynamic, and the importance of protest. Much like other characters in the show, Obisanya has more depth than we first assume when we are introduced to him. What started as a young player from Nigeria trying to find his way, evolves into a player that is a key piece that grapples with off-the-pitch struggles that we have seen more athletes encounter in modern times.
Throughout the series we see Obisanya struggle with living up to his sense of patriotism, that he wants to be a good representation of his friends and family back in Nigeria. This is a concept that we see from many international players in many sports, but specifically from African players in soccer. For many years there has been an assumption that they are talented but a distant ways away from their European and South American contemporaries. We see him specifically struggle with this when proposed to form an African super team by billionaire Edwin Akufo. Sam’s consideration of this shows the struggle of being in a big league but a sense of country that is pulling him in multiple directions, which is a concept that many Americans may not understand but is something that is prevalent in international soccer.
It is this sense of country that leads to Sam doing something that Americans are used to seeing athletes do now: protesting injustice. This comes in the way of the Dubai Air storyline where Sam learns that the company is owned by a larger corporation that is responsible for polluting his home country. Sam takes a stand and covers the Dubai Air logo on his jersey as a form of protest, an action that is followed by multiple teammates. We see this theme of social consciousness come up as well when Sam tweets about anti-immigration bills that are being passed in Britain. This leads to a “shut up and dribble” allegory that reminds us that many people view athletes as entities made for entertaining us.
Sam Obisanya is the perfect character to showcase this, as he is a very marketable and likable young player. This is in contrast to a more polarizing figure on the team in Jamie Tartt. The pushback that Sam received shows that people in this world are still uncomfortable with athletes trying to be activists. They had an issue with it when Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown did it, and they still have an issue with it today when modern athletes like LeBron James speak out about injustice. We see this hatred manifested when Sam’s restaurant, Ola’s, is vandalized for his tweets about immigration reform.
Sam Obisanya perfectly portrays the struggles of the elite black athlete in today’s society. Their skills brought them out of the hostile situation that they grew up in and they are looking to leave the world in a better place than they found it. Unfortunately, many people choose to look at them as entitled and stepping out of their lane. That their talent is a gift and they should stick to playing their game instead of speaking on things that they don’t understand. In this character, we see that not only is it okay to be a free thinker in the sports world, but it can engender the support and love of your teammates. With Obisanya, we see the development of a boy into a man who has a purpose and should be celebrated.
The Evolution of a Professional
One of the longer character arcs of this show that has the largest reward is that of Jamie Tartt. Tartt is portrayed initially as something of a pretty boy, an entitled soccer player turned reality TV star that was hard to like, a player whose teammates dislike him just as much as opposing fans do. By the end, we see someone that has to overcome a father that was verbally and physically abusive to him.
Throughout the series, we see the evolution of Tartt from a spoiled primadonna to an exceptional teammate that is committed to his craft. It is a story that we often see in the NBA. A player comes into a bad team that is highly touted and makes millions through dazzling individual play and endorsement deals. But after a while, this player is not satisfied with just being individually remarkable and has to make sacrifices to make the team better. This is the story of Jamie Tartt, which makes him the most relatable character in this story if you are a former professional athlete.
We see his immaturity on full display in his relationship with Keeley Jones. We saw him entering a bit of a playboy phase that morphed into his reality TV show status and ended in him being regarded as a bit of a pariah. The most fascinating aspect of his character comes in the form of his relationship with Roy Kent, the team's veteran who eventually becomes a coach for the club. Kent is an ultimate professional and generally despises Tartt mainly out of disappointment because he feels that Jamie is squandering his talent, that he is leaving greatness on the table.
This is another common reality in major sports as young players often need the help and guidance of a veteran to show them how to become a professional, how to develop positive habits to tap into their potential. Jamie does this, becoming the best version of himself. And in the process he finally confronts his abusive father, showing that he overcame the obstacles placed in front of him that denied his success. It is the story of many athletes and one that goes relatively under the radar in the backstory of superstar players. Through Jamie Tartt, we see that the pressure to be great when you are under the spotlight at such a young age is a whole set of difficulties that we may overlook when watching our favorite teams.
Adapting to the Inevitable
When you are a great athlete for many years, there is always a moment of wonder. A question that you must ask, is when is it the right time to step away from the game that you dedicated your life to? This is a question that is tackled by Roy Kent in Ted Lasso. Kent is a player that is exiting his prime, a once fierce center midfielder that dominated the Premier League. But in the show he is fading away, clinging on to whatever he has left in the tank. He is a commanding leader, and while his words still resonate, his performance on the field is no longer meeting the standards he had set for himself.
Roy eventually retires from the game and becomes an analyst for Sky Sports. This is a common path for many former players to take after retirement. It keeps them close to the game even if they can no longer compete at a high level. This is a moment that I personally appreciate a lot, as it showcases the gap in what the media expects and what former players see. Oftentimes, the media is looking for headlines and narratives to push. Roy, as a player that loves and respects the game too much, simply is not a fan of this dog and pony show. Roy feels that this is a manicured depiction of the game and something that he can not reconcile with, a moment that makes us all wonder how our favorite athletes view the way that their contemporaries are shown in the media.
Kent eventually lands as an assistant with Lasso and this is where he truly finds his calling. He is able to apply his leadership qualities to a coaching role and lead the team to great things. In Roy Kent, we see someone that is struggling to cope with the reality of what the future holds. He was an elite prospect at the age of 17 and had been in the limelight ever since. His maturation feels a bit like that of the late Kobe Bryant, who had to adapt to being an aging superstar before retiring from the game and finding a passion in coaching before his untimely death. Kent shows us that making this adjustment and accepting that it is time to exit the stage is incredibly hard to do. That this game is intoxicating and staying in it as long as possible is something that many struggle to accept, despite how challenging the scrutiny and pressure might be.
The Ted Lasso Effect
The stories told in Ted Lasso are some that apply in all sports, and in a way demystify the foreign nature of soccer to many American viewers. Since its launch in late 2020, we have seen an uptick in soccer viewership in America, surpassing the NHL as the country’s 4th most-watched sport. This popularity has been felt in the local MLS ratings increase as the league has continued to experience popularity growth in many markets and has led to an Apple TV+ deal for media rights. This boom in popularity has also seen an increase in viewership of the English Premier League in the States to numbers that it has never seen before.
When one considers that Ted Lasso is a show that is delivered to Americans via a very accessible service (basically purchasing any Apple product will give you a three-month trial of Apple TV+) and that the show has official rights to Premier League team names and intellectual property, it is hard to discount that this success is in large part due to the show. Previously, the most exposure that many Americans got to soccer was every 4 years during the men’s and women’s World Cups. But now more networks have invested in European soccer. It is now easy to watch the Premier League, France’s Ligue 1, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, and the UEFA Champions League here in the States.
There is a growing appetite for soccer because this show has shown us the beautiful storytelling that this game can provide. And once that door is open, viewers realize that the game has a lot to offer. Many have derided soccer as being boring, but it possesses elements that appeal to many American viewers. The games are shorter, there are no commercial breaks outside of halftime, and the action is free-flowing with very few stoppages compared to a sport like baseball. Additionally, youth soccer is everywhere allowing for an adoption for future generations.
For many years, soccer in the United States was looking for a face. Some thought it was Landon Donovan years ago, then Clint Dempsey, and in recent years it has been Alex Morgan. But the true face of soccer in the US now is Ted Lasso, evidenced by the Nike deal for AFC Richmond merchandise that the company is now selling. In the United States, we often find ourselves craving good stories that captivate us. The characters of Ted Lasso provided us with that.
Ted Lasso showed us the overcoming of adversity in a difficult situation. Rebecca Welton provided inspiration for women to be entrepreneurs and to fight for a seat at a very male-dominated table. Sam Obisanya told us that it is okay to speak your mind, while Roy Kent and Jamie Tartt taught us lessons about growth and adaptability. Many may view Ted Lasso as just another popular TV show, but the reality is so much greater than that. It is a show that drew people in with comedy and exposed them to the beauty of a game that the rest of the world has fallen in love with. It is a sport that will continue to grow in popularity here in America, and if the impossible happens and it overtakes baseball as the country's number three sport, we have Ted Lasso to thank for that.