Op-Ed: Why ‘Ted Lasso’ is a match made in globalizer heaven
“Ted Lasso” is a match made in globalizer heaven. It took a U.S. media/tech platform to make an iconic show about English football, and it took English football to make Apple TV+ a legitimate global media player. Certain Brits and certain Americans might be offended by this truth, but “Ted Lasso” would not have the same global reach if it were a British production, and it would not have the same global resonance if it were about one of our homegrown U.S. sports.
The acclaimed Apple TV+ comedy, which just won seven Emmys, is many things to many people — a call for optimism and kindness in an age of negativity and anger; a leadership masterclass; a Christian allegory; a primer on mental health; a case study in cross-cultural learning and personal growth; a repudiation of tea-drinking. But for globalization’s story, “Ted Lasso” is here to mind the gap (to borrow the type of everyday Britishism that so tickles the former Wichita State coach now managing AFC Richmond) between America’s dominance over most forms of global pop culture (think film, music, TV, social media) and its historical isolationism when it comes to sport.
This gap helps explain why soccer, despite being the world’s default sport, is severely underrepresented in the pantheon of great sport movies. A Hollywood studio once translated a great English football film (I didn’t say there have been none!) into baseball (hint: Drew Barrymore deals with Red Sox-crazed boyfriend), but if I were a studio or streaming boss these days, when overseas box office and screens rule, I’d translate all our old classics — “The Natural,” “A League of Their Own,” “Field of Dreams,” “Jerry Maguire,” you name it — into soccer.
Separately, both Apple TV+ and the English Premier League, the most globalized of any domestic sports league, streaming live to 189 countries, boast of their ability to reach a billion screens around the world, which is another way of saying these two were meant for each other. And with sport becoming more important and valuable by the day as a form of entertainment still consumed and shared in real time, Apple TV+ is hardly alone in leveraging the popularity of the world’s game.
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The Ted Lasso character, let’s not forget, was born as a series of inspired NBC Sports promos in 2013 when the network acquired the U.S. broadcast rights to the English Premier League. Amazon has acquired streaming rights for the league within Britain and picked up Prime members in Asia with its lavishly produced documentaries chronicling Premier League club seasons.
Sport, entertainment and media continue to converge against the backdrop of the rise of soccer in America, and America’s rise within soccer. More people in the United States watched the Italy-England final of soccer’s Euro Championship this summer, astonishingly, than watched the first three games of the Suns-Bucks NBA finals.
The gradual takeover of the game by U.S. interests is the overarching global pop culture story of the day. As fiction, the conceit of “Ted Lasso” is quaintly nostalgic: the innocent abroad discovering the quirks of an unimaginably foreign environment. In the real world, however, English and European football are being shaken up by wave after wave of American investors who’ve realized that confining their sport-operating wizardry to our own sports would be as foolish as if Coca-Cola had opted not to sell its fizz overseas. Indeed, English fans were quick to blame many of these American sporting tycoons and their financial backers for the failed attempt to launch a relegation-free (If you don’t know about relegation, you’re not watching “Ted Lasso”) European-wide “super league.”
Arsenal, owned by the same Kroenke family enterprise that owns the Los Angeles Rams, is one of three of the so-called Big Six English clubs now controlled by U.S. sports operators. Silver Lake Partners owns a minority stake in Manchester City. The San Francisco 49ers own a stake in Leeds United; former Disney CEO Michael Eisner acquired lower-division Portsmouth; former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt owns Olympic Marseille in France; comedians Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney took over a small Welsh club and already have a Netflix deal to chronicle that cultural clash.
Unlike billionaires from elsewhere in the world who have bought into English football as a vanity hobby, the Americans buying in are mostly experienced sports operators attracted by the business opportunity.
English owners (like the show’s Rebecca Welton, Ted Lasso’s boss), coaches and players are all a distinct minority in the hyper-globalized Premier League, and one of the realistic joys of “Ted Lasso” is the squad’s diversity, featuring Nigerian, Mexican, Dutch, French, Zimbabwean and Canadian players. We are now seeing more young American players thrive in England and across the continent as well, though there still does seem to be a stigma attached to American coaches who get in trouble for talking about cleats and the field, instead of boots and the pitch.
Perhaps Season 3 of “Ted Lasso” will involve a takeover of the club by a group of U.S. investors who judge that Rebecca, Keeley and Higgins haven’t done enough to commercialize AFC Richmond’s passionate following. The new strategy: Strike a deal with a deep-pocketed American streaming service to cash in on all that globalization has to offer.
Andrés Martinez is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and a Global Sport Scholar at ASU’s Global Sport Institute.
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