The streaming show Ted Lasso had a great night at the Emmy’s. The show won four awards, including best actor in a comedy series (Sudeikis) and outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series (Waddingham). Ted Lasso is the story of an American college football coach from the midwest that was hired to coach an English soccer club (AFC Richmond), with absolutely no experience in the sport whatsoever.
One should never go full Roger Bennett, but the effect that Ted Lasso has had on the greater soccer landscape in America is real. Opinions on episodes dominate pop culture conversations for millennials at their weekend meetups (the Friday release date isn’t a coincidence by Apple TV). It’s common to see AFC Richmond jerseys in public.
Lots of moments have done more for the actual growth of American soccer (men’s and women’s) than Ted Lasso’s current moment, but few moments have branded the United States Soccer Federation (the USSF) and the standard bearer they envision in a better way.
Comfort TV and the American Sports Model
Comfort TV, in shows like Ted Lasso, has a natural bond with American sports in general. The low stakes conflict that works well in the execution of these shows is a natural cinematic fit for the general American sports landscape, where theres no real threat to the business (the professional team existing) if the product (the team on the field) isn’t good.
The Comfort TV formula is one that where main characters choose “doing the right thing” over the “wins and losses” of their profession (professions that are usually high income and disproportionally white), in under an hour and without much unpacking of the finer points of a situation.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Ted Lasso’s character is so relatable to American soccer fans because his core ethos in the show reflects much of what professional soccer in the United States looks like in terms of the financial stakes of winning and losing. The USSF runs the mens and women’s leagues in the USA within the framework of the American Sports model, known as a “closed league system”.
The only way to gain entry into the league is to be voted in by the members of the league and not through a victory based pyramid of competition, known as a “open league system”. In the American sports system, wins and losses only matter relative to the other teams allowed in the league. Economically, this creates a rising tide floats all boats scenario where individual incompetence by a team is offset by their participation in the collective sporting product of the league.
Ted Lasso is an “Ally”
Across the spectrum of all American leagues, there is a racial division between management (coaches and administrators that are almost exclusively white men) and labor (generally people of color except for hockey and soccer). The white savior is a foundational story line in cinematic history, and it often works well in the context of sports in America because of the real life demographics and experiences of athletes and fans in the United States.
Ted Lasso’s backstory is that he was a college football coach before taking over AFC Richmond. The white savior was bringing his feel good vibes of “caring for his players” from the world of college football (predominately black players) to the English soccer world. [SPOILER ALERT] It was meant to be sabotage at first, which is another minor storyline of how he wins the community and his bosses over.
Ted Lasso is positioned as an “ally” throughout the season, without having to confront the real baggage of the heavy social issues that exist around him. American sports fans are familiar with story arcs where sports stories are told in the context of a caring coach (primarily white) that preaches optimism and willpower to accomplish something that isn’t always tied to winning or losing for his players (mostly black), without having to figure out how to rectify the personal situation at hand.
In the case of Ted Lasso, his belief in making people in his orbit more optimistic in general is his primary motivating factor and not solving the actual problem at hand or the literal wins, losses, financial and professional consequences that come along with the top levels of English mens soccer, and soccer outside the United States in general.
Ted Lasso as an American soccer brand
Ted Lasso as a show is great branding for American Soccer and the USSF. It engages a lot of casual American fans of the sport in a format that they are used to without having to address a lot of the real issues that are happening within USSF, MLS, and NWSL.
As the two domestic leagues continue to grow, the USSF will have some very important social issues to confront with a mixture of racial and gender inequities, sexual abuse scandals among coaches, player safety and collective bargaining being a few of the prominent issues. Ted Lasso is a shiny front for the casual fan that the USSF needs to continue growing the game.
Ted Lasso’s success means that it is resonating within the American soccer community. Comfort TV has done a lot traditionally to introduce different themes into society like the ideas of racial equity, feminism, labor rights, etc. Lets hope there is some substance behind the branding.
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