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Ted Talk

How Ted Lasso Took Over the World of Sports Documentaries

A growing array of shows hype up the feel-good drama of modern sports—while tuning out the controversy.

AppleTV/Getty Images
Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, and Jason Sudeikis in “Ted Lasso”

Ten years ago, a storied English soccer team hired an American college football coach to lead them to glory in the Premier League. The team was North London’s Tottenham Hotspur; the American was Ted Lasso, a gruff and somewhat guileless manager who struggled to grasp the basics of his new sport. The two types of football must have a lot in common, right? You just strap on your helmet and play your heart out for all four quarters.

Tottenham, of course, did not actually hire Ted Lasso—though he may have fared better than Nuno Espírito Santo did when he was hired to manage the team two years ago. Lasso was, famously, part of an advertising campaign promoting NBC’s acquisition of the Premier League. It was a clever marketing stunt. For one thing, Lasso was played by Jason Sudeikis, then of Saturday Night Live, and the promos had the feel of SNL digital shorts. For another, the Lasso spots were part of a larger marketing campaign that pandered to Americans, particularly young professionals. That campaign worked: The English Premier League has rapidly expanded in popularity in America thanks in large part to NBC—and in small part to Ted Lasso.

Nearly a decade later, the Lasso character has experienced his own brand refresh. He’s now much less like a real college football coach—which is to say, he’s not a jerk. His particularly American mix of innocence and bravado has been upgraded with a mid-2010s fixation on the language of self-care—which is to say, he’s less funny. Still, the character’s evolution from pitchman to sitcom main character has been remarkably successful. The first season of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso was a runaway hit when it debuted two summers ago; it eventually garnered more Emmy nominations than any other debut show in history. When Sudeikis collected the award for lead actor in a comedy series, some saw it as a culmination:

Bennett—an English transplant whose podcast and television show Men in Blazers has played an instrumental role in selling the Premier League to Americans—was widely and deservedly mocked. Ted Lasso did not introduce soccer to people in America; there are, in fact, tens of millions of Americans who have been watching it for years, albeit people who typically make up less desired advertising demographics. Lasso’s triumph was also the Premier League’s (and Bennett’s): selling English soccer to affluent young professionals. Bennett was correct in some ways. The success of Ted Lasso was inextricably linked to the success of the English Premier League in the United States. The two supported each other in a virtuous cycle—the better to sell the Ted Lasso experience to newcomers: Pick a squad, join a crew, learn as you go! NBC Sports’ increasingly popular “fan fests” in major U.S. cities were suddenly packed to the gills with Americans, cosplaying as English football ultras.

Nearly all of Ted Lasso’s many flaws—its lack of conflict, its paper-thin characters, the general unbelievability of both its premise and narrative structure—stem from this origin story. Lasso was a character invented to sell something and he is, despite Sudeikis’s considerable (and largely impressive) efforts to add depth and nuance, still little more than a mascot. In season 3, which premiered on Wednesday evening, he is still struggling with the mechanics of the game, despite having coached at AFC Richmond for two seasons. (Lasso still does not know what a 4–4–2 formation is, even though this is the foundation of English soccer.) The show’s third season, as Philip Maciak wrote in his perceptive review for The New Republic, struggles from a general sense of inertia: The show has entered its Ted Lassitude Era.

Try as it might, Lasso cannot escape its own DNA, studded with reminders that it was originally just a marketing ploy. (Ted Lasso, it should be noted, is also hurt by the fact that it’s also a marketing tool for its parent company, Apple; no show in human history has featured more texting, in large part because the show is determined to shoehorn as many Apple products into every frame as humanly possible.) But if Ted Lasso the show is experiencing an identity crisis, that doesn’t mean the feel-good transformation of what was a series of advertisements has lost its utility. The “Ted Lasso Effect” is stronger than ever, and it’s being cunningly recombined into a new genre of show, blurring the lines between storytelling and advertising, that has been on the rise for years: the sports propaganda documentary.

My favorite moment of the most recent installment of Amazon’s All or Nothing—the deceptively fly-on-the-wall (it is actually carefully curated and rarely revelatory) documentary series that has followed, among others, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, Serie A’s Juventus, and Premier League juggernauts Manchester City—has no on-field action at all. Mikel Arteta, Arsenal’s handsome and intense manager, is giving a team talk, telling his players what they need to succeed. The lecture he is delivering is, in most ways that count, one anyone who has watched a sports movie or listened to the canned interviews athletes do after games would be familiar with: You have to be smart; you also have to be passionate. “Guys, we have to play with our big hearts. At the same time, we have to play with a big brain,” Arteta says. “And these have to work together.”

“This is your passion, how your manager wants you to put into the game. How much you want to commit yourself in the game,” and he draws a cute little heart with an outstretched hand. And then he draws a brain and shows the two holding hands.

It’s cute and weird in equal measure. It’s also a funny way to motivate a room full of pampered multimillionaires, most of whom are in their early twenties. Did it work? Well, maybe—Arsenal would go on to win that particular match 3–1. Should we chalk up the win to Arteta’s TED Talk, or to his tactics? It’s never quite explained. The Arsenal season that All or Nothing depicts was one of promise ending in disappointment—the club ended up outside of the fourth-place finish necessary to qualify for the Champions League tournament—so maybe it didn’t work in the long run. When All or Nothing dropped over the summer, Arteta was often the source of mockery: He was cringey and prone to stunts; for all his wild passion, the results just weren’t quite there. And yet, Arteta’s methods do seem to be working now: The team is narrowly favored to win the Premier League, an accomplishment almost no one predicted at the start of the season.

Those who follow Arsenal closely are not likely to get much out of the documentary series, which is a relentlessly vibes-based account of what went on at the squad’s training center. And so the documentary will leave nagging questions with those who know the sport well, such as, “Was that real?”

Arteta is corny—there’s no doubt that he does goofy stuff like this all the time. But All or Nothing gets over without showing us much of how soccer actually works now. The increasingly technical and opaque world of the sport—and the related influence of money and, in soccer in particular, literal geopolitics—are swept aside. Managers, even Manchester City’s philosopher king Pep Guardiola, are reduced to hype men—unsurprising given the complexity of their tactics would be lost on the layman (and, it’s worth underlying, they’re considered proprietary information anyway).

There are a lot of these shows. The All or Nothing series typically focuses on a bigger club in search of a crowning achievement. They are meant to show you the majesty of success: the seven habits of highly effective sports bosses. In general, they’re plodding and propagandistic: The big teams have little incentive to show you what’s really going on behind the scenes and control the narrative tightly. Manchester City’s is the most triumphant of the lot—it involves the team romping to victory in the 2017–18 season. But its real purpose is hardly sporting: It exists as part of the larger sportswashing effort of Manchester City’s owners, the United Arab Emirates, and shows them as caring, devoted stewards of a club. Unsurprisingly, the country’s poor human rights record, let alone its financial might, is never addressed.

Then there is the documentary about the scrappy underdog, usually from an industrial city. Sunderland Til I Die is the standard-setter—it’s by far the best of all of the fly-on-the-wall docs, and the only one that gives something like a warts-and-all vision, possibly because the team’s front office, in search of new investors, believed that the documentary captures the team’s triumphant return to the premiership. (Sunderland instead had a disastrous season ending in further relegation down into the depths of the English professional divisions; the show is now seen, both by competitors and the team’s own fans, as a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving documentarians too much unfettered access.) But it’s hardly alone. Take Us Home is a charming, multiseason account of Leeds United’s return to the Premier League that charts a northern English city’s love affair with the idiosyncratic and brilliant Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa. And, most recently, there is Welcome to Wrexham, which recounts the purchase of Wrexham United, a small Welsh team languishing in the fifth division, by movie star Ryan Reynolds and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-creator Rob McElhenney.

No show has embraced the Lasso model as much as Welcome to Wrexham; it is impossible to imagine that the latter show would even exist without the former. Charming and patronizing in equal measure, Reynolds and McElhenney are both essentially presented as Lasso-ish figures. Ignorant of both soccer and Wales, they are classic innocents abroad: Naïve and rich, they neither understand the culture into which they have bought themselves nor the magnitude of the task in front of them. The show is a triumph of marketing that often works in spite of itself: Its portraits of the team’s fans and its players are so moving you almost forget that the whole thing is a giant marketing ploy and that Reynolds and McElhenney’s goal is almost certainly to eventually flip the club. (Which, while a bit crass, is far from the worst ownership strategy in the English football leagues.)

Welcome to Wrexham has been something of a tidal force in the real world of sports: ESPN ended up hyping Wrexham’s FA Cup tie with Sheffield United after the Welsh club forced their opponents into a replay and it’s hard to imagine them earning that coverage without the show existing. (Sheffield United, the only team of the two with serious ambitions, eventually won.) It, moreover, has worked startlingly well: The Athletic, The New York Times-owned sports website, recently announced it would be adding coverage of Wrexham, a staggering devotion of resources to a team in English’s fifth division. The same day, The Athletic also announced it was axing its coverage of Celtic and Rangers, Scotland’s two most important teams, both of whom regularly play in Europe.

But the team-focused sports documentary may be nearing its end. Many of the breakout sports docuseries in recent years have focused on entire leagues. Drive to Survive, Formula One’s massively successful Netflix documentary, has spawned a series of imitators: There are now versions focusing on golf and on tennis. The Premier League is also considering a similar show and it’s easy to see why: These programs distill the complexities of the sport into narratives; Drive to Survive in particular has led to a huge growth in Formula One fandom in recent years. In some ways, these programs answer the question that led the chairmen of many of soccer’s biggest clubs to support a grotesque European “super league.” Then, Real Madrid honcho Florentino Perez mused that changes needed to be made to attract young people to the sport. “We have to analyze why young people, 16-to-24-year-olds, 40 percent of them aren’t interested in football,” he said. “Why? Because there are a lot of low-quality games, and they have other entertainment platforms.” These programs help sell their sports by superimposing larger and more melodramatic storylines onto what would otherwise just be a business.

But, even here, we see the Lasso Effect in action, as these docuseries also strive to box out many of the most unsavory aspects of the sports they cover. Soccer is increasingly a sport defined by corruption, geopolitics, and massive wealth disparities. The biggest story of 2022 was a good one: Lionel Messi leading Argentina to its first World Cup since 1986. The second-biggest story was about where the first took place: Qatar, a country where it is illegal to be gay and which relied on rampant abuse of migrant laborers to build the tournaments that would host the tournament’s games. Soccer’s governing bodies are wildly corrupt and happy to get into bed with whichever dictatorship will guarantee them the most money. It seems likely that, despite the criticism that Qatar came in for during the last World Cup, Saudi Arabia will host the 2030 installment. The leagues themselves are massively unequal and teams themselves are increasingly run with the logic of high finance.

Sports docuseries, like Ted Lasso, offer us an escape from the grim reality of professional sports. In these worlds, there is passion and the high-octane thrill of the sport, the halftime team talks that are straight out of the movies, scores straight out of Chariots of Fire. They all plaster a little yellow sign on the screen, urging us to “BELIEVE.” There’s so much good vibes going on that you almost don’t notice what you’re being sold; you almost forget about all the money changing hands just off-screen.