The Impact of “Ted Lasso” (and Some Other Thoughts on Soccer in the US)

by Deb Seymour

If you’re one of the fortunate to be able to stream the televison comedy “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ in its second season, it’s worth your time to begin at the beginning. Watch Season 1 before you begin to follow Season 2. And if you’re like most viewers who’ve voted on this show’s likeability, you’ll soon jump on the bandwagon and become a believer.

Sacha Kljestan, player for the Major League Soccer team the LA Galaxy, commented in July to the LA Times (on a show he believed would be “corny”) that “it’s the best show I watched last year and I really can’t wait for the second season.”

Other players and coaches have commented on the show, as well. A lot of what they’ve said is surprisingly positive, given all the non-soccer drama that “Ted Lasso” includes in its plot lines.

“When you talk about team dynamic and relationships between coaches and players and senior management and coaching, all those things are really interesting to watch.”

GREGG BERHALTER, U.S. MEN’S NATIONAL TEAM COACH AND A FAN OF ‘TED LASSO’ (LA Times, July 18, 2021)

Jason Sudeikis stars in the show and came to soccer late in life — and is now a passionate fan. “This show is as much about soccer as ‘Rocky’ is about boxing. But we wanted soccer fans, athletes, lovers of it, to feel it honors the spirit of that beautiful game.”

“There is this absolute love for that sport and its history and its philosophy and its deep complications, both culturally and also just strategically,” said Jason Sudeikis to the LA Times.

Although it’s not one of the “Big Four” sports in the US (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey), soccer has a fairly large following domestically and most certainly, internationally. Not all US soccer fans are fans of North American Major League Soccer (MLS) teams, however; a percentage follow the English Premier League and other leagues from around the world. On August 3rd, 2021 the Real Madrid television channel announced a partnership with digital platform provider Cinedigm in order to offer “thousands of hours of fan-centric football content” to North American viewers through streaming services (Digital TV Europe).

Erick Opeka, President of Cinedigm Digital Networks, said: “Soccer is the most popular sport in the world with an extreme level of fandom. Partnering with Real Madrid, and giving this global club an exclusive home to many of the biggest OTT distribution partners in North America, will allow viewers to experience never before released content in the United States. Fans will feel like they are part of all the action with interviews, matches and news they can’t get anywhere else, and content will be refreshed weekly to keep fans engaged.” (Digital TV Europe).

7% of Americans cited soccer as their favorite sport to watch according to a 2018 Gallup report, while only 9% preferred baseball. I’m not sure if you find these statistics rather shocking — but I know I did.

Soccer in the USA is the third-most played team sport, behind only basketball and American football. Major League Soccer has experienced a 27% rise in interest since 2012, according to Nielsen Sports Sponsorlink. Major League Soccer began in 1996 with 10 teams and has grown to 27 teams. Its average attendance of 21,358 from 2013-18 ranked No. 8 in the world, trailing Ligue 1 in France (21,556) and Italy’s Serie A (22,967), according to a study conducted by the CIES Football. 

While Canada has but one team in Major League Baseball at this point (the Toronto Blue Jays) and one team in the National Basketball Association (the Toronto Raptors), not only does it have seven teams in the National Hockey League, it has three teams in Major League Soccer (Toronto FC, CF Montreal, and the Vancouver Whitecaps FC). It’s pretty typical for sports fans in the US to think of the NHL as a joint US/Canada league, but the popularity of soccer in both countries makes it also unsurprising that MLS has more Canadian teams than do either MLB or the NBA.

Although it’s probably too early in the “Ted Lasso” run to try to correlate any recent soccer audience numbers in the US to the popularity of the show, the English Premier League, to which AFC Richmond (Ted Lasso’s soccer club) aspires, has a significant audience in the US. NBC Networks’ airing of the EPL from the 2018-2019 season through the 2020-2021 season averaged well over 400,000 viewers per match, per season. Meanwhile, according to Nielsen’s Designated Market Area (DMA), in 2020 New York’s two MLS teams (NYCFC and the NY Red Bulls) had 6.82 million television homes while Los Angeles’ two teams (LA Galaxy and the LA FC) had 5.15 million. These are the two largest domestic markets for soccer in the US.

Although I do not profess to be a serious soccer fan myself, I know many people who are. Some have played the game, some have not. Some have family in Europe or in other soccer-centric world regions, some do not. Some have simply visited or lived in countries where soccer is the main sport, and fell in love with it. Although soccer is still mostly considered to be a fringe sport in the US, one has to wonder, with the ongoing growth of MLS, how long that will continue to be the case. From my perspective, however, bring it on. Competition is good across sports leagues, and the more the merrier.

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