Ted Lasso is an Apple TV comedy drama about an American sports coach, who without any prior football experience, comes to London to take over struggling premier league club, AFC Richmond. We then follow Ted on a heart-warming journey, as he dedicates himself to helping his team become the best people they can be, both on and off the pitch. This is more important to Richmond’s new coach than simply winning games.
Ted is a kind of sporting pastor, and his football journey actually made me think of religion. This might not be such an outlandish comparison. Did your know that early football clubs often had close links with churches? In the 1880s, according to football historian David Goldblatt, a quarter of all football clubs in Birmingham had their roots in the Church. In 1887 a group of Catholic churchmen founded Celtic as a way of keeping Catholic football players within a Catholic institution. There were similar links in rugby. The sports historian Gareth Williams says that every church in Leeds in the late nineteenth century had its own rugby club.
Sport grew up around churches because it tended to reproduce the feelings that people once looked for in religion. There’s the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself – seen in huge chanting crowds, or Mexican waves flowing around stadiums, or mottos like “you’ll never walk alone”. Ted goes out of his way to foster this kind of togetherness, both among his team, and in the wider community.
Sport is also reminiscent of religion in the way it serves as the outlet for heightened emotion – useful when opportunities for public displays of passion have declined in modern society. The fluctuating fortunes of AC Richmond generate extremes of fervour, amongst players, coaches and fans alike.
Then there’s the way sport provides a sense of continuity and tradition, which is particularly welcome in a technological world that is rapidly changing. When Ted arrives at Richmond, the first thing he learns about is the club’s history, which extends back to the First World War, when the stadium was used as a hospital.
And finally there’s that feeling of aspiring to something more. This mysterious quality of something more is tricky to define. It could be the prospect of a great victory and transporting emotion; or the chance to make fabulous amounts of money; or it could be something that goes beyond money and winning – enjoyment, for example, or fellowship and belonging, which both tend to foster honourable behaviour, where individuals put others before themselves. Ted Lasso personifies these latter qualities. The show is a passionate, sensitive and entertaining journey into the modern religion of sport. It’s just for fun, but like sport itself, it also concerns itself with matters of vital importance.