In 2012, after spending $250 million for the broadcast rights to the Premier League, NBC Sports realized it had a problem. No one was sure the U.S. audience understood enough about English soccer to justify the investment, so the network needed a cheeky way to let viewers know it was OK to be a little vague on the rules.
Enter Ted Lasso, a gum-chewing, soft-drawling coach of American football — the tackle kind — mistakenly hired to manage Tottenham Hotspur, one of England’s most iconic teams. With Jason Sudeikis playing Ted with just the right combination of arrogance and ignorance, the hilarious four-minute, 41-second primer was so successful the character became a cult figure overnight, inspiring social media parody accounts and earning Sudeikis a second season of short spots on NBC.
The network retired Ted after that, but Sudeikis never gave up on the coach he created, faithfulness that will be rewarded Aug. 14 when Apple TV+ kicks off “Ted Lasso,” a series Sudeikis helped create, produce and write.
“The feeling at the end of the day of writing this guy or pretending to be this guy, it’s nice. He’s egoless,” Sudeikis said. “He’s Mr. Rogers meets John Wooden.”
Maybe. But even with that pedigree, taking him from NBC’s promotions department to a full-fledged streaming series required traveling through two continents, winning over the right producers and adding both heart and heft to a character that was gloriously lacking in both.
Ted was born around 2001, in the dressing room of a small, aging theater in Amsterdam where Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt, who would becomeTed’s trusty assistant coach, were performing with the improvisational comedy troupe Boom Chicago.
Hunt had come to the Netherlands a Chicago Bears fan who despised soccer and its archaic rules, only to be swept up in the sport’s culture in Amsterdam. To cultivate that, Sudeikis bought a PlayStation so he and Hunt could play the soccer video game "FIFA," named for the sport's governing body, before and after every show.
"The bulk of my soccer knowledge and love comes from playing 'FIFA,'" said Sudeikis, who would coach David Beckham’s Manchester United against Hunt’s Arsenal led by Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. At the time no American had managed a major team in Europe outside of a video game, leading Sudeikis and Hunt to wonder what the transition might look like if an NFL coach gave it a try.
The result was Ted Lasso, who comes to London and is troubled to learn soccer games can end in ties, there are no playoffs, and balls kicked over the goal posts are not worth three points. When NBC pitched the idea of a short film featuring Ted to its partners at the Premier League, it was dismissed as out of hand: Soccer is more a religion than a sport for the English, and no one was going to come into their church and make fun of it.
However Tottenham, the last team the network approached, loved the idea so much it produced a 3 1/2-minute video of its own documenting the making of the NBC film — and, in a subtle act of revenge, highlighting Americans’ ignorance of the sport.
“The hesitancy that was felt by clubs before we actually shot the first one essentially went away as soon as they saw it,” Hunt said. “That has now worked as a real calling card for us because now the Premier League knows about Ted Lasso.”
In fact, Sudeikis said he’s better- known in parts of Europe for his portrayal of the bungling soccer coach than for his mainstream film and TV roles, including "Saturday Night Live's" Joe Biden. The biggest challenge in taking Ted from a concept to a 10-episode series wasn’t the reluctance of the English, though. It was the doubters in Hollywood.
Sudeikis’ partner, actress Olivia Wilde, refused to let him give up on the idea.
“Olivia, even when we were just writing years ago without any buyers or even pitching it yet, gave it a big push,” said Hunt, whose serious, monosyllabic Coach Beard is the straight man to Sudeikis’ Ted. “Olivia was like, ‘Jason, you are doing this show. You’re going to London, you’re going to make this with your friends, and that’s all there is to it. But it just really couldn’t happen until Jason crossed paths with Bill Lawrence. Bill Lawrence got us over the finish line.”
Lawrence, creator of the successful medical comedy “Scrubs,” which ran for nine seasons on ABC and NBC, is the only member of the production team to have won anything in competitive soccer, capturing a Connecticut state championship as a goalkeeper when he was 10. His passion for the sport faded soon after that, but Sudeikis convinced him “Ted Lasso” was worth backing.
“He sold me,” Lawrence said. “The only reason that it took a while was people always thought it was a super funny sketch, but they didn’t have the vision Jason had in his head of it being a show with a big heart.”
Still, turning 281 seconds of “super funny sketch” into 300-plus minutes of episodic entertainment was a more difficult transition than going from coaching American football to the European kind. And it meant starting over.
“The NBC thing is gone,” Hunt said. “It was the footprints that we’re walking in, but we had to make it a fuller, different version. For Jason the most important thing with Ted is that he had to be a curious person. It’s one thing to be dumb or ignorant or be in over your head. But if you can be the person who knows how much he does not know and be curious about the things you do not know, then that automatically lends itself to being a big-hearted, welcoming person who wants to know about every single person you meet.”
The fish-out-of-water conceit that made the original concept work is still there — as are the gags about playoffs, draws, soccer rules and small cars. But the character has necessarily evolved. Since Ted’s debut in 2014 a soccer culture has emerged in the U.S., with the women’s national team winning two World Cups and Major League Soccer adding teams in eight cities. As a football coach, Ted would have seen enough on SportsCenter to have a grasp of the game, and the new character had to reflect that.
“He’s a little more fleshed out, less buffoonish,” Sudeikis said. “He understands kicking the ball over the goal isn’t three points.”
And while Sudeikis plays him for laughs, there is a dignity to Ted that allows him to meet pessimism with optimism and despair with hope. That makes him a much better fit for an audience preoccupied not with the idiosyncrasies of soccer but with a deadly pandemic and political uncertainty.
“He’s more a white rabbit than a white knight,” Sudeikis said. “He can lead you to a better place."