With a new season of Apple TV+’s Emmy-winning megahit Ted Lasso on our screens, LAMag is bringing “you Yanks” the real stories behind the characters and situations that make up the Lassoverse. While the show’s clever writing arranges the mechanics of British football spiffingly, lots of the Ted Lasso storylines are plucked from the real-life people and drama of the U.K.’s football leagues.
In Season 3, Episode 3, we get a lot more of Zava, the new AFC Richmond star. But given Zava’s track record of flaming out of clubs within a year, one has to assume that his character will only have a one-season arc. (This is purely speculation.) And if Zava is a flash in the pan, it is important to interpret his presence in the show as part of a larger arc: AFC Richmond owner Rebecca’s desperate need to both get over and one-up her ex-husband, former AFC Richmond owner Rupert.
In case you forgot, at the top of Ted Lasso Season 1, Rebecca won ownership of Richmond in her divorce from the philandering Rupert and, to spite him, did her best to tank the club’s fortunes. (Hence the idiot American coach, and the show.) Although Rebecca is now wholly committed to both Lasso and Richmond, Season 3 rehashes this theme, as Rupert buys rival club West Ham United and poaches tactics wizard Nathan to be his manager.
But as compelling as this owner rivalry is for the show, there are few modern British soccer team owners who match the Rebecca/Rupert archetype because they’re increasingly all billionaires and state entities.
The current Premier League—which is defined by the mammoth TV rights deals they have with Sky in the UK and other broadcast partners around the world—has become unattainable by the simply rich, such as Rebecca. Only the ultrarich can afford to buy into the biggest sports league in the world.
And, with so much money on the line, few can afford to be as emotionally driven as either Rebecca or Rupert.
Of the current 20 ownership groups in the league, just two are fronted by people whose fortunes total only in the millions. Maybe a simple hundred-millionaire like Ryan Reynolds can front the ownership group of a lower level club but, except for a few longtime Premier League owners, the rest are certainly billionaires.
What’s more, even the smaller billionaires in the league have been feeling pressure to sell. The Glazers of Manchester United (estimated net worth ~$5 billion) are rumored to be selling their club to a member of the Qatari royal family. Liverpool F.C. owners Fenway Sports Group (John Henry and LeBron James, among others, with an estimated net worth ~$10 billion) have been publicly considering a sale of their team for months, too.
(With all due respect to Rebecca, these valuations suggest that maybe she should consider selling. I mean, I haven’t seen a single government minister in the boxes at the dog track, so is she really that important?)
And, the two biggest stories in Premier League owners in recent years have been: the presence of state-owned clubs; and oligarch owners from China and Russia.
With Manchester City (Abu Dhabi) and Newcastle United (Saudi Arabia)—and with Manchester United too, if the Qatari group does buy it from the Glazers—nation-states are buying their way into some wonderful PR by way of investing in western fans’ favorite teams (which is called sports washing). This model is so prevalent that one popular soccer analytics podcast has regularly joked that his show is now an international finance podcast.
In addition to the public investment funds, the presence of oligarchs has been a touchy subject, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In particular, the Premier League acted awkwardly in slowly encouraging Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to sell Chelsea (even as it allowed British-Iranian businessman Farhad Moshiri—the longtime business partner of Putin-friend Alisher Usmanov and the chair of a Russian holding company USM—to maintain his ownership of Everton).
Nonetheless, the sale of Chelsea is actually the closest analogue to the Lasso situation playing out in Season 3.
Todd Boehly, who also owns the Los Angeles Dodgers, bought Chelsea from Abramovich and immediately took an active role in the club’s day-to-day business. His club then bought nearly a dozen new players, seemingly without consideration for fit or positional need. Despite the purchases, they are currently mired in the middle of the league, rather than challenging for the league title.
More than any other club, Boehly’s Chelsea has been openly obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses and many mock Boehly for a recruitment policy of overpaying for whoever his rivals are interested in.
Does that sound like Rupert’s interest in Zava to you? It does to me.
The truth is that, in this case, more than most others, I enjoy the fantasy world of Ted Lasso. The time I’ve spent thinking about the way real owners use sports to their own ends is time I’ve spent depressed. But the petty feud between Rebecca and Rupert gives me space to think about football as a venue for unhinged emotions, rather than sound investment, and that feels right.
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