The English Premier League recently secured a $680,000 licensing deal with Apple TV+’s Emmy Award-winning comedy series Ted Lasso. The EPL is by no means the first sports team or league to license intellectual property to a scripted television series or movie. But many of the previous integrations have been either targeted at an existing fan base (think: the movie Draft Day) or not substantive enough to the plot itself to make a noticeable difference to the business (think: the Yankees in Seinfeld). That is not the case this time around. Octagon EVP and head of integrated marketing Derek Aframe said the EPL’s decision to try to leverage the audience of an established, acclaimed series is “a great example of progressive thinking. [The league recognized] if you pick the right spots to connect your brand with a pop culture phenomenon, you can expand your reach and audience both from a geographic and demographic perspective without diluting [the] brand itself.” It’s a strategy Aframe expects to see more leagues try to replicate as pop culture, entertainment and sport continue to converge. Sportsdigita founder and CEO Angelina Lawton agreed, saying, “Leagues will want to hop on this bandwagon and position themselves as leaders in mainstream media in this digitally dependent world.”
JWS’ Take: While sports integrations are not new to Hollywood, Sarah Riggott (chief marketing officer, CSM Sport & Entertainment) suggests the EPL’s willingness to “authorize the use of some of its most sought-after rights indicates that—rather than perceiving licensing agreements as a potential threat to its brand—it sees [them] as a positive tool for growth.” That translates into both new audiences and revenue opportunities. In the past, rights holders, like the Premier League, have been put off by the possibility that “allowing their rights to be used for something that is not successful” could negatively impact their brand, she said.
Historically speaking, leagues would try to grow their fan base by increasing broadcast distribution (think: show more games in more markets or shift into primetime windows); identifying players relevant to a desired market (think: Yao Ming and China); and playing games in those markets (see: the Jets-Falcons game in London on Oct. 10). But Aframe believes the EPL is pioneering a new way for leagues to drive top-of-the-funnel activity—enhancing “the brand through other adjacencies in the entertainment space that resonate with consumers,” he said.
If the logic sounds familiar, it is because we recently wrote about how sports rights owners and sports broadcast networks are increasingly integrating music artists into programming to achieve a similar goal. Said ESPN music director Kevin Wilson: “We share a lot of the same fan bases, but we don’t [have complete overlap]. So, to collaborate is a really smart way to be exposed to [their following] and to have their fans hopefully understand—and get excited about—the sporting events we’re putting on.”
For decades, the EPL has viewed the U.S. as a large, untapped market that they could grow. And as a result, there have been many attempts to realize the potential. But the league only recently has begun to see more interest emerge in the States. Aframe explained the challenge has always been that “it’s really hard to activate or make that connection [to the fan] when you’re playing overseas.”
By aligning with Ted Lasso, a bona fide hit show in the U.S., the EPL should be able to draft off that established connection and expand the breadth and scope of the Premiership in the country. Speedway Motorsports chief strategy officer Mike Burch said a sport can “really benefit [from this kind of partnership] when a series crosses over into the mainstream.”
Ted Lasso is less a soccer show—certainly no more than Squid Game is a show about schoolyard games—and more a situational comedy/character drama. It’s also, as Riggott called it, “the jewel in Apple TV’s crown.” So, there are likely a fair number of people watching—especially within the U.S.—who are getting their first exposure to the league through the series. That dynamic gives the EPL a chance to expand its audience. For what it’s worth, EPL viewership on NBC/NBCSN is up +31% YoY (the league’s strongest start in the market since 2015-16). Aframe said he believes the Ted Lasso phenomenon is “one of the tailwinds.”
Born out of a series of commercials that NBC produced to promote the EPL on the network, Ted Lasso is about a folksy American football coach, who is hired to coach an English football club, despite knowing nothing about the sport. So, the EPL integration is a natural one. Aframe said other leagues “would be wise” to try to “expand their own brand presence through entertainment content in other markets.” But finding a comparable fit from a commercial and cultural perspective won’t be easy. Hit shows do not grow on trees and ones centered on sports are even less common.
The deal should prove beneficial for the Apple TV+ series, too. In addition to “territory legitimacy,” the show will gain from the use of Premiership iconography (think: archival footage, team and league logos, club kits and the championship trophy). Aframe says the EPL tie-up will help to extend storylines next season. “One of the tricks with any show is keeping the storylines fresh,” he said. “Now [the show’s writers] will have a whole other set of tools to further what happens with Ted Lasso in English football.” Riggott indicated Apple’s ability to successfully translate those resources into increased viewership will likely “determine if this stretches into a long-term strategy for both Apple and the EPL.”
The EPL declined to comment as the deal has not yet been officially announced.