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How "Ted Lasso" Beautifully Defies the Norm of a Sponsorship Crisis

Ted Lasso’s Season 2, Episode 3 “Do the Right-est Thing” had a little bit of everything. From the debut of Led Tasso to the reemergence of newfound team player Jamie Tartt (more like Jamie Hartt amirite) to the continued development of Roy Kent’s punditry career full of snarls and expletives. And yet, all of these character developments pale in comparison to the monumental actions taken by Sam Obisanya.


Sam recently completed a photo shoot for Dubai Air, the club’s kit sponsor. As referenced in the show’s prior episode, this photo shoot had been in the works for weeks. Upon completion, it was alluded to the campaign would be activated throughout the greater-London area in advertising throughout the London subway system known as “the Tube”.

Sam is pleased with the success of the campaign and is understandably excited about his prospects as an integral leader within the Greyhounds and a budding face of the club. Yet his delight is quickly swept away. After exchanging texts with his father regarding the completion of the campaign and the free tickets that come with it, his father delivers the devastating realization that Dubai Air’s parent company, Cerithium Oil, is wreaking havoc in Sam’s natives home of Nigeria.

With this newfound knowledge, Sam breaks the news to Rebecca, Keeley, and the rest of the front office he must pull out of the campaign.

“It has come to my attention that Dubai Air’s parent company, Cerithium Oil, is destroying Nigeria’s environment and at the same time, bribing government officials to look the other way. I can’t be the face of one of their subsidiaries.”


Rebecca, continuing to show grace and pure-hearted display, which is magnified within this episode specifically, exudes compassion and understanding to Sam, echoing how it’s no trouble at all. At Higgins’ nudging “they are our sponsor. We might need to give them a bell so we don’t ruffle any feathers”, Rebecca makes a call to the CEO of Cerithium Oil, Richard Cole. While Richard initially okays Sam’s withdrawal of the campaign, he quickly issues a ruthless ultimatum raised: “get rid of Obisanya”.

 

Let’s break this down for a second. We are in uncharted sponsorship territory. Yes, sponsors have been involved both on the individual level and in taking a moral stance. The NFL provides a host of examples with FedEx forcing the Washington Football Team’s hand in a name change and a local hospital dropping Kirk Cousins as a spokesperson due to his stance on COVID-19 vaccines. At the height of Colin Kaepernick’s football stardom, he taped over his Beats by Dre headphones in order to show commitment to his endorsement deal in the midst of the league’s new deal with Bose. And while that’s not the sponsor that comes to mind regarding Kaepernick, his social justice actions propelled him as the face of a monumental Nike campaign. Yet these campaigns dwell with either sponsor-to-team relationships or sponsor-to-player relationships. Sponsor-to-player-to-team relationships are rare with this being a prevailing reason. Teams don’t want to have to rely on the many hoops they’d have to jump through within the convoluted endorsement market that athletes often utilize agents to navigate for them.


In soccer, the team mentality is even-more personified. There is perhaps no greater team sport dichotomy where individuals have greater marketing power off the pitch yet very little individualism on it. From a marketing perspective, the world’s top footballers are able to strike lucrative endorsements till their heart's content. They can parlay their interests into endorsement deals that speak to their interest as they tap into a truly global audience. Yet on the pitch, the phrase “there is no “I” in team” is personified. Kit numbers are rarely, if ever, retired. Club legends live on but in today’s budding transfer market, a marquee player may only play out one contract with their current club before moving onto richer pastures. The Beautiful Game has it’s collection of stars but the narrative often proceeds only if it is within the context of the team and if the player is not a distraction to the win-loss column. For Pete's sake, Marcus Rashford was vilified for taking initiative on feeding hungry children throughout Britain. The reason: he was distracted and not putting football first.


And if you follow the world of kit sponsorship at all, you’ll see companies often look to minimize a portion of their bad PR by leaning into the narrative of supporting global football. (Sidenote: Cerithium is a species of “small to medium-sized snails. It may simply be a clever sounding name. It also may be a deeper metaphor for how large corporations hide behind the shell of more family-friendly, “fun” marketing ploys they sponsor….if so, brilliant writing). These large companies may very well see football as something more than money, something to unite a community, build a legacy within, make a difference, and drive a fierce appetite and passion around a global love. Yet, their efforts are often overshadowed by ulterior motives that look to spread the footprint and acquire liquidity no matter the cost.


So yes, everything about this scenario that plays out in Ted Lasso is rare. A sponsor, no matter how large, would not have the gumption to blatantly force a personnel move of a team they sponsor. They may hint at a lack of renewal but it would be quite the sticking point to boldly issue an ultimatum of this degree.


And if they had, the owner’s response would differ tremendously from Rebecca’s. In the eyes of a club, few athletes hold a marketing persona that can single-handedly eclipse that of a major sponsor. This is not to diminish an athlete’s power. Rather, it can be a cruel business where players are often deemed as a replaceable expense and sponsors are often deemed as an essential income. In a real-world scenario, a team may look to fine or bench a player in order to “send a message”. There are very few scenarios that would play out where the player comes out on top.


Yet in the face of this cataclysmic decision, Rebecca did not flinch in her unwavering support of Sam. Still, she was left with a real dilemma:


“We can release Sam...which we’re not gonna do. Or we can tell the CEO of our biggest sponsor to “piss off”...which I doubt we can do.”


To which, a 13-year old Nora Collins dropped this nugget of wisdom:


“Sometimes you have to do the right thing, even if you lose.”


Faced with a mind-boggling decision of scrapping a fan-favorite player or risk losing your biggest sponsor, Rebecca rolled with the latter. Figuring to go out on her own terms, she bluntly stated in an email the club will not be releasing Sam Obisanya.


That was seemingly the end of the fallout. Rebecca vocalized her stance, Richard Cole acquiesced, and the controversy was smoldered before the fire even truly started to burn.

 

Sam Obisanya had other plans.


The decisions he acted upon didn’t impact the club. In the grand scheme of things, it would’ve been a hassle for the sponsor to get new collateral and drum up a new campaign but all in all it wasn’t an end-all, be-all (at least to conventional wisdom standards).


But he realized as couldn’t represent Dubai Air off the pitch, he couldn't represent Dubai Air on the pitch either. In a move that truly reflected the gravity of his feelings, he tapes over the Dubai Air logo proclaiming:

“Dubai Air is owned by a horrible company. They want to turn the southern coast of Nigeria, my home, into a hellish fiery swamp. I can no longer wear their name on my chest, never again.”


Nigerian teammates Isaac McAdoo and Tommy Winchester join in on the protest. Standing amongst his fellow Greyhounds moments before the team takes the pitch, Sam acknowledges: “I do not expect you all to do this. But I hope you understand why we, as Nigerians, must.” Jamie Tartt, in an effort to show a supportive and genuine side that has longed plagued his career and relationship with fellow teammates, tapes his kit up in a show of solidarity.

The team walks out onto the pitch. It is hard not to notice the ominous Dubai Air signage across the banisters of the The Dogtrack and along the outline of the coach’s box. The club disrobes their warmup attire and a palpable clamoring emanates from the crowd. Once she realizes what’s going on, Rebecca promptly declines an incoming call from an outraged Richard Cole.

In the post-match press conference, a powerful dialogue ensues:


Ted Lasso: “I think what Sam and the team did today was courageous. I’ve never needed to have that kind of courage. Cause, honestly, when bad things happen to people like me, y’all have a tendency to write about it without even being asked. Sam had to go and get y’alls attention. So if you have any more you wanna know about it, you can ask him.”


Trent Crimm: The Independent: “Sam, do you think your protest may have distracted the team tonight and led to the lost?”


Sam Obisanya: “I’m not here to talk about football. I’m here to ask the Nigerian government to put an end to decades of environmental destruction caused by Cerithium Oil. Destruction that the powers at be have turned a blind eye towards for far too long. Do you have any questions about that?”


Trent Crimm: The Independent: “Follow up question: Sam, are you openly accusing the Nigerian government of corruption?”


Sam Obisanya: “Yes I am”

 

There are so many beautiful takeaways from this episode, the biggest being this is the exception of how sponsorship scenarios would most likely play out. Profits are often prioritized over people. For the right price, controversies can be stifled and bad values can be viewed with a blind eye.