A lot has been written about Wrexham AFC’s A-list owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Shaun Harvey, the club’s advisor, has this to say about the National League champions’ Hollywood backers.
“They are mavericks, they are loose cannons,” he tells a packed audience in April during SportsPro Live at London’s Kia Oval. “If I had any hair they’d make me pull it out.”
Harvey can be excused for making a tongue-in-cheek jibe, such is the mood around the club. Reynolds, known to millions as the Marvel superhero Deadpool, and McElhenney, creator of sitcom ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, have brought the winning feeling back to Wrexham, bankrolling the team’s return to the English Football League (EFL) after a 15-year absence.
Indeed, Wrexham’s journey out of the fifth tier and into League Two has been far from orthodox. For all the talk of what comes next for the Welsh side, it is worth reflecting on the last two years.
Before Reynolds and McElhenney’s arrival in February 2021, Wrexham were languishing in the lower reaches of the English soccer pyramid. Once a second division side, their descent had left them with a crumbling stadium, a disenchanted fanbase and on the brink of financial ruin. In 2011, fans raised more than UK£100,000 (US$125,000) to keep the club from going out of business.
Reynolds and McElhenney’s decision to buy Wrexham bemused and fascinated observers in equal measure. On the surface, it was like chalk and cheese as the multimillionaire actors headed to a working-class town in north Wales.
Wrexham won the National League title to seal promotion back to the EFL for the first time since 2008
The deal itself took place during the height of lockdown. Humphrey Ker, now Wrexham’s executive director, was working as a writer on the Apple TV show Mythic Quest, co-created by McElhenney, and the pair suggested programmes for each other to watch while stuck at home. One of Ker’s recommendations, the Netflix docuseries ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’, had McElhenney hooked.
“[Rob] made a lot of fun of me [for] loving football,” Ker explains at SportsPro Live, which was taking place days after Wrexham sealed promotion . “Like many Americans, [he said] ‘they all pass sideways and it’s boring’.
“I said ‘watch [Sunderland ‘Til I Die] and you’ll understand the relationship that we in the UK have with our football teams.’ It’s a very different thing, I think, to American sports fandom where you often are spreading your love around multiple different teams.
“He came back and said: ‘We should do this, we should buy a football team.’”
Ker’s first response was to laugh. But McElhenney was serious, so much so that he sold a docuseries to Disney-owned FX before Wrexham had even been identified as a potential option. Reynolds was then brought in to add extra financial muscle to the bid, which saw an initial UK£2 million (US$2.5 million) injected into the club once the Wrexham Supports Trust had given its blessing to sell the team.
Harvey was hired to help with the takeover and put a strategy in place to deliver the new owners’ mission statement. Stripped down, the objectives were to protect Wrexham’s heritage, reinforce the values of the community, grow the club at home and abroad, and create a winning habit. Harvey, a former chief executive of the EFL and Leeds United, remains at Wrexham to this day.
Speaking to SportsPro ahead of the 2021/22 campaign, Wrexham chief executive Fleur Robinson said promotion was “the ultimate aim”. The Red Dragons would fall agonisingly short, losing in the playoff semi-final to Grimsby Town.
Wrexham may have had to spend another season in the National League, but their first year under Reynolds and McElhenney’s stewardship was hardly a disappointment. The pair’s sincere enthusiasm and infectious humour galvanised the town, inspiring a renewed sense of pride. International attention also came in bucketloads. Visitors have flocked to Wrexham, while commercial agreements were struck with global brands such as TikTok and Expedia, as well as Aviation American Gin, which Reynolds sold to beverage giant Diageo in August 2020 as part of a deal worth up to US$610 million.
If anything, the initial failure to escape the fifth division reinforced Reynolds and McElhenney’s commitment to Wrexham. Both have confessed to catching the soccer ‘bug’, which has been demonstrated by their reactions in the stands mirroring those of long-life supporters rather than first-time owners.
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) April 23, 2023
Rob and I kinda blacked out during this moment, but somehow we’ll never forget it.
🎥: Paul Rudd
For all the fun the owners have brought to the club, Reynolds and McElhenney have made sure to take on-pitch matters seriously. The stadium is getting revamped and the playing squad was overhauled, with the fourth division’s top scorer and player of the year Paul Mullin lured from Cambridge United in the summer of 2021. The 28-year-old has since gone on to bag 64 goals in 84 games.
Bringing in experienced soccer executives was also high on the agenda to ensure the club’s day-to-day operations were in safe hands.
“There probably were quite a few people around football that looked at us and thought, ‘what is this? Is it a gimmick? Is it just for the documentary?’” notes Ker.
“We acknowledged that the three of us did not know how to run a football club. I was the lifetime football fan, [Rob and Ryan] were both neophytes to the world of football.
“I was very aware there was a vast gap between what I knew as a fan and what knowledge base was required to run a football club. So that’s where Shaun came in, that’s where Fleur Robinson came in, that’s where Les Reed, who joined us on the football technical side of things, came in.”
Ker uses the analogy of a wealthy plastic salesman trying to take the same practices that brought him business success into a club’s boardroom. He says that approach, which can inevitably result in meddling with transfers and tactics, was never considered by Reynolds and McElhenney.
Indeed, Wrexham have already had to deal with harmful stakeholders. In the early 2000s, former owners Alex Hamilton and Mark Guterman were accused of asset-stripping the club, including trying to force the team out of the Racecourse Ground. Ker, who operates as liaison between Reynolds and McElhenney and the club’s staff, wants to quash any notion of history being repeated.
“One of the things that I think we’ve been pretty good about is remaining true to that philosophy of saying, ‘right, let’s find people who know what they’re doing, back them, empower them, and then we’ll enjoy the process,’” he says.
A new 5,500-seater stand at the Racecourse Ground has secured financial backing from Wrexham council
Becoming a threat
Harvey reveals that Wrexham’s various commercial deals signed in the wake of the takeover are expiring this summer. Those brands will have been delighted by the exposure from FX’s successful ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ series. However, Harvey says the club is now the main asset and is forecasting a “quantum leap” in sponsorship revenue.
“What we’ve managed to do because of the documentary is to change that dynamic,” he continues. “It’s now about being associated with the football club that’s also on the documentary.
“Ultimately, what promotion brings to the EFL is increased revenue, increased profile, but a slightly more rigid framework to be able to [work] within.”
Harvey also believes Wrexham are moving on from the novelty factor that has been associated with the club since Reynolds and McElhenney came in. Having already spent heavily in the National League, the club’s ambitions in the EFL make them a threat to other clubs, presenting a fresh set of challenges.
“Wrexham will always be the underdog,” says Harvey. “It’s cast afloat from south Wales. It considers itself closer to Manchester and Liverpool than [it] ever would do Cardiff and Swansea. The town is the underdog, not necessarily the football club. The football club is now the vehicle that’s taking it forward.
“Those that want to knock the club try to highlight ‘well, how can you be the underdog?’ But they’re missing the point. And the point is simple. The community of Wrexham has been downtrodden, looked over, passed over, many, many times. Even the [UK government’s] Levelling Up Fund didn’t stop at Wrexham.
“That’s the bit that needs to be addressed. It’s the town that Rob and Ryan have adopted through the football club, not the other way around.”
Wrexham’s women’s team have been promotedto the Welsh top-flight Adran Premier
Creating a stir
Wrexham have been able to leverage having two genuine stars as owners. Seemingly anything Wrexham-related that Reynolds and McElhenney touch goes viral. But their social media content isn’t always about entertainment.
Last August, Reynolds took to Twitter and described the National League’s decision to block clubs from live streaming matches as ‘truly baffling’. The league subsequently confirmed plans to launch a direct-to-consumer (DTC) service.
“It was quite a challenge for us early on to explain to [Rob and Ryan] why we couldn’t just broadcast our own games, why we couldn’t do this, why we couldn’t do that,” says Ker.
“Slowly but surely, it became pretty clear that that we were going to have to do something about that, otherwise our bodies will be found by the side of the A458 outside Wrexham.”
“BT own the rights to the National League [but] only broadcast a very small number of games in the UK,” adds Harvey. “They held the international rights and didn’t use them. Nobody was ever going to be negatively impacted by the club being able to stream the games.
“At the start of this season, the documentary was now airing [and] you could see the interest in the US. We were really concerned about missing the boat. How do you keep those people engaged after the documentary is finished?
“We got to [the] point where the conversation with Ryan is ‘do you fancy creating a bit of a stir?’ It didn’t take much persuading it’s fair to say. And obviously that’s when the fallout started.”
From next season, Wrexham will stream games domestically and overseas when Article 48, the rule that means soccer games cannot be broadcast in the UK on Saturdays between 2.45pm and 5.15pm, does not apply. Now the club is in the EFL, time will tell if Reynolds and McElhenney continue to speak out on other contentious issues.
"The conversation with Ryan goes: 'do you fancy creating a stir?'" – Wrexham advisor Shaun Harvey on the club's owners @RMcElhenney and @VancityReynolds being frustrated by streaming restrictions for their games.#SPLive23 #SportsBiz #WxmAFC pic.twitter.com/7e2lmnJtdZ— SportsPro (@SportsPro) April 26, 2023
Maintaining community ties
A quick look at Wrexham’s social media following tells its own story about the club’s newfound popularity. At the last count, the team had 522,200 Twitter followers, nearly 200,000 more than Premier League outfit Brentford. Tourists are also now coming to Wrexham in their droves to check out the town.
Ker says the locals have embraced the spotlight. If this attention continues it may be difficult to keep them onside, but the signs so far suggest otherwise.
“People in Wrexham, at the moment, they love all these new fans because there’s a combination of two things,” says Ker.
“One is, if you love something, you often feel an affinity for someone else who loves that thing or has found a new love for that thing. It’s a shared passion.
“The other thing is these people are coming in and helping to revitalise the town.
“Where it will become a challenge, I think, is ticketing. We’ve got 10,000 seats. Local people [may] feel like they can’t get hold of tickets because they’re getting snapped up or getting scalped. But we’re working pretty hard to try and make sure that’s not the case.”
“Staying true to the local community is at the heart of everything that we’re trying to do,” Harvey adds. “There’s no desire just, for example, to double the prices because we knew we could sell the tickets to a new audience.
“What we recognise is the people coming through the turnstiles at the Racecourse Ground still tend to come from a 20-mile radius of Wrexham. We were always going to make sure that actually the Racecourse Ground is majority frequented by local people. If we don’t, we actually break one of our own commitments.
“The new members are more than welcome. How they’re going to consume Wrexham going forward is all part of the journey in relation to [the] streaming of games and everything else.”
'These people are coming in and helping to revitalise the town' – Wrexham executive director @thehumphreyker on the influx of new fans providing a boost for the local community.#SPLive23 #SportsBiz #WxmAFC pic.twitter.com/Fi7R4AnVSg— SportsPro (@SportsPro) April 26, 2023
Preparations are well underway for the 2023/24 campaign. 11 players will leave as Wrexham ready themselves to kick off in League Two. A preseason tour of the US has also been announced, which will see the club face Manchester United and Chelsea.
“We wanted a nice gentle warmup before the season, so we thought we’d give them a walloping in America,” grins Ker.
Expect more attention for Wrexham’s women’s side as well, who were also promoted and will be a focus in season two of the FX docuseries. The team’s 2-1 Genero Adran North win against Connah’s Quay Nomads at the Racecourse Ground in March was watched by a crowd of 9,511 fans, a record for a women’s domestic fixture in Wales.
Ker and Harvey do not want Wrexham getting too comfortable in League Two. More promotions are the goal. That will require extra investment and with Harvey told SportsPro “there will be a move to bring additional shareholders onboard” at some stage, though stressed they must have the same priorities as Reynolds and McElhenney.
Whether it was intentional or not, Wrexham’s owners have showcased a refreshing way of operating a soccer club. It is a community-focused model that others could do a lot worse than trying to replicate. Harvey believes that “no club in the world” has seen the same level of growth as Wrexham in recent years.
It begs the question of whether Reynolds and McElhenney might want to repeat their success and take another team under their wing. Harvey, however, does not expect the pair to establish the next City Football Group (CFG), which counts Premier League champions Manchester City among its 13 clubs.
“You could look at Rob and Ryan’s ownership of Wrexham as their version of philanthropy,” he says. “Ultimately, they’re losing money. They’re putting money into supporting a community project to deliver that community benefit.
“What a lot of people have realised is how much enjoyment you could actually get by delivering good and using the football club as that vehicle.
“If anybody ever wants to see a test case, just look at Wrexham. That could be repeated, albeit not by us. That principle could be adopted in a lot of different places.”