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What Hollywood’s Reynolds and McElhenney got right at Wrexham

WREXHAM, Wales – May 2, 2023: Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, co-owners of Wrexham AFC, celebrate with the club’s men’s and women’s teams during a bus parade following their respective title-winning seasons in the Vanarama National League and Genero Adran North.

Jan Kruger/Getty Images

LONDON — When Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney bought Wrexham AFC, a small Welsh soccer club languishing in the fifth tier of the English league pyramid, many were skeptical that the two Hollywood stars would be able to give its long-suffering fans anything to cheer about.

Not least because, by their own admission, neither had the first idea about soccer — or football as they would be forced to call it from then on — nor about North Wales, where the sport’s third-oldest professional club is based.

The two actors completed their £2 million ($2.5 million) takeover of the club in February 2021, and last month, Wrexham won the Vanarama National League title, securing promotion back to the English Football League (EFL) system after 15 years in the wilderness.

The club will next year compete in the EFL League Two and now boasts a re-energized local fanbase, a global cult following attracted by its A-list owners, and a hit documentary series. Its budget will likely dwarf that of many of next year’s League Two opponents, though the competition will be far stiffer.

“The thing that strikes me is how wrong it could’ve gone. People are waiting in the wings to shoot this kind of thing down,” Sam Hollis, head of strategy at British management consultancy FutureBrand, told CNBC last week.

“There’s a big amount of pressure and attention from the press, not to mention scepticism from diehard football fans. Cities like Wrexham are so fiercely proud of their club, it’s part of their way of life. They don’t welcome outsiders easily into that kind of ecosystem.”

Teams like Wrexham, based in smaller regional cities and towns and competing in the lower leagues — far from the multibillion-dollar glamor of England’s flagship Premier League — are often an integral part of their communities.

WREXHAM, Wales – May 2, 2023: Wrexham AFC fans celebrate during a bus parade following their league title win. One fan has donned the costume of Deadpool, the comic book character played by co-owner Ryan Reynolds.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As such, fans would not take kindly to being viewed as a celebrity plaything, and expect owners to devote both time and resources to ensure their club’s success.

Seemingly alert to this, Reynolds and McElhenney quickly managed to build a rapport with the local community, and Hollis attributed this to their approach of “radical transparency.”

“If they’d come in and pretended that they knew what they were doing, or that they knew anything about football, it would have been impossible to keep that up. They don’t even talk about it in the way that people from the U.K. talk about it. They don’t use the right lexicon,” Hollis noted, suggesting that the pair’s self-deprecating willingness to learn on the job from the club’s fanbase helped build trust.

“So, brutal honesty and transparency, coming in and acknowledging that the town owns the club. They’re just looking after it and helping it out during this chapter, but it’ll always be owned by the Wrexham community. This approach immediately won a lot of people on their side,” he added.

I can see a lot of people trying to follow suit and buy a club that’s not performing well to replicate the format, but unless they’re willing to spend the necessary amount of time and money and really commit to it, then I think it would risk failure or go awfully wrong.

Sam Hollis

Head of Strategy, FutureBrand

The club’s popularity was boosted substantially by the Disney+ and HBO documentary series “Welcome to Wrexham,” which followed the new owners’ efforts to secure promotion to League Two during their first season at the helm.

This first campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, as Wrexham lost a 5-4 thriller to eventual promotion winners Grimsby Town in the playoff semi-final. Grimsby has since consolidated its position in League Two, and the two clubs will meet again next season.

While the celebrity endorsement and associated global attention helped build Wrexham’s profile, the “Deadpool” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” stars accompanied it with commitment and investment. Hollis said they understood that “it would take more than funny Twitter posts and a documentary” to turn around a struggling club like Wrexham.

“For example, you often see both actors at the football matches, spending their time with the team players. This sort of dedication plays a crucial role in attracting more support from fans,” Hollis said.

Wrexham fans have endured a lot in recent decades, as the club was pushed to the brink by colossal debts and the lasting financial impacts of a series of disastrous owners. In 2005, a pair of asset-stripping property profiteers had their plans to optimize the club’s property assets and sell off the land foiled by a local taxi driver, still honored to this day for his role in saving the club.

A local businessman then took over, but failed to shore up the club’s finances and eventually oversaw its relegation from the Football League in 2008. When Wrexham was put up for sale again in 2010, a series of bids from controversial figures with checkered histories were rejected.

The club was on the verge of financial exclusion from the 2011/12 season until the Wrexham Supporters Trust managed to save it through donations from fans.

The WST kept the club afloat for a decade, but Reynolds and McElhenney’s takeover bid in November 2020 represented a new hope for Wrexham to return to the big leagues.

Celebrity interest in soccer has grown in recent years, with Hollywood A-listers regularly spotted at various English grounds, prompting speculation that copycat efforts may emerge following the relative success, so far, of Wrexham.

“I can see a lot of people trying to follow suit and buy a club that’s not performing well to replicate the format, but unless they’re willing to spend the necessary amount of time and money and really commit to it, then I think it would risk failure or go awfully wrong,” Hollis said.

“Anyone who wishes to follow this model needs to understand that they’re doing more than just lending their star power. When you become an owner, you also become an investor, and that’s key to success.”

This story originally appeared on CNBC

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