One of the most intriguing sports news stories of the pandemic era is now the subject of one of the biggest sports programmes of the year.
Back in November 2020, the Hollywood duo of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny agreed a deal to buy Welsh football team Wrexham AFC - the third-oldest club in world football, currently operating in the fifth tier of the English game.
It seemed an extraordinary fit but not only did the pair’s interest seem genuine, their plans looked innovative. The notoriety of Reynolds, star of movie hits like Deadpool, and McElhenny, creator of TV shows Mythic Quest and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, guaranteed headlines around the world. The strategy took on more layers from there.
Their intention was always to create a documentary spin-off, which would also help to fund the takeover, and in August 2022 the FX-produced Welcome to Wrexham premiered on Hulu and Disney+. Promoting that show has taken McElhenny and Reynolds to media platforms as big and as distant from north Wales as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
They have secured a succession of ancillary benefits, too. TikTok has become the team’s shirt sponsor and assisted on content. Aviation Gin, previously owned by Reynolds, is a training kit partner, while his marketing and production company Maximum Effort has supported existing sponsors and helped spread the word about the club.
It is a smart approach but not a totally new one. In the 1970s and 80s, lifelong Watford FC fan Elton John bought his local club and took them from the lower reaches of England’s Football League to the brink of a league and FA Cup double.
More recently, cricket’s Indian Premier League has involved Bollywood entertainers as public-facing franchise co-owners from its launch in 2008. They lent a glamour and popular reach that accelerated the rise of the league, which confirmed its status as the fastest-growing sports property of the 21st century when it signed $6.2 billion of media rights deals in June.
This type of investment can multiply the possibilities for sports organisations. The two football teams who share Los Angeles’ Banc of California Stadium have both tapped into the local film industry. Comedian Will Ferrell is part of the ownership group at Major League Soccer’s LAFC.
In the National Women’s Soccer League, newcomers Angel City FC have drawn on financial support from across sports, entertainment and technology. That has led to its own unique opportunities. Actor Natalie Portman promoted the competition during her press tour for the Marvel superhero film Thor: Love and Thunder, whose release coincided with Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 this summer.
Those crossovers can allow for deep creative and cultural connections. The Wrexham project is not just rooted in storytelling but inspired by it. During the first Covid-19 lockdown, McElhenny watched Sunderland Till I Die, a Netflix series about another club in England’s lower leagues, and recognised in it the working class communities that gathered around the teams of his Philadelphia childhood.
With Reynolds and his “movie star money” on board, McElhenny has since joked, buying Wrexham began to make sense. There are, however, some differences between the two worlds that are now coming into view.
The entertainment economy is built on original intellectual property, whereas sport is mostly paid for through licensed live broadcast rights. Breaking the latter model open will be a complicated process. In September, Reynolds shared the details of a disagreement with the National League about restrictions on clubs live-streaming games - a dispute that could have considerable ramifications for the future of football in the UK.
Whatever does come next, the investment of showbusiness figures in the sports business could reveal much about the pull of individuals, the power of audiences, and the new combinations they create.
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