From the smell of frying onions to the clink of pint glasses being rounded up, the pre-match atmosphere at Wrexham will feel familiar to the average football fan. But the American accents are a giveaway.
Ian Fontaine has promised his wife there will be no spoilers from his trip to Wrexham. The 49-year old supply chain manager has travelled from Florida for a taste of non-league football — where some players still have part-time day jobs. Yet demand is so high, he’s come here without a match ticket.
Like me, he’s been drawn to north Wales by a fairytale. In February 2021, two Disney-backed princes, actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, bought Wrexham football club to make a reality TV show mixing local grit with Hollywood glitter.
The famous duo were among the 10,000 people who packed into the Racecourse Ground stadium last weekend to see the 3-1 victory over Boreham Wood, securing Wrexham’s release from football purgatory after a painful 15-year stretch. Millions around the world watched the viral clips of the game and its aftermath on YouTube, TikTok and Twitter.
Rob and I kinda blacked out during this moment, but somehow we’ll never forget it.
🎥: Paul Rudd
cc: @wrexham_afc – @RMcElhenney pic.twitter.com/pVCYOHyKoC
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) April 23, 2023
Football has been packaging up authenticity and shipping it worldwide for decades, creating a multi-billion pound industry in the process. But nobody has tried to sell this kind of football — the fifth tier of the English game — to a global audience before.
The vehicle here is Welcome to Wrexham — a strange brew of documentary, scripted reality and infomercial — which tells the story of both the team and a town built on coal, steel and beer. The pits are long shut, the furnace gone cold. But the TV show has become a hit with its target audience: North Americans unversed in the beautiful game.
“When we heard they bought the club, we were all in”, says Fontaine. “We had to look up where Wrexham was. Nobody knew.”
With the rescue mission accomplished, questions about the future loom large. Can the club keep burning through cash? Are Rob and Ryan really going to stick around when the story, inevitably, gets dull? What happens when the show gets cancelled? After all, even the greatest sporting stories tend to end in failure.
Humphrey Ker, actor, comedian, scriptwriter and now executive director of Wrexham AFC, is on a cigarette break in the stadium car park. He gave up for years, but the stress of working in football has reignited bad habits.
We find a spot inside the empty stadium to discuss future plotlines. Ker, the Eton-educated Englishman deployed by Reynolds and McElhenney as a go-between, says the Hollywood pair have become utterly hooked on football, while the drama on the pitch is giving the producers of Welcome to Wrexham ample material. He should know, he’s one of them.
For now, the TV show remains an ‘“unbelievable commercial tool” for maximising interest in the club. Viewers have been won over by the fish-out-of-water formula of two A-listers navigating a working-class Welsh community and trying to understand football.
Promotion opens up a new chapter. Some will wait for the next series of Welcome To Wrexham to find out what happens, but a growing number of overseas fans have been waking up early each week to stream matches live. These people are pushing the club closer to escape velocity, where it no longer relies on reality TV.
“There’s something crazy going on here. The documentary is a huge part of it, but I do truly think we’re starting to build a momentum and interest that will go beyond that,” says Ker, who splits his time between Wrexham and Los Angeles.
“At some stage the documentary will go away. It’s not going to run for 10, 15 years. But we’re confident that with the grounding we’re putting in place now, the legions of new fans that we have will stick around.”
The burden of better football and wealthier competitors means that Wrexham will need outside investment soon. Ker concedes the project has been “jet-fuelled” in order to push Wrexham through the “very, very small orifice” that is promotion into League Two. Job done, for now.
“We want to reach a point where we’re not reliant on the guys reaching into their pockets,” says Ker. “We’ll never lose the Rob and Ryan effect, that will be there always. But we need to plan for life without the documentary and all the attention that comes with that.”
The broader aim is to use the club as a “philanthropic engine” that runs on fun, he says, while the crowds of adoring fans are a happy byproduct for the owners. “You don’t get 10,000 people lining up on the dock in Cannes to cheer your boat every time it leaves the harbour.”
Serial entrepreneur Reynolds has money. He sold his drinks business Aviation Gin to Diageo for $610mn in 2020, and recently earned a reported $300mn from the sale of Mint Mobile, the phone company he part-owned.
Welsh football won’t produce such riches, but it has proven to be a fantastic content factory. A six-second clip of Reynolds pretending to berate a Wrexham player in the changing room has been viewed almost 12mn times on TikTok. The Chinese-owned video site is now a team sponsor, and the club channel has more than 1.2mn followers.
When asked about ambitions, Ker reels off a list of small clubs that have made it to the top. I point out that one of his examples, Bournemouth, is owned by a US billionaire. “These guys know a lot of billionaires,” he says.
This bizarre football experiment was born out of boredom and opportunism. McElhenney, co-star and writer of hit comedy shows It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Mythic Quest, had run out of things to watch during lockdown. Ker suggested Sunderland ‘Til I Die, a Netflix show charting the floundering fortunes of Sunderland football club and the community around it.
McElhenney was blown away, and set the wheels in motion to buy his own club. Reynolds joined as an equal partner, even though the two had never met. A list of criteria was drawn up — including narrative potential. Supporter-owned and debt-free, Wrexham had the highest score. New York investment bankers put the £2mn deal together; the TV show already had the green light.
Money has been thrown at the project. Players, including leading goalscorer Paul Mullin, coaches and executives from higher up football’s food chain have been lured with persuasive salaries, grand plans and the chance to bask in the reflected glow of stardom. Those at rival clubs estimate Wrexham’s wage bill to be seven times higher than that of some of the league’s smaller teams. The town may be an underdog, but the team is not.
Cash is also going on infrastructure. The old Kop stand has been demolished. Money from the Welsh government will help to rebuild it, and take capacity at the Racehorse Ground up to around 15,000 — enough to once again host Welsh international fixtures. A new training ground and a proper youth academy are all part of the plan, while McElhenney wants to see the women’s team reach the Champions League.
Wrexham’s latest set of accounts give an insight into the cost. The club lost nearly £3mn in the year ending June 2022.
But the outlook is promising. Revenue has grown fivefold after crowds more than doubled to an average of almost 10,000. A raft of new big brand sponsors have signed up. Wrexham shirts previously advertised a local potato merchant; now they carry the logo of Expedia. This is global capitalism, back to revive one of the many towns it left for dead.
“It was never just about the football,” says Neil Roberts, captain of the Wrexham team that was relegated 15 years ago. “They’ve lit the touch paper, and there’s more to come.”
The shirts themselves are in high demand. The year before the takeover, the club sold a couple of thousand. For next season they have ordered 35,000, more than many Premier League clubs can shift. In the summer, Wrexham will play Manchester United and Chelsea on a US tour — at the request of local promoters. This is a small club playing in the commercial big leagues.
Next year’s accounts should show the boost from the TV show, broadcast in the UK on Disney+ and in the US on FX and Hulu.
With all this happening off the pitch, there is a growing feeling among fans that the club’s ambitions have now been untethered. Belief is in abundance, and expectations are rising. Many have their sights on the Championship — another two promotions after this one. Both McElhenney and Reynolds have talked about going all the way to the Premier League.
Spending 24 hours in Wrexham can feel at times like a fever dream, a starstruck town that can’t believe its luck. With an hour to go before kick-off at a recent match, hundreds gathered in the car park outside The Turf pub. Someone asks me when Conor McGregor, the former Ultimate Fighting Champion, will arrive, but I don’t have an answer.
Such things do happen here. Elf star Will Ferrell has been to matches, as have Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively, Reynolds’ wife, and Emma Corrin — Princess Diana in Netflix series The Crown. A clip of McElhenney and Reynolds hugging in their seats at the final whistle last weekend was captured by Paul Rudd, Marvel’s Ant-Man.
I met Wayne Jones, the Turf’s landlord, earlier as he flipped burgers. We sat talking on a bench, interrupted at one point by a visitor from Oklahoma. I was drafted in as photographer for his moment with Wrexham royalty. US visitors are a daily occurrence now. “My tiny role is to make them feel as welcome as possible,” he says.
Keeping local fans on board is a separate challenge. There have been a few misgivings about the overnight relaunch of Wrexham as a hipster brand. Tickets are harder to come by, while some fear the club’s community feel is ebbing away.
But for the majority it feels like a small price to pay. Indeed, nobody has a bad word to say about the owners, known to all simply as Rob and Ryan. Camaraderie comes easy when you’re winning. The only thing on their minds is how long their heroes will stay.
“We have 100 per cent belief in Rob and Ryan, but one day they’ll sell the club,” says Barry Jones, head of the supporters trust. “Hopefully it’s not for many years.”
Liam Randall, who co-writes the Fearless In Devotion fanzine, says Wrexham remains an “unfinished project” that still requires “a lot of money and a lot of work”.
“If they left tomorrow, it could be a bit of a Mary Celeste situation. It’s why I’m just trying to enjoy every second of it,” he says.
Reynolds said last year Wrexham was “something that I’m quite sure I’ll be a part of until the day I finally close my eyes to this weird, dumb show”, the word “show” apparently a reference to life itself.
“We’ve had board meetings where they’ve said they want to do this until they’re 70,” says Ker. “Initially the idea was to do five to 10 years and see where we got to after that. But I think they are addicted to it now.”
Everyone involved knows the honeymoon will eventually end. Expectations will rise, and won’t always be met. The media coverage, often breathless, often fawning, will turn. For now everyone is just along for the ride.
“As I’ve told the guys from the start — there will come a time where we’re in the Championship and we draw three games in a row, and one of you will get called a cunt in Manchester Airport by a Wrexham fan,” he says.
“Eventually, the most valuable story in football will be their comeuppance, it’ll be their downfall. But that’s just part of life and we’ll come to it when it arrives.”
Josh Noble is the FT’s sports editor