How Ryan Reynolds gave hope to a small-town Welsh soccer club
Vancouver-born Hollywood star became part-owner of Wrexham AFC a year ago
On a recent blustery game day in Wrexham, North Wales, 8,700 soccer fans were bundled up and drinking steaming hot Bovril beef broth while snacking on meat pies as they cheered on the team in red.
It was a typical Welsh scene, except for the Canadian and U.S. flags on display in the corner of the stadium, and the faces of two Hollywood stars adorning a banner in the stands.
A year after Canada's Ryan Reynolds and American actor and producer Rob McElhenney invested more than $3.4 million to buy Wrexham Association Football Club, the team's fans are riding a wave of newfound international attention. And they have huge hopes for the future.
"Since they've taken over, they've done nothing but good," Noel Harding, a fan for 59 years, said before a recent match.
"You'd never think someone from 6,000 miles away would come and do this," another longtime supporter, Steve Nicholas, said, regarding the Vancouver-born Reynolds.
Since the takeover was finalized on Feb. 9, 2021, the club has racked up new sponsorships and moved up the league rankings. The Welsh government recently dropped most COVID-19 restrictions, too, allowing Wrexham to fill the stands at home again.
Despite a long history and an adoring fan base in the working-class town the size of Fort McMurray, Alta., the club is still far from the big leagues.
Team struggled in lower division
Competing in the National League — the fifth division of domestic soccer and the lowest countrywide league featuring teams from across England, plus Wales — the team known as the Red Dragons is by no means a global household name like English squads Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea.
But fans and the club's new owners hope to change that.
When the Hollywood duo made their pitch to the club's then-owners in late 2020 — the organization had been owned by fans since 2011 — Reynolds described Wrexham as a "sleeping giant."
"We have [the] resources and the ability," he said, "to grow the [club's] exposure in a way Wrexham I don't think has ever had before."
Of the more than 1,800 members of the Wrexham Supporters Trust who voted on the deal, 98.4 per cent approved the sale.
"I agreed with it straight away," Harding, the fan and former trust member, said.
In recent years, Reynolds has been ranked as one of Hollywood's top-paid actors, starring in such hit movies as Deadpool and Detective Pikachu. McElhenney is best known as the creator and a star of the long-running sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
McElhenney got the idea to buy a soccer team after watching the Netflix reality series Sunderland 'Til I Die, about the club from northeast England with equally devoted supporters. Reynolds already had entrepreneurship experience, having acquired ownership stakes in Aviation Gin and the U.S. cell service provider Mint Mobile.
The rumors are true! Up close, Ryan does smell like maple syrup. (Also <a href="https://twitter.com/Wrexham_AFC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Wrexham_AFC</a> will be in FIFA ‘22) <a href="https://twitter.com/EASPORTSFIFA?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@EASPORTSFIFA</a> 🏴 🇨🇦 🇺🇸 <a href="https://t.co/4RkGYsDwq9">pic.twitter.com/4RkGYsDwq9</a>—@RMcElhenney
In 2020, they reportedly set out to find a soccer club to buy with a list of criteria, including fan base and a compelling story to tell. They found both in North Wales.
"The Wrexham club is incredible. More incredible still is the community around it," Reynolds told the BBC last year. "This is as much a project in investing in the Wrexham Red Dragons as it is investing in the community."
The club was founded in 1864 at the Turf Hotel pub near Wrexham's present-day stadium. Fans still gather in the pub for a pint before matches.
The walls are plastered with memorabilia from Wrexham's triumphs over the years, including an unforgettable win over London side Arsenal in 1992. Pictures of Reynolds and McElhenney now sit side-by-side with the club's keepsakes in the pub.
"Even prior to the pandemic, as a club, we were hemorrhaging money, we were hemorrhaging results, we were just struggling," pub owner Wayne Jones said.
Previous ownership groups mismanaged the club to the point of near collapse, several fans said. Fans "were starting to fall out of love with it," Jones said.
For the Red Dragons now, the outlook is much rosier.
Wrexham, one of the oldest professional soccer clubs in the world, scored a sponsorship deal with the global social media network TikTok, with the brand now displayed on the front of players' jerseys. The squad was also added to the roster of teams in FIFA 22, the latest instalment in one of the best-selling video game franchises ever.
"Previously, Wrexham was fairly unknown in many places," said Spencer Harris, a former director and part-owner of the club. Now, he said, it feels like the town and the soccer club are "almost the centre of the universe."
The greatest chairmen in world football, and it isn’t even close ❤️<br><br>🔴⚪️ <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/WxmAFC?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#WxmAFC</a> <a href="https://t.co/uXYTnrMteQ">https://t.co/uXYTnrMteQ</a>—@Wrexham_AFC
Wrexham hired a new CEO familiar with clubs in the same predicament: competing in a lower division but keen to move up the ranks. During Fleur Robinson's tenure overseeing Burton Albion FC in England's Staffordshire county, the team rose from the fourth tier to the second.
Britain's soccer league promotion system ensures the top-performing teams move up to higher-level divisions while the teams with the worst records are relegated to lower leagues. The top-flight English Premier League is considered the richest soccer league in the world. Forbes estimates the Manchester United club alone is worth $4.2 billion US.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," Robinson told CBC News in an interview at Wrexham's home, the 19th-century Racecourse Ground. "We've got to have the right foundations on and off the pitch."
Another sign Hollywood has come to Wrexham: a 20-person camera crew can be seen running around, filming players, coaches and fans before kickoff, during the match and behind the scenes afterwards.
The club's owners arranged to have a docu-series, Welcome To Wrexham, shot for broadcast in the U.S. on the FX network, and streaming on Disney+ — similar to Sunderland 'Til I Die, McElhenney's initial inspiration for the club takeover.
"Wrexham supporters have been through a lot this past decade," Reynolds tweeted recently. "I'm excited for them, for us and for the town."
With files from CBC's Lauren Sproule