What Is ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ Doing to Soccer?

Last month, the Welsh soccer club Wrexham A.F.C. embarked on a buoyant tour of America that it called the Wrexham U.S.A. Invasion Summer ’23. The team packed stadiums from North Carolina to Southern California. It played against the megaclubs Chelsea and Manchester United. Its ticketholders enjoyed fan zones equipped with bustling merch stands and cardboard cutouts of Wrexham personalities — even a pop-up version of the Turf Hotel, a pub in the actual Wrexham, a city of 135,000 in the north of Wales. One popular activity was taking selfies with Wayne Jones, the Turf Hotel’s publican, a touring member of the summer jolly.

Wrexham is a place with a familiar Rust Belt trajectory: mill and mine closures, job losses, economic depression. Before the season that began this month, its team played in the National League, the fifth tier of English soccer — a universe away from Chelsea and the top-flight Premier League. (The National League still includes a few teams that aren’t fully professional.) Typical attendance at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground used to be less than 5,000 a game. In Chapel Hill, the team played in front of more than 50,000.

The reason for the change is, of course, the FX docuseries “Welcome to Wrexham.” In 2021, the actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney bought the club and set about changing its fortunes, on camera. During the pandemic, the British actor Humphrey Ker had given McElhenney a viewing recommendation: “Sunderland ’Til I Die,” a docuseries about the decline of another soccer club in a postindustrial town. McElhenney loved it and, as Ker told The Athletic, formulated a plan to tell the same story in reverse: buy a struggling football team and turn it into a competitor. He wanted to reverse-engineer a feel-good sports documentary. He would also end up satisfying America’s love of underdog stories set in quaintly hard-up corners of Britain (like “The Full Monty,” recently revived as an FX series) and creating an odd real-life analog for the hugely popular “Ted Lasso.”

The reverse-engineering project has, clearly, been a success. The show, with its portrait of the tight-knit community surrounding the club, attracted a devoted-enough audience that sales of the club’s jersey spiked wildly. (The team dropped its previous front-of-shirt sponsor, a Welsh trailer company, in favor of TikTok.) Wrexham matches — which, even in Britain, would have been considered obscure — can now play on ESPN. “It’s the real underdog thing,” one fan at the U.S.A. Invasion told The Evening Standard.

It was an underdog thing. Since taking over, McElhenney and Reynolds have stocked Wrexham’s roster with players who are, frankly, too good to be playing in the National League. Paul Mullin, for instance, is a striker whose copious goal scoring helped get Cambridge United promoted a league; he instead jumped two tiers down to join Wrexham. (He was injured during the U.S.A. Invasion and stayed in the country to recuperate — in McElhenney’s Los Angeles home.) Last season, the four highest-paid players in the National League all played for Wrexham. At the season’s end, the club was promoted to League Two, the fourth tier of English soccer, for the first time since 2008. In the days that followed, Wayne Jones had to shut down the Turf Hotel: Despite his best efforts to prepare, he ran out of alcohol. When the show’s second season begins in September, streaming on Disney+, it’s a safe bet that every episode will be seen by far more people than will fill the Racehorse Ground for a whole season’s worth of Wrexham matches.

In 2021, the sale of a different soccer club made international news. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund took a controlling interest in Newcastle United, a competitor in the Premier League. Unlike Wrexham’s story — which has been treated as a kind of homespun pushback to a world in which private-equity billions slosh around and sports teams are used as state propaganda — the Saudi purchase was castigated, internationally, as a new nadir in professional sports’ capitulation to the richest entity in the room. (The head of Amnesty International U.K. bashed the league for “allowing those implicated in serious human rights violations to walk into English football simply because they have deep pockets.”) Reynolds and McElhenney do not represent an autocratic petrostate and are implicated in no human rights violations, but the two takeovers do have one thing in common: Both the actors and the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund are operating in spaces where their wealth distorts everything around them.

Longtime Wrexham supporters are certainly delighted by the team’s successes, but they must also recognize that the club has become something new and different: both an athletic behemoth and a pop-culture one. It’s not just that the roster is full of what are effectively ringers, being paid situationally outlandish amounts from what I can’t help imagining are the profits of the “Deadpool” franchise. Reynolds and McElhenney have created an ouroboros in which TV funnels fans and money to the team, leading to successes that in turn create more TV. It’s a clever gambit for endless expansion, but also one that, as the club’s U.S. tour underlined, risks turning Wrexham into more of a media project than a soccer team.

It also feels directly opposed to the communitarian values that, ostensibly, made Reynolds and McElhenney interested in the team in the first place. For a decade before their arrival, Wrexham had been a community club owned by a coalition of fans called the Wrexham Supporters Trust. One of the club’s former board members, Spencer Harris, posted online this spring to take issue with the title of a BBC program about the club — “Wrexham: Hollywood or Bust” — and its suggestion that without the actors, Wrexham was doomed. “4,000 supporters trust members took over an insolvent business,” he wrote, “turned it around and handed over with cash in the bank after a global pandemic.” The trust didn’t even profit off the sale; in the interest of helping the club’s prospects, members essentially gave the team to Reynolds and McElhenney in exchange for a guarantee that they would add £2 million to the budget.

That fan base now shares its connection to the team with all those who will binge-watch “Welcome to Wrexham” and feel their own sense of ownership — and with the actors, who sometimes overtake the club’s identity entirely. (One recent headline assessed the team’s prospects like this: “Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney are on track for the League Two points record!”) As a new television season begins, it will surely become untenable for “Welcome to Wrexham” to ignore its own impact on the club it’s documenting.

For what it’s worth, English football is full of less complicated tales of resiliency. Luton Town, for instance, is a small club from just outside London. The team’s nickname is the Hatters. Their home ground, Kenilworth Road, has its modest entrance stitched through a row of terraced houses. While not self-owned, its ownership consortium is made up of local fans who willingly ceded a small share and a set of veto rights to the Luton Town Supporters Trust. At its lowest ebb, the club played in the fifth tier. It doesn’t spend a lot of money, because it doesn’t have a lot of money. But the team has scouted well and hired good coaches, and this coming season, having won its way up the ranks, it will compete in the Premier League. Someone should make a documentary about that. Or, honestly, maybe they shouldn’t.

Opening illustration: Source photographs by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images; Christopher Furlong/Getty Images; Drew Hallowell/Getty Images; Jan Kruger/Getty Images.

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