Deadpool star and certified ad man Ryan Reynolds last week teamed up with fellow actor Rob McElhenney to complete a shock takeover of Welsh non-league side Wrexham AFC. Simon Oliveira, managing director of KIN Partners, explores how some showbiz sparkle and a mix of marketing and media can save the club.
In a year of incredible headlines, another one was added to the list when the Wrexham Supporters Trust voted overwhelmingly in favour of a takeover bid from two Hollywood stars.
Speaking via Zoom to more than 2,000 voters, the actors stole the show and were hugely impressive in laying out their plans to personally invest $2.6m into the club’s infrastructure, money that will secure their Racecourse Ground home – the world's oldest international football stadium – for a minimum of 25 years.
More ambitiously, they pledged to get the world’s third-oldest professional team promoted back to the English Football League and stated their hopes to create a ‘global brand’. As McElhenney said: “Why would we not think about Wrexham the way that Manchester United thinks about Manchester United?”
For many traditional football fans, grand statements such as this are often met with scepticism, even more so when the protagonists hail from 5,000 miles away and are not known to have any association with the club. But Wrexham fans need not fear, as they are not just getting a new owner, they are also getting a marketeer with the midas touch.
As well as his countless box office hits, Reynolds is famously the face, and creative director, of Aviation Gin - the brand he acquired an ownership stake in before increasing sales by more than 100% and selling to Diageo for $610m. He also founded Maximum Effort Productions to underpin his creative campaigns around his record-breaking Deadpool franchise.
Studying Reynolds’ approach to marketing you start to understand why, in many ways, Wrexham is the perfect vessel for his latest project. When speaking to The Drum in January, he outlined his distaste for bureaucracy and red tape, which he feels can often stifle creativity. Given Wrexham’s league status, and the desperation of their fans to see on and off-field improvements, he will have a blank canvas in North Wales.
His work with Aviation Gin showcased his preferred method of ambassadorship – investing in brands he is passionate about and living and breathing them. Reynolds previously stated: “People want to feel that you, the celebrity, or you, the face of a brand, has a genuine connection to that brand. And they know if you don’t.”
While it would be easy to question whether Reynolds and McElhenney can really claim to share the same passion for Wrexham – it’s been suggested the club and town struck a chord with Philadelphia-born McElhenney – you cannot doubt they have done their research and there is a clear understanding of their ‘customers’.
The pair enlisted the services of the US-based sports investment specialists Inner Circle Sports LLC as they scoured western Europe for the right club, and their pitch has been perfect. Having worked closely with members of the Wrexham Supporters Club, Reynolds was keen to stress: “We don't pretend to know better than the supporters. It's a learning process for us, we are here to bolster the club with financial support and grow.”
It’s the type of authenticity that connects Reynolds to his audiences, whether on silver screen, in gin ads or when pitching his merits as a club owner. We’ve seen already from initial communications that his unique brand of humour will become a hallmark of Wrexham’s identity moving forwards.
Finally, Reynolds has previously stated his preference for working with “underdog” brands and it’s safe to say there are few bigger than the team currently languishing 13th in the fifth tier of English football.
So, how exactly do the duo intend to turn Wrexham into a global brand? In the first instance, they’ll stick to what they know – the business of content.
Key to their plan is the desire to create a documentary series which tracks their ownership journey and the team’s (proposed) rise back to prominence. This is now a well-trodden path for football clubs with Sunderland, Leeds, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, amongst clubs who have commission fly-on-the-wall series in recent seasons.
From a financial perspective, the duos plan to purchase Wrexham as a media investment vehicle makes sense. Audiences have been highly receptive to documentary-style sports content – think The Last Dance - and, unlike live sport, the lifetime value of the content can increase on a streaming providers platform.
According to research from Ampere Analysis, streaming providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime would pay up to $400,000 per hour of documentary content. Based on an eight-part series, Wrexham could secure an additional $3.2m in revenue. Such a figure would cover the new owner’s investment and ongoing Covid-induced losses.
When you start to look at the deal as a media and marketing project there is huge potential. The documentary is the tip of the iceberg for a club that will now see its own 130,000 following across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram dwarfed by the 70 million fans that follow Reynolds on the same platforms. You can imagine a huge influx of sponsorship dollars on the basis of the global exposure and commercial value the owners alone can provide on their personal channels for the right partners
Reynolds and McElhenney's blend of humour and content opportunism is already working wonders for current front of shirt sponsor Ifor Williams Trailers, with the brand the subject of an early Christmas gift recommendation from the new ownership duo. The video has commanded 5m views and counting leaving the club's secondary sponsors, law firm Evans Lamsley, to tweet: "If only we'd sponsored the club instead of taking an advertising board."
The wider question is what the end goal for the pair will be for the pair? Looking at Reynolds' track-record, everything suggests that he knows an under-appreciated asset when he sees one and is able to use his marketing savvy to create value for the brand and himself. If the partners are able to deliver on their promise of taking Wrexham to the Football League, an initial outlay of $2.6m will be small change compared to the riches on offer, through a sale or outside investment, if they could reach the Championship, for example.
I’m sure if you offer Wrexham fans the opportunity for this level of success over the coming years, in exchange for Reynolds and McElhenney making a fair buck, they will take it. And for all the off-field success the pair may be able to bring, ultimately it will be down to the manager(s) and players to realise the fans and owners dreams.
The script is set for Reynolds and McElhenney to take on this underdog team, overcome all obstacles and return them to their former glories. The club’s fans will certainly be hoping for a Hollywood ending.
Simon Oliveira is the managing director of KIN Partners. He has worked with stars including David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Neymar Jr, Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and Liam Payne, was a founding partner in content studio OTRO, and has co-produced documentaries, such as I am Bolt and Class of '92.