Chris Whitson, global head of strategy at creative agency Iris, explains how other rights holders could follow in Wrexham’s footsteps

Rob McElhenney Wrexham S4C

In November 2020, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s Hollywood takeover of Wrexham A.F.C. catapulted the club into the spotlight. Three years and a hit reality TV series later - automatic promotion to the Football League is within their grasp.

It may seem like a novelty story. But projects like Wrexham reflect an evolving entertainment landscape.

Sport is at a crossroads. The entertainment and content it provides extends beyond the minutes on the pitch or in the heat of battle - sport is now the raw material in a broader entertainment proposition. There are multiple channels in-play, and this shift didn’t happen overnight.

The Premier League’s launch in 1992 was met with significant backlash, one of the accusations being it was ’ruining’ the traditional world of football. Sky was similarly lambasted for trying to surround the sport with other entertainment properties. But programmes like Soccer AM, an entertainment magazine format with football as its main ingredient, enjoyed decades of success and will only hang up it’s proverbial boots at the end of this season.

Today’s consumers clamour for content - and have a wealth of OTT platforms to choose from. Drive to Survive, All or Nothing and Welcome to Wrexham attract viewers in their droves - but it isn’t sport that’s the star of the show.

It is the incredible stories that lie beneath the surface that get crowds on their feet.

Staying onside

Sports around the globe are reshaping to fit into a new entertainment landscape and to attract new audiences- some more successfully than others.

LIV Golf epitomises how not to be part of this brave new world. The Saudi-backed tour has ripped the golfing world apart - and it isn’t just the sportswashing that has caused friction. Shoehorning a team format into a historically single-player game (Ryder Cup aside) and getting rid of the anticipation of the dreaded ‘cut’ has seen it lose the very essence of the game.  Traditional fans are up in arms and the jury’s out as to whether it will eventually attract a new audience to the sport.

Reynolds and McElhenney went the opposite route. They haven’t changed the fabric of the club - they’ve shone a light on it.

Wrexham’s beauty lies in its traditions: the years of heartache, the hope for a brighter future. The club’s new owners quickly realised their audience craved authenticity instead of flashiness (particularly in the US where they’re in short supply).

They may one day sell the club for eye-watering profits. But their investment in the club’s infrastructure shows they’re in it for the long haul. They are creating a legacy that will live long in the history books. And that’s the kind of Hollywood story their audience loves.

Welcome to Wrexham

Fans > Stakeholders

Reynolds and McElhenney’s understanding of the media landscape has been fundamental to Wrexham’s newfound fame. Wrexham’s social media accounts gained over 200,000 new followers in the six weeks after Welcome to Wrexham’s release.

Coaxing Ben Foster, former goalkeeper-turned-podcasting guru ‘The Cycling GK’, out of retirement also has its benefits off the pitch. Wrexham, unlike LIV Golf, tells an authentic story through social media. Providing genuine storytellers the opportunity to tell your narrative can effectively grow your fanbase.

When you look at rugby union, you see a sport immersed in crisis. Worcester Warriors and Wasps, two stalwarts of the Premiership, went into administration earlier this season. Attendance numbers are dwindling - only 54% of seats across all grounds were filled during this season’s opening round, the lowest since 2016 (bar the Covid-impacted year).

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) and World Rugby need to engage new audiences. Yet rights holders continue to aggressively protect their assets to the point where modern, progressive ambassadors can’t access them without paying a princely sum.

The Rugby Pod attracts three million weekly listeners. Audiences tune in to hear Jim Hamilton and Andy Goode - passionate experts of the game - coax stories from current players and lift the lid on the life of a professional. This unfiltered content caters to consumers’ desire for realness and authenticity. However, despite its overwhelming success, the podcast continues to operate outside of the traditional rugby ‘system’.

This narrow-mindedness will kill the growth of the game and send more clubs to the wall. Rugby union should serve as a lesson to other sporting bodies - expand your horizons or pay the price.

Back of the net

The ‘Reynolds’ factor has been instrumental in elevating Wrexham’s brand. But even without the fame, other sporting institutions can learn from his approach. Brands aren’t handing over the keys to the castle simply by providing access to more content. Letting others play with it and share with their own networks and audiences can be the catalyst for long-term expansion.

Sport writes stories that no individual alone ever could. And this is why it sits in the hearts of billions of people around the world.

The job for clubs, brands and governing bodies is to let these stories shine authentically across our modern fragmented media landscape. Give traditional fans more of what they love, and give new audiences the chance to hear your story for the very first time and you could be sitting on the next major success story.

Chris Whitson Iris

Chris Whitson is global head of strategy at creative agency Iris.