Scott Stinson: Two Hollywood actors provide a lesson in sports ownership to reluctant billionaires

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Remarkable thing is how easy they made it look

Published Apr 24, 2023  •  Last updated 31 minutes ago  •  5 minute read

Co-Owners Wrexham AFC Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds talk as they wait for the arrival of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort for their visit to Wrexham AFC on December 09, 2022 in Wrexham, Wales. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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The remarkable thing about the Wrexham AFC story isn’t just that two guys with zero experience in sports ownership bought a Welsh football team and got it promoted from England’s fifth tier for the first time in 15 seasons.

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The remarkable thing is how easy they made it look.

Ryan Reynolds, the Canadian actor/entrepreneur, and Rob McElhenney, the American actor who convinced him to become co-owner of a downtrodden club in a downtrodden part of the United Kingdom, have provided a dead-simple lesson for sports owners everywhere, including those of much wealthier clubs in much bigger leagues.

Spend money to achieve success, and more money will follow. If only the Oakland A’s or Phoenix Coyotes had considered such a possibility.

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If you are unfamiliar with the Football Escapades of Deadpool and Mac, a brief recap: The actors bought Wrexham mid-pandemic for a relative pittance in hopes of building the distressed club into something that could ascend through England’s many tiers. It was like buying a lovely old home with nice bones that had fallen into disrepair. They spent big to bring in talent above Wrexham’s station, hired a manager who had worked in England’s second tier, and last season, the new owners’ first full campaign, were just good enough to be heartbreaking, losing in the promotion playoffs. The actors leveraged their own celebrity, and a reality-television series on the club, to increase interest in Wrexham AFC, but none of that would matter unless they had the required success on the pitch.

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This season, Wrexham has been close to unbeatable, but were matched in that regard by Notts County, another storied club whose owners are trying to bring back glory days. After beating their closest rivals on Easter Monday in a truly incredible back-and-forth game that will make a tremendous episode of Welcome to Wrexham, Rob and Ryan’s team had the National League title and the automatic promotion that goes with it almost clinched. That was secured in another thriller, a 3-1 comeback over Boreham Wood, on Saturday. It led to, as the kids say, absolute scenes. Fans spilled on to the pitch that was covered in a haze of red smoke, the owners were in tears, kicking off a town-wide bender that for many has probably still not ended. Wrexham will go up to League Two, which is somewhat confusingly England’s fourth tier, and automatically receive an injection of cash through league broadcast deals and sponsorship rights.

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The key characteristic of this wild ride is not the owners’ celebrity, though that hasn’t hurt, but their willingness to invest in the club. To risk, that is, their money on a project that could easily have gone poorly. Early in their stewardship, they discovered that a new pitch laid at their home Racecourse Ground didn’t take. They paid to rip it up and put down a new one. Last season, with Wrexham some distance from the top of the league, the owners had to decide whether to bring in new players in the January transfer window. They were warned that they were already underwater in terms of a wage bill at their level, but they brought in a high-priced striker anyway. Even though promotion didn’t come at the end of 2021-22, the actor-owners have kept adding to the squad, this season bringing in new players to backfill injuries. When they were short a goalkeeper near season’s end, they lured Ben Foster, who had recently played in the top-flight Premier League, out of retirement. Go big or go home.

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This all could have been disastrous. The massive Easter win against Notts County was sealed with a Foster save of a penalty kick at the death; if he dives the wrong way then Wrexham’s lead would have been precarious. Had they not secured promotion, would the big-name sponsors and big-salaried players have been willing to stick around for another trudge through the fifth division? Would all that investment have gone to waste?

This is, on some level, what every sports owner must ask. Whatever might be spent on a club in pursuit of success, there is an inherent gamble that comes with the fickleness of the games themselves. Many owners have proven themselves unwilling to take it, especially in North America, where there is no threat of being dropped to a lower league. They would rather collect guaranteed revenue streams and deploy a frugality that protects profits. Dozens of franchises across MLB, the NBA and NHL do this every year, even if it means sparse attendance and local apathy toward the team. Eventually you can get a situation like what is happening in Oakland, where years of neglect and poor results create a death spiral. Along the way, loyal fans insist that the team would rebound if only the owner would put the resources into building a winner. Occasionally, this happens, as with the San Diego Padres, where ownership has spent aggressively in what is still a small(ish) market. But much more common is the case of the Colorado Rockies, where the owner recently complained that San Diego is trying too hard to win.

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Wrexham AFC was never going anywhere. Football teams in the United Kingdom do not relocate. The only way forward was to get better. And the only way to do that was to spend.

The new owners, who had never tried this kind of thing before, did just that. Now they have a club that is a roaring success on the pitch, and because of that a big deal off it.

In the wake of the team’s spectacular promotion, it keeps getting said that the Hollywood owners couldn’t have written a script like this.

But sure they could. Invest in the club, take risks, enjoy the spoils. It’s not complicated. What’s strange is that more owners, even those who come into it with a lot more money, don’t try it.

sstinson@postmedia.com

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