Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney are not your prototypical football club owners. McElhenney — best known for his portrayal of Mac on the long-running FX series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which he co-created — openly admits that until recently he knew little to nothing about the sport. Reynolds, star of the “Deadpool” film franchise and the entrepreneur behind Aviation gin and Mint Mobile, didn’t know much more.
Yet the pair made headlines last year when they bought Welsh side Wrexham AFC £2 million, control one of the oldest continuously operating football clubs in the world. Wrexham’s quest to earn promotion after spending 15 years in the National League – the fifth tier of the English football league system – is the subject of a new documentary series produced by Reynolds and McElhenney, “Welcome to Wrexham.“
While the series does focus on Wrexham’s exploits on the pitch, it feels more like an exploration of the town of Wrexham itself, and an ode to the place’s undying love for their football club. “Welcome to Wrexham” premieres on Disney+, Hulu and FX on August 24.
Reynolds and McElhenney joined with The Athletics to talk about the series and their ownership of Wrexham. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
The Athletic: While it’s not unusual for celebrities to buy a stake in a football club, Wrexham feels a little out of left field. How much of your investment in the club was driven by an interest in sports ownership, and how much of this was just you wanting to make a film?
Rob McElhenney: I actually think it’s the latter first. It’s always been a dream of mine to be associated with a professional sports franchise in some capacity, (I just never knew of a rational or legal way into it. And then it was past the pandemic when I really started watching more documentaries and got into football and then learned about the English system and realized – wait, that’s an interesting way to go in. But one of the key factors for success will be to grow the exposure of the club, because the more revenue comes in, the more you can invest in players. When I started thinking about it like that, and I thought, “well, it actually fits with what I do for a living – tell stories — with this idea of being involved in a professional sports franchise.” So they actually worked with each other, but I think it was the latter that came first.
TA: One theme you educate the viewer on in the first few episodes is just the system of promotion and relegation that exists overseas, something that is completely foreign to many American viewers. Was that system of pro/rel a driving force in your acquisition of the club?
McElhenney: Yes, because it is the ultimate underdog story. It’s one thing to suggest that the (NFL’s Cleveland) Browns or the (Cincinnati) Bengals or the Tampa Bay Rays (of Major League Baseball) or whatever could rise through the ranks, but the stakes aren’t that high if you don’t get kicked out of the league if you finish last. What happens is this rush falls all the way down, you can tumble very quickly and it can destroy a franchise. We just don’t have anything like that. The game can be emotionally high (in the United States), and certainly economically, but not as it is in the English football system. So it was a very clear way in. I would say that the show, at its core, is more of a love letter to working class people and their commitment and love for the beating heart that is the club that is with their town or community, and I think everyone can identify with that.
How difficult was it for you guys, as outsiders, to feel like you were kind of representing and painting a reasonable picture of a town that you had little or nothing to do with prior to your ownership of the club?
Ryan Reynolds: I would say that going into something like this, where you’re in kind of uncharted territory – at least for us – it’s just about transparency. We are not here to project some idea that we know what we are doing in terms of running a football club. We are here to say that we will be responsible, respectful and respectful to the institution that is Wrexham and that we will do everything in our power to grow it and build it as we would any other business, or film or television do. show or something like that. Most businesses I’ve been involved in, at least those that succeed or work, usually have a backbone of accountability and relationships. It’s not too different to what happens in Wrexham.
We just went in very honestly and said look, your average five-year-old in Wrexham has forgotten more about football than we’ll ever know. But we are going to do our best to make sure that the success of the club is in line with the success of the community, and vice versa. So much of it was finding that multi-pronged approach because the community and the club are so connected that you really can’t tear them apart and you really can’t grow one without growing the other.
Ryan, it’s not terribly clear in the documentary how you got involved here – Rob says in the first episode that he needed “movie star money”. Who made that approach? It doesn’t look like you knew each other terribly well before this. How did it all work?
Reynolds: Well, I reached out to Rob. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really grown into a place where when I see someone do something that’s great, or something that I just love and appreciate, regardless of the outcome, I just like to let them know. Rob did a series on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” which I just thought, pound for pound, was one of the most beautiful three minutes I’ve ever seen, on this show that he obviously created and worked on for so many years.
So I just let him know. We kind of became friends, like text friends. We never met or anything like that. So then one day Rob sent me an email outlining his plan to buy a lower league club and grow it into something more like a world power. I just saw the path he laid out, the phosphorescence in the water so to speak, and I was in. I just thought it was so unexpected and so interesting and I love building businesses and this is a business. So I was excited to dive in and it was a real odyssey. It was also one of the most high-pressure rope walks I’ve ever been on. There is so much riding on the success of this club with every single individual in Wrexham. It’s a lot to carry, but I’m not complaining. It was one of the greatest rides of my life.
Would you ever be interested in investing in an American team, in MLS, USL or elsewhere? That’s a whole different animal of course, I’m just curious if that ever occurred to you.
McElhenney: It’s certainly opened up a whole lot of opportunities, and we’ve discussed all sorts of different things, but for now we want to make sure we’re focused entirely and solely on Wrexham because we can’t get it wrong.
Reynolds: I also think that one of the things that’s interesting from a storytelling perspective is that — let’s say in some wildest, farthest corner of our imaginations, we’ve had the kind of scratch to a Chelsea or a Man United or buy something like that, there’s really only one way to go with those clubs, which is down. They are already top clubs. If you take a club like Wrexham, who have a fan base that is so passionate about this club that they would die for this club – yet there is so much real estate in front of them, there is so much room to grow, I think just from a storytelling perspective it’s just that much more interesting. You have so many more people just playing for their lives. There aren’t multimillion-dollar contracts they can rest on if they get cut, or anything like that. These are players who really run, kick, jump, play for their lives every day. It’s amazing to see so many young people playing at this level, with this level of passion.
Rob, you said something in one episode that stuck with me – that when you leave a writer’s room or something, you kind of know exactly what you’ve created, and you feel an element of control. Of course with sports ownership the whole project with Wrexham is the opposite. You put what you have on the field and whatever happens, happens. I wonder if there were any problems for either of you with that dynamic, the lack of control.
McElhenney: The truth of the matter is that you go into any creative or artistic endeavor and you have an idea of what it could be in your head. And then you listen to the project as you go, because you work with several parties in a good collaboration. So things can change, and you can turn, but you still feel like you can lead it down the road in the right direction to where in the end you may not have achieved exactly what you set out to do, but you have at least some control over how it ends. And here you can get it to the finish line, but in the end there is an objective reality. There is no subjective reality. You either won or you lost. You’ve been promoted, you’ve been relegated or you’re stuck. It is very very difficult, although I will say that it is also part of the excitement. Some of it is just the unknown. We just do our best, hope for the best and then it’s just up to the football gods.
Reynolds: That’s really what makes it so poignant to me. You can do the best you can to put the best possible team on the field, but at the end of the day anything can happen in sports. I really believe that when you’re making films – every film I’ve done that didn’t really do, or that misfired in a creative sense, there was one common denominator: we didn’t listen to the film. You have to listen to the film because if you listen to it, it will talk to you and tell you things. If you just say “no no, it’s not in the script and we’re just shooting the script,” you’re going to end up in some pretty precarious positions. And running a football club is no different. It talks to us constantly as we go, and we listen to it as best we can every minute of every day. That’s kind of what makes it a bit of a tightrope walk, it’s this ever-evolving thing where anything can happen. It’s magic.
There has been an influx of football documentaries in recent years – Sunderland Til I Die, the All or Nothing series, all those docs. How many of those documents did you consume, and how much or little influence did those films have on the making of your own documentary?
McElhenney: I’ve always been a massive, massive fan of sports documentaries. I have seen every episode of “30 for 30” multiple times. I will watch anything, any story well told. It’s so great when you can find a sports documentary, specifically one about, maybe a sport you might not care about. Any story well told transcends its subject. So I’ve watched and seen so many different sports documentaries. (“F1: Drive to Survive”) is a good example. I couldn’t care less about cars. I’m not a car guy, it’s not my sport, Formula 1 just wasn’t something I was interested in and now I’m hooked because the storytelling is so good. “30 for 30” was great for that too. I watch everything.
Reynolds: I just watched “In Search of Greatness”. It’s so good. Even if you don’t gravitate towards the sport… F1, I felt exactly the same, but now I know every one of those drivers and the (team principals) and all those guys. You get hooked, and that’s great.
(Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)