Both within soccer circles and amongst the general public, there’s no doubt that Americans love Welcome to Wrexham. The FX docuseries following the exploits of Welsh non-league side Wrexham AFC debuted in late summer 2022 to rave reviews. And it has churned up an American fanbase for a down-on-its-luck club battling in the fifth tier of the English soccer pyramid. We take a closer look at why Americans find Welcome to Wrexham so compelling.
But what about this story is so compelling to the American viewer and fan? Is it pure Hollywood star power? Hipsterism run amok? Or just the love of a good underdog saga? Sure, it’s a mix of all of those things, but there are deeper reasons.
In late 2020, actors Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Mythic Quest) and Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) began the process of purchasing Wrexham AFC, the third oldest professional football club in the world. That news in and of itself caused quite a stir – a pair of high-profile Hollywood actors investing in a club that have been out of the Football League since 2008.
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Hollywood comes to Wales
Shortly after, it was announced that a TV show would be produced following their ownership of the club, including the quest to get promoted back into the Football League.
It had all the ingredients to become a feel-good phenomenon. A likable, close-knit working class community. A once competitive team that had fallen on hard times. Fans who had been treated poorly by previous team ownership but came together to save their club. A charming historic stadium. And new owners who are well-liked, fun personalities. They’re not some hyper-rich oligarchs or Middle Eastern oil magnates.
Those who’ve watched the show on FX or Hulu know that the particulars of the team itself are only part of the charm. We get to know some of the delightful characters in the town – pub owners, painters, local supporters. Volunteers for the club. Regular every day people whose lives are interwoven with the fortunes of their local soccer club. The context of the struggles of the team in the early 2000s, ownership trying to sell their home ground out from under them, and salvation by the Supporters Trust gives serious weight to the comeback story.
Beyond being likable funny guys, Reynolds and McElhenney seem to genuinely want to do right by the club and community. Their sincere reverence for the club and its supporters gives every success and failure, both on and off the field, an emotional punch.
Since day one they’ve been taking steps to improve the club. Hiring a new manager and making big (for their level) signings. Replacing the pitch. Fighting, and eventually succeeding, to purchase the Racecourse Ground and redevelop the derelict Kop stand. Getting the team added to the FIFA video game. Campaigning to get matches in the entire National League streaming worldwide. Attendance, sponsorships and merchandise sales are all up as well.
The work has paid off in more ways than one.
Winning always helps
It certainly hasn’t hurt that since the takeover the team has been pretty good. On the pitch, it was perfect timing for storytelling purposes. The 2021/22 season saw Wrexham challenge for promotion, finishing second and losing in extra time in the playoff semifinal. They also reached the FA Trophy Final at Wembley, but fell in a narrow result there as well. It added drama to the initial season and gave a good hook for season two.
Wrexham currently sits in second place again in the National League and will no doubt be chasing for the automatic promotion spot to League Two this season. And they’ve advanced to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, with a clash at home versus Sheffield United coming up later this month.
Whether you’ve followed the club on Twitter, are catching the streams of live games, or simply enjoyed the CliffNotes version of their season on the FX show, Wrexham racking up W’s has definitely helped keep people paying attention.
You can’t please everyone
As with almost everything it seems these days, there is pushback to something that’s popular. And when it comes to some sensitive American soccer pundits and fans, naturally anything that isn’t domestic soccer becoming popular can be seen as an attack on our league(s) and sport.
“Why are people following a fifth division Welsh team when they don’t watch the team in their own backyard?!”
Well for one thing, a Wrexham-type story essentially does not exist in America. Domestic soccer teams have been threatened with relocation, have had bad owners forced to sell, and suffered long stretches of ineptitude.
And there have even been lower division teams that have moved up the professional ranks such as Portland Timbers, Minnesota United and Nashville FC. But every one of the nine MLS teams who came up from the lower divisions all bought an expansion team. They were allowed in because they had the money and also happening to be located in a major media market that already had at least one major league American sports franchise. Their move into MLS wasn’t due to sporting merit.
No room in America for the little guy
Wrexham has a population of just over 60,000 people. Yet if they win enough, it’s possible they can earn their way into the Premier League on results alone. A town such as Wrexham would be forbidden from joining MLS. For instance, US Soccer has Pro League Standards for the top-flight division where 75% of teams must be in cities with a population of more than 1 million. Plus US Soccer requires a minimum capacity of 15,000 (the Racecourse Ground holds 10,000).
Perhaps the closest equivalent in our soccer system is the story of Detroit City FC.
Started as an amateur team in the NPSL, they grew their fanbase organically, eventually going pro in NISA and then USL. Their fans even became investors in the club and helped finance and renovate their historic stadium. Yet despite being located in a Rust Belt city well past its glory days, Detroit is still a massive market and they had to buy their way up. And despite being wildly popular for a lower tier club, MLS would not hesitate to try to crush and replace them. In fact, they’ve already tried once. A failed 2018 real estate deal disguised as a MLS bid even went as far as to use imagery from DCFC supporters without their permission.
Aside from the NFL’s Green Bay Packers (a wildly popular team located in a very small market, owned by its shareholders), community ownership is not allowed in American professional sports. The US Soccer Professional League Standards require a principal owner of a certain net worth (depending on the level) to sanction a team. So a community couldn’t save a club such as the folks in Wrexham did. A town’s residents in America with a bad owner couldn’t come together and save its club, and later have the chance to pass it on to new owners like Wrexham.
The dream that anything is possible
It’s the Cinderella aspect that brings a lot of the allure to the Wrexham tale. The dream that anything is possible. A small town who is forever linked with its football club. Their fight to climb back up the ladder. Throw in some extremely personable owners, a gritty town and its endearing people – and some winning soccer to boot – and you’ve got something incredibly captivating. It’s no wonder why Americans love Welcome to Wrexham and the club behind it.
Photo Credits: Imago
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