Should other clubs chase Wrexham’s American success story?

The new season of ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ will premiere on 18 April. Photograph: Patrick McElhenney/AP

Every sport today, from cricket to padel, wants to crack America. Soccer is already a major cultural force across the US, but its incursion into the American sporting psyche has been led by MLS and the top leagues of Europe, the English Premier League in particular. If you’re a club battling away in the English Football League Two, how exactly do you stand out to the median US soccer fan? What place does a midweek cup fixture between Accrington Stanley and the Fulham Under-21s have in a footballing world of volcanically hyped top-flight matchups and potential super leagues?

One solution for a lower league club fighting for international attention might be to get bought by Hollywood celebrities and launch a slickly produced, multi-season documentary about the club’s quest for promotion through the lower tiers of British football on a popular US cable network. That, of course, is the solution that Wrexham famously devised to build its following among the American public, with the third season of Welcome to Wrexham set to premiere in the US on 18 April. Now the Welsh club, owned by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney and currently sitting third in League Two, wants to build on its recent successes to help all 72 clubs across the three tiers of the English Football League gain a foothold in the American market.

“The US is always going to be massively important to the EFL, because there’s such a strong market and fanbase for football and the work has already been done by the Premier League to get a foothold there,” says Shaun Harvey, the former chief executive of the English Football League who’s been a director of Wrexham and adviser to the club’s owners since 2021. “The challenge now is for clubs in the EFL to leverage that relationship and use it to build their own followings in the US.”

Related: Is this real life or is it just fantasy? Welcome to Wrexham where TV cameras blur the lines

Lower-league English football is now shown in the US on ESPN+ and iFollow, the EFL’s bespoke global streaming service – one of the many segments of global soccer fighting for visibility in the US on a bewildering patchwork of platforms and networks. No sport likes to have its broadcast rights split across a number of different locations, and for lower-league British football that fragmentation has proved particularly challenging as it attempts to build an identity in America.

Wrexham regularly boasts that it has the biggest international following of any EFL club – including traditional giants of English football currently competing in the Championship like Leeds United and Leicester City – but the actual number of subscribers it’s been able to retain for live broadcasts in the US on iFollow is relatively small. “There’s probably 5,000 US households that have an annual subscription to watch Wrexham games live,” Harvey says. “In isolation that might not sound like a lot, but it’s a massive amount in comparison to the majority of other clubs in the EFL.”

The EFL is now in the process of negotiating a new international rights deal that will run from next season until 2027-28, and Harvey believes strongly that at least some lower-league matches should be shown live and free to air in the US. “Access is absolutely key,” he says. “From a marketing perspective the best rights deal, for the US or any other market, is one that makes matches free to air and accessible for anyone who wants to watch them. There’s a balance to be struck between exposure and financial return so it makes sense to combine free to air with some direct to consumer subscription type channel.”

Though he declines to disclose the viewer numbers that led FX to approve the documentary’s approaching third season (“Viewing numbers are a closely guarded secret”), Harvey describes Welcome to Wrexham as “the club’s biggest commercial asset”. Thanks to the visibility and global profile the documentary has provided, Wrexham – unlike most other clubs in lower league English football – can afford the luxury of prioritizing free-to-air exposure over the guaranteed revenue that would come from restricting matches to cable or streaming services. But Harvey believes other clubs throughout the lower leagues can learn from Wrexham’s example and find novel ways to stand out amid a culture saturated in sport and sport “content”.

“Our documentary isn’t one that’s built around telling the story of elite athletes in a pressure scenario, it’s about a football club that’s on a journey towards the top,” Harvey says. “It’s a story that resonates with many, many people who can relate to what Wrexham and its supporters are going through in some part of their own life.”

There’s no dispute that Wrexham’s celebrity ownership is the main driver behind the club’s rise to global popularity, but in many ways that model of control goes against the trend across European football, where professional clubs are becoming less the plaything of rich individuals than giant investment funds.

Compared to many of the high-profile clubs in the Premier League, which are juiced to maximize short-term gains and run according to the dictates of vast investment portfolios, there’s something almost charmingly nostalgic about the spectacle of two wealthy North American dilettantes playing owner at the football club of a small former mining town and throwing themselves into the life of the local community.

The themes and narratives at the heart of the documentary – the life and quirks of the town, the club’s against-the-odds quest for promotion up the ranks of the EFL, the off-field characters and on-field strivers – make Welcome to Wrexham a very different viewing experience from, say, Amazon’s All or Nothing series, or Apple TV+’s shudderingly dull recent series about Leo Messi’s arrival in Miami.

Harvey believes it’s the human scale of the documentary that has made it such a global success – “The town is the underdog in this story, more so than the football club” – and that the drama of promotion and relegation across the three tiers of the EFL, combined with lower league football’s mix of underdogs and fallen giants, can help British football below the Premier League carve out a meaningful cultural niche for itself in the US. Could the low-fi, everyday pleasures of lower league English football save the global institution of the fly-on-the-wall sports documentary from collapsing under the weight of its own importance?

Related: Wrexham’s Hollywood-backed show rolls on but locals are the real stars | Barry Glendenning

The story of lower league clubs, as Harvey paints it, is as much about changing demographics and urban revitalization away from the UK’s core population centers as it is about football – and that’s a narrative that will retain its potency for any club, not just Wrexham.

In many ways the idealized future he paints is one in which the EFL gains mind share among the American public as a kind of antidote to the big-spending excesses of top-flight soccer across Europe, as the reverse side of the coin that’s turned football at the elite level into a game of runaway salary inflation, private equity myopia, and serial financial fair play breaches. But critically – some might say paradoxically – the EFL can only build that identity for itself now that the likes of MLS and the Premier League have established such a strong beachhead for soccer in America.

“It makes no sense for the EFL to go head to head in program slots with the Premier League,” Harvey says. “We’ve got to try and work with broadcasters who are showing Premier League games and look to market EFL games on the back of that key hook that’s bringing fans to the station in the first place.”

Whether that means Wrexham would support the EFL striking a new rights deal with current US Premier League rights holder NBC, Harvey declines to say. But as English lower league football starts to think seriously about expanding its presence overseas, clubs will have to pull all the same marketing levers familiar to teams in the European elite – the merchandising, social media campaigns, documentaries and inside accounts – while emphasizing that they represent a version of the sport that’s fundamentally very different to what viewers would know from subsisting on a diet of Man City v Newcastle and Champions League knockouts alone.

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