When Ryan Reynolds Buys a Soccer Team, Dollars Await

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Hollywood leading man Ryan Reynolds is on the cusp of acquiring the lowly Welsh soccer club Wrexham AFC. It looks like the purest expression yet of why the sport has been attracting a flock of U.S. investors: the seemingly insatiable demand for content.

The star of “Deadpool” is partnering with Rob McElhenney, the creator and star of the FX comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” to buy Wrexham, a team currently languishing in 14th place in the National League, the fifth tier of English football. 

European soccer has enjoyed an influx of investment from the U.S. in recent years. Six teams in England’s 20-strong Premier League are at least part-owned by American investors, who have also put money into clubs in France and Italy. The logic is largely a bet on the booming value of broadcast rights. Since 1992, the Premier League’s broadcast income has jumped more than 60-fold to 3 billion pounds ($4 billion) a season.

Wrexham is a long way from that jamboree, as teams outside the top division earn little to no broadcast income. But there are other opportunities.

In a webcast presentation on Sunday to the Wrexham Supporters Trust, the fan-controlled non-profit that’s owned the club since 2011, Reynolds and McElhenney outlined plans for what was described as a Netflix-style documentary that tracks the team’s fortunes. Such a deal would follow other teams that have gotten the streaming-platform treatment, such as Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland AFC and Leeds United.

For those clubs, the documentaries were just one strand of the business — and a small one at that. The Hollywood approach to Wrexham seems different, because it looks like the prospective show is key to why they want the club in the first place. 

From a business perspective, buying Wrexham as a vehicle for a Netflix show makes sense. Since the club is now supporter owned, the two actors won’t pay anything to acquire it up front. Instead, they’ve pledged to invest 2 million pounds in the club’s infrastructure, playing squad and facilities. And it’s not unreasonable to expect Netflix, Amazon Prime or whoever might acquire the broadcast rights to spend several hundred thousand pounds per hour on a show, according to Ampere Analysis analyst Richard Broughton.

If we assume that the actors are able to charge 300,000 pounds an hour for an eight-part series, that could boost Wrexham’s annual revenue by 2.4 million pounds. As owners of the team, Reynolds and McElhenney wouldn’t have to pay an additional cut to anyone else, as the producers of the other soccer documentaries did. So they could reasonably look at profit representing 25% of that income, or some 600,000 pounds. This would handily move the club from the red into the black, as Wrexham otherwise expects to make a loss of 300,000 pounds on revenue of 2.1 million pounds this year. The owners’ star power could boost the numbers even higher. 

When Ryan Reynolds Buys a Soccer Team, Dollars Await

For Netflix and its rivals, sporting documentaries cost less to acquire than top-level sports programming (Premier League games cost 9 million pounds a pop) and have a longer shelf life. Fans are likely to only watch a match live, while documentaries attract return viewing. 

The main hurdle to an ongoing series is whether it’s compelling television. This poses a risk to fans: Good TV requires troughs as well as peaks, meaning losses as well as wins. So if the owners’ goal is must-watch TV, rather than on-field success, then their priorities may not align with those of Wrexham supporters.

The fans seem to think that’s a risk worth taking. They already voted more than 75% in favor of continuing the discussions with the actors, and are in the process of deciding whether to approve the final takeover bid.

Pro sports at times veers into the realm of soap opera. Why not monetize that?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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