Wrexham co-owner Ryan Reynolds may be leading the charge for clubs in the National League to be allowed to stream their matches, but does the Hollywood icon have a point?
Wrapped up in the early hours of the West Coast morning, a blurry-eyed Rob McElhenney tunes into watch Wrexham’s end-of-season clash against fellow National League side Dagenham & Redbridge. Of course, he’s left disappointed, as the team he co-owns along with fellow movie star Reynolds, missed out on a playoff spot following a 1-1 draw against the East London outfit.
Yet, the sheer sight of McElhenney – a man whose net worth is believed to be in excess of £40 million – rooting for stalwarts of the non-league game, provided a sense of surrealness to the first helping of Wrexham’s new Disney+ docuseries. McElhenney, who has previously worked alongside mega-stars like Danny DeVito and Charlie Day, was now suffering anguish at the mercy of Paul Rutherford and his below-par Wrexham teammates.
It's a story, quite literally, like no other. Two Hollywood millionaires purchase a decaying football club in English football’s fifth tier, with the ambition to take them up the football pyramid and eventually into the Premier League. A script you wouldn’t dare write out of fear of being too farfetched? Perhaps. But ever since Reynolds and McElhenney took charge at the Racecourse Ground in November 2020, the attention on the National League has never been greater.
While the pair’s true intentions for purchasing Wrexham are still somewhat unknown, their desire to produce a documentary following their time in charge has always been clear. First aired in the United Kingdom in late August, the nine-part docuseries details the trials and tribulations of their first 18 months in charge of the club.
The first two episodes set the scene for what was a club in decline both on and off the pitch, having spent the previous 12 seasons out of the English Football League. Unlike other fly-on-the-wall football documentaries, Welcome to Wrexham details the grittier side of the British game, casting a light on the short-term and cutthroat nature of non-league football.
Where the likes of Amazon’s ‘All or Nothing’ series seek to entertain, Welcome to Wrexham educates causal football followers on the ins and outs of non-league football. Yet, away from the awkward team meetings and emotionally charged dressing room cut scenes, it also serves to increase the profile of the National League as a whole, not just that of Wrexham’s.
One of the standout moments from the opening two episodes of Welcome to Wrexham was the dramatic final day clash against Dagenham & Redbridge. A Daggers side with nothing to play for, denying their opponents a spot in the playoffs, therefore ending the Welsh club’s season early and breaking the hearts of Wrexham’s new star-studded custodians.
For many viewers of the documentary, particularly those of an international persuasion, it’s likely that would’ve been the first time they’d seen or heard of Dagenham & Redbridge. Great exposure for a club who have only been playing under its current guise for 30 years, right? Well, you’d think so, but a quick scroll on the club’s social media pages following the release of the documentary and it was as if their moment in the spotlight had never happened.
If Wrexham are using the documentary to widen their appeal to a global audience, why can’t other clubs do the same too? A quick look at Wrexham’s 2021/22 results suggests there’s plenty more drama to come across the upcoming episodes, with the likes of Woking, Bromley and Dagenham again all having a say on what was yet another crushing end to the campaign.
However, the general consensus amongst clubs, and particularly their supporters, in the National League since Reynolds and McElhenney’s arrival has been to oppose the extra exposure and fight it with an anti-outsider mentality. The same can be said about the conversations around the introduction of match streams for National League games, with Wrexham and Reynolds’ recent plea to the fifth tier’s governing bodies met with stern opposition.
In a statement sent from the Canadian’s Twitter account, the Wrexham co-owner labelled the National League’s decision to prevent teams from streaming matches as “baffling”, later adding they are “depriving” the chance for clubs to “expand the fanbase”.
Of course, streaming matches wouldn’t be something that’s new to English football, with the 72 clubs in the EFL having had the option to provide match coverage via the iFollow system since 2017. Due to the ‘3pm Blackout’ rule, it was a service exclusive to international audiences until 2018, when it was expanded to allow streams to UK viewers for midweek matches.
Understandably, there have been some reservations around the prospect of National League clubs being able to stream their matches, namely that of the impact it will have on attendances at matches. Yet, attendance figures taken from the season prior to iFollow being introduced in the EFL, compared to two seasons after, show gate receipts tend not to be impacted by the option of streams.
Of the 14 clubs who played in League One during the 2016/17 campaign and the 2018/19 season, seven of those saw a drop off in average attendances, four saw an increase, while for three there was no change. Perhaps it may seem concerning that over half of those sides experienced smaller crowds, however, of those seven clubs, only Bradford’s gates dropped by over 1,000 people.
In League Two across the same time period, the results were similar. This time, nine of the 14 clubs saw a drop off in attendance, but none of those teams experienced a decrease in over 1,000 fans. Instead, the biggest drop was Grimsby Town, who saw crowds decrease by 800 people on average. Of the other five clubs, all of them saw increases in attendance following iFollow’s introduction, with Notts County and Mansfield Town’s figures going up by over 1,000 supporters.
Granted, there are various performance, environmental and economic factors at play, so the real reason behind fluctuations in attendances cannot be truly known. However, based on evidence taken from the EFL, there are no discernible effects streaming matches has on the attendances at games.
What about those supporters who may be dissuaded from going to a match, if the option of streaming it at home is there? Well, ask yourself this: does the experience of watching live football in a stadium compare to watching it on a computer screen? It's a resounding no. So, for those who have always enjoyed the benefits of going to matches, the option of streaming is unlikely to impact their decision-making. If anything, it could open more doors for supporters who are unable to get to travel long distances for matches, particularly mid-week away fixtures.
Another concern, and perhaps one more pressing than the impact on attendances, surrounds the issue of finances. If it hasn’t already, it’s likely Wrexham’s global appeal will eventually eclipse that of any other side in the National League, due to the interest surrounding the Hollywood duo. Whether their intentions are right or wrong, it’s undeniable Reynolds, McElhenney and Co. will look to use that increased profile as a way to generate more cash.
The current regulations around streaming matches internationally clearly impact their ability to tap into new markets, making this recent push for change a logical next step. It’s likely the case that if streaming is to be introduced, Wrexham’s matches will be the most watched, therefore making their fixtures potentially the most profitable. Having already assembled one of the most expensive squads in National League history, it’s hard to make a case for Wrexham being able to increase their income even further through match streams. But what if that option was eliminated from the off?
If Reynolds and McElhenney are serious about pushing for match streaming in the National League to help all 24 clubs, not just one, the increased revenue streams must also benefit all 24 clubs, not just one. How that works in practice would be an issue for the authorities to decide, but a system where the fruits of streaming matches are shared as close to evenly throughout the 24 teams as possible, would be crucial to ensuring its success.
Implementing such a system wouldn’t require too many logistical hurdles to be jumped over, given all clubs provided match streaming to fans during the behind closed doors Covid-19 campaign. Granted, there were issues with the quality of some club’s streams, which is something the league would have to ensure was to an acceptable level across the board, but it generally worked well enough. The home side provided the stream, supporters paid a fee to the club and they were able to watch the match. It's something that has happened before and happens every week higher up in the pyramid. It isn't something that rips the fabric out of the non-league game.
There are already complaints about other aspects of the National League, like an archaic match highlights embargo, or the limitation on how many substitutions can be named. And with the increased attention brought to the division by people like Reynolds and McElhenney, along with the continued high-quality coverage provided by official broadcasters BT Sport, the National League simply cannot afford to stand still in its development.
Gone are the days when England’s fifth tier was a league run by old men in tweed suits, and one where clubs would have to knock on the EFL’s door begging for spare change. The National League is a professional organisation, and it’s high time it began acting like one.
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