Photograph: Jason Parkhurst/USA Today Sports
The US is a popular destination for touring European soccer teams, but the country has never welcomed a team like Wrexham before. The Welsh club will travel across the Atlantic this summer to take part in a series of events that could reportedly include friendly matches against Chelsea and Manchester United. There may be as many Paul Mullin shirts as Marcus Rashford ones.
Mullin and his teammates are well known to anyone who has watched FX’s Welcome to Wrexham TV docuseries. The show, which details Ryan Reynolds and Robert McElhenney’s escapades as owners of the team, has thrust the European lower leagues into the American mainstream. Wrexham’s matches are now a regular draw on US TV – their first match on ESPN2 earlier this season easily outperformed MLS coverage on Fox Sports on the same day.
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Wrexham’s success in the US goes against conventional wisdom. For decades, many claimed American fans were only interested in elite-level soccer. That’s why, it was argued, MLS viewing figures remained low as competitors like the Champions League and Premier League grew in popularity. Wrexham, however, have relied on storytelling to attract new fans.
So too has F1 through Netflix’s Drive to Survive, which is credited with boosting the growth of the sport, particularly in the US. Full Swing, which focuses on golf and the PGA Tour, launched last month. Break Point – a tennis equivalent – was also produced along the same lines. Factor in Sunderland ‘Til I Die and Amazon’s All or Nothing series and a trend is clear.
MLS has partnered with Drive to Survive makers Box to Box Productions to produce a docuseries now that the league has entered a $2.5bn, 10-year agreement with Apple TV. MLS has the platform, now it must produce the content. “Every team has the opportunity to do their own Drive to Survive,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber, referring to how the league’s new Season Pass subscription package gives clubs the freedom to tell their own stories.
Los Angeles FC already tried this, producing a 10-part series for ESPN+ called We Are LAFC in 2019 (the club had its own celebrities on board: Will Ferrell and Magic Johnson owned small stakes when it launched). Billed as a warts-and-all presentation, the warts were decidedly missing – and that’s a problem for MLS in a new era of storytelling. Until now, the league has glossed itself at every opportunity to appear big-time. The warts have been deliberately hidden for fear of not being taken seriously by the league.
But it’s the problems and struggles of a club or athlete that viewers want to see – an idea that the producers of Welcome to Wrexham have grasped. In one episode of the show, Reynolds and McElhenney are filmed being told that the club has botched the laying of its new £100,000 pitch. In another episode, club staff are caught bad-mouthing Reynolds for causing a distraction by filming a commercial so close to a match. “It’s a fucking disgrace,” Wrexham’s head of performance is heard saying.
Welcome to Wrexham is fronted by two famous actors, but it never attempts to paint the players as superstars – and the fans are characters too. From Mullin (the top scorer and best player) to the landlord of the local pub, their individual stories matter. If MLS can grasp this, there’s no reason it can’t use the same template.
This season is the beginning of a new era for MLS. The Apple TV deal suggests there is a willingness at MLS HQ to package the league in a new way. New parameters have been set, with MLS Season Pass designed to convert hardcore fans into paying subscribers. Nevertheless, MLS needs a way to funnel fans into watching live matches and that’s where additional content will be important.
Some argue Welcome to Wrexham has devalued American and Canadian soccer. Why, it’s pointed out, didn’t McElhenney and Reynolds invest in an MLS, USL Championship or Canadian Premier League club? By buying a fifth-division Welsh club instead, have they shown American and Canadian soccer isn’t worth investing in?
Of course, MLS doesn’t have much to worry about from an investment point of view. Franchises are now going for more than $300m, with the league’s 30th team (predicted to be in Las Vegas or San Diego) to be announced by the end of 2023. And Garber has hinted that he is open to further expansion. “I never thought we’d be at 28, never thought we’d be at 29, we said we’re gonna stop at 30, but the other major leagues are bigger than that so we never say never,” he said.
However, this season will only mark the beginning of a new era for MLS if changes happen to make it so. Just because the league has partnered with the makers of Drive to Survive doesn’t mean a runaway TV success is guaranteed – see how Break Point has thus far failed to grow tennis in any meaningful way. Access must be permitted. The stories must be genuine. Everybody wants to ‘do a Wrexham’, but not everybody can.