What happens when an underdog soccer club gets the attention of a couple of actors
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, what happens when an underdog Welsh soccer club gets the attention of two Hollywood stars looking for a new challenge? Two years ago, actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney decided, as one does, that running the world's third oldest professional soccer club was just the challenge they were looking for, despite knowing next to nothing about professional soccer. The team, Wrexham, had been sitting in U.K. football's lowest tier for 14 years. That's when Reynolds, better known for playing the Marvel character Deadpool, and McElhenney of "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" stepped in. Here's Ryan Reynolds making the duo's sales pitch on a conference call to Wrexham's fans and club executives.
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RYAN REYNOLDS: I think just want to start by ripping the Band-Aid off and addressing the fact that this is all pretty wild. I'm sure it's got to be a little disconcerting that a Canadian and an American are so interested in your club. But we want to assure everyone on this call that we are taking this venture very seriously. I don't care if you're a movie star. I don't care if you're driving a forklift. When you're in a situation where you're seeking the approval of other people, your brain is always going, they're going to say no. They don't - they're on to me.
MARTIN: Well, clearly, they convinced them, and they got themselves a team. The larger question was, could their clout, money and passion help the team ascend the ranks of U.K. football? The answer might be revealed in "Welcome To Wrexham." It's a new docuseries that chronicles the stars and the team as they try and pull off a bit of sports magic. And joining us now to talk about this passion project is series co-creator Rob McElhenney. Rob, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
ROB MCELHENNEY: Hi. It's an honor to be here. I'm a big fan.
MARTIN: Well, thanks for that. So, OK, a soccer club. Why soccer? I mean, there's lots of other things you could do with your money.
MCELHENNEY: Fair point. Fair point. Well, soccer is the biggest sport in the world. But truth be told, I was not a massive soccer fan or have not been historically. It was just over the last few years, and very specifically during the pandemic, when I was so - as many people around the world were - so sports starved. And I just love watching sports, playing sports, but most importantly, just following along with some of my beloved teams. And that all went away for a year and a half.
And so I just started doing deep dives into old documentaries, old stories, old - actually, old matches of various sports. I would go in and watch the NBA Finals from 1983 or the baseball World Series from 1990 - '86. And I just - I stumbled upon a number of football documentaries - soccer documentaries - and just kind of started to fall in love with the sport. And I started to do more and more research just about some of the most popular leagues in the world. And the one that continuously came up was the English Premier League.
MARTIN: I have to say, the series feels like a love letter. It actually feels like several love letters. I mean, it's a love letter to sports, but it's also a love letter to your families, in a way. And it's also a love letter to the town.
MCELHENNEY: A lot of people see themselves in that town. And when we think about, like, who we're writing the love letter to - and, yes, it most definitely is a love letter - I think it's more about us having compassion, love, empathy and respect for working-class people. And I think that working-class people obviously exist all over the world, and I think that they can see themselves in the people of Wrexham, and they can identify with them.
So I think it was very early on when we - I think I was - I hadn't even been to Wrexham yet. I was just looking at images and some of the video and some of the historical documents and then some of the documentary footage that I had seen just online. And I just recognize those people. I just grew up with them. I knew them. I was related to them. I just felt a kindred spirit to them. And I thought, man, if I could tell their story correctly and honor and respect them, I think I could get people to watch it all over the world. And that seems to be the case.
MARTIN: So I'm not sure how much of this is real, but - and how much of this is just dramatic - forgive me for - but there does seem to have been, I would say, suspicion of you all at the beginning. I mean, I think that would be a very human reaction. Like, who are these guys, and what's their real motivation? And do they really care about this the way we care about this? Did you feel that?
MCELHENNEY: Very much so. And we welcomed it, and we expected it. I think I would actually be wary if there wasn't some suspicion. I think it was more just skepticism, as you said. I think people wanted to hear from us. They wanted to understand what our intentions were. This is the most important thing in many of their lives and has been for generations. So we realized that, like, there have been multiple generations of people who this has been the beating heart of their town. And all of a sudden, these two random Hollywood types are coming in and saying that they want to be a part of this experience. And they were suspicious. And also, they've been burned before in the past. They've had to deal with people that had bad intentions. So we expected it, and we knew all along that we would have to be open and honest and wear our hearts on our sleeves the entire time.
MARTIN: For people who don't follow professional soccer - you explain this in the film - but there are rankings, and then there's the top. There's the Premier League, and then there's tiers below it. And I'm not sure this is really a part of the American sports experience, but that people can be promoted or you can be demoted. You know, you can move up to a different tier. You can move down to a different tier. I just - like I say, you explain this in the film, but for people who haven't seen it yet, don't understand it, one of the stories here is, can you get - move the club along? Can you move them out of the basement, as it were? Forgive me...
MCELHENNEY: (Laughter) It's true.
MARTIN: ...for using - talking about it that way. But I don't want to give anything away. I don't want to give anything away. Tell me what you're willing to tell me about this. I don't want to spoil it for people, but tell me - what are you willing to tell me about that?
MCELHENNEY: Sure. Well, this is also the genesis of the entire thing. Once I learned about the English system, which I had never heard about, sadly, and is just almost like anathema to American sports - we just don't operate this way because so much of it is based in, like, just pure commercialism. But there is a system in place where you can be - if you lose enough and you finish in the last three spots in your particular league, you would be kicked out of that league and pushed to the league below you. And theoretically, you could lose the following season - be one of the last two or three teams in that league - and get kicked down another league.
So when I learned about that - and I learned actually about Wrexham specifically, who had fallen from the second league all the way down to the fifth - what happens is you - first of all, you lose your television deal the second you get out of the first league. And so that's hundreds of millions of dollars that go away. Then on top of that, your attendance starts plummeting, interest wanes. You have less sponsors - fewer sponsors and just less cash at your disposal. And what happens is with that - can be, like, literally a precipitous fall into the abyss. And you can go from one of the biggest clubs in the world to nothing in 5 to 6 years. And you're seeing a lot of these clubs - they wound up, especially over the pandemic, going bankrupt. So, yes, there's the dark side of that. But there's also the potential for an incredible story because if you can go one direction, why can't you go the other?
And I remember asking people, can we - what if we got a team in the fifth league? Couldn't we theoretically go up to the Premier League? And everybody laughs. And I never quite understood why they would laugh. Like, why - I don't get it. But that's the way the system is set up. And they're like, yeah, but you could never do - a team could never do that. And I thought, man, it sounds like you can. You're saying you can't, but it sounds like the whole system is set up for that to happen. You just have to make the right moves all the way along, get a little lucky - or get very lucky - and, you know, build a working business that can support itself and then see what happens. And that's what we decided to do.
MARTIN: That's awesome. So the obvious comparison is to "Ted Lasso," which is another wildly successful project. But this is real. I don't know. I just wonder how you think about that. Do you think that the success of "Ted Lasso," in a way, kind of paved the way, even though that's a completely made-up story or - what do you think?
MCELHENNEY: Yeah, I mean, I like to think that - I was joking with Jason, 'cause Jason Sudeikis and I are good friends, and he came - actually came to a game with us at Wembley Stadium this year to watch Wrexham play. And I was joking with him that "Ted Lasso" is the appetizer to our main dish.
MCELHENNEY: He appreciated that and then reminded me he's got, like, 15 Emmys (laughter).
MARTIN: OK, well, yeah, yeah, two or three or - yeah, OK. Little competition there. That's OK. That's all right.
MCELHENNEY: No, but I did thank him for warming up the crowd for us.
MARTIN: Well, there it is.
MARTIN: Rob McElhenney is a writer, director and actor, and he's co-chairman of the Wrexham Association Football Club. And you can see the series on Hulu now. Rob McElhenney, thanks so much for talking with us.
MCELHENNEY: Thank you. It was a pleasure. As I said, I'm a big fan. It was a great honor to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.