Inside The Inner Circle: Why Ryan Reynolds And Rob McElhenney Bought Wrexham AFC
By Tim Crow | November 24, 2020
In the latest edition of The Crowdown for iSPORTCONNECT, Tim Crow dives into the big question on many confused people’s minds after the news was reported that Hollywood Superstars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney
My personal and professional interests collided when I first heard about Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney making a move to buy Wrexham AFC.
On one side of my Venn diagram reaction was the lifelong fan of FC Halifax Town, who like Wrexham play in the National League and desperately want to get out of it and back into the Football League. Inside this circle were the words “WHY NOT US?!”. (Sadly I gather Halifax were never in the running. But our time is surely coming. I’m looking at you, Bezos.)
Some have speculated that the deal is all and only about the behind-the-scenes documentary Reynolds and McElhenney pitched to the club as part of their involvement.
On the other side was the sports business guy who knew that Wrexham’s pre-Covid balance sheet was well into the black and a cut above anything else in the National League, and was also aware of the ever-growing list of takeovers of non-league and lower-league clubs, many by American investors. Inside that circle were the words “WHY NOT WREXHAM?”.
And in the middle, where the circles intersect, was “BUT WHY, EXACTLY?”
This has been the question dominating media and industry discussion of the deal.
Some have speculated that the deal is all and only about the behind-the-scenes documentary Reynolds and McElhenney pitched to the club as part of their involvement, with some fuzzy maths about how it will finance their promised initial £2m investment.
Like all good sports business conspiracy theories, this is high on virality but low on business sense.
Rob and Ryan could finance Wrexham out of their pocket change for years.
They’re probably not short of other good documentary opportunities either, none of which come attached to the burdens of owning a non-league football club.
And why go to all this trouble of talking such a good game about their mission, both privately to Wrexham’s fans but also so very publicly, if it’s all just a ruse? Ryan and Rob strike me as many things, but being that dumb isn’t one of them – particularly as they were advised by Inner Circle Sports, the New York-based investment bank who specialise in sports.
“We tell people every day of their responsibility: ‘The supporters own the club. It’s not your club”
Inner Circle have famously been involved in many top-level club takeovers, such as Fenway Sports Group’s acquisition of Liverpool. But unusually, they’ve also advised on several lower-level club deals before Wrexham, including for Dagenham & Redbridge, another National League club.
They’re very good at what they do. And to go back to my Venn diagram, where my two circles intersect is where Inner Circle focus. The ‘Why?’
Last year Forbes ran an interview with Steve Horowitz, a partner at Inner Circle, that is worth your time. He talks about how Inner Circle challenge and qualify potential owners – “[We] really scare them. We tell them all the things that can go badly…Owning and running a football club is hard. It’s really hard…Not everybody who buys a club makes it better, but we’re trying to bring in earnest people, to do real deals and to be smart.”
Crucially, there was also this: “We tell people every day of their responsibility: ‘The supporters own the club. It’s not your club; you’re just the custodian. You need to leave the club in a better place than it is now. The great owners understand this.”
Nothing about that suggests to me that the Wrexham deal is all and only about making a documentary. On the contrary, everything that we’ve seen so far from Rob and Ryan – in particular the superbly-written pre-deal mission statement, which is full of hard promises, many of them medium and long term – suggests to me that Rob and Ryan were strongly influenced by what Inner Circle told them and have made it key to their playbook.
This is not to say that the documentary isn’t important, or that it isn’t designed to make money. It’s a smart play that will put Wrexham in front of a big new audience, and generate vital new revenue to help fill the empty-stadium hole created by Covid.
So yes, it’s important. But it’s not the reason for the deal.
Everything that we’ve seen so far from Rob and Ryan – in particular the superbly-written pre-deal mission statement, which is full of hard promises, many of them medium and long term.
I can’t tell you for sure what that is. But I can tell you what I think it is. And it’s not one thing, it’s many things.
You’ll find it in why Michael Eisner bought Portsmouth, or why Tim Howard and Peter Freund bought Dagenham and Redbridge.
Much lower table stakes than American sports. The opportunity to build something – or build something back – that’s special. To show the world why it’s special. To live the dream of going up the leagues, and maybe make it happen. To make it bigger, and leave it better than it was when you bought it. And a refusal to accept that losing money needs to be part of the deal.
I wish them well. Except when they play FC Halifax Town.