From the Racecourse to Hollywood: The digital revolution of Wrexham AFC
When Hollywood sensations Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds were announced as the new owners of, Welsh-based non-league club, Wrexham AFC in November of 2020, global eyes quickly shifted onto 'The Red Dragons'.
Who are Wrexham AFC? Why have Deadpool and Ronald McDonald bought a Welsh football team?
These are the sort of questions hundreds of thousands of British, American and Canadian sports fans found themselves asking when the news was announced.
Speaking with FourFourTwo, Humphrey Ker (friend and colleague of Rob McElhenney, most notable for his work on comedy series Mythic Quest) would reveal that Netflix's 'Sunderland 'Til I Die' series played a huge role in McElhenney's decision to buy a football club.
"Rob saw how much me and another guy on set were into it," Ker told FFT. "But the big shift was during lockdown. I recommended he watched Sunderland 'Til I Die. I thought, 'That's the key to this. He's a storyteller. He needs to understand the story of football'.
"The All Or Nothing documentaries are very good, but they don't cut to the heart of the game, which is the fans. Rob being Rob, he devoured every documentary. He's a doer, so he said, 'Let's buy a football club'. I said, 'Er yeah, OK'. He replied, 'No, really."
Being purchased by Reynolds and McElhenney of course had incredible financial benefits for Wrexham. However, since 2020, it is the club's ability to grow and develop their digital marketing methods to match the profile of the Hollywood duo that has truly proven fruitful.
This article aims to analyse the social media strategies implemented by Wrexham AFC from November 2020 through to January of 2022 to look at how the club has utilised its new Hollywood owners to expand the club's digital presence and the positive impact this has had on the club's profile within the game.
'The State of Football Social Media' survey gathers data from marketing teams within football intending to identify the trends and norms in the social media strategies utilised internationally within the sport.
In 2021, the survey found that all of the 92 clubs in the Premier League and English Football League used Twitter as a social media platform to connect with current and prospective fans.
Wrexham AFC has done incredible work utilising the exposure generated by Reynolds and McElhenney's involvement to expand their Twitter following and create a wider pool of digital supporters engaged with the club and their journey through the football pyramid.
In 2018, two years before the club's Hollywood takeover, Wrexham AFC's Twitter account was gaining between three and 157 followers per week, a range that would increase in 2019 to roughly somewhere between 14 and 339.
However, it was in 2020, following the club's takeover, that things began to expand.
16 November 2020 was the day that Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney's takeover of Wrexham AFC was confirmed to the world. During the following seven days the club would see 20,481 new Twitter followers - with the account's weekly follower growth increasing to a range of 57 to 3,304 with a standard average of around 300.
In September 2020, the club had an impressive 54,888 followers. However, just 16 months later, Wrexham now boast an incredible 111,877 followers (as of January 2022), an increase of 103.82%.
To understand the incredible nature of this social media growth, we must compare Wrexham's Twitter presence to the rest of the Vanarama National League.
Table 1.1 below features a full breakdown of the current Twitter follower counts of every team currently competing in the National League while table 1.2 illustrates their current average home attendance (*data gathered from Twitter.com and FootballWebPages.co.uk respectively).
Table 1.1 Vanarama National League by Twitter followers
Table 1.2 Vanarama National League by average attendance
Wrexham is currently top of the National League, at least regarding Twitter followers, with 111,877 followers whilst the league average sits some 71,000 followers lower at just 40,710.
Wealdstone sits bottom with just 10,900 Twitter followers, despite the incredible vital hit that was Gordon Hill - better known as The Wealdstone Raider - whilst Southend comes closest to Wrexham with 89,100 followers, still some 22,777 followers behind ‘The Red Dragons’.
But does social media presence translate to fans in attendance? It would appear, based on the data collated, that the answer is yes.
Wrexham currently boasts the highest average home attendance in the National League with 8,114 an incredible increase of 3,969 since the 2012-13 season.
It would be unfair to say that social media is solely responsible for Wrexham sitting above many of the teams in the division with club stature, the pool of potential supporters and neighbouring clubs all important factors to consider.
However, Wrexham’s average attendance jumping from 4,057 in 2019-20 to 8,114 in the first season (non-covid impacted) since the clubs Hollywood takeover, can be attributed to the increased social media and mainstream media attention Reynolds and co have been able to provide.
The club has featured in the Vanarama National League for 15 consecutive seasons now, following the club's relegation from the Football League Two in the 2007-08 season.
The club’s attendance, therefore, has not been improved by a progression through the divisions in the same manner that a club like Luton Town has experienced since 2012-13 when they lay four divisions below its current standing in the Championship.
Financially, the region of Wrexham featured a GVA per head of £17,878 in 2012, only £2,511 less than the 2020 figure of £20,389.
Finally, the population of the Wrexham principal area stands at around 135,000 inhabitants representing a decrease of 1.02% since 2012.
This data shows us that the three primary factors usually considered when investigating attendance growth in sports teams are not relevant to the increase in Wrexham’s attendance between the 2018-19 season and the 2021-22 season.
Therefore, we can safely attribute a considerable percentage of this growth to the increased social media presence and following that Wrexham has amassed since the club’s takeover in 2020, with both the club’s social media following and live attendance increasing by over 92.4%.
But how are Wrexham’s social media managers - such as Head of Digital Ollie Williams - utilising the club's Hollywood affiliations to develop the club’s stature and encourage social growth across multiple digital platforms?
Wrexham’s social media content can be categorised into three primary posting purposes/categories – match day content, news/site content and engagement content.
Match day content consists of the Twitter posts you would expect from a club on the platform; sharing match images, fixture updates, live match results, and more. These are crucial for providing value to supporters, fans - who are unable to attend the matches live - want to be able to rely on the club to provide score, transfer, or injury updates.
A 2019 study by Pew found that 52% of Americans got their news from Facebook with a further 17% getting it from Twitter. Although the numbers for sports content may differ slightly, the growing trend of social media as a news platform rings true.
It is therefore important for clubs such as Wrexham to provide useful content alongside promotional, marketing or engagement content to keep their followers satisfied.
Five match day posts from Wrexham AFC (taken from the same game) had 99, 39, 40, 63 and 90 engagements respectively (replies, retweets and likes).
To compare this with Wealdstone - the National League’s least digitally followed club - their last five match posts (on the same date as Wrexham's) received a combined 45 engagements. This is 286 less than Wrexham in the same number of posts.
The low average match day engagement numbers (proportionate to the club’s follower count) ring true of a large number of disengaged followers – individuals outside of football who followed after the Hollywood takeover announcement.
These users will not engage with team sheets or similar content, because their active interest in the club is not at a match-by-match level. Therefore the key challenge for the likes of Ollie Williams and the rest of the Wrexham AFC social media team is: what content can we produce to engage those at the lower level?
Wrexham uses a very clear and effective digital media strategy for engaging their wider following and this rings true of Twitter, LinkedIn or the club's incredible TikTok account featuring 98.7k followers.
Use the Hollywood connection.
The Wrexham AFC social media accounts utilise Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny’s international presence to attract engagement and impressions on an unparalleled level compared to the competition in the league.
Videos produced on TikTok containing the Hollywood duo have amassed up to 400,000 views each, while more conventional video content such as the club’s third kit announcement receive just 12,000.
@wrexham_afc Forgot our chairmen were @rmcelhenney & @vancityreynolds, that was a long 2 seconds #robmcelhenney #ryanreynolds #wxmafc #fyp #wrexham #footballtiktok ♬ original sound - Wrexham AFC
The same rings true over on Twitter with the club engaging with content from social media accounts such as the ‘It’s Always Sunny’ account or Reynolds and McElhenny’s accounts directly.
McElhenney’s 2021 thank you message to Wrexham fans received 4,817 engagements contributing to the club's 42.5m impressions garnered in the last 41 days (SocialBearing.com). Wrexham’s end of year message featuring both owners collected over 100,000 video views and 2,907 engagements.
Table 2.1 below contains Wrexham AFC’s Twitter analytics across the last 41 days before 22 January 2022.
Comparing this data to the analytics gathered for Wealdstone during the same volume of tweets shows that Wrexham obtained 41,516,073 more impressions than ‘The Stones’.
Even with a digital following ten times the size of Wealdstone, Wrexham generating 3733.02% more impressions is a disproportionate increase and speaks volumes for the incredible social media strategy produced by the Wrexham AFC team.
This also speaks for Wealdstone’s failures to capitalise effectively on the incredible exposure brought to them by Gordon Hill back in 2013, but that's a different piece of content entirely.
The club is more than just its owners however and to imply this would be disrespectful to the incredible staff who work night and day to grow the Wrexham brand via digital methods.
The club's use of viral marketing and specifically relating to influencers who are relevant to a younger audience must be applauded.
In December 2021 Wrexham reacted to content produced by YouTube sensation and stand-up Stephen Tries, a digital content creator with 856,400 Twitter followers and 1.37m Twitter followers.
During Tries' ‘Roast of 2021’ video (which has amassed more than 770,000 views), he would make light of the club's Hollywood association stating that “Wrexham FC’s first move was to appoint Adam Sandler as the club's water boy”.
Engaging with the post via TikTok, Wrexham AFC would correct Tries on his naming of the club while also mocking him for his poor upload schedule – something that had become an ongoing joke with the creator throughout 2020 and 2021. The clip went viral on social media, receiving over 400,000 views on TikTok. This is a platform that - thanks to the creator - is potentially monetisable and also an incredible platform for growth.
@wrexham_afc Disrespectful from @Stephen Tries #wxm_afc #Wrexham #stephentries #fyp ♬ original sound - Wrexham AFC
Despite TikTok’s incredible and continuing growth as the breakout social media for the current generation, 2021's State of Football Social Media report found that only 35.1% of football clubs who responded were utilising TikTok as a platform at all. Yet 29.8% of clubs remained on Snapchat, which has been experiencing declining growth rates since its breakout in 2016/17.
Wrexham have gone one step further than simply utilising TikTok as a social media platform and are now sponsored by the network for the next two seasons. TikTok’s global head of marketing Nick Tran discussed the deal in 2021 and spoke of his excitement in playing a small part in Wrexham’s journey back to the top-flight of football:
“TikTok is uniquely positioned at the centre of entertainment, technology and the creator community to help bring Wrexham AFC’s story to life to global audiences.
“With the growth of football clubs, players and trends on TikTok, joining Rob and Ryan in returning Wrexham AFC to the English Football League was a natural choice for us.
“We are proud to play a small part in championing the return of Wrexham AFC to the top-flight of football and sharing the journey with the town of Wrexham, our community, and fans everywhere, in ways only TikTok can.”
Wrexham AFC’s outstanding efforts in social media can be summarised by stating the incredible fact that this National League side currently have a 10% larger social media following than Luton Town who currently find themselves just four wins from an automatic promotion slot into the Premier League.