Ryan Reynolds and the National League streaming debate
Ryan Reynolds and the National League streaming debate

Movie fans are used to seeing Ryan Reynolds do remarkable things.

In the last year alone, they have watched him stop a madman from destroying Europe’s energy grid, use artificial intelligence to prevent the destruction of his world, romp around the planet stealing mythical artefacts and travel through time.

And now, for his next miracle, he wants to make the world care about Boreham Wood, Dorking and Solihull Moors.

For those of you who have missed this tale, let us recap.

As well as becoming one of Hollywood’s most successful stars, the 45-year-old Reynolds has launched a production company; invested in an award-winning gin brand, a fast-growing mobile phone company and an internet dating giant — and also bought a 50 per cent stake in Welsh football team Wrexham AFC.

That most recent venture is arguably more improbable than the plots of the Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, Free Guy and so on, but it happened and if you don’t believe us, he made a documentary about it.

That production, Welcome To Wrexham, tells the story of how Reynolds and his business partner, American actor and filmmaker Rob McElhenney, came to buy the National League club in September 2020 and their subsequent attempts to escape English football’s fifth tier, which is either a dystopian world run by maniacs or the best fifth tier in any sport, in any country, depending on your view of these things. In truth, it is probably both, which is why it makes for such compelling viewing.

Ryan Reynolds, Rob McElhenney, Wrexham
Rob McElhenney (centre) and Ryan Reynolds (right) bought National League Wrexham in November 2020 (Photo: Matt Lewis – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

As Reynolds recently announced to his 20 million Twitter followers, Welcome to Wrexham was second only to Game of Thrones prequel House of Dragons in the Canadian streaming charts last month. Not bad for a team that have never finished higher than 15th in England’s second tier, have nearly gone bankrupt twice this century, and have spent the last 14 years in the aforementioned limbo that is the Vanarama National League.

But Wrexham do not look like a club constrained by their past. On the contrary, with Rob and Ryan at the helm, they look like the New York Cosmos of the late 1970s, a football-related entertainment vehicle with an appeal that goes far beyond the competition they happen to be in right now. The Cosmos had Franz Beckenbauer and Pele. Wrexham have Ben Tozer and Paul Mullin.

There is just one small problem, though.

Having shown us what is happening behind the scenes, Wrexham’s owners would like to show us the actual scenes — you know, the football.

Two years of impeccable social media, positive headlines and clever marketing have primed the pump. There are people all over North America and elsewhere who could not find Wrexham on a map but know all about Tozer, Mullin and co, but cannot see their games. And that brings us to the other Wrexham-related tweets Reynolds sent last week.

“After months of maximum effort,” he wrote on Monday, “the decision (through inaction of the Vanarama National League) to not allow domestic/international streaming of matches of Wrexham and the other clubs in the league is truly baffling.”

Over three more tweets, which tagged the Twitter accounts of the division’s 23 other teams, Reynolds claimed the league was “depriving every team… (of) the chance to expand the fanbase” instead of letting them add revenue which “benefits everyone”. 

The first tweet in the thread has been retweeted more than 18,000 times and liked by almost 50,000 people. The responses are generally positive, too. Maximum Effort, by the way, is the name of Reynolds’ production company. He is very cute.

Monday was a bank holiday in the UK and the National League is not staffed to deal with challenges from global superstars on a 24/7/365 basis, so its response came on Wednesday, via its website.

“Many will be aware of the recent comments regarding streaming and it is important we set out the current position of the Vanarama National League,” which the league did over a further 300 words. Vanarama, for those unaware, is where Brits go if they need a van in a hurry. It is fully supportive of Reynolds’ latest crusade.

The league statement started by pointing out that it “already has a broadcast partner” in BT Sport. An offshoot of the UK’s former telecoms monopoly, BT Sport has been the exclusive home of National League football since 2013. Its most recent deal was agreed in December 2020, three months after McElhenney and Reynolds bought Wrexham, and has two seasons still to run.

Nothing, then, can happen in regards to broadcasting or streaming National League content without BT Sport’s approval. Until now, it has been perfectly happy to leave the vast majority of the hundreds of games’ worth of footage it owns on the proverbial cutting-room floor, instead choosing to show about 30 of the league’s bigger games a season. We should probably add that the National League is comprised of three divisions — the fifth-tier National League, and sixth-tier National League North and National League South — and 72 clubs.

Anyway, the league statement claimed “BT is keen to work with the National League to support opportunities for our clubs to generate extra income, as it did during the COVID pandemic, in the form of streaming”, and said the league has been “working intensely for some months to finalise a proposal to launch a centralised, fully tested, streaming platform”, and this will be presented to the league’s board at its next meeting in two weeks’ time.

The statement added this proposal must “respect and protect the status of the league” and be consistent with BT Sport’s “high production values”.

BT, by the way, has effectively sold BT Sport to US-based media group Warner Brothers Discovery. In a complicated deal, BT Sport and Warner’s Eurosport channels are becoming a joint venture. As it happens, Thursday was day one of that project, so BT Sport can be forgiven for being a bit distracted.

Still with us? Good.

The National League statement concluded by acknowledging “the desire from some clubs, who find themselves in a position to stream independently, and we respect that”, while pointing out it has wider obligations.

“There are challenges in supplying a product that can be used by everyone, whilst ensuring compliance with Article 48,” it said in a reference to the UEFA rule that gives its member associations the right to block the domestic broadcast of live football between 2.45 and 5.15 on Saturday afternoons.

This rule, which is meant to encourage fans to get off the sofa and attend games in person, is only enforced in the UK in terms of Europe’s big football markets, which might explain why English football has five tiers of professional football and the rest of Europe makes do with two or three.

Wrexham finished second in the National League last season but were beaten in the play-offs (Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

But that is a debate for another day because Wrexham are happy to respect the 3pm blackout — and we know this because on Thursday, Shaun Harvey, their strategic advisor, sent a memo to the 71 other clubs saying words to the effect of “what are we waiting for?”.

This memo — or is it a Jerry Maguire-style mission statement? — found its way into The Athletic’s inbox, too, and it starts by saying “there is no bigger supporter of the principle of the ‘collective’ than Wrexham” and claiming the club does not want “special treatment”.

Harvey then points out that the National League has been talking about streaming “for an extended period” and the clubs currently gain “no value” from it.

Clearly in the mood to make some mischief, Harvey writes “it was good to read” about BT’s support for the concept of streaming but “our specific concern is two-fold”: one, how long it will take to set up a “centralised solution”, and two, the lack of information about the league’s plan.

That last point is a little disingenuous as every club executive The Athletic has contacted this week is sure the National League’s preferred streaming plan will be very similar to the English Football’s League’s iFollow service, and Harvey should know all about that as he launched it in 2017 when he ran the EFL.

However, Harvey does make a reasonable point when he reminds his opposite numbers that several of them still have contracts with iFollow from their EFL days, which means they could stream now, if BT Sport let them, and they might not want to join whichever platform the National League proposes.

For what it is worth, we understand the league has been speaking to three service providers and will discuss their pitches at the board meeting that has been scheduled for September 15 but may now come forward a few days.

Wrexham, however, want to go full stream ahead.

Harvey’s memo calls on the league to issue “minimum criteria” in regards to production values, stream security and protecting BT Sport’s rights, and offers an “interim proposal”.

This plan, which volleys the ball back into BT Sport’s court, would let any club ready to stream to crack on and go for it, particularly if they are lucky enough to be the subject of a hit documentary series this autumn. Oh, that’s just Wrexham, then.

No matter, because Wrexham will not charge a fee to anyone who wants to watch their games outside the UK and any profit it makes on the £10 fee for domestic streaming passes will be put in a central pot and shared with the rest of the league. For Reynolds and co, the key number is not in the streaming revenue. It is the eyeballs.

But Wrexham have also tried to address all the other potential gripes from clubs who are not owned by film stars. Under its plan, the home team will foot the streaming costs but they have the right to decide if the game is streamed or not. So, clubs worried about the impact on their matchday income can say no.

Furthermore, any games BT Sport has picked to televise are out of bounds, as are all those Saturday afternoon games.

But beyond their own generosity, Wrexham make no suggestions for how the streaming revenue should be shared, leaving that up to the league to decide. Harvey knows better than anyone that is the nub of the debate, as EFL clubs are still fighting about this issue five years after iFollow launched.

To cut a long and contentious tale short, in that league, the club that sells the streaming pass keeps the revenue, not that match’s home team. This decision has enabled clubs with big fanbases — like Bolton Wanderers, Ipswich Town and Sunderland — to earn significant sums of money, while their smaller rivals — the likes of Accrington Stanley and Cambridge United — are left worrying about the pies, pints and programmes they did not sell as a result of fans staying at home.

And this goes to the heart of the debate.

Everyone knows that streaming is, if not the most important likely revenue stream for football clubs in the future, certainly one of their most significant sources of income. In fact, everyone knows a great many fans, here and abroad, are already streaming games and many of them are not paying for the privilege.

But streaming poses significant questions for a sport that has been quite happy to let big clubs be big and small clubs survive, because the open nature of European football’s pyramid system at least gave teams the chance to dream big, particularly if someone like Reynolds came along. But without a revenue-sharing mechanism, streaming just gives bigger clubs another leg-up, damaging the already fragile competitive balance we see in so many leagues across Europe and entrenching the status quo.

“The launch of a centralised National League streaming platform would have benefits for all clubs within the three leagues of the system,” explains Daniel Harraghy of Ampere Analysis, a London-based media analytics firm.

“Fans both in the UK and overseas will be able to more closely follow their teams, while it is also an opportunity for clubs to reach new audiences and grow their fanbase. This will naturally boost broadcast revenues, as well as open up commercial opportunities.

“As Wrexham point out, a successful streaming service will also drive competition when the current BT deal ends in 2024. Those bidding for the rights will be forced into higher offers to prevent the National League from going fully direct-to-consumer.

“But a centralised streaming option will ensure there is a fairer distribution of revenue, with clubs likely to be rewarded based on their final league position. The interim proposal of individual clubs setting up their own streaming services will significantly benefit only a select few clubs, and Wrexham in particular.”

Paolo Pescatore, another leading analyst, agrees, although he does not see any easy answers.

“The league is in a bit of a catch-22: damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” he explains.

“Some clubs have made what can only be considered as a significant investment — for them — to put the assets in place for streaming. They’ve see the potential and clearly want to retain as much control as possible. But a centralised solution obviously offers some merits provided that revenue is shared fairly.

The future is streaming and there is a consensus on this. However, how to get there and managing a diverse group with so many competing stakeholders and interests is one hell of a juggling act.

“Ultimately, all parties want certainty. But, given the nature of sports rights and the arrival of streamers, uncertainty is the new certainty, and we are also in the middle of  a challenging macro-economic and political environment.”

Grimsby Town
Grimsby’s victory over Solihull Moors in the National League play-off final was comfortably the most high-profile televised fifth-tier fixture last season (Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Does this mean the National League is right to keep the sluice gates shut?

Nick Meacham is the chief executive of SportsPro, a UK-based media company that specialises in the business of sport, and the host of the StreamTime podcast. He is with Wrexham on not waiting.

“Making more matches accessible digitally creates a wider audience base to attract to the ‘real thing’,” says Meacham. “Streaming will be additive and won’t cannibalise the audiences that attend in person — there’s simply no data anywhere to back that up that fear.

“Live sport’s biggest challenge isn’t streaming. It’s public transport.

“But streaming is a developing space, still in its infancy, meaning this isn’t a quick fix. Access to matches should be looked at building fandom as much as the longer-term prospects of revenue generation.

“Where revenue could be generated would be looking at alternative business models for iFollow, such as making it ad-funded or with real-time e-commerce and so on, but that, as we have seen, should be an area for the clubs to be patient on and not risk being seen as just a ‘cash grab’.

“Longer term, the model for most leagues will need to be shifted to a club-first subscription proposition, as fans want to support their team, not the league.

“My suggestion: decentralise the subscription proposition to a club-by-club basis but centralise the revenues to ensure equitable distribution of revenues.”

Meacham, like most other media experts, also believes Article 48’s days are numbered.

“The cold hard reality is that many people are still watching football in this country on Saturday afternoons. They’re just doing it through ‘informal’ — i.e. pirated — channels,” he says. “Opening streaming up on Saturday afternoons would allow clubs and leagues to take control of that relationship.

“Football needs to become more accessible if it wants to compete with other pastimes. Streaming is one of those areas that continues to take time away from other interests, so why not join forces and make sure the content can be found where fans are already spending personal time?”

Meacham can also see why BT Sport would be willing to let the National League stream games it does not want to televise.

“National League content will have incremental impact at best to a broadcaster like BT, as you’re asking people to subscribe to a service they may have little interest in. At best, it might be a couple of games a season for your own club,” he explains.

“That’s why streaming can play such a valuable role. BT were in the driver’s seat as they were likely the only ones offering any form of cheque up front for those rights. But BT would not have foreseen the Wrexham effect and they’d be wise to tap into this opportunity as a great piece of marketing for their brand.

“The fact a fifth tier league gets any coverage by a major broadcaster is almost unprecedented anywhere in the world. There won’t be a lot of broadcasters lining up to buy the league’s rights, even after this current moment — maybe just Wrexham’s matches if they were ever sold separately and were able to leverage Ryan Reynolds’ brand somehow.”

And with that, we come full circle.

Yes, there really is a debate, perhaps even a row, about why Aldershot Town versus Barnet or even Dorking against Wrexham, was not available to a global streaming audience this weekend but it is only happening right now because Wrexham are owned by two famous men, one of whom is very, very famous.

Fans of Reynolds keen to learn more about his football team will just have to keep watching the documentary or, better still, visit the Racecourse Ground. After all, it and its inhabitants are the real stars of Welcome to Wrexham.

(Top photo: Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

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