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Wrexham-Chelsea friendly generates more than $15 million for Chapel Hill, surrounding areas

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Fans awaiting players for autographs during the Chelsea versus Wrexham match in Kenan Stadium on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

“Rubbish.”

This is how Nathan Salt may have described his beloved Wrexham Red Dragons a few years ago. Simply put, they were “not cool.”

But earlier this month, Salt, a 27-year-old resident of Wales and co-host of the Wrexham podcast “Rob. Ryan. Red.” traveled to Chapel Hill — of all places — to see the Red Dragons play Chelsea FC at Kenan Memorial Stadium.

“To be here is super surreal because I speak to a lot of American fans through the podcast now,” Salt said. “That’s been one of the most fulfilling things to me. I got invited to a house party with somebody in Chapel Hill and I recorded my latest podcast from his deck. Just to be here and to see all these people wearing Wrexham stuff — if you’d have told me that five years ago I’d have probably asked you to get checked out.”

Attracting fans like Salt, the Chelsea vs. Wrexham friendly on Wednesday, July 19, was a major boost to the local economy and a chance for Chapel Hill and UNC to showcase their love for soccer and their potential as a soccer destination in the future. The first-ever international soccer match hosted in UNC’s football stadium will, according to estimates, generate north of $15 million in revenue for the local community. 

According to Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau, this is a conservative estimate. The bureau is still waiting on transportation receipts from bus companies, as well as estimates from Uber, taxis, and related ground transportation. If you ask Aaron Nelson, the president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce the figure may well be closer to $17 million.

Paolicelli said that July is typically a “softer season” for tourism in the area. When international soccer comes to town, however, that’s not the case.

The match sold out within days, drawing a total of 50,596 fans from all 50 U.S. states and several other countries. Chapel Hill’s hotels also sold out, and local businesses and bars experienced a notable buzz.

Owner of Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery Scott Maitland said that, on a typical Wednesday, TOPO may bring in $10,000 in revenue. However, on the day of the Chelsea-Wrexham tilt, his business saw its single-day revenue soar to $35,000.

“I’m hoping that this becomes a standard thing,” Maitland said. “It would be awesome to have a soccer event every summer.”

How did this come to be?

Molly Pendleton, the head of touring, NHL and MLS business and operations at Eventellect, graduated from UNC in 2010. Since then, she’s dreamed of bringing an international soccer match back to her alma mater. 

“We’ve done games all over the country — Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford — when we’re not doing them at NFL or MLS-specific stadiums,” Pendleton said. “The timing, the set-up of the field, it had never come together all at once. I was excited when it all came to fruition this year.”

UNC is set to gain revenue from renting out Kenan Memorial Stadium, as well as potential bonuses on ticket sales, which will likely go toward offsetting costs. Clint Gwaltney, UNC's senior associate athletic director, said that the exact revenue generated for the University is currently unknown.

“I think it’s also the added benefit of being able to expose a lot of new fans to the University and to Kenan Stadium at large,” Pendleton said. “Most of these people probably haven’t been to a UNC football game before.”

According to Nelson, the event's economic impact will be even larger than that of a home football game because it attracted visitors from outside the local market, benefiting the broader region.

The economic impact isn’t just notable for local businesses and hotels — organizers also donated a portion of ticket sales to the Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Clinic at UNC Children’s Hospital. An in-game announcement during the friendly estimated $150,000 being donated to the cause. In addition to this, Chelsea and Wrexham each individually organized trips to visit UNC Children’s Hospital.

Wrexham defender Ben Tozer, whose father died earlier this month following a battle with leukemia, said his visit was touching.

“To see what they’ve been through and what they go through and offer them the support was really nice,” Tozer said. “There are some incredible kids that are in there.”

Hollywood appeal meets storied Triangle soccer history

For Wrexham, this marked the team's first-ever game in the United States, amplified by their popularity due to the FX series "Welcome to Wrexham," featuring co-owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. 

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The combination of the Hollywood appeal, the club's success in regaining its place in the English Football League and the support from fans worldwide is propelling Wrexham to unprecedented popularity.

Similarly, Chapel Hill and the surrounding area, known for its strong soccer history — the Triangle, influenced by UNC’s successful soccer program, is a hotbed for youth soccer —  were justly thrilled about the opportunity to host such a prestigious match. 

“We have every intention of bringing additional matches here to North Carolina,” Pendleton said. “The game has gone so great. The support we’ve seen across the Triangle and UNC — we’d love to bring another game to Kenan going forward. So I don’t think it’s the last you’ve seen of us.”

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.