At first glance, the idea of a former NFL legend and a former US Women’s National Team star wanting to bring “global eyeballs” to an English soccer club might seem an unusual ambition.
Burnley FC will play in the Premier League next season and that the soccer club is a beacon of pride and light for a northwest English town with a population of just under 100,000 people.
Yet the town has had its fair share of tough times, both economically and socially. Its inhabitants have also been hit particularly hard by the UK’s cost of living crisis, which hasn’t been lost on JJ Watt and his wife, Kealia.
“Burnley is a special club. It’s a special place,” new minority investor JJ Watt told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
“I want to bring global eyeballs to Burnley to shine a light on how special the people are there, to how special that town is.”
Once upon a time Burnley did have plenty of global eyeballs on it. It was a major engineering hub during the industrial revolution and became one of the world’s foremost cotton producers – claiming to boast a longer length of cotton than anywhere else in the world.
According to the Centre for Cities, Burnley still has the highest proportion of manufacturing jobs of any town, but whereas the sector provided three in four jobs in 1911, it’s now just under one in four.
But Burnley is a strong community, and this is one of the reasons why the couple were attracted to the place – they want to help change perceptions of the soccer club and the town.
“I personally believe Burnley gets a bad rap. I mean, I walk around London and I wear a Burnley cap and some people ask me, ‘What’s that?’,” the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year explains.
“All I want to do is help tell their story. Tell the story of the town, tell the story of the supporters and tell the story of that beautiful club.”
The Watts are already helping to bring eyeballs to the town and Alastair Campbell, a former spokesman for Tony Blair when he was UK Prime Minister and also a passionate Burnley fan, echoed this.
“The success of the football club this year has given such a boost to Burnley and the surrounding area. The excitement has certainly been raised a few notches by JJ’s involvement and his evident enthusiasm for the place and the project,” Campbell told CNN Sport.
‘The exact right fit’
On the pitch, Burnley has just enjoyed a fairytale season.
At the start of the 2022-23 campaign, Burnley found itself in English football’s second tier. The club had been relegated to the Championship after six seasons in the Premier League, but with a new head coach, a relatively new owner, and a new philosophy, there was hope of a new dawn.
Under head coach Vincent Kompany the club roared back to the Premier League at the first time of asking and along with the news of promotion came the news of star new minority investors.
“I’ve been a football fan for a long time, and I knew that as my career started to come to an end, I wanted to find a way to stay involved in sports,” outlined Watt. “I’ve been looking for a football club to be a part of for a little while now, and Burnley just happened to check all the boxes and be the exact right fit for us.”
The Watts’ admiration for the club dates back to over a decade ago.
The former defensive end laughs as he reminisces about watching Burnley with a friend and enjoying the “scrappy, tough, rough style,” they employed against some of the Premier League’s best sides.
Watt was recommended to speak to American businessman Alan Pace, who became Burnley chairman when ALK Capital took over the club in December 2020. The former Houston Texans star did some research and says, “everything fell in line.”
The Watts recently made a trip to Lancashire and the former NFL star says the experience was “unbelievable.”
The husband-and-wife investors were able to soak up the celebrations of Burnley’s Championship victory alongside the community – which Watt reinforces was key to the investment.
“My wife and I are very, very keen on just proving ourselves to the community, proving ourselves to the people of Burnley, proving that we have that same passion, that same energy, that same excitement for their club that they do.”
English soccer fans are sometimes a bit suspicious of foreign investors, though Watt says that he is no stranger when it comes to the task of changing people’s opinions.
“When I got drafted in Houston, they booed me on draft night. They didn’t want me there. So, I’m used to not being welcome somewhere and I’m used to trying to help win over people.”
In good Kompany
One of the football club’s biggest assets is their head coach and Watt believes that Burnley has a special leader in the 37-year-old Kompany.
The Belgian defender had a wealth of experience on the pitch in English football – winning multiple trophies at Manchester City – but Burnley is his first managerial job in the country and, so far, he has excelled.
“When you talk to Vince, when you talk to the players who play for Vince, when you talk to people around the club, you understand why he is so special.
“There’s a reason that players from all over Europe are calling, wanting to play for Burnley and Vincent Kompany.”
Burnley’s style of football has changed drastically over the last 12 months with Kompany instilling a more attacking, possession-based approach than his predecessor Sean Dyche. The Clarets scored 87 goals on their way to collecting a staggering 101 points last season.
‘A lot of work to do’
Following the success of the men’s first team, the Watts are also keen to help improve women’s football in Burnley.
“My wife started in the beginning of the NWSL in America, so she’s seen it go through ups and downs and she’s seen it grow into an incredible league,” says Watt.
Kealia played for the Houston Dash from 2014-19 before moving to the Chicago Red Stars between 2020-21.
“I think when you look over here in England, I believe the Women’s FA Cup just sold out Wembley Stadium, which is unbelievable, but there is still a lot of work to do from a youth standpoint, from an academy standpoint for young girls,” said Watt.
“One of the things we’ve talked to a few young girls up in Burnley about is the fact that their schools aren’t offering the same as boys for soccer, for football. So, it’s an opportunity for us to come in and help elevate the women’s game and also to help tell their story as well.”
The Watts are also taking inspiration from the success of Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney at Wrexham FC.
“I think that they have done something truly incredible and especially in the way that they’ve done it,” Watt said of Wrexham’s transformation. “Wrexham’s story is a beautiful one and there’s a reason people latch on to it so much.
“I have spoken to Ryan, and he’s been incredible. He gave me so much of his time and was willing to share insights and tell me some of the things that work, some of the things that you can do better.”
One of the reasons football fans have fallen in love with Wrexham is because of the ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ series, and before finishing the conversation, Watt said that Burnley “currently have something in the works.”
“I know Alan [Pace] and the boys have been working on something for a long time in ‘Mission to Burnley’,” said Watt. “We’ve been documenting things just in case for down the line.”