J.J. and Kealia Watt earning Burnley’s trust — one pub and pie at a time

BURNLEY, England — Before J.J. and Kealia Watt could spread the gospel of Burnley across the United States, they first had to learn its story.

They heard how it’s a centuries-old mill town; the Queen Street Mill, for example, which sits in a suburb on the town’s northern edge, is the last of its kind in the world. It’s a relic of the Industrial Revolution and represents the town and its namesake football club: tough, gritty and longstanding.

Many of today’s Burnley fans are the descendants of those hard-working mill workers who, until the industry began to fade away in the 1970s, pulled arduous 12-hour shifts and spent their Saturdays watching their local team at Turf Moor. The club has always been at the heart of the community.

After J.J. Watt’s retirement from the NFL following a 12-year career with the Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals, he and his wife Kealia, an eight-year veteran of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), became minority owners at Burnley in May. Since then, those details about the town and its 140-year-old team have been ever-present in their lives.

“There’s not a single day in our household that Burnley is not spoken about, emailed about, called about,” J.J. told ESPN.

The bedrock of those conversations in past months has been Burnley’s history. The central task ahead of them, they say, is to gain the trust of the town.

“One thing J.J. said a lot is wanting just to talk to the fans and learning from them and trying to gain their trust that way,” Kealia said, and so they dove to the bottom of the internet looking for more information, ordering books and watching any available documentary.

“We found every video you could possibly find on YouTube,” she said, adding they watched a 25-minute video of a guy who records himself walking around the town.

There has been plenty to learn, too. The pair read how local construction companies have worked hard to repurpose the old stone mills into modern buildings. They heard how returning soldiers from World War I brought back the drink “Benny and Hot” — a concoction of the French liqueur Benedictine and hot water — and how the local miners’ club sells more bottles of it than anywhere in the world. Turf Moor still sells it on matchdays.

As for the club, they read about legendary forward Jimmy McIlroy, who played in the 1950s and is regarded as one of the club’s greatest players. Still, to the Watts, it doesn’t seem like enough.

“If you don’t know what’s important to these people, you can’t support them the right way. So we have a lot to learn. We’re not even close yet,” J.J. added.

‘Direct those eyeballs up to Burnley’

The Watts’ investment comes at a time when a number of A-list celebrities and athletes are also finding ways to buy into British football. There’s Wrexham, of course, whose owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have succeeded in captivating American audiences by returning the Welsh club to the Football League.

NBA superstar LeBron James has owned a stake in Liverpool since 2011. Leeds United, owned by the San Francisco 49ers group, has another NBA star, Russell Westbrook, along with golfers Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas as investors. Another golfer, Rickie Fowler, wanted to invest, too, until his financial team advised against it.

Last Thursday, NFL great Tom Brady announced a minority share in Birmingham City, promising to bring his own “underdog” spirit and “winning mentality” to help return the club to the Premier League.

“America is craving football content,” J.J. said. “There’s a large group of people that still don’t have a great knowledge base, so they’re still trying to find their squad. They’re still trying to find who they’re supposed to support. I think it helps us a lot that more eyeballs come over. We just direct those eyeballs up to Burnley.”

If Wrexham’s appeal was the novelty of American celebrity influence, the Watts will need a new appeal. Undoubtedly, that will come from their authenticity and willingness to learn.

“What we can do is show that we do care,” J.J. added, “[and] show that we do want to learn about it, and show that when we are speaking about Burnley to the rest of the world, we’re speaking what they would want the world to know, not what we think they would want the world to know.”

Kealia agrees. “Whenever we’ve been at the pubs or in town, we just like to talk to fans and hear their experience. I think that’s the best way to learn.”

A welcome investment

J.J. Watt loves soccer and that he shares his passion with Kealia, who last played in 2021 for the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars, with three career appearances for the United States women’s national team. They had wanted to invest in a club together for three years, a process that brought forward a number of teams — ultimately, it was Burnley they landed upon.

In some ways that is remarkable given the small size of the club and the town, but when you look closer, it becomes clear why their investment is so welcome.

Burnley’s majority owner, Alan Pace, has transformed the club in the past two years. He took control in a leveraged buyout in December 2020 that saddled the club with debt, then watched fans fume as the team was relegated from the Premier League under his first full season in charge. He even sacked longtime manager Sean Dyche, who commanded such respect in the town that a pub bearing his name, the Royal Dyche, is just a couple hundred yards from Turf Moor.

Pace’s wife, Kristen, called it the most stressful period of their marriage.

“[We would be] walking down the street and people are waving at you with one of their five fingers. The hardest part was being with family when people were telling us to go home,” Pace said in a recently released Sky Sports documentary. “This is home.”

At one point, Pace left Burnley for some time away from the noise. However, his decisions since then have paid off and over the past 12 months, Burnley has become perhaps one of the most exciting clubs in the country.

Last year, while staring down a place in the Championship, the club turned to Vincent Kompany to be its head coach. A legend at Manchester City from his playing days, Kompany’s managerial résumé consisted of two decent, but not spectacular, seasons at Belgian side Anderlecht. Yet what initially seemed a risk soon looked like genius: Kompany led the club to a title-winning 101 points in his first season with a modern style of play, promoting the club back to the Premier League.

Burnley’s owners are aware they cannot grow their domestic fan base any further, as nearly everyone in Burnley already supports the club. Instead, the growth they’re targeting is around the globe; with the Watts on board, that growth area is the United States.

“It’s being able to walk around anywhere in America or anywhere in the world with a Burnley cap or a Burnley shirt on, and people say, ‘Up the Clarets,’ J.J. said, referencing a popular team saying. “That’s what I want. I want people to recognize it without us having to explain it.

“When we were talking to Alan in the very beginning, I said ‘how involved can we be?’ And he said as involved as you possibly want to be. … It’s been incredible.”

In addition to Watt, Burnley also brought on board Dude Perfect, the Texas-based trick shot group with over 60 million YouTube subscribers, as minority shareholders. That number makes the group YouTube’s second biggest sports account behind WWE and four times more than that of Barcelona, the soccer team with the most subscribers.

“By extension, Burnley now have one of the largest digital audiences of any club in the world,” said Damien O’Donohoe, who owns the company B-IKONIC that facilitated the deal between the Watts and Burnley.

Meat pies and a drink at the miners’ club

This summer, J.J. came up with an idea after being inundated with requests on where to buy the Burnley hats seen on his social media videos. He decided to sell them, giving all profits to a local food bank in Burnley. The interesting part is the club had no idea — it was all courtesy of J.J.

The Watts’ secret weapon is their authenticity, and it shines through every time they visit: Their itineraries are typically packed, with visits to local food banks or time spent at a community sports centre. Yet the club has little to no input on their schedule; team staff just ask how the club can support them.

The Watts’ latest trip came ahead of last week’s Premier League opener against Manchester City. Arriving in Burnley just eight hours before kickoff, the plan for the couple to meet fans was made fairly on a whim. J.J. had intended to do it on this August trip, but was concerned he might be too jet lagged to do it properly. It would be a last-minute decision. When he told the club his plan, it said the police would need to escort him. “I don’t need any of that,” he said.

At first, the club provided a minder, but they quickly disappeared after the first fan zone. By the time the Watts emerged onto Harry Potts Way, they were alone. They stopped every few yards for a picture or selfie with fans.

You would expect cameras, TV crews, maybe a club photographer following them around. Instead, the only crew there was from ESPN and that was arranged only after an email request to J.J. — he said sure, as long it didn’t impact their plans to meet fans. He deals with media requests himself, rather than through an agent or the club, figuring it’s easier.

The Watts ate meat and potato pies at the fan zone, then spent time in the Royal Dyche. In the miners’ club, J.J. downed a short glass of Benny and Hot while fans around them chanted, “Burnley! Burnley! Burnley!”

By kick-off at home to Man City, J.J. couldn’t hide his natural competitive spirit. Sat in the front row of the director’s box, he looked devastated when Erling Haaland sent Burnley one goal down inside five minutes — they’d go on to lose 3-0. That disappointment turned to anger shortly after when referee Craig Pawson turned down a penalty shout after Zeki Amdouni was brought down.

J.J. stood up in frustration, arms outstretched, while everyone else in the box remained seated — his Welcome to the Premier League moment.

‘It’s not going to matter’ if there’s no winning

There is no playbook for what the Watts are doing. J.J. and Kealia were comfortable on the field as athletes, where their success was easily recognized: The season either ends in a trophy, or it’s a failure. But what does boardroom success look like for them?

“We do talk about that a lot,” Kealia said. “Like, at the end of this, what do we want to happen? How can we measure that?”

“I don’t think there’s a quantitative measure,” J.J. added. “I also think that no matter what anybody does off the pitch, and Vince [Kompany] speaks about this all the time, at the end of the day, it’s about what happens on the pitch. … If you don’t have success on the pitch, it’s not going to matter.”

If the Watts’ goal is to “put eyes on Burnley,” then Brady’s arrival at a potential rival can only represent competition. Yet J.J. believes it will actually help his cause — two former greats on the field pushing each other for success off it.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Watt. “I’m happy they’re in a different league [Birmingham play in the Championship], so I can actually root for him a little bit and want him to come join us [in the Premier League]. But if they ever make it up and we’re in the same league, it’ll be a lot of fun.”

“He’s had a whole lot of success in his career on a different kind of pitch, but in this one I like our odds,” J.J. added.

The couple left Burnley a day or two after the game, enough time for a quick trip to Paris before flying home to Arizona, where their baby, Koa, was staying with J.J.’s mom, Connie. They will bring with them many stories of their time in Burnley, hoping to attract a new set of American fans to the small, old mill town in the north of England.

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