Wrestling as a Business
February 1, 2008 by Winter Trabex

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While watching a show or a DVD or what have you, it is quite easy to forget that the purpose of wrestling is to make money like anything else. The wrestlers put their health on the line on a regular basis (especially in the independent organizations) so that the fans will be interested and keep coming back for more. It is a business, like most other businesses, that always requires something new to be put out there, because the sale of three or four year old DVD's is not enough to run a company by itself. With this in mind, I'm going to examine some of the trends that I have noticed in the wrestling business as a whole.

With the broadcast of Wrestlemania and the rise of the WWF, wrestling went from a small territorial system to a nationally recognized forum of entertainment in just a few years. No other promotion had gained recognition on a national scale as the WWF had, but once they did, the demand for wrestling increased. Fans quickly realized that in between the men dressed in turkey suits there were actually good matches. Nationality had always been a factor for a worker's gimmick, but now Russian, Arabs and Asians (Japanese wrestlers mostly) were recognized as having talent and an ability to get the fans to root for whichever version of Captain America the promotion had. Gradually, the heels resorted to worse tactics then they had before. During the days of the territories, heels were established by pulling the tights or grabbing the ropes. This is still a somewhat effective way of declaring a wrestler is a cheater, but forty years ago, they got instant heat with these tactics. A few creative booking decisions led the Russians in the NWA organization to side with Ric Flair against Dusty Rhodes- not because Flair liked Russians particularly, but that the Russians were always out to get the hero, to undermine him or to destroy him if possible. This, in fact, was very close to how the Russian Communist society behaved.

As the lines became drawn, the money became greater. Suddenly, the AWA was in the mix too (although only briefly). The NWA was now a competitor with the WWF, who was the global leader at the time because they were able to get the best workers in the country. An idea arose out of the WWF's behavior- the company with the most over or most talented workers would be recognized as superior to the others and draw more fans as a result. However, today, this behavior on the part of TNA (formerly known as NWA-TNA, ironically enough) has cost them money and the morale of their wrestlers. Within the last year, Konnan, Low Ki (also called Senshi) and Chris Harris have left the company, all of whom were with them during the NWA days, before the era of the Sunday Pay-Per-Views. I would even go so far as to say that TNA made more progress when they had Wednesday PPV shows then when they had Sunday PPV shows. One of the biggest reasons for this was that each show only cost ten dollars, and it was okay if someone put on a bad match because there would always be next week. However, if someone has a bad match at a Sunday PPV, the significance of the event decreases. To be blunt, bad matches are all over the wrestling industry today. No one really needs to pay thirty or forty dollars to see a contest which they could drive an hour or two and pay ten dollars to see live. Because the two major companies, WWE and TNA, do not realize this, the PPV market is not what is called a "bull" market- that is, there is no opportunity for enormous growth.

Currently, World Wrestling Entertainment sells tickets based on their company's reputation. The match card seems to be mostly irrelevant. People pay to see WWE, they don't pay to see Chris Jericho or Triple H. This is why WWE constantly sells out, because no matter who they have or no matter how bad their workers get, they still have their brand name, which more valuable than one hundred of the greatest wrestlers in the world.

However, very gradually, a shift in the wrestling paradigm is occurring. In recent years, the sales of wrestling DVDs online have sparked an interest in independent promotions that had not been seen previously. Wrestlers working independent shows were seen as having little or no talent traditionally. The thought process was that if none of the big organizations wanted them, they must not be worth watching. Today, a lot of the stars (and the money they generate) are arising from the independent organizations. The organization of IWA Mid South produced Mr. Kennedy (known then as Ken Anderson) and CM Punk, who worked for Ring of Honor before signing with the WWE and becoming the top star of the ECW show. The result of this is that the brand name recognition is becoming a thing of the past and the fans who consistently watch shows look more for a specific talent or matchup rather than just watching the show because it's their favorite promotion. This is why Ring of Honor has been able to have a Pay Per View deal even though they have to put on shows in Japan to get over a thousand people in attendance. Their lifeblood comes from the DVDs, which means that they have to put out a quality show every time out. They have to establish themselves as having very talented wrestlers to boost their DVD sales. WWE, conversely, does not need to have talented wrestlers. Over the coming years, however, it seems that this must change.

Whether Ring of Honor or TNA or another company becomes honest competition for the WWE, if they are interested in continuing to make money, they must also adapt to the changing attitudes fans are taking towards the business of wrestling. It seems clear that, even though the WWE is what fans usually know their first experience of wrestling by, it is not always the last. Loyalty for the independents is created when those independents are seen as having better shows and better matches than what the WWE puts on.

One of the other major problems the business of wrestling faces is its treatment of its employees. Wrestling can usually not sustain interest for women to work until they are fifty, as it can with men and if a man does work until they age or beyond, he cannot look forward to a retirement pension or a home in Florida at which to enjoy the remainder of his years. Instead, he has to continue working within the business or find another vocation. This does not always mean that a wrestler will always get a paycheck as a wrestler. However, organizations started by former wrestlers generally do not succeed or attain the level of success that would enable the wrestler to sell the company for a large sum in order to retire with. Instead, he must be frugal; he must be careful with his money. The problem is that some wrestlers just aren't careful with their money or need to have a surgery done that obliges them to spend their savings.

The biggest reason I can see for the number of recent wrestler deaths is the pressure to perform in the WWE, which leads to the use of illegal substances, which leads to other problems. The organization is affected as a whole when this happens, because WWE talents are the biggest abusers of controlled substances. It has to do with perception. If a guy is not big and does not look strong, the audience will not believe that he is able to hold his own inside the ring. But not everyone is born at six feet nine inches with a three hundred and fifty pound body. Moreover, those performers inside the WWE who are big and muscular no longer are able to perform at the level that WWE wrestlers did ten years ago. As a result, the WWE is forced to sell perception. They are forced to sell the idea that someone can do great harm to someone else. This in turn brings up a number of storyline possibilities, including the WWE's favorite- the face overcoming impossible odds brought upon him by the heel. This in turn leads to a lot of heels in the WWE being less effective then they would be otherwise, because they throw everything they have at the face, and they can't get the job done. The audience may or may not be consciously aware of this, but the reaction of the live audience decreases. Soon enough, the repeating methodology becomes tiresome. The specialness of the matches disappears and instead of a clash between warriors with each trying to get the better of the other in the ring, it's now a clash of personalities, with the match being an end result of a feud. Quite often, the matches no longer deliver the kind of power that they once did. It is rather like the predictable confrontation on a soap opera, with two people arguing about which one is taking whose family away and neither facing any lasting repercussions of the argument. The arguments themselves are the entire point- an attempt to create drama out of a vacuum that does not always work within the minutely controlled confines of the WWE.

Though it may be obvious by now, I am a believer in the new (yet still old) school of thought that emphasizes the action in the ring. Ever since the wrestling business has been around, this is how Japanese promotions have conducted business- and they continue to make a lot of money. Wrestling is recognized as such as an enormous growth industry in Japan that one network, Samurai TV, will show the smallest promotion out there because they know it will draw ratings. Zero-1 MAX, whose house shows sometimes do no better than one hundred people, are televised. Promotions that were never heard of before are making their way to the US through tape traders and videos on message boards. The demand for good wrestling is clearly out there, and it seems as though no one cares whether they can even understand the commentary or not. Just like the music industry, the mainstream is being challenged by the growing underground.

This will continue in the coming years as knowledge of wrestling becomes greater, the opportunity for small promotions increases until eventually, just like in Japan, television networks will realize that televising independent organizations will bring them ratings. It may not be far away, if the writer's strike continues in perpetuity. As such, with this projection in mind, the entire way of how the general public views the industry will be changed. Once it is understood that a lot of wrestling is taken seriously and does not attempt to insult the intelligence of its viewers, the ratings will pour in. Shows like CSI and 24 have succeeded because they are not merely one hour fillers, but a show that challenges the viewer to think about what is happening, which forces them to pay attention. It is basically the entertainment aspect of the WWE with a bit of spice added to it. The spice is what separates the weekly television shows from everything else. After all, you wouldn't want something bland if you could have something that was eminently more palatable.

by Winter Trabex (View/Submit your feedback here)..

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