The New Rules of Promoting Wrestling: How to Make Money in 2008
It’s finally 2008, and with that comes a whole new set of rules for promoting and booking a successful wrestling and MMA product. We saw what worked in 2006 and 2007, and facts prove that. No one knows what will work in 2008 and 2009, but the smart ones will study history, examine the landscape, and take their best crack at where the future will take us.
Unfortunately, many in charge of wrestling promotions today aren’t smart. They rely on what worked in the ’90s, ’80s, and even the ’70s. Some of that is admirable; some booking principles are timeless, and only a fool would ignore those decades.
In fact, UFC is extremely successful and it largely follows 1970s pro wrestling, whether they realize it or not. But the difference is that they took the best of what worked, added their own elements that have proven to work and still work, and produced a product that the public will pay to see.
Vince Russo once remarked that in the mid 90s, the WWF was wrong for presenting a 1980s product. He was partly correct, but in 2008, Russo and TNA are presenting a 1990s product (a bad one at that). Some elements of the ’90s and ’80s should be used today, but a true leader should book for 2009 and 2010, using the booking of 2007 and 2006 during 2008. Confused yet?
You shouldn’t be. Booking wrestling is simple. Not easy, but simple. Here are the new rules for promoting and booking wrestling in 2008.
1. Eliminate house shows. Embrace “raves.”
Do you want to know how to solve any problem? Ask the right questions. Asking the right questions will force your brain to search for the right answers, as long as the solution is physically possible and as long as you word the question correctly.
In this case, the problem is painkiller abuse. Wrestlers are constantly hurting, and they’re hurting because they’re constantly on the road taking bumps. And when they hurt, they take medication. And when they take medication, along with recreational drug use and performance enhancing drugs, they die.
I can hear Ole Anderson whining how in his day, guys wrestled 900 times a year, walking to arenas on foot, in blizzards.
The difference is, guys today perform at a style and pace that is far more demanding than guys in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Pro wrestling never adjusted the house show schedule accordingly.
WWE runs far fewer house shows than in the ’80s, but it’s obviously still a problem. TNA doesn’t run a full schedule, but their guys do work indies, and they generally work a far harder style than WWE’s guys. TNA’s guys are generally younger, so their bodies can handle the wear and tear for a few more years. When guys like AJ and Kaz start turning 35, it’s a different story.
What to do? Ask the right questions. A good question to ask is: how can we draw money on the road, sell merchandise, build a fan base, and allow guys to improve their craft… WITHOUT causing physical pain and breeding drug use?
Welcome the new concept: raves.
At raves, you don’t run house shows. You run wrestling conventions. But “conventions” sounds geeky and too sci-fi, so you call them raves. Here’s what I’d do at raves:
i) Party with the wrestlers. This is nothing but a glorified meet-and-greet. Take all your wrestlers and have them socialize, schmooze, and chat with the fans in a convention-like setting. Conventions are a proven money-maker (when promoted correctly) on today’s indie scene, especially in old Crockett towns. Just don’t call them conventions. If you jazz up the raves with some music, newer stars, younger divas, and a hip atmosphere, it could work.
ii) Classic matches. I’d bring a huge HDTV plasma screen and play some classic matches from the past. Fans who don’t like socializing (and many wrestling fans are introverted by nature because their social groups have ostracized them for being wrestling fans) can sit down and watch classic matches on a huge theater-like screen with fellow wrestling fans. As an added bonus, this educates fans on the product. And while they watch, you sell them overpriced food and drinks.
iii) Pick My Brain interviews. These are just glorified Q&A’s. Q&A’s always work well, and the wrestlers would love them because they’re easy and predictable. Most questions would be the same in every town, so guys would have rehearsed answers.
iv) Sell, sell, sell. Remember, the shows are a vehicle to sell product. Set up huge booths of merchandise, mark up the prices and have wrestlers schmooze and shill. Be creative. Sell every product under the sun, auction off kisses from divas, hold a raffle, sell gift cards (a huge and growing market), and sell certificates that would be good for the purchase of a tape or DVD of the rave (which would be filmed professionally).
Make it fun and hip. You wouldn’t draw as many fans as you would to a sold out arena, but the fans that are there would spend far more money. They’d interact with their favorite wrestlers and divas, which stimulates fan and brand loyalty. Expenses could also be less if you do it correctly. Make it a party.
The drawback is that young wrestlers don’t learn their craft by performing in front of crowds on a nightly basis. You know what? Oh well. This is a trade-off you accept for having your guys healed, healthy, and not all pilled up.
You could always do what real athletes do: practice. When you come to town, rent a ring and gym and make the guys practice wrestling with veterans and road agents. It’s not the same as performing in front of a crowd, but again, it’s a trade-off.
Most entertainers (theater actors, comedians, singers, etc) get good by gigging every night. Wrestling is different, because there’s an element of pain. Touring non-stop is hard enough. Throw in the pressure of taking bumps and looking cosmetically good, and the result is a huge body count.
Another drawback is that touring raves could lead to boredom among the wrestlers and fuel recreational drug use. I’d keep an eye on that and monitor things to see if it becomes a problem. There’s only so much you can do. Ask the managers of Motley Crue in the â€˜80s about that.
2. Eliminate TV tapings. Embrace post-production.
UFC draws more on PPV than WWE does, and they’ve never, ever had to do weekly, expensive TV tapings. TV tapings are yet another artifact of wrestling’s past (like house shows) that are not necessary today. All TV tapings do are dilute the product, give away marquee matches for free, and cost a ton of money to tape.
At least with WWE, they are paid handsomely by their networks for weekly TV shows. However, UFC is also paid very well by Spike, and they don’t do TV tapings. TNA tapes TV constantly, and they hardly have any revenue coming in.
What is the goal here? To sell PPV’s.
Wrestling promotions have lost sight of the goal. WWE and TNA are products of the Monday night wars, in which the weekly TV show took center stage and ratings were king. The war is over. Ratings will always be good enough to satisfy the networks. It’s time to go back to focus on selling PPV’s.
Without weekly TV tapings, UFC sells hundreds of thousands of buys for even their weak PPV line-ups. HBO sold a couple MILLION buys without TV tapings. TNA does weekly tapings and sells 20,000 to 50,000 buys. They were doing that on Fox Sports Net, with 10% of the viewership they have now.
What’s the problem here? The TV tapings aren’t doing their job.
A weekly TV vehicle is needed, but not the expensive TV tapings of yesteryear.
Paul Heyman once said in a Torch interview that a wrestling TV show needs to be an infomercial. Wade Keller, naive little fellow he is, asked him why anyone would tune in to see an infomercial. Paul E. said that you need to make it an entertaining infomercial.
For those who haven’t noticed, here are some great infomercials that have worked in recent years:
-Inside the UFC
-UFC’s Countdown shows
-UFC All Access
-UFC Fight Night repeats
-UFC Ultimate Fighter
As you can see, UFC has learned how to sell their product without over-exposing and diluting it. WWE and TNA haven’t quite figured that out yet.
HBO’s 24/7 was a brilliant, ground-breaking production that sold nearly 3 million PPV buys. No TV taping there, just a fancy production studio and producers who know how to build a feud. Of course it helped to have De la Hoya and Mayweather as colorful personalities. But UFC and WWE (and even TNA) have lots of colorful personalities to work with. If TNA got just 3% of the buys that De la Hoya did, that would be 85,000 buys and an extraordinary success for them.
UFC’s Countdown show is a glorified “PPV pre-show” that is 60 minutes of building the top 2 or 3 feuds in creative, basic, simple ways. They’re not as good as HBO’s shows, but they get results.
UFC Unleashed airs fights from the pasts, with constant commercials that promote the PPV’s. Airing all these fights can be argued as overexposure, but in my opinion, overexposure is welcome when it’s in the form of repeated material. Infomercials are repeated material, so they hammer home the same point several times, as opposed to TNA, which hammers home a million points very few times. The results speak for themselves. That’s why if I say, “Set it and forget it,” all of you will know what I’m talking about.
UFC Ultimate Fighter not only builds the future fighters of the sport, but it gets across the personalities of the coaches. TUF 6 was a 12-week build to Hughes-Serra, without coming across as such. It also promoted the PPV’s via the commercials, without coming across as such. UFC is exactly how pro wrestling is supposed to be booked, but isn’t, and it doesn’t come across as such.
Me? I’d personally throw the wrecking ball into the TNA Impact Zone and throw a party as it crumbled to the ground. With the money Papa Bob Carter was spending on TV tapings, I’d take 10% of it, send him back the rest to save and invest on higher priced talent (TNA let Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, and Matt Hardy slip through their fingers at a time when all would’ve made a big impact), and spend that 10% on producing the best infomercials possible. I’d then strike a deal with Spike TV to air them several times per week. The infomercials would focus on the real personalities of Samoa Joe, Kurt Angle, Sting, Booker, etc. I wouldn’t even mention the undercard. Instead, the shows would focus on the top 2 or 3 matches, making them feel like something special. And the storylines would be real and appealing to a demographic that spends a lot of money (men 18-55) on pro wrestling.
3. Less is more.
If you’re a fan of Kurt Angle, you had a chance to see him wrestle on TV almost 70 times in 2007.
If you’re a fan of Chuck Liddell, you had a chance to see him fight on TV only 3 times in 2007.
With all the talk of Chuck and Tito as PPV draws, they have one advantage: they only fight a couple times a year. Kurt, Cena, and Batista wrestle every week on TV for free.
It’s a lot harder to get people to pay to see you when they see you for free on TV every week. Yes, Steve Austin did it in ’98 and ’99, but that worked because it was something new and fresh. And as successful as the concept of presenting main event matches on free TV was, it didn’t last long. It couldn’t. If UFC did it now, it work great, and then burn out. Pro wrestling burnt out, and they still try to burn the candle.
This sounds insane in today’s world, but Kurt Angle, John Cena, Sting, Batista, Samoa Joe, etc all need to wrestle no more than 4 times per year (preferably 2 or 3).
How will you get your fix, you ask? You won’t. And that’s why you’ll pay to see them wrestle when they actually do. That’s the concept of “less is more.”
It drove me crazy to wait 3-4 months to see Chuck fight Wanderlei. That’s why when he did fight, I paid and watched every move with utmost attention. When Kurt wrestles, I couldn’t care less (even when it’s for free).
When Kurt joined TNA, I wouldn’t have had him wrestle or appear on TV for 3 months. In that time, I’d have produced incredible infomercials building the long-awaited match with Samoa Joe. The only Kurt you’d have seen was the Kurt on those shows in sit-down soundbites, building the fight ala UFC. For added emphasis, I’d have had him do the soundbites with a black shadow over his face, like people do on crime shows when they don’t want their faces revealed. This would’ve have generated interest and mystique, and undoubtedly TNA’s all-time biggest buyrate. And Samoa Joe would’ve been made into a much bigger star.
When guys wrestle three times a year, their matches mean more and their match-ups become more intriguing. When HHH wrestles Randy Orton, nobody cares because they’ve wrestled before many times. In 2008, if HHH wrestles twice, then his match with Orton, say, in November, would mean money. In fact, it would mean money no matter whom he wrestled, because you would only get to see him twice a year. This is why PPV business goes up when a guy comes back from an injury after being off for several months.
What do the wrestlers do when the other 361 days of the year? Train, rest, and hit the road on those raves I discussed earlier. Do tons of press, coach younger talent, and finely hone your personalities. Do things that will lead to drawing money without overexposing yourself.
At first, wrestling fans would revolt. Taking Raw off the air suddenly would tick a lot of people off. The problem is those fans are so used to getting something for free that they hardly ever open their wallets to buy PPVs. The conversion rate (percentage of TV viewers who buy PPV shows) is tiny for WWE, and absolutely microscopic for TNA. For UFC, it’s outstanding. As someone who runs a wrestling website that sells things, take it from me that wrestling fans don’t spend money. The negative stigma advertisers have about wrestling fans is often true. They’re not all idiots, but they don’t like spending money. UFC fans spend money. I hate spending money, but when I do, it’s on UFC, not WWE or TNA. Perhaps wrestling needs to find itself some new fans, and then perhaps new advertisers would follow (more on that later).
4. Go clean.
100% clean finishes, 100% of the time. No exceptions.
Clean finishes turned around the fortunes of All Japan Pro Wrestling, and clean finishes were the norm in Japan for many years. In MMA, it’s not even a question. Clean finishes are the rule, period, just like in real sports.
Why is this even an issue? Just do it.
As far as “clean” when it comes to drug use, it’s easier than you think. Ridding pro wrestling and MMA of drug use isn’t very hard, it’s just that no one wants to do it. Vince could stop the problem tomorrow if he wanted to, just like he mostly did from 1992 to 1996. TNA could as well. If you stop rewarding steroid use, then steroid use will stop. Not 100%, but that’s not the goal.
If you test randomly and punish severely for a first offense, the problem stops. How easy would it be for WWE to test randomly, punish severely, and eliminate the gaping loophole regarding prescriptions? How easy would it be for state athletic commissions to do the same thing in MMA? The only drug that wouldn’t go away is HGH, because you can’t test for it. Not much you can do about that. The most you can do is stop rewarding good bodies and start rewarding charisma (not talent, because it’s not talent that draws, it’s charisma).
5. Booking wrestling is simple, so don’t make it hard.
One time a fan held up a sign at a WCW show that read, “Who booked this??” Tony Schiavone got mad, saying that fan isn’t the one in the booking committee meetings having to come up with 8 hours of TV every week.
Nice argument, Tony, but I’ve got two questions for you:
-Why are you booking 8 hours of TV every week?
-Why is there a booking committee in the first place?
If you followed my rules above, there wouldn’t be 8 hours to book. You’d need a couple hours a month of infomercial-type shows that your network would run in rotation, several times per week.
As for committees, what committee does UFC have? What writing team do they have? They have one person: Joe Silva. And Silva gets input from Dana White, a few other front office employees, and (shh) Dave Meltzer. That’s it. You don’t need an expensive committee to come up with elaborate angles that no one follows. You need a single booker with the ability to create stars through simple, easy-to-follow storylines.
UFC’s storylines are kindergarten simple. Here’s what worked in ’07:
-Chuck Liddell had three losses on his record, two of which he has redeemed. Now he can avenge his third and final loss. But Rampage beat him decisively last time, so it won’t be easy. Will Jackson beat him again? Buy the PPV to find out.
-Randy Couture is a legend, and is coming out of retirement to win his title back. But… he’s 44. And Tim Sylvia is a beast. Can he do it? Buy the PPV to find out.
-Randy Couture is the champ at 44, at the top of his game. But the monster Gabe Gonzaga destroyed Mirko Cro Cop. He’s bigger, younger, quicker, and stronger. Can Randy pull it off again? Buy the PPV to find out.
-Chuck and Wanderlei Silva have been the top light heavyweights in their respective companies for years. Politics have always gotten in the way of them fighting, but now it’s going to happen. But… both are coming off two devastating losses. Who will win the ultimate showdown? Buy the PPV to find out.
Compare those simple storylines to:
-Kurt, Karen, Booker, Sharmell, Nash, faces, heels, tweeners, reverse battle royals, thumbtacks on a pole, who’s swerving whom, where’s Scott Hall, inside jokes, references to 1997, rumbles, ladder matches, ultimate X, king of the mountain, loser must retire, Thanksgiving with the Angles, Christmas with a Bushwhacker, and countless other lame, mind numbing, complicated, silly, ludicrous, million-miles-an-hour scripts that mean nothing to anyone.
Those are the 5 major rules of booking wrestling in 2008, but that’s not all. Sometimes, the little things matter. Here are other things that need to be done to bring it all together:
a) Be serious. UFC has a serious tone, and Mike Goldberg treats the product as if it’s a legit sport. Jim Ross did the same when he announced the NWA and Mid-South. Most announcers in the â€˜60s and â€˜70s did it. Mike Tenay wants to do it, but isn’t allowed to. JR has become a cartoon character against his wishes.
Fire Don West as a color commentator. Hire him as someone who can sell products on TV, and tell him to tone down. Fire Mike Tenay as an announcer. Hire him as a consultant. Tenay is a great announcer, but his credibility has been destroyed by years of announcing garbage on Nitro and Impact. Bring in a new, older announcer who acts seriously and treats pro wrestling like a sport.
b) Make every match important. No more ring entrances and ringing the bell right away. Bring each guy to the ring separately, with an elaborate entrance, and take 5 minutes to announce each guy once they’re both in the ring like UFC does. Get rid of low-rent announcers and bring in someone professional and older with a deep voice. Not the Buffers; Bruce is associated with UFC and Michael has no credibility because it’s obvious he looks down on the product. Find someone new and respectable, because it’s a big part of the presentation package.
c) Start up a subscription service. Let regular PPV customers subscribe to PPVs, which would lock them in long term and make them eligible for a discount. Allow them to pay upfront for the whole year and get an even bigger discount. Treat these customers like gold.
d) Fire the creative teams and committees. You just need one booker, and he/she would solicit ideas from road agents, assistants, and journalists. It’s imperative this person be the right person for the job, and it’s important to judge his/her performance every 6 months.
For TNA, if I owned the company, I’d fire Russo, Mantel, and Ryder. Who’d be booker? Someone who agreed with my direction and had the ability to implement it with minimal supervision. The person doesn’t even have to be well known. Who knew Joe Silva’s name before he was UFC booker?
e) Bring back legends. I’ll never, ever understand why WWE and TNA can’t bring back legends without making them full-time wrestlers. People whine about Hall and Nash in TNA, but would it be such a big problem if they were managers or non-wrestling performers? Arn Anderson is backstage at WWE; why isn’t that man on TV every single week doing promos with Flair, Tully, Windham, and JJ, building up a young wrestler like Kennedy? Why is Roddy Piper not managing someone like he did with Sean O’Haire years ago? These are just two examples, and the list of potential ideas for this is literally endless.
f) Sponsors, sponsors, sponsors. UFC is one big sponsor away from making a lot more advertising revenue. A lot. It would take at least 5 years, but pro wrestling needs a complete overhaul to where it would attract even C-level sponsors. Tailor your product toward educated men and women, and present it as such. This whole idea is laughable today, but that’s ok. You just need to make it less laughable in 2015. All and New Japan attracted professional, well-dressed men and women to their arena events in the 90s. Can the same thing happen here in the States? Not for years, but you should start trying immediately. If you come close to even matching football’s demographic, you’ve won. Football has some lunatic fans just like wrestling does, but football doesn’t have a stigma. Wrestling does. So start working to change it, and as a very long-term goal, you might start attracting Budweiser, Miller, Gillette, and Harley Davidson.
g) Go to the library. The video library, that is. WWE is sitting on mountains of video from decades of territories and old footage. They do a good job of exploiting is, but there’s room to grow and profit from it further.
Just like you can buy seasons of famous TV shows at Best Buy, WWE and TNA should do the same. Sell the entire 1984 season of WWF Superstars in a box set. Do the same for other years, and other shows like WWF Wrestling Challenge, Prime Time Wrestling, TNT, All American Wrestling, old NWA Worldwide shows, Saturday Night’s Main Events, Raws, Nitros, Thunders, etc. They do this to an extent with WWE 24/7, but it can be improved.
Re-release old favorites like the Piledriver album, old Slammy awards shows, Clash of the Champions box sets, and vintage merchandise from legends like Hogan, Piper, Savage, the Horsemen, RnR Express, Midnight Express, nWo, etc. Pay the legends royalties. Give back, and the customers will give back too.
h) Always learn. Ideas come from the strangest places. The WWF was saved from oblivion because Lady Blossom saw a cable show on stone cold killers, liked the name, and a legacy was born. WCW rode to ratings dominance because Eric Bischoff saw an interpromotional feud in Japan and decided to bring it to America in the form of the nWo. Stephanie McMahon, in the one good idea she has ever come up with, decided to have John Cena rap his interviews because she heard him freestyle in the locker room.
Part of the problem with WWE is they think they know everything. They don’t study the successes and failures of Japan, Mexico, MMA, boxing, WCW, ECW, wrestling history, and everything else. People are afraid to say when an idea stinks, because they fear retribution (rightly so). You need to adapt the mindset that you’re always learning, always soliciting ideas, not afraid to change what isn’t working, and not afraid to use an idea that someone else came up with first.
i) Trim the fat. I don’t mean put Dusty on a diet, I mean cut wasteful spending. Why is TNA spending $100,000 a year on Vince Russo? Why are there huge ramps and elaborate entrances (UFC has no ramps, and their entrances work just fine)? Does everyone under contract really need to be there? Is a film division really a good idea? Is the XFL really necessary? Is Sting worth half a mil? Is Kurt Angle worth what he gets paid? Is the highly paid WWE creative team getting results? Can payroll be trimmed a bit? Is it viable to open up international territories? Do we really need to buy PRIDE when it’s going out of business anyway? Are all these mergers and acquisitions doing the parent companies any good? Would we suffer in the slightest if Brian Gewirtz was dismissed (better yet, would we possibly benefit from it)?
j) Build for the future. WWE should open up six new developmental territories, at a minimum. Every new signee should spend 12 months in each one, and rotate among them. If they progress more quickly than expected, then fast-track them. If they don’t, then train them differently. If they still don’t, then consider dropping them. And no matter what, don’t rush them to the big stage too soon.
Part of the problem with the young wrestlers is that they haven’t had a chance to fail yet. You learn by making mistakes and observing the mistakes of others. Cody Runnels and DH Smith have solid potential, but both risk having subpar careers because Vince rushed them up. Cody and DH need to work different territories, practice their craft, make their mistakes before smaller audiences, and find their inner selves. Then when they finally get brought up, they’re seasoned and ready to go.
Howard Stern was awful when he started out. So were lots of good actors and speakers. But they learned their craft in small towns and markets, before small audiences, and perfected their crafts until they were the best at what they did. Wrestling, and even MMA, are no different. A Kurt Angle or Owen Hart only comes across once a generation, so don’t expect miracles. It was years before HHH was a good worker, and the same goes for many in the locker room. Some pick it up quickly (Shawn Michaels, Rock, Angle, Randy Orton), while others more slowly (John Cena, Batista, DDP, Luger). Steve Austin was always good, but he didn’t have a main event personality until he found himself with the Stone Cold gimmick; six years after he started pro.
It takes time to find what makes a certain performer click. Sometimes people discover it quickly and sometimes they don’t. Everyone is different, and you can’t rush that. Forrest Griffin is getting a title shot this year, while Stephen Bonnar is languishing in prelims. People develop at their own pace, but if they’re meant for the business, then it will happen soon enough. You’ll luck into a Santino Marella every now and then, but more often than not, it takes time and patience to develop main event stars.
The bottom line is this: every time wrestling/MMA sets on fire, it is always preceded by something that truly causes it to set off. Hulkamania. Stone Cold. The nWo. The Rock. Sting’s silence and black and white face paint. Attitude. DX. Shamrock vs. Ortiz. It goes on and on.
Something breaks the mold, and it can either come from far out of left field, or be so simple and basic that a monkey could book it. If you keep your eyes open and listen, and always look 5 years ahead, you’ll do just fine.
But… the business has changed. You can’t book like it’s 1989 or 1999, although you can certainly use some of those elements. Some standbys, like house shows and TV tapings, must be re-examined thoroughly.
UFC and boxing left behind a blueprint for success in 2006 and 2007. WCW left behind a blueprint for failure in 1999 and 2000. Guess which blueprint TNA is following? And guess which promotion draws a paltry 20,000 buys out of a viewing audience of nearly two million?
We now know what works and what doesn’t work. Whatever works changes every year or two. The leaders know where it’s going and thrive. The survivors follow along and adapt. The losers ignore it and fail. The path wrestling promoters take in 2008 is entirely up to them.
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