A BLOG ABOUT THE WRASSLIN BUSINESS
a sneak peek into my book about wrestling
Generational Change on the Horizon?
Generally speaking, a generation lasts roughly 20 to 25 years. Interestingly, across the world and society, along with all of the moving parts within it, big structural changes seem to fully materialise over the course of generations. 2020 seems a world away from the year 2000, or better yet, 2001, and vice versa. It might be to do with technology, or age, as the different age demographics that yield power and influence in our politics, our economy and culture shift between each other. Change is constant, and we effect change as it affects us at different times in different ways.
Professional wrestling marks no exception to this, and has formed something akin to a 20 year trend in the industry of change over the course of a century. We can circle all the way back to 1925, when Jess McMahon, grandfather of Vince McMahon Jr (current chairman of the WWE) and son of Irish immigrants Roderick and Elizabeth McMahon made his mark in the history of combat sports. The New York City of 1920’s America was at the centre of the world, and its biggest city. The birthplace of the skyscraper that was responsible for producing approximately eight percent of the USA’s manufactured goods, in the midst of the Great Migration that saw 200,000 Blacks escape from the Jim Crow South to NYC in the space of about a decade. The city was on fire at this time, electricity was everywhere in the air, and it was the envy of the entire globe - the literal first stop on the way to the American Dream for many of the USA’s immigrant population.
So it was during this time, that a young Jess McMahon, one of the Big Apple’s six million residents, broke away from the more familiar businesses of hotels and banking and got more involved in sports. By the time 1925 had come along, he had already spent a few years promoting boxing matches, but it was that year, right in the heart of the Roaring Twenties that he promoted his first fight in the historic Madison Square Garden arena. The McMahons were now beginning to hit the big time in the New York boxing scene. Little did they perhaps know that they would go on to leave an indelible mark on combat sports from that point onwards.
20 years or so later, the National Wrestling Alliance or the NWA was formed in 1948, and we saw the birth of the professional wrestling territorial system throughout the USA. Pro-wrestling also aired on national TV for the first time on the Dumont Network that very same year. Gorgeous George also headlined the Garden the following year in 1949, and we saw the beginnings of sports entertainment, as Gorgeous George would use his flamboyant mannerisms and style of dress, along with his promo skills, to get himself and the business over. Such greats as Mohammed Ali and Ric Flair have credited Gorgeous George as a source of inspiration behind their legendary promos, witty one-liners and flashy presentations and in-ring styles. The late 1940’s marked the beginning of professional wrestling going national.
20 years on from there sprung the Swinging Sixties, where a post-war boom made way for a baby boom and a large and formidable middle class. The radio and TV had taken America and the rest of the world by storm, and a young man from Louisville, Kentucky who went by the name of Cassius Clay was breaking out into the world of boxing and bringing the world of combat sports into the mainstream, to everyone’s living rooms, often via pay-per view. Professional wrestling was still in the shadow of other popular sports, but it was a rising star, edging closer to what we know it as today.
Vince’s father Vincent J McMahon, relaunched Capitol Wrestling Corporation Ltd. as the more familiar sounding WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) in 1963. Then Andre The Giant would make his wrestling debut in Paris a year later under the moniker Geant Ferre, and the emergence of wrestling’s most recognized figure and arguably its biggest draw began. Italian American Bruno Sammartino also dethroned inaugural WWWF champion Buddy Rogers in 1964 and started his seven year title reign. Though spoken about less and less as time wears on, Sammartino’s stardom was unrivalled in his day. He was one of the first wrestlers to serve as the franchise of a promotion, the face of the company, its mainstay and main attraction. Helping to erect the framework for a business model that the WWE and other wrestling and combat promotions still rely on to this day, when we think about building a roster around one standout, big-time babyface star. Before Roman Reigns, John Cena, Steve Austin and The Rock, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, and Hulk Hogan, there was Bruno.
Taking things up a notch by another 20 years and we find ourselves at the eighties. A decade of excess, exuberance and hedonism. The individual reigned supreme over the collective in this age and the doctrines of Thatcherism and Reagonomics unleashed the full forces of capitalism. Professional wrestling was not one to miss out on all of this, as it had finally gone fully national, as well as international, and was cashing in big on it. This age saw the rise of the man we know today as Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Having purchased the WWWF from his father and renamed it to the WWF, this former traveling salesmen typified the profile of the Baby Boomer - not unlike others such as Donald Trump (another fellow New Yorker and sports enthusiast) and Carlos Slim - thrust into the world of business at a time when business and moneymaking were increasingly becoming the centre of gravity in American culture and society. He grew into the no-nonsense, master salesmen, power-hungry, individualist, money-driven alpha that many of us associate with the wildly successful entrepreneurs of today.
Once he got control of his father’s business, he moved swiftly and ruthlessly to buy out numerous wrestling territorial promotions, acquire their top stars, then shut them down and consolidate operations. He now had access to a littany of the best wrestling talents around the country. Seriously everyone who was anyone at the time, be it Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, the Von-Erichs, Big John Studd, Gorilla Monsoon, damn near everyone, was only one phone call and a convincing enough pay cheque away from joining ranks with the WWF. And with this on hand, Vince took wrestling to cable TV and PPV, and let the cat out of the bag on how it was all a work, or pre-determined, then Wrestlemania came along.
Finally, about 20 years later again, we are brought into the late nineties and early 2000’s. We’re at the dawn of a new millennium and wrestling was at the tail-end of another boom period - the Attitude Era. But, many of the period’s hallmarks were beginning to disappear and wither away. The WWE went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999, the WWE’s main competitor WCW was on its way out, and by 2002 the WWE had become the de facto sole representative of North American professional wrestling, megastars The Rock and Stone Cold were both eyeing the exit, and the WWF was forced to rename itself to the WWE after a big court case with the World Wildlife Fund. Each generation is interconnected and paves the way for the following one, which I believe we are now on the precipice of.
The Beginnings of a New Zeitgeist
Though a book giving one person’s takes on professional wrestling PPVs and the business in general isn’t exactly the stuff of Man Booker Prize literature. It does feel as if I have unknowingly unearthed an allegory within this book as my writing has progressed. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a sledgehammer to much of what we have come to know over the last 30 years. All of us, as individuals, workers, businesses and governments, have been forced to make a break from business as usual in order to reassess, reinvent and relaunch ourselves into this altered realm of reality.
As for the WWE, the onset of the pandemic plunged them into empty arena shows. No more live shows, no more house shows. Suddenly, the company now had a bunch of performers on bloated contracts that they weren’t going to use. So they started going on a layoff spree, countless performers and in-house and office WWE employees have been future endeavoured since April 2021.
Then, as rising COVID-19 cases and deaths led to enforced curfews and lockdowns across a number of US states and nations around the world, people, with more spare time on their hands and limited options for fun and entertainment, almost immediately flocked to different streaming services. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the WWE Network, among others saw big jumps in subscribers as a result. Online video streaming is the future and will displace TV as the go-to medium of entertainment very soon. Just like the WWE’s own product, the only people that still really watch TV are Baby Boomers and early GenXers. As younger age cohorts continue to fill the population ranks, traditional network TV will become a thing of the past.
Many of these streaming services already have hundreds of millions of paid users subscribed to their platforms. Streaming is in and it’s quite a lucrative market too, already valued at $50 billion in 2020, it’s estimated to more than quadruple in size and hit about $220 billion in 2028. As an early adopter with the WWE Network, the WWE seems prepared for the world of streaming, and has joined ranks with longtime broadcasting partner NBC via Peacock. With the world of streaming continuing to grow, streaming giants will continue to buy up different movie studios, production houses, and move aggressively to acquire the rights to different TV shows as a means to securing market share and surviving.
This newfound, explosive growth brings money with it, and lots of power and market influence. TV ratings and network sentiments will increasingly play second fiddle to the demands and wishes of streaming providers. Despite what lots of people think, I believe that the shift from TV to online streaming will prove a major challenge for the WWE, even in light of its new Peacock deal. The gravy years of those lucrative multi-year TV deals are about to run dry. Because renewal talks hit differently when ratings are declining at a rate above average, the new kid on the block in AEW is only a few marquee signings away from beating Raw, and you no longer have Cena around. Streaming isn’t guaranteed to save them either, because Netflix and co, flush with cash, are having content providers from every corner of the world falling over one another to be considered for a title slot. The supply side for content provision is competitive, you think that they are going to be jumping to pay WWE the type of money that desperate TV networks have been giving them in prior years?
Today, much like our society, the world of wrestling is at an inflexion point. Changing demographics, streaming technology and the rise of AEW may now mean that the WWE, as market leader, may not be too far from a day of reckoning. They don’t want that, and they are trying to do what they can to avoid it.
In August 2020, six months after having fired long-time serving co-presidents George Barrios and Michelle Wilson, the WWE hired Nick Khan as sole President and Chief Revenue Officer. Nick Khan had initially worked with and represented the WWE, along with a number of other sport-based outlets during his eight year run with the Creative Artists Agency. As stated by Vince, their reasons for hiring him seem to be centred around him being seen as “a seasoned media executive with a deep understanding of our business and a proven track record of generating significant value for sports and entertainment properties,”. Further inspection of Vince’s additional comments pertaining to Khan indicate that he may have played an instrumental role in getting different US TV networks like USA and Fox to sign off on WWE’s lucrative five year deals for Raw and Smackdown in 2018 and 2019.
It reads as if WWE made this hire as part of plans to implement a new phase of expansion. Now, this might pertain to more of an expansion internationally in potentially lucrative Asian and Middle Eastern markets, which might explain the recent rumours hitting the interwebs about the WWE approaching NJPW about collaborative ventures. It could also link to plans for further expanding into the world of streaming (which I think is likely), and even traditional TV. Then these plans could include all of these goals to one degree or another. I’m not entirely sure. However, when you look at all of the recent releases in the WWE, recalibration and restructuring in preparation for a new era of growth..or a sale, does seem to be on the horizon.
And about those lay-offs, it’s tough, my heart goes out to all of the people who, having been with the WWE, now suddenly have to make new plans for finding work or making money from their craft in the middle of a pandemic, where restrictions on social gathering and travel still apply across different states and parts of the world. It sucks, but again, it also didn’t make much sense for the WWE to have so many people on the payroll, sitting idol as a result of there now being no house shows or packed stadiums for them to perform to in dark (untelevised) matches and the like. True, in spite of the pandemic, the WWE has never been more profitable, on paper, they could have kept all of those folks hired and still comfortably be in the black.
Unfortunately though, that’s besides the point. Sounds harsh I know, but also valid. The WWE is a publicly traded company that has a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. This is akin to the manifesto a presidential candidate makes in a bid to win or retain electoral support, something that a campaign can live and die on. So this responsibility means that shareholders are first in the pecking order of stakeholders to please and serve, since, in one way or another, they are the ones taking a risk in funding WWE operations and ventures via share purchases.
Put simply, it isn’t really the WWE’s place to throw shareholder money at obvious loss making assets. They’re no longer an independent, family owned business - it’s not their money anymore. More to the point, money that could instead be used to finance and support more attractive revenue streams, or straight-up dividends, would be funding those pay cheques. Stuff like that might piss shareholders off and trigger sales, which could lead to declining share prices and a fall in investor confidence, which may in turn affect the WWE’s ability to grow in the future and continue to support all of its employees. It’s a harsh reality and I hate it. I personally think that the concept of shareholder theory, as advocated by neoclassical economists like Milton Friedman, actually works to the detriment of most of society and the economy.
Still, the WWE didn’t make the rules here, but they are having to play the game. With that said, some of those lay-offs may have been necessary though. While the choice to dismiss big names like Samoa Joe (at least initially), Alistair Black, Lana and Braun Strowman, is controversial to say the least, there were a lot of other releases who honestly weren’t as much of a big deal, and also didn’t seem likely to shift the needle in any way for the promotion.
A number of veteran wrestlers like The Undertaker and Stone Cold, and even some among the current batch of full-time WWE talent like Drew McIntyre, have pointed out how an air of complacency has filled the WWE locker rooms of today. More than a few of these wrestlers don’t seem willing to fight and claw their way to a better spot. They seem content with just living out their dream of being a WWE superstar and going out there and performing. It’s like they haven’t seemed to grow out of being that kid who accompanied the grown-ups to work at that cool place yet. They perform for the adulation that comes with the ‘THIS IS AWESOME’ chants, forgetting that those don’t always equate to money in the same way that audible jeers, hisses and cheers do.
And that type of attitude won’t and should not cut it in what is supposed to be the best professional wrestling company in the world. The WWE needs to be at its best and leanest for the new, uncertain future which lies ahead. In fact, I have been beginning to notice how the WWE product, in respect to match quality, character development and overall entertainment value, has seen a slight uptick in the aftermath of the April and June 2021 releases.
It’s almost as if they’re now beginning to prioritise quality over quantity again, spending more time on the characters and stories which help make those wrestlers worth watching. And at long last, they might start seriously trying to create new stars again. Rumours have circulated about Vince and other executives visiting the Performance Center, with them also apparently expressing their desires to invest more resources into younger talents. The mass lay-offs have also put the rest of the locker room on notice - coasting by and merely collecting a pay cheque isn’t going to do it anymore.
Within weeks of it all happening, once directionless talent such as Nikki Cross and Ricochet just happened to have adjustments made to their characters, attires and in-ring style, now I wonder what may have led to that? Of course, there is also the other argument that posits that the WWE is just doing all of this to prepare for a big sale, especially when you think about how they have essentially released fairly popular stars to be picked up by competitor AEW. With this possibly being indicative of a board not all that much concerned about the future of this promotion as far as its place in the professional wrestling landscape goes.
Nonetheless, a fighter downsizing its training camp doesn’t mean that they’re any less able or willing to fight, and we mustn’t forget that. Because professional wrestling might very well be on the cusps of a new boom, that the WWE and everyone else is still trying to figure out how best to steal the lead in.