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The wrestling industry is badly in need of genuine competition for WWE. And by that, I mean genuine competition that is easily accessible to people who aren’t already actively seeking other forms of professional wrestling themselves. New Japan isn’t competition. Ring of Honor isn’t competition. The type of competition that the industry needs is competition that makes WWE change the way that it operates. That’s the type of competition that will force WWE to stop doing whatever the hell it wants void of significant consequences. The problem is that the barriers to entry in order to compete at such a level in the industry are astronomically high.
Over the past 15 years we’ve seen TNA attempt to replace WCW in this role and fail quite dramatically. Unfortunately, they’ve been the only promotion to really have the platform to even have a shot at somewhat competing with WWE. For as successful as Ring of Honor has been over the same period they’ve never had the platform to break down those barriers and start attracting a mainstream audience.
In this latest edition of “Five Count,” I’m going to be looking at five lessons to be learned for anyone trying to compete with WWE. I’ll be looking at what they need to do in order to give themselves the best possible fighting chance and what can be learned from the failed ventures at doing so by TNA.
(1) You Need A Lead Star To Build Around
Wrestling like any form of entertainment is star driven. People pay money to see stars far more than they do to see talent. The actors that gross the most money may not be the best actors in the world, just the same as the musicians which sell the most tickets may not have the best voices. What they all have in common however is star power and that’s what draws people in. The great thing about star power is that it’s infectious. Once people see other people reacting to someone like they’re a star then they feel obliged to consider that person a star themselves. After all the best indicator of someone being a star is others treating them as such.
Go back throughout the history of wrestling and look at hot periods for any promotion. They’re always accompanied by one star that the promotion builds the show around. One wrestler that is presented as a bonafide superstar. One wrestler that is booked at a higher level than everyone else. This isn’t a coincidence.
WWWF throughout the ’70s was built around Bruno Sammartino as the star of the show and drew big money. Memphis was the Jerry Lawler show. Jim Crocket Promotions at their peak was the Ric Flair promotion. Vince with his national expansion put all of his stock into Hogan. Likewise as the tide of the Monday Night Wars started to swing, it was the Steve Austin show. Ring of Honor were really placed on the map when they made the promotion about Samoa Joe as the unbeatable champion who reigned above all others. Even New Japan during their recent success built the promotion around first Hiroshi Tanahashi and now Kazuchika Okada.
And not all of them were ready built stars at the time when the promotions decided to build the show around them. Most of them became the stars that they’re known as today because they started getting pushed as the lead star. You put someone in a position to be a star and if they have the right qualities then there’s a good chance that everyone will start reacting to them as if they’re a star. Again, star power is infectious, even just the illusion of it.
On a similar note, look at promotions which haven’t utilised that strategy. WWE right now aren’t doing great business while they’re building the show around the brand name and an ensemble of featured acts. Yes Roman Reigns is pushed as “The Guy” but WWE really isn’t the Roman Reigns show. He along with Lesnar is probably the wrestler that they push the hardest but he’ll drift in and out of being the focus of the show. All you need to look at for evidence is the impact that John Cena has on numbers. He was pushed as a star above all others and now he’s treated like a star.
One of TNA’s many many many issues was that they never created a face of the promotion. Or when they did it would be the wrong guy. They never really stuck with anyone on that pedestal above all others for a sustained period of time. TNA never had their Hulk Hogan or their Jerry Lawler who they always presented properly as being a major star. Even when they brought in a legit star in Kurt Angle, after the initial run he wasn’t presented as the lead star, he was just one of many that would periodically get a run at the very top when someone else’s time was over. They never put all their chips onto A.J. Styles or Samoa Joe or Kurt Angle and decided to present them as the biggest star they could possibly make them out to be.
Now obviously this comes with the caveat of needing to choose the right guy to build around. Maybe if Roman Reigns was the right guy thriving in the opportunities presented to him then WWE would be the Roman Reigns promotion akin to how it was the Hulk Hogan promotion or the Steve Austin promotion. TNA somewhat tried it for a short period of time with Jeff Jarrett who just wasn’t the right guy either.
If you’re looking at competing directly with WWE then you need to give yourself the strongest possible platform to attract viewers to your show. Building the show around one lead star with the right qualities has been a proven success throughout decades for many different wrestling promotions. If you’re going to attract enough viewers to compete at that level then you need to have something besides wrestling to sell them. You need star power and that requires presenting wrestlers as if they are stars.
(2) You Need To Be Different
This is Business 101. Differentiating your product from the competition. Giving customers a reason to give you money rather than someone else. With the first mover advantage and monopolising benefits that WWE have, beating them at their own game is borderline impossible. You just can’t come into WWE’s industry and do what they do and expect to be more successful at it than they are. They have brand recognition. They have brand loyalty. They have economies of scale. They are professional wrestling to the joe public. You’ve got to be an alternative, not a copycat.
Even if you think that you can do WWE better than WWE themselves, you’ve then got to convince everyone else to not only stop watching the show that they’re watching but then also get them to watch your show. And that’s not an easy task, especially with the amount of original content that WWE are producing these days. If you want to watch WWE’s style of professional wrestling they provide you with more than enough original content to satisfy your needs. And even if all the weekly hours of WWE provided via Raw, Smackdown and NXT on top of all of the PPVs, they also provide even more through the archive footage on the network.
What got me originally watching TNA was the fact that it looked different to what I was getting from WWE. The six sided ring stood out from the moment that you see it and the X Division matches grabbed my attention and made me want to see more. The product at the time, around 2007, was edgier than what I was seeing watching WWE. The wrestling was more intense and faster paced.
They had matches like James Storm vs Chris Harris which was unlike what WWE was known for at the time. They had different types of matches like the King of the Mountain and Ultimate X match which stood out. They had familiar faces that were stars from WWE such as Kurt Angle and The Dudley Boys among new acts that carried themselves like stars that you wanted to watch such as Chris Harris, LAX, Samoa Joe & Abyss.
Now granted the more I watched the more I realised that it wasn’t all that different and the booking was actually even dafter than WWE’s. If that first impression looked just like WWE then I wouldn’t have been interested in finding out when the next show was on. I wasn’t looking for new wrestling promotions. I was channel surfing, TNA turned up, I watched for a bit and was incentivised into watching more because it felt fresh and exciting and different to WWE.
The first time I got into Ring of Honor was when someone sent me their first ever Ladder War to watch. Again, I wasn’t actively seeking more watching wrestling to watch, something just landed in front of me. And then I watched it and the match blew me away because it was so drastically different to anything that I had ever seen before which in turn made me want to seek out more ROH.
There are so many ways that you can be different to WWE too. Everything that they produce is so homogenised that they’re creating so many openings for competitors to differentiate themselves by. Lucha Underground isn’t my cup of tea but they’ve done well for themselves by being completely different to everyone else. Even something as simple as letting talent speak like real people on a show that feels less staged and more organic gives the mainstream audience to watch your show either instead of or as well as WWE. For as great of a job as WWE have done in making it so difficult for anyone to compete with them in terms of resources, it’s actually incredibly simple for someone to compete with them in terms of the product itself.
The problem is WWE are well aware that the chances of anyone having the means to create a platform to compete with them are slim to none which means that there’s no requirement for them to present a varied presentation. It’s Vince’s way and only Vince’s way. There’s no need for him to present something a little bit different because he’ll make money and continue to be number one doing things the way that entertains himself. And that like it or lump it mentality is tremendously bad for viewers.
(3) You Need Massive Start Up Capital
WWE are more than just a wrestling promotion at this point. They’re a massive global entertainment entity. They have the means to outbid anyone for talent. They have the money to engage in predatory pricing to eliminate any competition that threatens them. They have the power and the influence to keep the industry in a monopoly that benefits themselves.
The barriers to entry that they’ve set for the industry are so astronomical that anyone wanting to seriously compete with them needs to be equipped with not only a great business model but an insane amount of start-up capital. Not only being equipped with capital to spend but capital to lose. The reality is that the majority of businesses don’t make a profit in the first year. If you want to compete with WWE then you need to be prepared to lose a lot of money before you start making any.
Everyone reading this is likely well aware that WWE don’t feel any obligation to play fair when it comes to competition. Vince never has and between himself and Hunter, that’s still true to this day. Just look at their sudden desire for a UK show and signing up UK talent to exclusive deals as soon as the World of Sport deal seemed to be taking off.
They don’t want competition. They’re very happy operating within their own bubble where they can really do whatever they want without paying any significant consequences for doing so. Vince wants Roman Reigns to be a star then by god they’ll keep pushing him until something sticks. Sure, numbers may be declining but they have their excuses that they know their shareholders will buy and through other more successful business moves they can pretend that the product is as good as ever because other channels are producing strong profits for them.
If someone does show signs of directly competing with them then you best believe that WWE’s reaction will be aggressive. They’ll be quite content taking a short-term loss if they think it will drive off the competition and restore their stranglehold over the industry. They’ll happily run the same market and lower ticket prices to the point of making a loss if it means fans come to their show and neglect the competition. They’ll happily overspend to acquire the key talent away from the competition. They’ll happily use their media influences to make the competition out to be the bad guy.
Anyone looking to compete has to be ready for that and sadly the only way to do is by having money to burn. You have to be prepared to enter a price war to ensure that people are coming to your shows. You have to be prepared to overspend even more than WWE are to acquire key talent. And you have to be prepared to spend money to acquire power and influence. WWE have the luxury of being able to burn through a lot of money before it really comes back to bite them. Just look at how much money their Movies Division constantly loses.
Even in a prettier reality where WWE aren’t eager to keep the wrestling industry as a monopoly to themselves, the start-up expenses are huge. You’ve got to sign an entire roster worth of the best talent that you can get, not to mention all of the out-of-ring staffing requirements. You’ve got to ensure that your production values are elite. You’ve got to be running big venues so that you look like the big leagues to people watching on TV. And of course you’ve got to spend huge promoting yourselves and making not only a national but an international audience aware of your brand. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
Now consider the revenue channels that you should be expecting. Any TV deal that you’re able to get isn’t going to compare to what WWE will get. You need time to establish your identity and give your audience confidence that you’re the real deal while loyalty and word-of-mouth levels build so sales of anything will be limited at first. PPV sales won’t be high straight away. If you want to establish an over-the-top platform then as we’ve seen with the WWE Network that has all that brand equity behind that name, it takes time to build a subscriber base up and even longer to make a profit with all the expenses involved.
None of this is a pretty picture. The type of money to burn that we’re talking about is the type that only the top one percenters have. And those people are the one percenters because they don’t invest their money in underdog stories. Competing with WWE requires someone at that elite level of fortune that really wants to knock WWE off the top of the tower and not only has the confidence and the desire to engage in the war but the acceptance that they’ll have to lose a lot of money in order to do so. The environment now is nothing like when WCW threatened WWE’s dominance during the Monday Night Wars. WWE were big then but they look like Ring of Honor compared to where they are now.
(4) You Need A Great TV Deal
WWE are an internationally recognised brand. They are the professional wrestling industry. They have massive exposure in countries all over the world through excellent TV deals that not only puts them in the homes of millions upon millions of viewers but also makes them easy to find.
Throughout this decade we’ve seen technology advance to allow smaller promotions easier access to a wider audience. Whether it be through live streaming, video on demand or quicker turnaround times on DVD releases, it’s easier than ever now to follow an independent promotion without them needing to be on TV. And it’s also allowed promotions to expand their reach internationally by doing away with expensive shipping costs in order to follow a North American promotion in Europe and vice versa.
For all of the benefits that these advances in technology have brought, there’s still no feasible way to compete with WWE without a great TV deal on an easily accessible station. The rise of over-the-top streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu provide more alternatives to just the traditional TV Networks, but they’re no easier for a wrestling promotion to get on.
If you’re going to really properly compete with WWE then you need a platform where you can get your product out to millions of viewers. The only way that you’re going to achieve that is through a platform that will get people who aren’t wrestling fans watching your wrestling show. That’s the market that allows you to compete with WWE. You could get every single person in America who considers themselves a wrestling fan watching your show and it wouldn’t be enough. WWE isn’t as big as they are because they have every single wrestling fan watching their show. They’re as big as they are because they get people who aren’t wrestling fans to watch wrestling.
Think of a TV show that you hadn’t really heard of before it started airing but you began watching it at a later date. You weren’t excited about “Stranger Things,” for instance, when it was just a trailer but then it popped up on your recommended shows from Netflix and you’d heard some chatter about it on Facebook so you decided to give it a watch because, hey, it’s right there and I don’t have to exert any effort to watch it. That’s the type of viewer that gets your viewership up to a point that allows you to compete with WWE. Without them you’re at best doing half of the viewership that WWE attract. You can’t afford to rely on people finding you; you have to get into their homes and find them.
Unfortunately for the wrestling industry, the chances of another wrestling promotion getting a TV deal that allows them to compete with WWE are slim. Wrestling isn’t attractive content, as we found out during WWE’s last round of negotiations when they failed to drum up any sort of bidding war for their content. And it’s not like networks are worried, either, about a lack of content for their stations in this modern age. If a wrestling promotion wants to get the TV deal needed to compete with WWE then they’ve got to earn it. They’ve got to have proven star power, elite production levels, and a product that’s mainstream friendly.
I hate to break this to a lot of people reading this, but that rules out New Japan Pro Wrestling. It’s not a matter of the product not being good enough or lacking the star power. Their product just isn’t one that TV Networks will put out in front of a mainstream audience. Nobody watches Japanese Baseball despite Baseball being a popular sport in North America. The Baseball part isn’t the problem, it’s the Japanese part. The mainstream audience isn’t going to watch anything foreign – and they’re even less likely to do so when they already have their own home-grown version.
Without a TV deal that allows you to get your product in front of millions of potential viewers, you won’t be able to compete with WWE. There’s just no other way to get your product into the mainstream while still generating enough of a return to stay in business. Based on WWE’s last round of TV negotiations, the prospects of ending up on a traditional network seem slim but maybe there’s greater hope for the right product being given the necessary platform via an over-the-top streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu or even Amazon Prime?
(5) 2018 May Be The Time To Strike
All of that said though…
Let’s just imagine a hypothetical scenario where an investor enters the industry intent on directly competing with WWE. They’ve got the financial resources and the possibility of a major TV deal with the right sales pitch. Now they’re reliant on building a roster than can compete with WWE. Hypothetically speaking of course, 2018 may well offer the best opportunity in a long time for someone to build a roster capable of competing with WWE.
Obviously, the big player would be Daniel Bryan, who seems all but confirmed to be heading back into the ring as soon as he can get out of his existing contract with WWE. How wise that is, only he and his doctors will truly know. What we do know, however, is that if he can pass the testing requirements for a different promotion, he’ll wrestle for them. Now, whether he’d want to sign exclusively for just one promotion and miss out on the opportunity to work through his wrestling bucket list is another question, but in order to attract the top talent, a promotion would probably have to be lenient with any exclusivity demands, especially at an early stage where they’re unlikely to offer the schedule that WWE does.
What we do know, however, is that he’s a legit superstar that is going to sell tickets for a Ring of Honor show to people who previously didn’t have any interest in going to a Ring of Honor show. He not only has huge mainstream exposure, but a demand from people to want to pay to see him wrestle. He’d also be the perfect centrepiece for a new promotion trying to draw non-wrestling fans into their product. Daniel Bryan isn’t just over with wrestling fans, he’s over period. If you debut a new wrestling show on a major network with Daniel Bryan’s name all over your advertising, then you’ll definitely get eyeballs on your product from a mainstream audience.
And then there’s Brock Lesnar, another marquee attraction whose status coming out of WrestleMania isn’t currently tied down. Brock’s a guy who wouldn’t exactly be loyal to WWE like a John Cena would be. He’ll very much go wherever caters to his needs the best. So with his services coming up for negotiation, there’s theoretically an incredible opportunity for a new promotion to lure a proven money drawing attraction on a huge mainstream level onto their show. Couple Brock (and where Brock goes, Heyman often follows) with Daniel Bryan and you have the foundation for not one but two proven mainstream commodities to launch your promotion with.
In the last year we’ve also started to witness a strange phenomenon. Wrestlers are starting to show a willingness more than ever before in recent memory to walk away from WWE feeling as though they can do better elsewhere, both from a creative and from a financial perspective. If there’s a growing trend of wrestlers leaving their dreams in WWE behind to work elsewhere in the current landscape, then it’s fair to assume that the introduction of a viable alternative to WWE in terms of mainstream exposure would only attract greater interest from more WWE wrestlers seeking moves away. And as we see so often, once one person leaves, the domino effect can come into play and others may follow. Is WWE the place to be or is it merely the only place to be?
On top of that, you’ve also got a plethora of talent outside of WWE that are not only fantastic talent but talent that have gotten themselves over to the point of being significant draws within a smaller scope. No, they haven’t got over on a mainstream level, but they’ve shown the ability to actually get over. The Bullet Club, for instance, would be huge acquisitions and would immediately give a new promotion an amazing buzz which would be infectious to new fans. Sure, you’d have to be accommodating of them taking dates elsewhere too, but you’re a new promotion with ambitious goals, you’re going to have to compromise.
Even if you consider the guys tied down to Ring of Honor and New Japan contracts unavailable, there’s still a wealth of really great talent to build a promotion around. Matt Riddle is a star as long as you’re willing to look past his UFC suspensions. Austin Aries is another valuable commodity coming off of WWE exposure. I’m not sure on Rey Mysterio’s status with Lucha Underground, but he would be a major coup if he were available. Ricochet is definitely free from his deal next year and, although he appears WWE-bound, he would be another fantastic talent that you could easily feature on mainstream TV.
I’m not saying it’s probable, but there’s certainly the feasibility that a promotion entering the industry in 2018 could end up with a core of Daniel Bryan, Brock Lesnar, Matt Riddle, Ricochet, and Austin Aries to build the show around on top of any talent you could lure away from WWE and an enormous pool of talent out there, not just on the American Indies, but in Europe too. The talent is out there, but as we learned through TNA, having a great roster of talent on a good TV deal alone isn’t enough.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons to be learned from WWE TV Since Summerslam – Everything is Too Meta, Bad TV is Bad Heat, more