SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
Money talks and a well-funded pro wrestling alternative revolution is here. When the clock struck 5:30 pm central time during the All In Weigh-Ins at Starrcast, Kenny Omega was introduced and the raucous audience responded with an adoring reaction of respect, passion, loyalty, and excitement—the kind of reaction Vince McMahon fantasizes about for Roman Reigns, but only hears in his billion dollar dreams. On this evening at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, nobody was dreaming. The reaction to Omega was as real and genuine as it gets in the pro wrestling business.
After the crowd settled down, Omega addressed them and took questions from the star struck group. The questions covered everything from kayfabed analysis on his matches with Kazuchika Okada to eye-rolling attempts at inside information from Kenny on his WWE aspirations. The questions came and went, but one quote defined his time and the weekend in general. “There is a new big dog in town and it ain’t the BIG DOG. I represent the alternative wrestling movement.”
Alternative. In that moment, the word stuck with me. Not because of the word itself, but because of what it meant in the context in which it was said. The room was filled with over one thousand people. Each of them fans of wrestling and obviously appreciative and passionate about the art form that it is. To a “T” (pun intended), they were dressed in pro wrestling merchandise without the standard WWE logo. Attire included that of the Young Bucks, Cody, Kenny Omega, Marty Scurll, Bruce Prichard, Eric Bischoff, Okada, Tanahashi, Conrad Thompson, and much more. Looking deeper at the audience, their bags were filled with pictures, books, and autographs, while other merchandise items were proudly displayed on their person as they stood on chairs with their phones to record their time with The Cleaner.
Later in the night at the hotel bar, I chatted with wrestling fans from all over the country. New York, New Jersey, and other East Coast states were well represented and the hot topic in between buying cold beverages was who did you meet, what did you get signed, and who did you get photos with. From there, fans shared cell phone pictures that detailed various experiences throughout the weekend. One person would have eight different pictures highlighting their meet-and-greet opportunities, others would have two or three. The beer kept flowing and discussion turned to wrestling. What did you like, what didn’t you like, and the pushes of Roman Reigns and Becky Lynch dominated the conversation. Woven into those typical topics was the notion of All In. While people disagreed and debated about Becky Lynch and Roman Reigns, thoughts on All In were universally similar. People were happy to be a part of it. Sure, the All In discussion veered into areas about match outcomes, who would steal the show, and what surprises may pop up, but the underlying foundation was none of that mattered. Why? Because this wasn’t Roman Reigns, Becky Lynch, or WWE logos at the bottom of t-shirts. This was the alternative and that alternative bound people together.
More importantly than the people binding together, their money bound together as well. Throughout the entire weekend, the hotel bar was flooded with patrons looking to purchase food off the special Starrcast menu or specialty drinks named Villain, Wahoo, Naitch, and Meltzer Driver. Drinks lined up, were sucked down, and more rounds were ordered. New York fans ordered for Chicago fans, Jersey fans for Boston fans, and so on. Money was an afterthought. Add in the cost of the Starrcast tickets, 2-8 meet-and-greets, the hotel stay, food, travel, All In tickets, and bar tabs, and the weekend was a memorable, but hefty-priced vacation. Starrcast meet-and-greet opportunities ranged from $25 to $150 depending on the star power and accessibility involved in the event. Not to mention, folks willingly forked over additional dollars for photo opportunities with other wrestling stars placed prominently around the hotel for four straight days.
The next night was the All In show. Hours before the show started a line of over a thousand people waited outside the doors of the Sears Centre while thousands more tailgated in the parking lot like Chicago Bears fans. When the doors opened, fans descended on the arena like troops seizing a territory in war. Though in this war, nobody was opposing them and fans marched as a unit towards pro wrestling history. Inside the building, the thousand fan lines returned. This time, for All In merchandise. T-shirts, programs, and more flew off the shelves with the line staying consistent, but manageable for the entirety of the show. As the lights dimmed for the show to begin, a palpable feeling of momentous history was in the air. Fans were ready.
From there, the stars went to work and the card hit on many pro wrestling genres. Stephen Amell brought celebrity notoriety, while Cody winning the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship provided the emotional and dramatic flair. Joey Janela and Adam Page handled the dangerous hardcore action and immediately after, Joey Ryan appeared for comedic relief. The ring generals took over from there with Kenny Omega, Pentagon Jr., Marty Scurll, and Kazuchika Okada showcasing just how pristine they are with their storytelling inside the squared circle. Finally, the main event featured a high flying extravaganza that clearly was short on time, but delivered in a big way due to the speed, pace, and accuracy of the match. Across the five-hour show, the crowd was attentive, engaged, and actively enhancing the product with their energy. Standing ovations in the middle of matches were the norm and rooted in passion instead of standard pro wrestling Pavlovian reactions.
After the cameras stopped rolling, the celebration began. Matt and Nick Jackson got on the microphone surrounded by the Bullet Club and their families and told the audience that All In was their vision of what pro wrestling can and should be in 2018. Ten thousand fans stuck around to hear that message and partake in the celebration. Why? Because it’s their vision for pro wrestling in 2018 as well. A revolution is on the horizon. The audience that’s passionate about the alternative Kenny Omega spoke of didn’t just vocalize it from their couches on Twitter this weekend. They acted on it too. This weekend proved that fans don’t just pine for an alternative to their wrestling, but they seek it out and finance it with their hard earned money. In that environment, anything is possible and that audience is ready, willing, and able to be monetized to get the wrestling they want.
I don’t believe The Beatles, Kurt Cobain, or any other revolutionary rebels in their industry knew they were changing it while they were. Change just happened. Cody, Kenny Omega, and the Young Bucks know it. They can feel it and the awakened fan base with deep bank accounts can feel it too. So, get ready wrestling world. That’s a lethal combination.