For those of us who love pro wrestling, in some ways 2019 has been a renaissance of sorts.
Think about it. Since 2001, the WWE has (more or less) held a stranglehold on the #1 spot both in North America and worldwide. And, to be quite honest, a lot of people have grown tired of it.
During these past 18 years, smaller promotions have sprung up to try and fill the gap that ‘sport-entertainment’ has left, with varying degrees of success. ROH and TNA have been the two most notable North American names, and other parts of the world have their own big names (NJPW, AAA).
But to the casual fan, the ones who aren’t downloading paid apps or scouring YouTube for matches, it’s been a pretty consistent diet of ‘sports-entertainment.’
All that’s changed in 2019, hasn’t it? Let’s take a quick rundown of the year outside WWE.
The 2019 Renaissance
The birth of AEW. While All In was in September 2018, AEW officially started in 2019, and October 2, 2019 was the pro wrestling’s renaissance on TNT with the premiere of AEW Dynamite.
Impact gets on AXS. Years of floundering and mismanagement has seemingly turned TNA/Impact into the Jason Voorhees of pro wrestling. Just when you think he’s down, he comes back, lumbering after you. Impact this time, after a lot of financial issues, seems to be showing signs of life again.
NWA Powerrr (and more r’s in the future possibly). For fans of old school 1980s studio style wrestling, a single episode of this YouTube program is like a DeLorean to the past.
And there’s more. MLW is on YouTube (for now) and TV. ROH still has Sinclair in their corner. NJPW of course still has their dedicated fan base (and seems to be setting up their own American offshoot, NJoA). That’s even before you dig into streaming, local and regional promotions, and what have you.
One hell of a pro wrestling renaissance. But is this necessarily a good thing?
The Case For “More Is Better”
For two decades, the problem was feast or famine. Wrestlers could spend years, decades even, driving the miles, grinding away in high school gyms or bars, doing amazing feats of athletic prowess… in front of fifty or so folks for not much more than gas money.
And the payoff for all of this? For all but the very few, not too damn much. If you didn’t have the look, the connections, or the luck to get a look at the right time, pro wrestling was a lot of memories, a lot of aches and pains, and a very empty bank account.
These odds got even longer if you didn’t have the look WWE wanted or belonged to a division WWE doesn’t favor, or just didn’t wrestle the WWE style very well.
Now, there’s a much greater chance to get the public exposure and fan base to make money. Even a few years ago, some wrestlers started turning down NXT contracts because they could have more financial success on the indy circuit. The proliferation of TV programs means even more chances to gain fans, to get some financial reward in an industry that doesn’t exactly guarantee thirty year retirements and a gold watch.
And for the fans, you’re able to find more of what you like. You like lucha libre? You like strong style? Or women’s wrestling? Hardcore, scientific, throwback eighties, modern hybrid, or sports-entertainment, it’s all out there. And if you don’t like one program, you’re not stuck with only one option. It’s an all you can eat wrestling buffet, and we can all have a plate of whoop-ass if we want it.
The Case For “Too Much Is Too Much”
For all the options out there, I’ve seen a disturbing trend that is a byproduct of this proliferation of programs. It’s similar to a problem that fans have been saying has plagued the WWE for years. Namely, how do you fill so many hours of programming?
Think about it. Dismissing WWE for a moment, right now there is, on TV nationwide in the United States:
That’s 7 hours of TV a week. And that’s before we get to shows like MLW, AEW Dark, NWA Powerrr, and others with more Internet based distribution systems. Throw in WWE on TV, and you’ve got another 7 hours, for 14 hours a week of wrestling on TV.
That’s a lot of wrestling. And that’s before you get to regional or smaller shows.
How do you keep up?
I know, I know. First world wrestling problems, right? I mean, this is the pro wrestling renaissance. For every Da Vinci, there’s bound to be Dogs Playing Poker.
But there’s another issue I’ve seen that’s even more troubling… and that’s the thinness of many rosters.
Thin Rosters, Incomplete Talents
A general complaint of many fans, from WWE on down, has been the lack of completeness in many talents. Specifically, the thinnest attribute many wrestlers today seem to lack is charisma and promotional skills.
While in-ring athletic ability is always going to be important to any wrestler, flexibility of style and charisma are essential to transcend the line from ‘wrestler’ to ‘star.’
Not everyone can be The Rock, of course. But watching many talents today try and cut a promo, I want to wince. Whether it’s Bianca Belair’s cringe-worth “Guuurl… uh-aww” promo on a recent NXT to the Von Erichs putting me to sleep on MLW, there are too many wrestlers who can’t cut a coupon out of the Sunday paper, let alone a halfway decent promo.
Of course, talents need time to work on those skills. They need ‘reps.’ But for years, reps were done in the high school gyms, and you were brought along slowly. Hopefully, by the time someone got to TV, they could at least cut a halfway decent promo.
Not anymore. With the explosion of TV slots available, you see so many talents who need not just polishing on their promo skills, but something lacking in many facets of their toolkit. You see talents who are nearly one dimensional, and Botchamania can’t even keep up with everything we can find nowadays. Few of these are crippling to a wrestler, many of them are mistakes made by young talent… but you don’t want to earn a rep with the fans as a no-charisma sloppy botch machine when you’re still learning the ropes. That sort of rep can stick with you for a very, very long time.
The Curse of Exclusive Contracts
In television, it’s quite common to have an exclusive contract, or at least a contract that binds you to a certain network or production company. Unless you’re a minor background actor who’s greatest accomplishment is ‘Bystander #3,’ you’re not going to be going to be jumping from network to network.
Pro wrestling, at least when it comes to TV programs, is the same. Unless you are willing to sign a non-exclusive contract that pretty much guarantees you’re going to be nothing more than a jobber, any talent that’s going to get on TV is going to be bound to a single company (with limited exceptions). Of course, as a wrestler you’ll hopefully get paid more doing so, and many still allow for you to do conventions, maybe even non-televised shows for minor promotions as long as it doesn’t conflict with your filming schedule.
The problem is, that means there’s currently A LOT of spots to fill. Remember, 14 hours of TV a week. And pro wrestling isn’t Star Trek, where you can do an hour’s worth of show with 6 people including the cameraman. It’s short act improv physical stuntwork, where even a 1 hour show is going to need 10 to 15 on screen performers including commentary, announcers, etc.
What’s A Promoter To Do?
Option One: On A Superstar & A Prayer
So what do you do to cash in on pro wrestling’s renaissance? If you’re a promoter, one option is to spend your money getting names that’ll put butts in seats, and fill out the rest of your roster as best you can, praying that some of those smaller names develop.
This leads to problems, especially in niche divisions. Tag teams and women especially have looked remarkably thin, with one or two names carrying a division and very little underneath. ROH’s Women of Honor division looks like it’s on Botox Life Support, and their tag team division basically lives and dies by the Briscoes.
Impact’s in a similar bind. Their tag team division has been gutted over the past year and is just now starting to rebuild, and for most of 2019 their men’s division’s floundered due to injury, contract disputes, and departures for greener pastures.
Regardless of the promotion on TV, you see it. Big, gaping holes in their rosters, papered over with ultra-thin veneers and promoters praying that nobody gets seriously hurt, want out of their contract, or decide to quit wrestling altogether. Only WWE currently is truly talent-rich (and ironically creatively poor, to the point many talents are being wasted).
Option Two: Focused Booking
Another option is to not worry about having all divisions and cater to only a certain few. ROH did this for years by not even having a women’s division, a trend MLW’s followed. WoW and RiSE go the Shimmer route and just don’t even have men’s divisions at all.
But this isn’t a permanent solution. For the shows that want to go national, fans expect to see some variety to what’s on screen. Watching four matches of two vanilla appearance guys beat the hell out each other gets boring after awhile. So you have to have variety either in the types of performers you have, or the matches presented. This is, like them or not, how talents like Joey Ryan, Sonny Kiss, and Orange Cassidy have been able to make it on the independent scene.
If you can’t do at least give lip service to a variety of divisions, history seemingly shows you’re going to be a small time player at best.
Option Three: The Super Friends Approach
A third option that’s becoming increasingly popular with promotions is having partnerships and crossover events. ROH works with NJPW & CMLL. Impact partners with AAA (who apparently also works with AEW), Pro Wrestling NOAH & Border City Wrestling. MLW partners with The Crash among others.
This of course, has its own problems. The most glaring example was a recent MLW taping in Tijuana. No shows, visa issues, injuries and more decimated the card so much, MLW had to put a trios match that had no MLW talent on their next episode.
Think about that. A card so thin on MLW talent that total unknowns filled a slot in an hour long program so it could air. Imagine if something similar happened to WWE? You tune in for Smackdown, when suddenly you find two people with jobber entrances putting on a twenty minute match. And we thought Nicholas was a poor tag-team champion!
MLW’s not the only promotion having such issues. Every time Impact films in Mexico City, at least a third of the matches involve AAA talents that few American TV watchers are familiar with. For them, figuring out why the Mexican fans are popping so hard for Big Mama and Nino Hamburguesas or why Faby Apache is suddenly getting a Knockouts championship match is confusing at best.
Where Does the Renaissance Go?
Tough question. One I wish I had an easy answer for.
In an ideal world, there’d be enough fans, enough money to keep the pro wrestling renaissance going. Every promotion could weather the tough times, develop their young talent, and bring in more talents as more athletes see the financial rewards of getting into pro wrestling and are willing to learn the craft.
That’s just not going to happen. Only in The New Day’s world is the sky all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns.
What’ll probably happen is that quite a few of these new programs are going to fizzle out. Too many shows, too many one trick acts with thin rosters, and fans simply won’t watch. A few will hopefully survive either by being creative, being economically smart, or maybe simply by luck. The best talents of the folded shows will then be absorbed into the surviving shows, which should make the survivors stronger.
Those who don’t get one of these slots can hopefully get a boost to their indy and convention bookings, where they can continue to work on their skills and ride it out to the next chance slots open up on the TV shows.
What happens to pro wrestling’s renaissance after that? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.