Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: Us V Them

The American economy is based, in part, around the idea of capitalism, a concept that posits that competition is the ultimate form of protection for both workers and consumers. Sports occupy an unusually large portion of the average American’s attention. American politics has even becoming increasingly competitive to the point that today many politicians spend most of their time in office campaigning for their next election because the competition is so steep. In short, America is a country defined by its competitiveness; it’s a country whose greatest goal is to compete to prove its supremacy. This is naturally reflected in the wrestling promotions that operate within its borders.

Before the 1980s American professional wrestling was an industry surprisingly defined by how non-competitive its rival promotions were. The country was carved into geographic territories which represented boundaries for promotions. If you were located in the Northeast, you stayed in that immediate area without venturing beyond Pennsylvania. There was an unwritten rule between promotions to not run in another region thereby cutting into that territory’s business. But with the emergence of Vince McMahon in the early ’80s as the new owner of the World Wrestling Federation that rule was quickly broken; McMahon began to take the best talent from other regions and starting venturing out beyond the Northeast into other territories. While there had always been a simmering animosity between promoters that usually surfaced in political maneuvering over who would be the NWA World Champion, none had ever been as outright in their disregard for the old standards. Even when promotions would remove themselves from the NWA, such as when Vince’s father, Vince Sr., did, they would still remain in their territory out of respect to the other territories.

Because of the national expansion of McMahon’s WWF, competition soon became the norm for wrestling as other promotions such as Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling also began to expand, gobbling up territories in an effort to compete. Where at the beginning of the ’80s there had been over a dozen regionally-based promotions, by the end there were only a handful and most had national aspirations. By the mid ’90s there were only three wrestling promotions that drew any sort of attention throughout the country: WWF, WCW, and ECW. While ECW could be considered the last of the regional territories gasping its last breath, the WWF and WCW were the products of the new competitive mindset: the WWF was an amalgam of Northern and Canadian promotions while WCW represented various Southern promotions.

The competition then intensified as the last two giants fought with the WWF ultimately winning the war, transforming itself not into not only the most powerful promotion in the United States but also the world. It went from a small Northeastern promotion that ran loops through parts of Pennsylvania and New York to a multinational corporation that now has run tours on almost every continent. Despite this, the company continues a fierce competitive streak in regard to any notion of opposition, even if the attacks are veiled.

With the emergence of TNA as a national presence, the rechristened WWE has made subtle attempts at undercutting its competition, no matter how woefully disproportionate in size the two may be. Stars that once left WWE have been convinced to return after becoming important parts of the TNA roster. And stars that TNA has created on its own have been plucked up by WWE when the company has no intention of ever actually using them. In reality, there is no war between the two. WWE is able to secure what its wants with TNA have little or no recourse in the actions taken by WWE.

Oddly enough, this seems to have created the illusion of competition in TNA’s management who earnestly believe they’re engaged in a full-on war with WWE. The company’s owner, Dixie Carter, regularly engages WWE, and more specifically Vince McMahon, on her Twitter account with challenges and harsh criticism. It commentators and sometimes even its wrestlers take shots at their imagined rival. And the company has even tailored its product to compete with WWE, moving its program Impact from Thursday to Monday, and running a much more vulgar, adult-oriented show to contrast WWE’s new family-friendly objective.

As has always been the case in wrestling (and often life), the competition is actually a detriment to the company engaging in it:

  • While TNA’s programming has never been accused of coherent logic, almost all signs of plot and planning have been jettisoned in favor of shock and awe.
  • The move to Monday nights that was meant to generate interest in wrestling fans has had the exact opposite effect — Impact has lost almost a third of its audience since the move, dropping around half a point in the ratings.
  • Its roster, already brimming with talent that regularly went unfeatured, has now ballooned to a size that forces many performers to go weeks without any sort of recognition.

Unfortunately, all signs point to an increased drive by the organization to compete with WWE. It has no intention of moving Impact back to its original Thursday time. It continues to bring in new talent even as it sheds members of the roster it spent years investing time in. And, worst of all, the person who should be the most prudent and cautious, its owner, continues to poke at an always angry giant.

It seems as if the wrestling industry has a short attention span, or none at all. It refuses to learn from its past, pretending that competition between promotions is a vital part of its success. While competition produced short term yields for fans and promoters in the late ’90s, it bankrupt an entire industry by killing multiple smaller promotions, each with its own unique flavor, by creating a much larger national giant, which by its very nature necessitates a bland homogeneity to please everyone across multiple territories.

Fans even clamor for increased competition forgetting the bitter divide it drove between audiences during the late ’90s when many took sides and associated themselves with one specific product. An ironic twist to this was that it later came back to hurt both fans and WWE when it tried running an invasion angle with talent it brought over from its buy-out of WCW. Years of competition and conditioning on the part of WWE had created a bitter resentment for all things WCW in WWE’s fans causing them to reject most of WCW’s stars, viewing few as not being on the same level as WWE’s own talent. With its own fans rejecting its attempt to create competition, the company eventually downplayed the very talent it was investing money into. This caused many of WCW’s fans, who held their own resentment towards WWE’s brand of “sports entertainment,” to completely tune out as they saw their stars ignored or buried. What should have been the biggest money-making angle in the company’s history became a mild success and turned many viewers off to wrestling, costing the company new fans in the process.

While it seems hard to convince wrestling promoters that competition is bad business, wrestling’s own history creates a very convincing argument. A country that once saw many promotions with varying ideologies has basically been reduced to just one, with a small organization fighting a quixotic battle against that its own imagined giant. Where once fans had a wealth of talent to watch as each territory had its own set of stars that would rotate from area to area as they grew stale, now exists only a small pool from which few ever get featured prominently creating a sense of deja vu in every match.

Today, wrestling exists not as an endorsement of competition but rather as a warning sign to its dangers. Promotions would be wise to shake off the urge to compete and instead focus on their own fans and their fans’ needs. Engaging in battles with other companies does produce an eventual winner. We forget, though, that in this sort of competition there must also be a loser.

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