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All For Grabs? Wrestling in the Modern YouTube Age

There’s an argument to be had that wrestling in 2019 is the revenge of the early ’80s. While the territories are not back, there are plenty of companies plying their trade with either TV deals or a solid, loyal fan base able to watch a weekly promotion’s product via YouTube or a direct subscription service.

YouTube really has been the great leveller in terms of gaining a substantial audience. Growing up in the UK in the ’90s I had WCW and WWE, and I was more than fine with that. But I would read certain wrestling publications (the legendary Power Slam for one) and would dream of what the USWA looked like, or imagine what it must be like to watch Smokey Mountain Wrestling. Without the services of a tape trader (and I was too unworldly at that age to reach out to one of them), the likes of the companies mentioned above, and also ECW, NJPW and AJPW were impossibly distant. They seemed unreachable to me from across the water.

A consequence of this for me is that I began to romanticise all of these out of reach promotions, in the same way that someone from Japan might romanticise Paris, for example. The likes of Smoky Mountain Wrestling took on a strange, exotic glamour in my mind, like buried treasures too precious to be brought out into the light.

Unabom (Kane) vs The Undertaker in Smoky Mountain Wrestling
Unabom (Kane) vs The Undertaker SMW Aug 19 1995

In particular, I had a mad fascination for the USWA. This may partly have been because they had WWF stars like The Undertaker, Sid and Bret Hart appear on occasion due to a talent trading agreement between the two organisations. But there was also the pictures of wild, bloody scraps, often involving Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, a world away from his jokey ‘Burger King’ status in the WWF (there was also a strange obsession with the tag team PG-13, mainly because I didn’t know what the name meant).

The point is, I was a wrestling mad kid who was fascinated that there were other promotions out there that looked so decisively different from my beloved WWF and WCW. But there wasn’t an easily accessible way for me as a kid in the UK to engage with these companies. Now, I can’t (I hope) be the only wrestling mad kid at the time who felt this way. Imagine if the likes of SMW,  Global Wrestling Federation and the USWA had access to this potential audience and their parents’ wallets. It would have been a welcome injection of revenue and may have potentially kept these companies in business, if only for a few years more at least.

If only they had access then to what wrestling companies have now, the great global free market: the internet.

The Modern YouTube Age

We all know the many changes that the internet has made to our lives and the way we experience culture; a lot of it good, a lot of it bad. In terms of wrestling though, the change has been substantial and magnificent. The key has been one of access.

The global spread of the internet means that promotions can now have access to homes across the world and not just in their local territory, tied down by the limited exposure offered by a TV deal with a small, regional station. There might not be the same interest in wrestling as there was during its 1990’s peak, but there is still plenty of money to be made, and opening up the market means to increase the potential audience size you can attract. The larger the audience, the larger the profit. Simple.

YouTube and social media have exponentially expanded the range of audience a company can appeal to and communicate with. For better or worse this has meant a turning away from the traditional screen and print forms of media, but also the costs involved in these.

For a long time TV was considered the shop window for a promotion, enticing people into the arenas or ‘clubs’ for house and major weekly shows in the territory days and purchasing lucrative Pay-per-View shows in the ‘modern’ age.

Wrestling TV shows of course still perform this function, but the internet has provided a much more accessible way for promotions to get the product out and fans to be able to watch.

YouTube has been the key digital platform in this respect. Available worldwide for no cost, the platform allows a company to get its talents seen without having to worry about expensive televisual productions.

Many promotions have an official YouTube channel and use this to put up key clips of action from their shows and sometimes whole matches. Their fans can get quick updates on the main stories and angles, while also conveniently allowing the promotion to show the best, most enticing parts of their shows and cutting away any fat or gristle there may have been on the night.

Not only this, it allows the curious fan who has just come across a recommendation for a promotion, from social media or word of mouth, a chance to see what the fuss is about, a taster session if you will, without any risk or cost. If the said fan doesn’t like what they see, neither fan or audience gain anything, but neither do they lose anything either. Certainly for the fan, they avoid the expense of paying high prices for uncertain quality from the tape trading circuit, as would have been the case in the nineties.

Nor is all of this limited to western wrestling companies either. Promotions from further afield, such as those from Europe, Mexico, Japan and even China, are also able to put their promotions on the global stage. In the case of a company that is actively trying to expand its global presence—such as NJPW—a platform such as YouTube is essential for reaching as many people as possible worldwide with their product. Not only that, NJPW uses the platform to ease any potential difficulties arising from the language barrier by using their own YouTube series’ such as ‘The Recount’. They give potential new viewers the history of certain wrestlers, factions, feuds and even important competitions such as the G1-Climax, all in English so that new, western viewers can jump straight in and know what’s going on as they start to watch. Inclusivity for the new viewer, a new fan for the promotion. Everybody wins.

The Recount NJPW YouTube still image of a wrestler with his countries flag

But what of the actual ‘TV’ shows themselves? How does YouTube and the internet affect these?

The Revolution Will Be Televised?

Television, as we know, is a cold, statistic-centred, expensive business. Ratings make the money-go-round. Without ratings, advertisers will not pay stations to show their advertisements, which means reduced profits for the station and less money to invest back into the programmes. If you don’t have ratings, you more than likely won’t even have a show before too long.

In the world of wrestling, this is often a challenging, sometimes insurmountable problem for a small or new company looking to make an impact. Since the buyouts of both WCW and ECW in 2001, it has been extremely difficult for a company to either obtain or keep a TV deal, especially one with a major network.

There are several reasons for this. The appeal of wrestling to a mass, mainstream audience has diminished since it hit its pop-cultural peak in the mid to late nineties. A large part of this is due to the buyout of the lesser two of the Big Three, leaving only the Big One. Viewers whose taste in wrestling only tolerated expensive-looking, larger productions would not have turned to independents like ROH that appeared in the wake of the buyouts. At the same time, if the WWE product fell out of their favour there would be, to them, nowhere else to turn. It’s much easier to turn off altogether in that case.

Impact! (formerly TNA) are perhaps the exception, but even they have had very mixed fortunes (a lot of their making, admittedly) which has led to them falling from prominence and bouncing from channel to channel like some erratic wrestling pinball in a machine they cannot come to some balance with.

The upshot is unless you were WWE (a tried and tested brand) the major networks were very unwilling to give smaller promotions a slot on their stations, believing they would not appeal to a mass audience. Of course, unless you give a promotion a chance, how can you tell if they could reach such an audience? Promotion is crucial, and TV is the primary shop window for any company. Even now, with AEW, I believe they are very fortunate to have the TNT deal, whose interest was possibly more piqued by the Khan’s business skills and finances than the combined talents of The Elite. This is not to take away from the talent at all or to dismiss what they achieved originally at All In. But realistically, in the world of the major TV networks, money talks. Which is something a lot of smaller promotions do not have a lot of.

There are, however, a few promotions that have used YouTube to innovate how we can access a wrestling ‘TV’ show. The likes of the NWA, MLW, AEW, PCW and formerly the British promotion Defiant all have or do run their weekly show on YouTube as opposed to through the traditional televisual route.

Jon Moxley at the close of AEW's Double or Nothing
Jon Moxley at the close of AEW’s Double or Nothing

The benefits of this are enormous. It allows a promotion to slowly build a following instead of having to deal with the immediate and constant pressure of having to hit the TV station’s targets for ratings, which realistically will not come over a short term period. Depending on the costs involved, a slow but steady growth might be more sustainable than a quick burst of fashionable ‘boom’ followed by a humiliating sheer drop into bust (WCW springs to mind here).

Billy Corgan, head honcho of the NWA, has talked multiple times of the fact he has a 20-year business plan, which suggests that he is in no rush to reach the top of the mountain, preferring a slow, sustainable growth instead. Which seems more realistic when you consider how the NWA has been seen as a little bit of a joke since Shane Douglas rejected its heavyweight title all the way back in 2019 (Meanwhile, 25 years later…)

So far the NWA has dipped its toe back into the waters with a 70th Anniversary PPV, a pop-up show and the return of the Crockett Cup. Yet it has been the introduction back in October of their ‘TV show,’ Powerrr, that has brought a lot more serious attention and indeed new fans to the group. There a lot of fans on social media and on forums that have gone so far as to say Powerrr is the highlight of their wrestling week. Clearly, the old school vibe and emphasis on ‘real men’ grappling not flying has struck a chord with a section of the audience that is not being catered for elsewhere.

And yet with the level of interest there had been before the launch of Powerrr, it would be very realistic to say that a TV deal for the show would not have been forthcoming. Even with Billy Corgan at the helm, the major networks would dismiss what they might see as basically a glorified backwater independent wrasslin’ promotion and not the ‘Sports Entertainment’ they believe will draw the big numbers.

Billy Corgan on NWA Power Insider YouTube channel

YouTube has allowed the NWA an opportunity to shop their wares to the world at large without the pressure of a network breathing down their neck, and so far it seems to be working. As of the morning of the 21st November (UK time), the latest episode of Powerrr has 103,000 views, which is nothing to sniff at when you consider the NWA was not taken particularly seriously beforehand and that Powerrr is only on its seventh episode. In fact, 103,000 views are more than what its other YouTube competitor MLW draws currently for their show Fusion outside of special episodes such as their ‘War Chamber’ edition, which has managed a still-impressive 111,000 views.

In fact, MLW does have their Fusion show on TV, airing every Saturday night on Bein Sports in the 9 pm slot. So why air the show on YouTube at all? And for free? Well, it acknowledges that not everybody watches TV in the traditional way anymore. A lot of people watch via their laptops, tablets and phones nowadays, using catch up services or streaming services such as Netflix. By putting MLW Fusion on YouTube, they will also theoretically catch all of the fans who don’t watch traditional TV or have access to Bein Sports.

AEW Dark is possibly the most interesting YouTube wrestling show, simply by virtue of the fact that they don’t need to air it. They have a major deal with TNT, so why air anything on YouTube? Firstly, it’s smart because it acknowledges how The Elite built up the core following via their other YouTube show, Being The Elite. It also gives access to the AEW product who don’t have access to TNT or ITV, as the show also offers recaps from the previous episode of their TNT show Dynamite. It also lends Dynamite an air of premium quality, setting up a hierarchy of programming. If you want to watch the lesser show, it’s free for all on YouTube. If you want to watch the main programme, you’ll need to pay for it. It’s a shop window for a shop window essentially. It’s an interesting business model, and it must be said Dark is perfect for showing wrestlers who could not be fit onto Dynamite—meaning everyone at least gets some form of exposure.

Show Me The Money!

What are the downsides of airing your show on YouTube? There’s not a TV network to contribute to the costs of production, meaning that as a promoter you will either have to find sponsors, investors or, worse luck, find a way to stump up the money yourself. Also, the YouTube route is less lucrative than the traditional TV route. You need to have clocked up over 4000 hours of watch time and have at least 1000 subscribers before you can have advertisements linked to your videos, which isn’t necessarily a problem for the NWA and MLW, but advertisers may be less willing to pay for advertising space on YouTube than for traditional media.

David Lagana of the NWA has already, perhaps unwisely, confirmed that the NWA’s business model Is unsustainable. Therefore a company like the NWA or MLW is reliant on ticket sales, PPV buys and merchandise sales too. The positive thing about merchandise is that most promotions will ship globally, again expanding their market worldwide. NWA regularly uses their social media and even Powerrr for advertising their ‘deal of the week.’ But is this enough to turn a profit?

RevPro UK
RevPro

There may be a further silver lining to having such a global reach. NJPW have run their first-ever solo UK show this year, which from a live gate perspective was very successful. China’s OWE—working partners of AEW—were due to come across the water also; their tour now in the process of being rearranged due to scheduling issues. Not so long ago, this would have been unthinkable. But with the growth of homegrown companies such as PROGRESS and RevPro, and the likes of NXT UK drawing more attention to the UK wrestling market, it may prove lucrative and appealing to more promotions to come across and pay the Brits a visit. And why stop there? European countries like Germany and Austria, for example, have strong wrestling cultures and could be ripe with further cultivation for a tour of the major cities. The shop window has opened out into the world. It is time for shop owners to ensure that—to borrow an old WWF phrase, “the world is watching.”

Overall, I believe YouTube is and will only further be a benefit to the wrestling industry, for both promotions and the fans. While uncertainties about business models are still prevalent and legitimate, it would take just one company to land upon a model which works and is sustainable for a real revolution in the way we consume wrestling to occur. Wrestling has not been this exciting perhaps since the days of the Monday Night Wars, and it is not just down to the promotions and the in-ring action but also the way new technology is being used to distribute this. Believe me; I am looking forward very much to seeing how this all develops in the future. Be there or be square(d circle).


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Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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