It's been a rough week for the powers that be in professional wrestling, and the most unfortunate part of it might just be that it's far from over. Rarely have we experienced anything like the past few days in wrestling history, as both World Wrestling Entertainment and TNA experienced financial setbacks that forced some fairly drastic results. Without being overly dramatic, we are indeed on the precipice of some very critical moments. Both companies are at the crossroads, and both need to make some changes to avoid further issues. How does this affect us, the wrestling fans? Let's take a look:
In the dysfunctional universe that we call TNA, this week began with reports that their home channel, Spike TV, would not be continuing to air their Impact program as of the end of October when their current deal expires. Whether or not this has actually happened remains the subject of great debate as of this story, but what is most certainly not in question is their tenuous grip on relevance. TNA has been on a bit of a downward spiral since the failed experiment with Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff, and the current regime of Dixie Carter and WWE castoff John Gaburick has at best failed to hasten that decline. Spike has been a destination for wrestling fans since the days when it aired Monday Night Raw, and Impact's ratings have improved a bit since reaching their nadir several months ago, but some of the writing has been on this particular wall for quite a while.
According to some reports, Carter downplayed this decision to her team, letting them think that it was she and TNA's brass that had told Spike thanks but no thanks due to their poor promotion of the product. That excuse is laughable at best even to those not in the know, but as always it contains more than a kernel of truth. Spike has moved their focus to other things, most notably MMA, while Impact's million plus viewers register a pretty good dent on the cable Richter scale. Lest you think Spike too highbrow to associate with pro wrestling, bear in mind this is the same channel that offers up programs titled Frankenfood and Tattoo Nightmares. All of that said, much of Spike's consternation appears to be in regards to the status of Vince Russo, the much-maligned former boss booker of WWF and WCW who is well known for his exceedingly awkward storylines, trick endings, and extremely high opinion of himself. Russo's been rumored to be back on TNA's payroll for quite a while now, and many in the business have associated Spike's unwillingness to play ball with the fact that Russo had mended fences and gotten involved with the product again, despite everyone's assurances to the contrary. The point may be moot, as Russo himself tweeted Wednesday that TNA had suggested a break from his consultations which he declined, preferring a clean break.
Did Russo quit or was he fired? Who cares. The smokescreen of did-he-or-didn't-he underscores the most obvious detraction in the state of TNA. No matter how many times Vinnie Ru wears out his welcome somewhere (and it's been quite a few times, as the record indicates), he consistently gets another job. The reason for that is the same reason that TNA went after Hogan, Bischoff, Jeff Hardy, Mr. Anderson, et al: anyone who's made it big in the business has the potential to land viewers for the competition. There's nothing inherently wrong with this strategy. Everyone recalls the waves made during the Monday Night Wars, as the Big 2 exchanged body blows over who could make the most of their counterpart's castoffs. But that was a different time, when wrestling was boffo in the ratings and fans were salivating over the next salvo. These days, WWE is far and away the biggest game in town, and TNA's moves often register like the transparent attention-grabbing attempts that they are. Going down the road of failed bookers is an obvious signpost to the final stop of irrelevance. TNA cuts ties with Russo? Again? Yawn.
Far more troubling is whether Spike truly has dropped TNA. The cover story of them kicking the promotion to the curb due solely to Russo's presence is enticing, but likely false. Far more damaging are the comments by Rampage Jackson, a big name outside the wrestling world that owns a space TNA covets of pseudo-mainstream attention and ends up totaling a bunch of..well, not much. The fact that Jackson himself has wasted no time blasting the guys who paid him reasonably well (while struggling to pay their own actual talent, mind you) makes me less irritated at him than perplexed at how TNA can drop the ball this badly and continue. They have always attempted to label their efforts as a quest for their own identity, but never have they seemed less unique than right now. Should Spike truly be done with all things TNA, their future is hazy at best and DOA at worst. Can they engineer a deal with Spike's owner Viacom to save themselves? Can they peddle themselves to another bidder? Can they just call it quits and sell their tape archives to the WWE Network? Would most of us notice if they did?
Even as TNA flounders in its uncertainty and cuts bait with long overdue hangers-on, the WWE has reported somewhat soft financial numbers again yesterday with their total numbers of Network subscribers. We are officially a long ways away from the touted one million that Vince McMahon and company were so confident they would easily obtain. Worse yet, this ballsy move to create and distribute their own content, PPV providers be damned, has proven a significant money drain in the meantime. Things have moved far beyond simple cost-cutting at Titan Tower. It's not just Adam Rose's entourage and Fandango's entrance that have been scaled back, it's their entire magazine staff and a good portion of their corporate folks on top of that. Streamlining is part of any major corporation's strategy, and it's always been a long game here, but there can't be much arguing that things are progressing far more slowly than the brass would have liked.
The WWE finds itself stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place: their inclusion of "traditional" PPV numbers and inability to yet reach a worldwide audience causes them to continue along the existing path, while their newfangled Network hubbub lowers PPV checks to their talent and doesn't allow generally accepted methods of tracking success or failure. What they need more than anything else is to bring new and existing viewers alike onboard to their Network, and that equals one-night-only returns and trips down legends lane to bring anything with a marketing pulse in front of the fans. Did you ever think you'd find yourself in a position where Brock Lesnar, who appears on a Monday Night Raw about as often as Vince himself these days, was a step away from being the promotion's champion? How about a time when the biggest rumors and waves regarding contract status are about a gentleman who has never even competed in the WWE? Strange days, indeed.
In order for the WWE to make this work, they are going to have to shake things up far more than they've been willing to do. This theoretical pipe dream of Roman Reigns winning the title at next year's WrestleMania are wonderful, but the stories that need to be told in the meantime are far more important to the lifeblood of the promotion. There is little doubt the WWE did not get the return they wanted from their USA renewal, but they are not in a great negotiating position quite yet. Whether they get there for next time around will be entirely up to their ability to tell a realistic and compelling story with the names of the past and present intertwined. For every Daniel Bryan story and Bray Wyatt promo, there's still a large quota of same-old, same-old being spoonfed that boggles the mind. If current fans aren't loving it, what hope do they have of attracting new ones? The video library is fantastic, but you've got to BE a huge wrestling fan already to appreciate it. The WWE needs to go after the people who aren't watching wrestling at all and get them hooked. Otherwise their main claim to fame of inexpensive PPVs rings hollow.
I've always been of the mindset that wrestling tells some of the best stories. Those who don't follow the product and never have lack an appreciation for what it is, and those that watched it for a bit and promptly forgot about it still remember some of the really cool stuff they saw when they were a fan. It's without question tough sledding programming wrestling: you don't want to be too kiddie, but you've got to make sure the kids can come to the show. You don't want to be too extreme, but you've got to do things I can't see anywhere else. You want to tie your characters into current events and reality, but you don't want them to be obvious stereotyped tropes of five minutes ago. That's why the WWE needs to devote as much time into growing and teaching their creative team as they are doing with NXT. While the wrestlers will ultimately be the ones we pay to see, it's the stories and plotlines behind the talent that will keep us coming back again and again. Those of us that weren't hooked already, of course.
Ultimately, these decisions are going to force both promotions to make some hard choices, particularly at a time when many in the wrestling community are already clamoring for more and better options. Be it Ring of Honor, Jeff Jarrett's new promotion, or other options, competition breeds the best in this business like it does in any other. Feeling safe and playing it safe will rarely net you brownie points these days. Should TNA end up renewing with Spike or seeking out friendlier skies, this brush with death should serve as a clarion call that they need to change the way they are doing business. They shouldn't seek to be WWE Lite, as it's not necessary, but they can't be so different that they lose the spirit of what makes wrestling great. It must start at the top, and the urge to run right out and sign anyone with experience and availability should be tempered with the sage advice of reaching outside the box..or ring, as it were. As for the WWE, they aren't going anywhere. They are run by solid business folks who went to excellent schools and have plenty of degrees, as well as the pockets to take risks when they'd like to. What they do perhaps lack at the moment is the ability to make a lasting connection with the casual wrestling fan. It is that necessity that they must explore. Just as playing the game doesn't make you the best coach or general manager, achieving success in the wrestling ring does not bring with you the definite skill of making it accessible to the masses. That requires far more savvy, marketing power, advertising ability, and luck than you generally find in the gym.
These stories can be depressing to us as wrestling fans, as for the first time in a very long time the sport we all enjoy appears to be having some significant and obvious growing pains. Hopefully, however, the powers that be for both companies will utilize this uncertain opportunity to approach things freshly and strategize on ways to truly improve the product instead of rehashing the tried and true. While baby steps will have to be taken before anyone will be comfortable with the final result, it's the only way to ensure success over the long haul. Wrestling needs to cure its unhealthy addiction to the same. Should it not, the waves made this week will be merely the start of some very stormy weather.