As Wrestling's Biggest Names Falter, the Indie Pro Wrestling Guerrilla Is on the Rise
This Sunday, the only professional wrestling company most of the world has heard of will hold its second-biggest event of the year at Staples Center. Two weeks later, Hollywood-based Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s largest event of the year takes place at a veterans hall in Reseda. One PWG alumnus will appear at WWE SummerSlam – with several others in the company's employ, including injured megastar Daniel Bryan – and two former WWE superstars are on PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles card.
Though it may not sound like it, PWG is thriving. Founded by a group of six wrestlers 11 years ago, the indie promotion has managed to distinguish itself among diehard fans with a self-aware sense of humor, high-energy shows and an eye for talent that the majors have yet to notice. It represents a move away from the stereotypical wrestling fan of yore to a newer sensibility that’s more in line with the Comic-Con set than something like NASCAR.
“If you asked me to describe PWG in one word," says current WWE superstar Seth Rollins, who was active in PWG from 2006-09 under his former ring-name Tyler Black, “it’d be 'fun.'” Rollins, who’s competing in a high-profile match this Sunday at SummerSlam, describes the comparatively tiny Reseda fan base as loyal, even rabid.
That Rollins and a number of other PWG alumni are now with WWE is unsurprising — Vince McMahon has been culling talent from the independent circuit for ages. But if the fact that any WWE superstars ended up back in the minor leagues seems odd, a partial explanation for this Los Angeles convergence is the WWE Network.
The network is a Netflix-type streaming service launched in late February, and delivers some 100,000 hours of archival content and live programming alike to eager wrestling nerds for $9.99/month. This has been a boon for wrestling fans — prior to its inception, monthly pay-per-views like SummerSlam cost around $45 a pop — but McMahon’s latest brainchild has yet to prove itself as a sound investment. The company brass was hoping to break even with one million subscribers by WrestleMania, which took place in early April, but reported only 667,000. A recent renewal of TV contracts likewise netted them less money than they were hoping, and McMahon — briefly a paper billionaire after initial good tidings — is said to have lost $350 million in one day due to stock losses.
This culminated in what fans have taken to calling Black Thursday, a bout of spring cleaning that saw the release of 11 different performers. Just over a week later, one of them was announced as the first entrant in the 24-person Battle of Los Angeles tournament. Though contract purges like this aren't unheard of, this latest round felt especially sudden, and included several performers who’d been on WWE programming in significant roles just days earlier.
The bloodletting didn’t stop there. July 31 saw the announcement of the latest WWE Network statistics: 161,000 new subscribers against 128,000 cancellations, or a net gain of just 33,000. The total currently stands at 700,000, and on the same day it was announced that WWE was planning on letting 7 percent of its workforce go. This included the entire WWE Magazine staff, thirty-year veteran timekeeper Mark Yeaton (best known among fans for throwing Stone Cold Steve Austin all those beers) and, it seems, the publicist who was assisting with this story.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, and WWE’s situation is absolutely robust in comparison to TNA's. The country's second-largest promotion (albeit by a country mile), TNA has often been said to be in dire financial straits; their decision not to re-sign longtime standard-bearer A.J. Styles earlier this year seemed to signal especially hard times. The recent news that Spike TV may not renew their TV contract once it expires this October could mean the company's end altogether. As for Styles, he’ll be at Battle of Los Angeles too—another instance of PWG benefiting from the majors’ financial woes.
Like a lot of disreputable industries (see also: porn), pro wrestling survives by staying ahead of the technological curve — pay-per view in the ‘80s, national television in the ‘90s. The WWE Network was conceived of as a continuation of this trend, the kind of gamble that will either be seen as a trailblazer or a noble, ahead-of-its-time failure. It won’t be McMahon’s first large-scale misfire if it doesn't work out — just ask the World Bodybulding Federation or the XFL — but neither is it likely to significantly alter WWE's overall stature.
All of which raises the question of how much of an opportunity there is for up-and-coming promotions like PWG to alter the status quo. Casual fans come to and go from WWE all the time, but the fanatics sell out PWG shows every month. Over email, Grantland's resident wrestling expert David Shoemaker contends that "the difference between a small indie and a big one is insignificant, and the distance between, say, PWG and TNA is shrinking quickly." Still, PWG doesn't have a television deal, and the only way to watch their shows (other than attending) is by buying them on DVD after the fact. "The problem they run into is the battle with real-time. Wrestling in the modern era is almost necessarily live, and that's great for PWG's live events, but it makes their DVDs seem like dinosaurs."
Asked about the monetary implications of the WWE Network for the performers — there have been reports of nickel-and-diming them for not adhering to a new dress code, late (or small) royalty checks for video-game appearances, and decreased bonuses for PPVs — the WWE wrestler Rollins sounds unfazed. “We’re working just as hard as we ever have,” he says. “For us, on the business end, I don’t look at it any differently.”
The symbiotic relationship between SummerSlam and Los Angeles is well established. It’s taken place at Staples Center every year since 2009, the only such partnership in WWE’s thirty years of running pay-per-view events. But the back-and-forth relationship between pro wrestling’s only monolith and the smaller organizations now appears to be in flux. One thing is certain: the financial realities of this business are changing by the day, and it’s all coming to a head right here in Los Angeles.
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