Is Indy Wrestling Fighting Upstream?
When the WWE Network launched in February of 2014, the wrestling world was waiting in bated breath to see what this meant for the finances involved in wrestling. It was immediately said that pay was cut quite a bit thanks to the lack of pay-per-view revenue and therefore for the next year or so there was nothing but doom and gloom about the prospects of this new era of wrestling distribution.
Something strange happened, however. Instead of wiping the slate clean, this new approach to distribution led to a renaissance of wrestling footage being put into the public unlike ever before. Groups like Highspots and others took initiative and created their own subscription services along with various other promotions around the globe who put their necks out on the line to attempt to roll with the tide. It’s no secret that DVD sales were abysmal all around wrestling aside from a very select few outfits. It’s also no secret that when WWE sneezes, the rest of the wrestling world catches a cold.
So what does it all mean? Does having wrestling at your fingertips at any given time make wrestling less valuable or more? Much like all other innovations, time will be the only deciding factor on what this will do to wrestling going forward. One could theorize that this means TV is going out of style, but the revenue is still rather large for the big outfits but that is where the real gem of this whole thing is revealed; streaming helps indy wrestling tremendously.
Just 10 or so years ago, the goal for any outfit was to get television. It didn’t matter if it was a small pond(HDnet and ROH is an example) or a large one(arguably TNA and Spike in 2005) everyone was gunning for that important exposure. Largely these experiments with the television and indy wrestling markets failed. HDnet and ROH’s marriage was a rocky one that didn’t provide much fruit, and despite longevity in their time slot TNA had the same fate with Spike although their fate was already out of their hands by then in my view. So for years, indy groups stuck to the old model of DVD sales and live ticket sales. Some indys did well, of course PWG being the true standard of how you can succeed on a small scale yet others died painful deaths due to a lack of hype around them.
Mike Quackenbush and CHIKARA were really the first people to take that big plunge into the VOD streaming market. Highspots and other sites had VOD downloads but streaming was incredibly foreign at the time. Netflix had changed the internet video landscape well before this and it was something wrestling was losing touch on. Quackenbush created Chikaratopia and by all accounts, the service is fantastic. Great quality video and a very impressive library was rolled out to the “Chikarmy” and was a huge hit. It wasn’t long until other outfits jumped in line with CHIKARA and began promoting their own streaming services. Here we are at the dawn of 2017 with more subscription options for wrestling fans than money to spend on them. What does it all mean?
I’ve struggled with where this new trend will take the overall wrestling business. On one hand I see how effective this model is; you don’t have to wait around for weeks for a DVD delivery you simply click the play button and enjoy. There’s no astronomical pay-per-view price-gouging either so more fans can afford wrestling now than they ever have before. It all seems fantastic but what about new fans? How are these new mediums going to bring in the casual audience that makes wrestling thrive?
It goes back to what has made indy wrestling great from the start; word of mouth. IWA Mid South in the early 2000‘s was a promotion that most outside of the midwest had no idea about outside of tape traders and internet wrestling geeks which at the time were nowhere near as plentiful as nowadays. Yet DVD sales kept them alive when that market was still very important, not to mention that VHS sales were still going strong until the mid 2000‘s for some people. Word of mouth however made IWA-MS this mythical place for wrestling fans, and I was definitely one of the people that got hooked. Looking back it deserves that credit giving amazing stars their first teeth cuttings, but I can’t help but wonder how they’d fare in these days with streaming as a huge thing. IWA-MS survives BECAUSE of streaming on Highspots Network, which is all the more ironic.
In my view, this new model is a dangerous step in the short term and a great one in the long term. As entertainment around the world transitions from more traditional means of consumption towards internet consumption, we find ourselves in limbo between both eras. This is why TV will remain a big part of the market for the foreseeable future, sans a huge change in the TV climate. Yet in that same breath, if you’re an indy company it is so much more affordable and feasible to go the streaming route. Not only because there isn’t as much of money pit involved with it as there is with TV negotiations these days with anyone not named McMahon but also because it lends itself to being viewed as ahead of the curve. That image is crucial in the wrestling business if you’re trying to come across as a healthy alternative to what anyone can tune into on a weekday. So fear not internet marks, we have a beautiful future ahead of us even if it may be a bit rocky.