For some unknown reason, I recently received a review copy of The Death of WCW: 10th Anniversary Edition of the Bestselling Classic by R .D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez. That’s World Championship “Wrestling”, the counterfeit but once-popular version of the world’s oldest sport which used to air on TBS and TNT. 2015 will mark 20 years since I stopped covering that bloody, staged spectacle (to spend too much time covering the bloody, usually real spectacles of MMA and boxing). But skipping towards the end of this lengthy tome, I did know I would find a valuable lesson for the genuine sport of wrestling.
While the book details all sorts of reasons WCW went out of business, including losing millions of dollars in its last year, the decisive factor, the pin of WCW, if you will, was the view that this show, despite modest ratings success, did not fit the profile of the networks which was desired by the suits representing their owners, AOL-Time Warner (remember them?).
In 2001, on his first week on the job, the newly appointed chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting Systems, Jamie Keller, cancelled this show. The book states, “At the end of the day, the fact was that Jamie Keller simply didn’t like pro wrestling.” (p. 368)
But there is also a telling quote from Jim Weiss, identified as a Turner spokesperson: “WCW is not a core business for Turner Broadcasting. We’ve decided professional wrestling in its current incarnation just isn’t appropriate for the high-scale, upscale brand that we have built on TNT and TBS Superstation. We’re no longer interested in carrying the product.” (p. 359)
Stripped of the public relations diplomacy, this meant that the new owners regarded it as utter garbage aimed at idiots. And they haven’t looked back since.
While real wrestling flounders in attempts to get widespread television coverage, one related sport has recently succeeded in landing a major TV deal. That sport is arm wrestling.
However you view this sport, as a style of wrestling or not, it has its grassroots following along with numerous events held in it all around the world.
It was announced earlier this month that the World Armwrestling League (WAL) has secured an agreement with ESPN in the U.S. for that network to have exclusive rights to televise the 2014 World Armwrestling League Championship and the 2015 World Armwrestling League season. Their first telecast is scheduled for January 2015, with at least eight shows slated for prime time. While more details will be announced shortly, this is a major breakthrough for professional arm wrestling to have many of its top events shown on the largest sports network in the U.S.
Arm wrestling has always been an easy-to-understand, explosive, and visual sport. But it required the right packaging and positioning to make it appealing to ESPN. Its showcasing earlier this year on AMC’s “Game of Arms” reality show got mixed ratings and mixed reviews. In September, AMC announced that the show was being picked up for a second season, but, like TV networks are prone to do, in October, they announced that “Game of Arms” and almost all unscripted programming would be dropped to focus on their scripted hit shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Men”. (Ironically, one of the reality show projects which AMC cancelled was about pro “wrestling”.)
Arm wrestling was able to rebound so quickly because, unlike WCW, it was not perceived as junk, but was simply on the wrong network at the wrong time (read: budget woes for all networks). Plus, critically, it had sound, professional leadership.
The president and commissioner of the World Armwrestling League is not a ripped puller (that’s what arm wrestlers are called, for the uninitiated), but a business leader with many interests and accomplishments: Steve Kaplan.
In an interview last week on No Holds Barred, he explained why he was attracted to the sport.
“It is controlled aggression. It is intense. It is high testosterone,” he said. “It’s all about the combination of the physical and the psychological. And it’s matching speed, technique, and power, and utilizing them in a short burst of a time frame to really excel in this sport.”
Unlike contact and combat sports, he added, “It allows you to get all that done without the risks of life and limb. And it’s really an impressive thing by that.”
And he used his many years of experience and success in business to help get the WAL its deal with ESPN.
Part of the lesson for the sport of wrestling is that a positive perception of it is essential for it to grow and secure major TV coverage. Pay-per-view TV today is generally a wasteland featuring what many consider to be over-priced boxing and MMA cards, along with junk which no other network would show. For example, Saturday’s Global Wrestling event on iN Demand pay-per-view was sandwiched between two shows called “Ghetto Fights 4: Thug Throwdowns” and a fake “wrestling” show called “Wrestling’s Bloodiest: Violent Behavior,” with a vulgar description which cannot be repeated here. This is not where real wrestling needs to be, nor does it aid its perception. In fact, it merely demonstrates again that no network would show it, and it thus had to cohabitate with the likes of these programs.
It remains to be seen whether or not wrestling can overcome the problems which have been been overcome by arm wrestling. It also remains to be seen just how successful the WAL can be on ESPN. But none of this would be possible without innovative, creative, media-savvy, forward-thinking leadership. You can be the judge if that describes anyone running wrestling today.
If anyone is thinking of calling Steve Kaplan, however, I do have a feeling that he may be pretty busy in 2015.
The entire show with the interview with Steve Kaplan can be played here:
(Eddie Goldman is host and producer of the No Holds Barred podcast, at EddieGoldman.com.)
Did you know that on Sunday, December 7, the Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State dual wrestling meet was televised live nationally in the U.S. on Fox College Sports Atlantic? Or did you know that on Thursday, December 11, Maryland will host their inaugural home Big Ten dual against four-time defending NCAA champions Penn State, and it will be televised live nationally on the Big Ten Network?
There may actually be a lot more live wrestling televised in the U.S. than you realize. Keeping up with this TV schedule, however, can be difficult, which is where the National Registry for Wrestling comes in.
Established to bring back the many millions of former wrestlers into the sport, one of the features of their web site is a schedule of televised and webcast wrestling events. This schedule is regularly updated, and can be seen here: http://www.nr4w.com/events/.
While viewership of online streamed video is rapidly increasing in the U.S., TV is still the king for the delivery of live sports. One recent report stated: “Viewership of traditional television dropped nearly 4 percent last quarter, as online video streaming jumped 60 percent.” (1)
However, even if you view live sports on non-pay-per-view online services like FOX Sports GO, WatchESPN, and BTN2Go, you will still have to enter on those sites your ID for your pay-TV provider, such as a cable company. That’s their business model for today, although they may eventually shift to creating and adding online-only pay sites, as TV networks like HBO and CBS are already doing.
Many people are tempted just to cut the cord entirely and dump cable or satellite, choosing to get their TV fixes through Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, or a host of devices like Roku, Google Chromecast, or Apple TV. But if you want live sports, you still have to subscribe to cable or satellite.
An article entitled “Even If You Want To Cut The Cord, Sports Is Strapping You To Your TV” advised: “Sports continues to be the one area of programming that viewers wish to see live. It has unscripted drama and with it, a massive viewing audience. With a model that continues to strap you to your television, even if you don’t need it, for streaming sports video content, the notion of a society completely cut from the cord is a ways off. Sports leagues and networks that air the games are offering ways to see games without your TV, but for much of sports, you’ll still need to prove your television provider. That will slow cord-cutting growth to an extent. How much it will impact it depends on sports leagues, and those that negotiate media rights deals. For the sports fan, it may be you that are some of the very last to join the cord-cutting revolution.” (2)
Yes, services like Netflix, which show an array of movies, old TV shows, and a few original series, are growing: “Netflix was primarily responsible for the 3% drop this season in Nielsen’s measure of homes using television. Some 34% of homes have Netflix, up from 22% last year.” (3)
And viewers are spending a lot of time with that service: “Netflix subscribers stream more than 46 hours of movies and TV shows from the service every month on average, according to estimates from the Diffusion Group that are based on Netflix disclosures.” (4)
However, Netflix does not offer any live sports.
In addition, there seem to be no publicly reported figures for the viewership of wrestling on the various free, freemium, and pay-per-view webcasts, leading one to believe that the numbers are not particularly significant. The only exception is the aggregate number released for the annual NCAA Div. I Wrestling Championships on the ESPN TV and online networks.
So sports fans are stuck, for the moment at least, with pay-TV providers, which remain far more popular than online video, again for the moment.
The other side of this, though, is that since sports is one of the main attractions keeping people as subscribers to cable and satellite TV, these providers are actively searching out for compelling live sports to show. This can actually be a unique opportunity and advantage for wrestling — but only if it can demonstrate that it can get decent ratings and retain subscribers for these companies.
What, then, must wrestling do to increase its appeal and ratings so it is showcased more on live TV, and on larger networks?
Coach Tom Brands of the top-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes noted that even on the Big Ten Network, wrestling must compete for coverage not only with the two most popular college sports, football and men’s basketball, but also ice hockey and women’s basketball.
“I think if we can get some more pizzazz in there, where things aren’t so tight and coaches are coaching a more entertaining style, I think we can get it to where our ratings start to separate ourselves from ice hockey and women’s basketball. But it’s going to take some work,” he said in an interview.
“It’s a lot more fun when you’re scoring 12, 13, 14, 15 points than it is when you’re scoring two or three points. It’s a lot more fun for everybody,” he added.
Many people from other styles of mat competition have recognized this as well. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend Rigan Machado, who is now the commissioner of the newly-formed Jiu-Jitsu World League, has developed a new set of rules which reward aggressive action and penalize stalling, all in order to popularize jiu-jitsu.
“What’s missing in jiu-jitsu is to go to the next level, to go professional, to be sure athletes get paid,” like in other sports, he said in an interview.
“And the only way you can do that is by getting the TV. But to get the TV, you have a transformation. We need to readjust the rules to be more exciting, more aggressive, because in TV, the good fights which finish with a little points here and there is not enough. They have to put a lot of points on the board, a lot of submissions, a lot of big throws. And that’s what I did.”
He has also teamed up in this venture with veteran sports TV executive Mat Tinley, who also had been a boxing promoter with America Presents when it represented Mike Tyson.
And yet another sport has just made it to big-time TV. Last week it was announced that ESPN will be televising events from the World Armwrestling League (WAL), including the 2014 World Armwrestling League Championship and the 2015 World Armwrestling League season. WAL came into existence based on the “Game of Arms” series about arm wrestling which aired on the AMC network earlier this year.
So wrestling has a lot of work to do in order to expand beyond the occasional telecast on small networks, and break into the limelight in this already very crowded sports TV market. That is yet another urgent challenge facing the world’s oldest sport.
The entire show with the interview with Tom Brands can be played here:
The entire show with the interview with Rigan Machado can be played here:
(Eddie Goldman is host and producer of the No Holds Barred podcast, at EddieGoldman.com.)