To better understand the significance of internet pay-per-view down the line, I feel it is important, especially for younger readers, to understand the kinds of changes wrestling has gone through. Young readers might find it hard to fathom, but today’s pay-per-view and ratings-driven business model did not always exist. For an industry roundly criticized for “Living in the past,” the professional wrestling business has undergone a multitude of drastic changes over the past fifty years. Before television rose to prominence in the 1950s, pro wrestling was always an attraction. Much like the circus, wrestling was known for coming to town once or twice a year, dazzling its patrons with its smoke-and-mirror antics, and moving on to the next market. But with the advent of television, the dynamic changed entirely. Instead of surrounding itself with an aura of mystique and grandeur, the new model for pro wrestling was to set up shop in a major market, constantly run shows, and use television to draw fans to shows every week with its lovable heroes, hatable antagonists, and various other over the top characters. In theory, if used properly, television would be the vehicle for drawing the same large number of fans to shows week after week. Television became an instrumental part of the business, but the real money was still in live attendance.
And from the mid-1950s to about the mid-1980s—four decades—this business model, known as the territorial system, worked. In some places, pro wrestling ranked among the most popular sports (keep in mind at that time Vince mcMahon’s concept of “Sports entertainment” had not even been coined yet). In other places, pro wrestling became a cultural juggernaut, capturing the imaginations of the natives. Just to put that in perspective, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer once talked about how there was a point during the glory period of Memphis Wrestling where just about one out of every three Memphis households was watching Memphis Wrestling on Saturday mornings. Realistically speaking, that’s a staggering statistic. Other places adopted wrestling as the thing to do on Friday nights. In Dallas, for instance, it became a tradition for families—particularly fathers and sons—to spend their Friday nights at the Dallas Sportatorium for the Von Erichs’ World Class Championship Wrestling. Today when I go to wrestling shows and talk to older fans who grew up here in the Los Angeles area, they always talk about going to the Olympic Auditorium to watch Freddie Blassie and Mil Mascaras during the glory period of Mike LeBell’s World Wrestling Association, later renamed NWA Hollywood Wrestling.
Before there was pay-per-view there was closed circuit television. I’ve done a lot of studying up on the subject of closed circuit television, but I haven’t learned for sure what the first big closed circuit show was for the United States. The earliest one I can remember reading about was the legendary 1976 Muhammad Ali-Antonio Inoki match from Tokyo that was billed as matching the pro wrestler (Inoki) against the boxer (Ali). That match, which eventually went to a draw, was used as the main event for various territories’ closed circuit cards. Over 150 closed locations aired that match. Closed circuit television became “The thing” for territories to host their big shows on a grander scale, with the most notable probably being Jim Crockett Promotions’ “Starrcade ’83: A Flair for the Gold,” where Ric Flair beat Harley Race in a cage match to win the NWA Heavyweight Championship. And of course, the first Wrestlemania aired on closed circuit television.
Let’s fast forward about a decade. Thanks to Vincent K. McMahon’s movement for national expansion, the territory system is for all intents and purposes dead. There’s this new thing called cable, and more and more people are getting it every day. Enter pay-per-view, the medium that has consistently powered pro wrestling’s major players for the past two decades.
For all the red tape a company must circumvent to establish a presence on pay-per-view, the real trick is to build staying power on the medium. Of the companies I can think of that tried to get their shows on pay-per-view, very few had any measure of success, and even those that were successful couldn’t maintain that popularity and faded away. Companies like UWF International, which marketed itself as “Real” pro wrestling, ECW, and even UFC died on pay-per-view, because all three lacked the main ingredient to remain viable. It goes back to the territory system, with television functioning as a vehicle to entice your fanbase to pay for a big match. The only difference is that with pay-per-view, you’re targeting a national audience as opposed to a particular region, and to market your product to this national audience you need consistent national television. It sounds like a no-brainer, but so many companies have tried and failed on pay-per-view without that key ingredient. WWF and WCW succeeded on pay-per-view because both had weekly television to drive fans to the pay-per-views: WWF had Raw every Monday night on the USA Network, and WCW had its Saturday night show on TBS and eventually Nitro on TNT.
But just as quickly as smaller promotions were eliminated from contention back in the ‘90s, the next evolution of the pro wrestling industry promises to provide an entirely new field for small, independent companies to showcase their product to a worldwide audience. The internet changed the world: it changed the way we communicate, it changed the way we shop, and it has already begun to change the way we watch wrestling.
The advent of internet pay-per-view marks a new chapter in the history of pro wrestling. Smaller companies like Ring of Honor and Dragongate USA were among the first to try their luck with this new technology, and countless other promotions followed suit. I’ve been very vocal about Ring of Honor’s problems with their IPPV productions of late, but every new technology needs to fail somewhere to evolve somewhere else. Companies like GoFightLive, WWNLive.com, and HighSpots.tv offer smaller wrestling companies a platform for their live events, and there is once again something to build toward.
It’s no secret that entertainment as a whole is changing, perhaps faster than the entertainment industry would like. A significant number of people have canceled their cable subscriptions this year in favor of internet-based services like NetFlix, Hulu, and Amazon. Today’s culture craves the on-demand component. People want their entertainment on their terms, not when the networks want to disperse it. The internet gives fans that feeling of total control over any and all content. But it does one more vital thing for small pro wrestling companies.
In the old days, even before wrestling had any kind of national television, there was a real process of how you would hear about a great wrestling show. Chances are you would read about it several weeks after it actually happened in Pro Wrestling Illustrated or the Wrestling Observer, or maybe a friend of yours who was at the show wrote you and let you know about it. Eager to get your hands on this show that has been so mightily hyped up by your friends, you wrote to a tape-trader, waited a few weeks, and finally you would have your tape, probably months after it all happened. In its early stages the internet eliminated the need for a tape-trader, the annoying middle man, and allowed for fans to purchase directly from the wrestling promotion. Still, you would have to wait a few weeks before you received your DVD or, if you were particularly old-fashioned, VHS tape. But now, the process is exponentially faster. You read about a fantastic Chikara show from Saturday night. You log into SmartMarkVideo and for $9.99, you can watch the entire show that Tuesday. Two weeks ago New Japan Pro Wrestling aired its first live global IPPV. I’m in Los Angeles, and I could watch a live wrestling show from Tokyo for only $25. The digital floodgates have opened.
But it’s important to look at the internet pay-per-view explosion from a broad perspective. Eventually, the independent companies won’t be the only ones who benefit from IPPV. As the internet gets even stronger, and fans’ appetites for instant gratification become greater, companies like WWE and TNA will move their product to a strictly internet platform. Basic economics would dictate that an innovation like IPPV across the board will, when the time is right, spark another boom period in the pro wrestling industry. And while we’re on the topic of economics, the introductions of new players in the IPPV market is essential. This past week, Smart Mark Video announced its intentions to enter the IPPV game, meeting stiff competition from WWNLive, Ring of Honor, HybridENT.tv, and HighSpots. The pieces are falling into place, and it’s only a matter of time before the market is teeming with options for consumers.
IPPV, at least in this part of the world, is still a difficult concept for mainstream culture to embrace. But with technology rushing to catch up with the rapidly growing amount of content on the web, things like the Roku Player are set to become common household necessities, just as televisions did in the ‘60s, cable in the ‘90s, and computers at the start of this century.
The landscape in pro wrestling is transforming right before our eyes, only this time we’ll all go along for the ride.