It’s a Work: Markism and the Business of Indy Wrestling

            Independent wrestling is probably the last bastion of true professional wrestling, and sadly, it seems to be, in far too many cases, in the hands of ill-equipped promoters, who in turn, leave the trade in the hands of ill-equipped professionals. Some have demonstrated little interest in protecting pro wrestling’s traditional foundations, instead succumbing to what I term ‘Markism’ (not to be confused with Marxism; another flawed philosophy in which an imagined ‘end’ justifies unjustifiable means).

            ‘Markism’ in wrestling promotion surfaces in various ways. Let me first state, despite the errors I wish to point out in many promoters’ practices, that I applaud any and all efforts made by owners and promoters of independent wrestling companies and the workers they employ. They share a passion for the art of pro wrestling and want to contribute to its storied history somehow- just as I do. It’s as thankless a business as one can imagine, and in that very grim reality ‘Markism’ is often spawned- leading to that which further dilutes and destroys a dying art form.

            People get involved in wrestling’s business side for varying reasons, but the greatest common denominator among these people is that they are, simply put, fans of wrestling. This wasn’t always the case. Years ago, wrestlers were made of athletes from diverse backgrounds (off-season footballers for example), bodybuilders or otherwise physically-impressive individuals (found in gyms or working doors at bars and clubs), or others just in the right place at the right time, but today, almost invariably, wrestlers seek out the squared circle because of what they’ve seen on television. This too, is how many of independent wrestling’s current promoters have come to be. They saw wrestling on TV and fell in love with it, wanting somehow to be part of the show. With big-budget productions and packed buildings with loud, raucous fans, TV turned wrestling into true spectacle and made stars out of its players, and I can tell you from first-hand experience, it’s very easy to get caught up in dreams of it. It’s what has kids across the country wrestling in their backyards, or scrounging up the money to join wrestling schools; buying boots and learning the ropes with their minds’ eyes on that shiny, pyro-lit prize of sports entertainment stardom. Would-be wrestlers of every generation have had their heroes: Stone Cold and the Rock, CM Punk and AJ Styles, the Macho Man and Ricky the Dragon, while many would-be promoters imagine empires of their own, molded after Heymans and Jarretts and McMahons. 

            By definition, a promoter is someone who arranges an event by raising the necessary capital to back it, and then works to make their event more widely known. It’s a difficult task, and even more difficult to be successful at, but one of the first things a promoter should identify, is that it is a business and that the basic principles you would apply to most businesses apply here as well.

            In operating a business, you’re offering goods, services and/or products, and in this case that product is entertainment.

            Entertainment comes in many forms and anyone involved in it will tell you that there is a lot of competition for that entertainment dollar. There is television, movies and DVDs, video games and the internet, music, theatre and so on. How does this translate to wrestling? Well, that would be answered by asking yourself who’s entertainment dollar you are after.

            Independent promoters, like any business owners, must decide on their product- that which they are offering, and while this seems simple enough, there’s more to it than deciding they are offering a wrestling show. Why?; because ‘wrestling’ means different things to different people, and over the past quarter-century has changed and splintered into more forms than one term can cover. 

            If you look closely at the independent companies that have had success, most offer a very distinct style and appeal to a very distinct market. Some companies have thrived on sheer athleticism and fast-paced excitement, while others have fared well in offering hardcore-style wrestling with lots of blood and carnage. There are some that have toed numerous lines, incorporating international styles and high-spots; giving their fans a fuller menu still. There are the humble, family-oriented, kid-friendly companies, and even promotions devoted to the rising popularity of women’s wrestling. These are all great models for success in the wrestling business, so long as they are truly being handled as a business and with respect for their patrons.

            If you’re running a blood-and-guts style show, are you reaching out to the market wanting that? If your show is fast-paced and full of fresh, young athletes wowing you with innovative new moves and high spots, there’s a chance you’ll become the internet darling you wanted to be, but are the fans in the front row even getting it? Are you looking to see who’s in the seats or are you just reading messages posted by a dozen or so people on your local wrestling forum.   

            Calling your show a wrestling show is not enough to successfully market anymore. Wrestling means one thing to dad, and something completely different to his kids, and we have sports entertainment to thank for that. Today, we are seeing a lot of promotions, but very little promoting. Everyone’s booking shows and talent, but nobody really knows how to book. Renting a ring, a building and hanging a few signs doesn’t make someone a credible promoter, just as buying a pair of boots and learning a few moves from TV doesn’t make anyone a credible wrestler. Both take little more than some money, and lasting success at anything requires more than that. This is where promoters start to fail before they’ve even begun and end up in that category of mark promoters.

            Some want just to be part of wrestling’s inner community somehow, or in other words, are marks. Maybe they want to read their company’s name on wrestling websites and forums, or want to have a cell phone and email address book loaded with wrestlers, or want to just be a big fish in the generally small pond of their local wrestling scene, but all these are those ‘Markist’ tendencies far too prominent in independent wrestling. If these are the goals of the promoter (although none will admit that they are), invariably that promotion will suffer, especially when those goals outweigh what should be that promoter’s primary goal- to entertain their audience and make money. When those ‘Markist’ inclinations overshadow those of entertaining and making money, you’ve failed as a promoter. If you’re booking talent and making matches that YOU like, but aren’t drawing interest from your fans (you’ll know this by watching and listening to them and not marking out for the action in the ring), then what are you accomplishing? You can continue to call yourself a booker or a wrestling promoter, but you’re not a very good one. It may stroke your ego to book that “name”- the guy who used to wrestle on TV- to come to your town and take on your “top guy”, but does that “name” really appeal to YOUR audience? Will your fans respond, or will the boys mark out at the chance of being in the ring with him? Is it a business decision you’ve made, or just a mark move. Will you make money that way, or could you have done it by being a better booker and dedicating time to building your own talent. Unless you’re business is already making money, spending more on a “name” is never the answer, no matter how badly you want to meet him or your friend- (probably also your champ), wants to wrestle him.

            Wrestlers are often guilty of this too and in many cases, are far larger culprits. Many of today’s young wrestlers grew up in the internet age and want to read their names among those “reviews” that offer those “4 and 5-star ratings” and praise a worker’s “workrate”. They came up in the same video game generation that many fans did which places emphasis on a wrestler’s “moveset”. These are invented terms in the context of pro wrestling, but in the internet’s information age, true industry terms have found their way into the minds and mouths and fingers of marks everywhere. Wrestlers don’t want to be “jobbers” and lose matches (despite the fact that nearly everyone over the age of 11 knows the winners and losers are pre-determined). Others exhibit jealousy and bitterness about not getting a “push” or winning a championship (belts are props, you know, although some companies tend to forget to bother using them or just hand them out to everyone like participation trophies in little league baseball). ‘Markism’ among wrestlers crops up in nearly every locker room I’ve seen, and all of them want star treatment regardless of the fact that they did nothing to draw fans other than show up and get dressed month-after-month. You can bump harder, fly higher, look better and have more moves than everyone on the show, but it means nothing if your audience doesn’t care about you (no matter how many highlight videos you post on youtube). Wrestlers and promoters typically don’t determine who the real stars are, any more than a message board does. The people in the seats decide. The smart bookers and promoters don’t play into the ‘markism’, but the phonies always do. They’ll put a belt on someone to make them happy, let wrestlers go as long as they want with as many high-spots as they can squeeze out, or agree to some convoluted angle that won’t pop anyone but the five people involved and a few of the boys in the back. If you’re taking money from people in exchange for that ticket, then those are the people you need to be booking and working to. To work or book to anyone else makes you a rip-off artist. Stop worrying about popping the boys and entertain those fans who paid to see a show. No one match is greater than the whole of the show. If you’ve lost sight of that, it will show when the wrestlers start running your business for you- most likely into the ground.    

            Promoters: Study business, devise your plans, and stick to them. Further, prepare for a long haul and a battery of ups-and-downs. Be ready to lose money before you can break even, and then to lose more money before you can turn a profit. If you’re a good promoter, with a well-conceived and executed plan, you can make money and put on a very entertaining show- but it will take time and a lot of work (and maybe even the help of an experienced booker). Likewise for wrestlers on the independent level, if you put in the time and work, become expert at your trade, and are ready to lose money before you make any- you can share that same success, but also like promoters, if wrestlers fall into those ‘markist’ traps, all the talent in the world won’t garner you any success. No matter what your roles is in wrestling, there is no immediate gratification on the independent level other than the active response of a crowd. If you’re just starting out, that should be more than enough to keep you going. If you’re not getting that response, you’re doing something wrong- or your promoter is. That’s not to say that anybody should throw in the towel, but you must acknowledge it and be ready to work harder.

            It’s in those seats, no matter how many are occupied, that your success is determined. Anyone who has been around at all will agree that they’d rather perform in front of fifty rabid fans, cheering on the babies and booing the heels, than two hundred silent ones, but sometimes it will be a while before you even reach that fifty. It’s alright. Stick to your plan and remember that it’s a business. It will take time, and shortcuts won’t bring you quicker results, most notably those shortcuts wrapped in ‘markism’.  

            I will continue to lend some thought to the business of independent wrestling going forward here on gonzogeek.com, and while I’ll expand on the topic of wrestling promoters, the shortcuts alluded to, and their common pitfalls, I will also draw lines to reveal how ‘markism’ is prominent among the ring workers themselves, and is just as detrimental to the business.

            In the meantime, please continue to support your local independent companies; there are some top-notch ones out there, and if you’re a fan, a parent of a fan, or family or friend to the men and women involved, be active in your support. Wrestling’s fans have more to do with a promotion’s success than they know. 

– Chuck LeGrande

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