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For Better And Worse, Starrcast Isn't Like Any Other Wrestling Fan Convention

Cody Rhodes on stage during the first night of Starrcast III in suburban Chicago.
Screenshot: Starrcast/FITE TV

It wasn’t even late on Thursday morning during Memorial Day weekend when things got weird. I was unable to sleep on my overnight flight from New York to Las Vegas, passed out for several hours of desperate sleep, then met England’s Maffew Gregg, the mastermind behind long-running online wrestling video series Botchamania, for breakfast at the diner at the sprawling Tuscany Suites hotel, which sits just off the strip. Gregg quickly realizes that he left his wallet in his room and heads out to grab it, a walk that takes way too long given the size of the hotel, and I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s 21-year-old northeast indie wrestler “The Different Boy” Jimmy Lloyd, who throws his “working” punch at me. Later, elsewhere, he’d confess that he considered putting me in a chokehold of some sort before thinking better of it. I could only express my agreement that he made the right choice.

This is Starrcast. Also Starrcast: when I finally return to the hotel much later that day, I see “Cowboy” James Storm checking in at the front desk and attempting to balance beers in one arm and a date on the other, while learning how to use a contactless room key. Wrestling conventions are nothing new, but there’s never been one quite like Starrcast. The third iteration in just a year comes this weekend, continuing its tradition of running alongside startup All Elite Wrestling’s holiday weekend pay-per-view events.

Wrestling fan conventions as we know them date back almost three decades, to when New York-based radio show host John Arezzi launched the Wrestling Fan Fantasy Weekend in 1990; he changed the name to Weekend Of Champions the following year. There were others, going back to the late 1960s and the tradition of the annual Wrestling Fans International Association get-together, but those were tied to the wrestling promotion in the host city and more social than commercial. That wasn’t how Arezzi envisioned his.

The template created by Arezzi was more baseball card show than WFIA convention or modern comic con, and was mostly about getting autographs and/or buying memorabilia. There might be some other attractions—the Arezzi conventions included auctions of ring-used items, with notables like Jim Cornette and Eddie Gilbert serving as auctioneers—but for the most part, it was about meeting your heroes and buying some stuff, not necessarily in that order.

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Most of wrestling’s big annual conventions follow that format, but some have attempted to build on it. Greg Price’s now-defunct NWA Legends Fanfest in Charlotte was more of an event, and featured attractions like live podcasts and a hall of fame induction ceremony. Starrcast founder/promoter Conrad Thompson, a mortgage broker and cohost of multiple star/personality-driven wrestling podcasts, was a regular attendee of Fanfest and so sad to see it end that he set about replacing it himself. “When I knew it wasn’t going to happen in 2017, I wanted to do it,” he told Deadspin. His idea was not to restart Fanfest himself, which TMart Promotions ended up doing a couple weeks ago with The Gathering, a more direct spiritual successor to Price’s conventions. Instead, Thompson wanted to do an event focused on live panels from wrestling personalities who had podcasts; the Starrcast name is a play on the Starrcade supershow that began in that region.

Thompson put together a pitch and showed it to one of his podcast partners WWE producer Bruce Prichard, who deemed it “the dumbest thing he’d ever heard.” Between that and the hotel that hosted Fanfest already being booked for the usual weekend, Thompson put the idea on hold until after Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks announced All In, the Ring of Honor-affiliated super card that ended up acting as a sort of “backdoor pilot” for All Elite Wrestling. When Thompson bumped into Cody at the airport in January of last year—Thompson was returning from vacation, Rhodes from a Japanese work trip—he pitched the wrestler on his new idea. Starrcast would run alongside All In, and the two would cooperate on UFC-style press conference and weigh-in events. Conrad had no interest in promoting wrestling matches himself—local Chicago indies AAW and Warrior Wrestling would be doing that, anyway—and so Cody agreed. Starrcast was good to go.

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There was a good bit of initial fan confusion over what exactly a wrestling-themed “podcast convention” would entail, especially when non-invited podcasts were given the option to pay for space, but that eventually cleared itself up. Starrcast would take the form of a smaller-scale, wrestling-themed version of San Diego Comic-Con, with the vendor areas secondary to the panels and other stage shows happening all day. There were kinks to work out after the inaugural event, but given that the biggest complaint by far was how crowded the hotel spaces got, it was clear that there was real demand. That was not an issue in Vegas—the Tuscany ended up serving as a secondary venue to cavernous Caesar’s Palace, which had more than enough space—and hopefully won’t be for this weekend’s return to Chicago, which aims to improve line management by removing vendor tables from the hallway. The pressure will be on, given that CM Punk’s panel and meet and greet sessions are the biggest events Starrcast has hosted yet; the panel is even on traditional pay-per-view thanks to a deal cut by streaming partner FITE TV.

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But that’s logistics. What is Starrcade actually like? As someone who’s attended plenty of conventions as a fan and a media member, I can attest that it is decidedly unique. The dedicated media area at Caesar’s was confused and confusing; as best as I could tell, it seemed like those producing video content, like quick interviews, were best served either using their own connections or going up to wrestlers in the vendor room at times when they weren’t busy. This is an area where Starrcast’s opaque “affiliated with but not quite officially part of AEW” status probably needs to be clarified, because without an actual AEW media day, that element was a bit lacking outside of the (atypical for pro wrestling) post-PPV scrums. But that’s inside baseball, and the stuff that actually brought fans out to the event is both more important and more fun.

And the panels I caught reallly were pretty fun, even if there were some things—the PPV “weigh-in” that wasn’t exactly a weigh-in, for example—that felt half-baked in their current state. That said, a full slate of wrestling-related events for fans that goes beyond in-ring wrestling and buying stuff, on a destination wrestling weekend, sure seems like a winning idea. The Starrcast audience is also strikingly different from those at other conventions; Thompson noted that alcohol purchases in Chicago last year were way below that of similarly-sized events at the hotel, for example. The wrestler/podcaster/panelist/vendor Colt Cabana, who’s worked his fair share of conventions, noted that Starrcast attendees skewed younger than the usual, which had some other side effects.

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“I think some of the other conventions that happen are based on nostalgia, which is great, but I think that Starrcast is [in] the now,” he told Deadspin. In particular, the 50 collectible towels he had made for his Starrcast vendor table to benefit the Yellowhammer Fund, an abortion access charity, sold out almost immediately. “People were lining up, not necessarily to get my merchandise, but they were lining up quickly to get one of those towels. I think it says something about the audience at Starrcast, it seems like a pretty progressive audience, especially based off the AEW ‘wrestling is for everybody’ kind of mentality they have. They were swarming to my table to give money because that was an important thing to a lot of people.”

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The community vibe at the event was, for me, both welcome and welcoming. This was a more condensed WrestleMania weekend, in a sense, with both wrestlers and fans residing and/or spending their days at one of just a small handful of hotels, mainly the Tuscany, Caesar’s, and the MGM Grand, where the AEW PPV was held. Even during what may be Las Vegas’s biggest tourist weekend of the year, it was seemingly impossible not to run into people you know and/or wrestlers know from TV. The convention was not just happening in the hotel.

Veteran magazine writer/photographer/editor Bill Apter’s karaoke event was fun, and not just because I got to watch reporters and wrestlers I’m friends with belting out their favorites. I was startled and delighted to bump into my dear friend Kurt Brown, who is not usually one for current wrestling, outside my hotel was another; I hadn’t known he was in town, but it somehow made sense that he was. There was a similar dreamlike appropriateness to watching Kurt and Apter geeking out over Broadway musical soundtracks, especially Hair.

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At the risk of belaboring the point, this is generally not what wrestling conventions are like, or how they work. The transactional element of the vendor room and meet and greets will always be there—something Thompson says is more due to demand than anything else—but it otherwise was the place where you’d constantly bump into people from back home or other destination shows or elsewhere from the past, constantly streaming by floating by to say hello. Cabana recorded a podcast segment with Tom Magee, then fetched me and Davey Boy Smith Jr. to record a separate segment about Magee’s match with Bret Hart, at which point he reminded me on the air that I was the one that informed him of its existence when he was in the WWE system and could request matches from the vault. This was a lot to take, but the whole experience was like that—wrestling on wrestling on wrestling. What might normally seem momentous quickly came to seem almost mundane, like splitting a cab with ECW legend The Blue Meanie and his wife, then later bumping into his fellow ECW legend Joel Gertner on the slots at The Tuscany. Everyone being shoved into a few distinct spaces for the weekend meant that kind of thing would just kept happening, and it was a blast.

And yes, that includes young Jimmy Lloyd punching me in the arm. What the fuck, dude?

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David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix. 

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