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Impact Wrestling Has A New Network, But The Same Old Question Marks

Killer Kross: Impact Wrestling disruptor.
Photo: Impact Wrestling

If all you knew of Impact Wrestling came through articles on this here website, you would probably view it as the most interesting wrestling company on earth. It was where NFL veteran DeAngelo Williams had a pro wrestling match, but it’s also a company that also has notorious difficulty converting TV viewers to paying customers, cannibalized the cable network it was supposed to help build, tried to generate goodwill by offering to let wrestlers take their IP with them when they left, and ended up on a network with effectively no viewers in January. That Impact has generally been putting on quality wrestling shows for the last couple years is immaterial, or at least secondary to how much is always happening with this promotion.

Naturally, everything got even weirder last week, when Impact’s parent company Anthem Sports And Entertainment bought majority control of AXS TV (the former HDNet) and sister network HDNet Movies from Anschutz Entertainment Group and Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment. Cuban will stay on as a minority equity partner, and he’s joined by new equity partner Steve Harvey—like, the perpetually aghast Family Feud host Steve Harvey—who will provide programming for the network. Unsurprisingly, there was an announcement a few days later that Impact would be moving to AXS in October.

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While nobody is saying as much outright and the idea of it feels downright absurd, there’s a distinct feeling that all these machinations were made entirely in service of Impact. It’s hard to prove, and it might not matter either way, as the move is unlikely to help the perpetually struggling promotion that much. But it’s another twist for a company whose greatest and longest-running storyline is its own mercurial existence.

When Impact’s deal with PopTV (the former TV Guide Channel) was up at the end of 2018, they moved to Pursuit, an Anthem-owned network otherwise specializing in hunting programming. This was alarming for a number of reasons, the most obvious one being that Impact staff had previously been told that Pop had granted them a grace period until they found a new American TV partner. Spike TV had done the same after cancelling them, which let them find Destination America*, but this time it obviously didn’t happen. A few weeks after the switch, two semi-retired wrestlers who were key members of the office, producer Chris “Abyss” Park and creative team member Retesh “Sonjay Dutt” Bhalla, both immediately jumped to producer roles with WWE. It seemed like the right move, as each episode of the flagship Impact TV show was barely registering the smallest possible Nielsen viewership—in the low five figure range—if it registered any viewership at all. No Impact television ratings have even surfaced since February, and people are looking. This suggests that not even enough people in the Nielsen sample are watching to trigger a statistical estimate of 5,000 viewers.

Because Pursuit is on so few cable carriers, Impact also started airing live on the promotion’s Twitch channel. Initial results seemed promising, there: According to data from TwitchTracker.com, the peak viewership for the first stream of the flagship show was just over 10,000 viewers, about the same as their first live Twitch special a year earlier but still lagging behind the peak of the Impact vs. Lucha Underground special during WrestleMania (over 15,000) in April of 2018. For the first few months, the performance ranged widely, between 4,000 and 14,000 peak viewers, but the last few weeks have peaked under 4,000. (TwitchTracker only allows day-to-day comparisons, so it’s impossible to use their tools to figure out the average viewership throughout the two-hour show, just a 24-hour broadcast day that’s mostly rerun programming drawing a few hundred viewers at most.) All of which is to say that, in television terms, nobody’s watching Impact.

Impact Wrestling viewership peaks on Twitch since their channel launched, with the later consistent peaks coming with their weekly TV show being simulcast on the platform starting in January 2019.
Screenshot: TwitchTracker.com
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The move to AXS won’t really change Impact’s viewership numbers, or at least public Access to them, given that AXS doesn’t even subscribe to Nielsen. Instead, they get their viewership data from Rentrak/Comscore TV, which only releases the information directly to the customer. It’s theoretically possible that the Rentrak information is pretty accurate, as it’s pulled from cable and satellite boxes, but we’re not getting it and it’s also not the currency advertisers deal in, which is probably why AXS doesn’t really run commercials. The only information we have comes from a 2015 note by Dave Meltzer in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter. There, he reported that New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS was “averaging 200,000 viewers,” with other items about increases, happy executives, or vague comparisons to AXS’s live MMA programming showing up occasionally afterwards. Beyond that, all we know is that AXS has clearly been happy with NJPW, shifting over time from old matches aired seasonally to a year-round show that’s now completely up to date with what’s happening in Japan. The network also added another wrestling show, Women of Wrestling, which just started production on a new season.

For Impact, the bright side of this is that while AXS is decidedly not a huge network, it is a destination for wrestling fans. If there are more wrestling fans watching AXS than the usual channel, the hope is that more of those will find their way to Impact than when the promotion was on a hunting channel (Pursuit), a widely available but low-tier general entertainment network (PopTV), or a network heavy on barbecue shows (Destination America). But since Anthem owns AXS, it also means that, short of the kind of self-dealing seen in the later years of Turner Broadcasting’s World Championship Wrestling, Impact will make exactly zero dollars from domestic rights fees. And if Anthem wants to switch the network over to one that’s ad-supported to generate additional revenue beyond cable and satellite companies paying carriage fees, they’ll have to subscribe AXS to Nielsen. This isn’t the 1980s, when Nielsen and Arbitron had competing ratings systems that generally ended up within spitting distance of each other. Nielsen is television ratings in the United States, and Nielsen could well provide radically different numbers than Rentrak has.

There’s an elephant in the room with the purchase, though: AXS was basically Mark Cuban’s personal cable network. He still owns part of it, but it was a vanity network with largely fixed revenue streams and very little entirely original content. For him to want out is troubling, and doubly so when taken alongside the fact that Anthem seemingly has no idea what they’re doing. It’s their M.O. to gut any company they take over, but, according to The Wrap, the layoff of 40 people at the network “disproportionately impacted the fight and concert teams.” Anthem may already own The Fight Network—the need for programming they owned outright was what led to them loaning money to and eventually foreclosing on Impact in the first place—and thus may have legitimate redundancies, but these are bad signs.

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Most visibly, the cuts included not just AXS TV Fights public relations flack Cindy Ronzoni, but also Adam Swift, who was officially a company lawyer but, in practice, extremely hands-on in terms of bringing wrestling programming to the network as well as overseeing it. Swift absolutely would have been an asset as part of the new AXS, and his being cut loose immediately certainly makes one wonder if Anthem knew of his duties beyond his official title. Ronzoni, meanwhile, could very well be the best P.R. staffer in wrestling and MMA. She and the similarly dedicated Sean Grabin, who was retained, did an incredible job getting screeners, promotional photos, press releases, interview opportunities, and more out to media, and won AXS’s programming a ton of extra exposure through sheer hustle and competence. That’s not the type of person you lay off the moment you take over a company, even if you already had your own P.R. people in hand.

There has been little in the way of good press for Impact recently, which casts some doubts about the promotion’s funding, even after the parent company just purchased a pair of American cable networks bigger than any in their portfolio. A recent early morning shoot for an Impact skit reportedly had no catering, resulting in talent who had skipped breakfast expecting food on site to go without sustenance or even water for three hours. And then there’s the story of Killer Kross (Kevin Kesar, sometimes billed as Kevin Kross), who started with Impact in mid-2018 and has been engaged in a contract dispute for months.

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In an interview that he gave to The Sporting News earlier this month, Kross explained that “the issues began last year regarding merchandising,” though he’s “been advised not to go into the full detail[s] of the issues.” According to two sources familiar with the situation who spoke to Deadspin, the merchandising issues are that Impact talent just haven’t been sent merchandise royalty statements, much less royalty payments themselves, since last year. (Kross also said in the Sporting News interview that he “was attempting to retrieve something that was supposed to be given to me.”)

The reasons for this are unclear, with possible explanations including staff changes and embarrassment. (To that latter point, Joe Lanza of Voices of Wrestling revealed on a recent edition of their flagship podcast that traffic data he saw for Impact’s website, the home of their merchandise business, showed embarrassingly low numbers.) Since quarterly royalty accounting statements is guaranteed contractually for all Impact wrestlers, not sending them would be a breach; it’s one that it appears only Kross has responded to, and which Impact won’t recognize because it could turn the entire roster into effective free agents. In the latest Wrestling Observer Newsletter (report behind a paywall; h/t WrestleZone), Dave Meltzer gave what he understood to be Impact management’s side of the story, which is that management feels that they got Kross over as a star, he reaped the benefits, and then tried to get out so he could test the improved market for talent with the launch of AEW and WWE’s thirst to keep wrestlers away from AEW.

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(As of this writing, requests for comment on the Kross situation sent to Impact executives Don Callis and Scott D’Amore, as well as company spokesperson Ross Forman, have not been answered.)

Even setting aside the potential breach (and its absence from that report), that narrative about how he was used doesn’t exactly match reality. Kross really has been pushed since he started, but for the vast majority of his Impact stint, he hasn’t been used to his strengths. Initially, he was portrayed as an utterly sadistic sociopath whose promos appeared to be influenced by the famous documentary about hitman Richard “Iceman” Kuklinski. Then he was quickly turned into a generic heavy who didn’t talk quite as much. What really caused him to break out this year was not his work in Impact, but having a show-stealing match (with Davey Boy Smith Jr.) on an independent show (Game Changer Wrestling Presents Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport) during WrestleMania weekend and the short film he made about training in Thailand to hype it up. Not only did Kross show a completely different character in Zen martial artist Kevin Kross (with a dark side as the scary Killer Kross, but the match, which was worked in something like the “shoot style” of decades past in Japan, was easily the best he’d looked in the ring since joining Impact. When it comes to Kross’s buzz this year, Impact has little to do with it.

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Impact has not announced a day or time slot for its upcoming AXS show, for whatever it’s worth, but a fresh start is coming for the promotion next month all the same. The wrestling business is going through massive changes thanks to AEW debuting on TNT and WWE’s SmackDown moving to Fox, but while Impact is making moves of its own—and probably improving its situation in terms of visibility, if only by default—it’s still difficult to be optimistic about the promotion, its sister companies, or its parent company. The general mood surrounding the AXS purchase is one thing, but potentially breaching the contracts of every single wrestler on the roster is another. The last time that happened in this business, when Jim Crockett Promotions was unable to make its balloon payments to talent on guaranteed contacts, the company wound up being sold to save the family fortune within months. Maybe this will be different. Or maybe it’s just what it looks like.

* This sentence initially misidentified Impact’s cable partner at the time. It was Destination America, not PopTV.

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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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