As part of its attempt to move on under new ownership and management, Impact Wrestling announced last week that it will be making new concessions to attract talent. After months of negative fan reaction when the company wouldn’t let Matt Hardy use his popular “Broken Matt” gimmick in WWE, Impact issued this statement when the similar “Woken” Matt Hardy started making a transformation on a rival promotion’s programming:
We have seen the character development and will be interested to see where they take the concept. Our new talent agreements all incorporate language that allow talent to continue to use their IMPACT persona after they leave the company. We are working with our legal team to amend our existing agreements to extend this to all of our current and former talent.
While it was the norm in pro wrestling’s pre-corporate age, this is a groundbreaking move in the era of nationally televised wrestling promotion. It’s also a revealing look at the state of Impact, which is a declining promotion in cost-cutting mode that can no longer afford to offer wrestlers full-time money for part-time work. Ever since the precedent was established by WWE in the 1980s, it has become standard for promotions to hold onto any new intellectual property created by a talent during their time in that promotion. In Hardy’s case, this was complicated by the fact that the “Broken” character was established in videos that he funded himself during Impact’s financial nadir last year, but generally speaking, that was the rule. Often, as with Hardy, that came to complicate moves to and from various promotions.
The saga of “The Broken Hardys,” wherein Matt split from, battled, and ultimately reunited with his brother Jeff in a series of bizarre skits and pre-recorded matches, completely revitalized both their careers. When the long storyline first kicked off last year, with Matt trying to remake himself as “Big Money Matt,” it took time to get going. It didn’t really pick up steam until a contract signing for a match with Jeff, complete with weird editing and an unexpected late twist. The skit’s bizarre ending—Matt’s wife Reby entering a warehouse and tossing what we were supposed to think was their baby (it was a doll, of course) at Jeff—was so strange that it couldn’t help but turn heads. It only got weirder from there, and the skits, often shot on their compound in North Carolina, quickly became a vehicle for the Hardys—especially Matt, with his wacked-out hair and accent of indeterminate origin—to just get weird. It climaxed in “The Final Deletion,” a floridly insane match and series of skits set and shot on the compound; a holographic Matt drone mocked Jeff and it was among the least ridiculous things that happened. It all culminated in, yes, Matt “deleting” Jeff.
Because Impact Wrestling can’t really do anything right, the company bled money while Matt and Jeff, who were already top independent attractions on their outside dates, became serious draws for everyone but their primary employers. The Hardy brothers could easily boost a given show by hundreds of tickets and thousands of dollars in photo/autograph/merchandise sales before, but they were primarily a nostalgia act that was mostly big with female fans who grew up with their WWE peak. Their bizarre new gimmick broadened their fan base into the booming indie scene, to the point that they were as valuable to adult-oriented, beer-soaked shows for hardcore fans as much as they were to the family-friendly ones. The Broken Hardys outgrew Impact when they couldn’t make a new deal, went off on a quick jaunt to Ring of Honor, and then returned to WWE at WrestleMania...but not before Impact threatened legal action over taking the gimmick elsewhere.
The Hardys bailed out Impact financially, but the promotion lost the public relations battle. After all, if they couldn’t make money off the gimmick while the Hardys actually worked for them, how could they expect to do it without the brothers under contract? In the end, the only tangible benefit Impact saw from the Hardy boom was a brief increase in TV viewership. The Hardys were making more money off bookings and merchandise sales away from the promotion, and had increased their profile to the point that the the Citrus Bowl erupted in Matt’s signature “DELETE!” chant at WrestleMania even before the show hinted at their surprise return. If you’ve gone to enough wrestling shows in enough different buildings, you know that chants die swift and silent deaths in an outdoor stadium with over 60,000 people in it. And yet enough fans knew what was coming at WrestleMania to chant the catchphrase from a TV show they likely never watched. A moment like this does not typically end with one side waving a white flag.
While the Hardy breakthrough was unprecedented in a modern context, disputes between wrestlers and corporate promotions over who owns a wrestler’s gimmick are far from a recent development. The most famous and contentious such battle came about thanks to the storyline that sparked the strongest opposition that WWE has faced on a national basis. In 1996, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash—then known as Razor Ramon and Diesel, respectively—happened to have their WWE contracts expire days apart in 1996. Both went to WCW, where the rival promotion framed them as unnamed invaders who were strongly implied to be representing WWE. That was toned down after a few weeks, but WWE sued anyway; the case dragged on for years, eventually leading to a counter suit from WCW. It was settled in 2000, with WWE coming out on top and getting its first shot at buying WCW in the process. They passed, but WCW was still on the market months later when Turner Broadcasting cancelled their TV time slots. WWE was the only buyer that had much use for a wrestling company’s assets.
In terms of fan reaction, the closest previous analogue to the Hardys-Impact beef was likely the fallout from WWE’s purchase of ECW’s intellectual property in bankruptcy court. That impact of this was not felt immediately, but after WWE let the contracts of both of The Dudley Boyz expire in 2005, they had every intention of using the team name and the individual names of Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley wherever they went. After all, the two had taken those names to WWE from ECW with the blessing Paul Heyman, who owned the latter company. Quickly, though, WWE sent the Dudleys a letter asserting rights to the Dudley gimmicks, which eventually put a stop to various other wrestlers using their ECW names in other promotions. The only exception of note was Raven: Scott Levy had already trademarked his gimmick name years earlier when he left ECW. The consensus among fans was that even if WWE might legally be in the right, they were interfering with wrestlers’ ability to make a living in practice.
How many wrestlers will end up wanting to take Impact up on this new arrangement? It’s hard to say.
The Hardys’ situation is unique, and many other Impact wrestlers with Impact-specific personae generally just eschew using them on independent shows. On indie shows, Impact’s two top tag teams, LAX (Latin American Exchange) and OVE (Ohio Versus Everyone) rarely use those names, instead using their established indie gimmicks, EYFBO (which might not stand for anything) and OI4K (Ohio is 4 Killers), respectively. Ethan Page, who debuted as Chandler Park at the most recent Impact TV tapings, has shown no signs of using the latter name on indie shows and has actively described himself as an actor playing a role when working as Park. Impact’s X Division Champion Trevor Lee is Trevor Lee everywhere he goes, but if he’s ever acknowledged as an Impact wrestler it’s only to push that he’s a heel. Fans are that averse to the company.
All of which is to say that, again, Impact is very much its own self-defeating thing. It’s good to know that this change is being made, if only on principle; in a workplace as bad as pro wrestling’s, gimmick-portability is a big step in the right direction. But it will likely take a Hardy-level breakout performance for anyone else to take advantage of it.