At first it seemed something of just a run-of-the-mill, Friday news dump from WWE. Releasing a mid-card (at best) female performer/manager in Zelina Vega isn’t a huge shock, given how WWE has trimmed its roster during the pandemic despite record profits. While Vega was an excellent manager, and the author of one of the better Royal Rumble cosplays in history, and had started to be in the ring again, she was hardly a main cog in the roster.
But the more that came out, the more curious it got. It started with this juxtaposition, where WWE’s announcement of Vega’s release came 10 minutes after she tweeted out support for unionization of WWE wrestlers. Before the story filled out, it seemed very in character for this particular company to immediately shitcan someone who was publicly calling for a union that WWE has spent its entire existence stamping out.
When the details came in, what became clear is that Vega has already been informed of her release and that tweet was her parting shot. And the real issue is what WWE performers are allowed to do outside of the company to promote themselves, and more importantly to earn extra income.
As we covered at the time, WWE recently informed its talent that they would be banned from third-party providers, such as Twitch and Cameo. Vega is one of many performers who had a major following on Twitch, and had even begun an OnlyFans account, as well. She reportedly was making money more from her Twitch subscribers than what WWE was paying her, so she was naturally more than a tad hesitant to give it up. WWE gave her a choice, and she chose her independence.
At first, when WWE announced the ban, it seemed it was being uber-greedy in trying to move everyone’s Twitch or Cameo in-house, where they could get a slice or a majority of the income from subscribers. No matter how much Vega or A.J. Styles or Cesaro or anyone else were gleaning from such set-ups, it would be a pittance to what a multi-billion dollar company like WWE makes. This seemed punitive, if anything. Also the image of someone explaining to McMahon what Twitch is really should have its own WWE Network documentary.
The more and more thought that goes into this, the more it seems like WWE is trying to exert more and more control over its employees. It might not be about money, but about power. This thread from Fanfyte’s Colette Arrand sums it up:
While WWE would never admit it, the rise of AEW has rattled its cage. AEW has consistently beaten NXT in the ratings on Wednesday nights, both overall and in the 18-49 demo, and at times has at least gotten in the same neighborhood as Monday Night Raw in that demo, as well. While AEW will never approach Smackdown’s numbers simply because the latter is on Fox, it’s a presence that clearly isn’t going anywhere.
Add to that, other promotions have made in-roads thanks to streaming and their own apps — namely New Japan Pro Wrestling — and WWE is perhaps less vital to both fans and wrestlers as it’s been in a very long time. For instance, Kenny Omega became one of the biggest stars in the world without WWE. So did the Young Bucks. Bullet Club shirts were ubiquitous not so long ago. Impact Wrestling is another.
Adding to all this is the report that even after the pandemic slows and eventually (hopefully) subsides, WWE will not be continuing house shows. That was another income stream for its performers, and one that’s going to go away. It wasn’t a ton of cash for them, but it wasn’t nothing either, depending on their deals.
While some wrestlers may be relieved to not have to travel nearly as much and put their bodies on the line three or four times per week for these house shows, WWE is making it so that the only way you can make money is by being on TV, and using that TV exposure to grow your online presence through their portals, which only grows their TV and other revenue streams. Even with all that, WWE still offers the biggest paycheck around, but it’s more and more limited who can get that money, with only one way to get it. How much are wrestlers going to be willing to give up to get that check? It seems like an awful lot of hoops to jump through.
Because the other choice is to keep your Twitch subscribers, keep the flexibility to do whatever show you want however much you want, which some can do while performing on AEW or remaining completely independent. How many will opt for that?
WWE is essentially playing a game of chicken here. Before, if any talent decided to jump ship, they could keep their profile high through channels outside WWE even if they were being kept off TV. Wherever they landed after leaving the company, their following would go with them. Without those channels, any whiff of departure is going to cause WWE to cut your TV time, and leave you no other outlet to keep your name in people’s minds. For wrestlers at the top of the WWE card who are on TV every week, that’s not a huge deal. For someone like Vega, it most certainly is.
Still, making the atmosphere even more poisonous isn’t going to make WWE a more attractive place to work. While McMahon almost certainly only saw it as pointless to let his employees have these other income streams that meant $0 for him, it would keep those not getting TV time on his shows happy with the money they were making and less likely to jump elsewhere. He’s risking doing the latter more and more by choking off their opportunities to make money down to the checks he signs.
Vega won’t be the last to slip through his fingers.