One of the biggest stories in professional wrestling the past few weeks has been Neville (real name Ben Satterly) walking out on WWE and asking for his contractual release. While not necessarily a pattern at this point, wrestlers either asking for an out or happily letting their contracts expire is becoming a more and more regular occurrence. With fewer opportunities for diversified income within WWE than in years past and a burgeoning independent wrestling scene worldwide, it has become a lot easier to earn a good living outside WWE, with some wrestlers making more than they did before leaving. But why exactly is this happening? It’s been building for a few years, and there are a lot of factors in place, starting with WWE gutting the talent’s income.
When WWE upended its business model in 2014 to replace its monthly $55 pay-per-view events with the $9.99 subscription streaming service, the most immediate effects were felt by the talent. A significant amount of the wrestlers’ income was derived from the pay-per-view payouts, as was outlined in their contracts. When the network and its inclusion of every single pay-per-view event were both announced, wrestlers who asked management about how they would be paid going forward were told it was being dealt with and would be addressed soon. It never was. CM Punk, who walked out on the company a few weeks before the network launch, cited this as a major factor in his departure.
Meanwhile, with all pay-per-view events in company history (as well as those from WCW and ECW) being on the service at launch, soon to be joined by a variety of other footage that now includes the entire history of Monday Night Raw, DVD sales nosedived. DVD sales were driven by a mix of recent pay-per-views, documentaries, and archival content, all of which moved to the network. The only DVD sets that get much of a buzz anymore are those with previously unseen content, though WrestleMania is still reliably the best seller each year. Since the wrestlers are contractually owed DVD royalties but pay-per-view is effectively dead, being on not just WrestleMania itself, but also the DVD set, can make or break someone’s pay for a given year. According to reporting by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, both Neville and his WrestleMania opponent this year, Austin Aries, who quit months ago, were upset over their match not being included on the DVD set.
As great as it’s been for fans, WWE Network kind of sucks for WWE Superstars.
The silver lining is that the same technological changes that allowed WWE’s pivot are also strengthening the independent wrestling scene, which makes it much easier to make a good living outside of WWE. In 2017, there are more full-time professional wrestlers in the United States since any other point after the deaths of ECW and WCW in 2001. There’s no clear, singular catalyst for the indie boom as much as an overall trend that really picked up in the last two years or so as social media became more ubiquitous. WWE Network likely played a role, as well, in that it made the wrestling fanbase at large more likely to subscribe to streaming services in general on top of helping breed a more hardcore fan.
Even though there are less wrestling fans than there were when there were regional territories or at the peak of the Monday Night War between WWE and WCW, the surviving fanbase is more willing to spend money on the product. WWE’s major events have become travel destinations more and more, which means that third-party ancillary events pop up to piggyback off of them. Independent promotions, both local and traveling, run shows catering to traveling fans on the weekend of every pay-per-view, complimented by fan conventions, and speaking tours like live podcasts.
This new breed of hardcore fans is also more willing than ever to travel to non-WWE shows in general. Maybe a promotion will develop a reputation for quality shows and/or a unique live experience, a certain first-time match will have a unique appeal, and/or promoters might be really good at social media. This results in events like the annual Scenic City Invitational in Chattanooga, where an annual benefit show for a local high school had its floor seats filled entirely by traveling fans, myself included. I also knew that following Friday, when I went to a show back home in Brooklyn, I would see many of the same fans (plus a few of the same wrestlers), coming from Queens, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas. With fans already spending money on travel expenses, buying merchandise (or “gimmicks” in wrestling parlance) from the various tables lining each venue comes more naturally, as well. Stars coming off WWE television will invariably sell more gimmicks, especially photos, plus you keep all of the profits as opposed to the small percentage you get in WWE.
Technology has also made it dramatically easier for even lower level indie wrestlers to sell merchandise, and the rise of social media has led to a breed of fan more inclined to buy shirts and other items with the specific goal of supporting the wrestler. That can be both at the wrestler’s gimmick table at a show or online, where not only do wrestlers sell shirts themselves, but also through print shops like Pro Wrestling Tees. The latter, which grew out of Chicago’s One Hour Tees store and now has its own retail location, carries shirts from not just numerous indie wrestlers, but also some of the biggest stars in wrestling history, like Steve Austin and Randy Savage. These days, it’s most closely associated with The Young Bucks, who split most of their time between Ring of Honor, the number two American promotion behind WWE, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. They specifically made a deal with ROH that allowed them to control their shirt sales, and have dozens upon dozens of designs available. Young Bucks shirts, as well as those of The Bullet Club, the stable they are part of within NJPW, were so common at WrestleMania weekend this year that it got the ball rolling on Hot Topic carrying them nationwide in their mall stores. And not even counting the shirts, the Bucks are probably the highest paid non-WWE American wrestlers.
For someone like Neville or Aries, it’s also to their benefit that their in-ring style, whether you call it the cruiserweight style or workrate wrestling or super indie wrestling, is what’s dominating indie shows and drawing in fans. Someone like Cody Rhodes, who, while talented, was not necessarily associated with that style before quitting WWE and tweeting a list of dream matches he wanted to have, quickly became the biggest attraction in indies before recently becoming ROH exclusive. Neville, who had extensive indie and international experience (under the name Pac) before WWE and was working a more indie-compatible style while regularly showcased as WWE Cruiserweight Champion in the last year, should be able to do whatever the hell he wants.
The next time you hear about WWE doing something that undermines these small companies they aren’t in direct competition with, remember to consider the one area where they are. If you want to control your talent, the wrestlers having a myriad of options makes that a whole lot harder.