On Wednesday, various British news outlets reported that ITV has commissioned a 10-episode reboot of World of Sport Wrestling, which aired for decades on the network before a 1988 cancellation. This is a big deal. As popular as pro wrestling is in the United Kingdom, WWE doesn’t actually have a huge television audience there because it airs on the Sky Sports premium channels, with its primary airings being live ones in the middle of the night. A wrestling show on a major free network in a good time slot gives a potential foothold to a new major group in the market, something that WWE has clearly recognized.
The original series grew out of a show—World of Sport proper—similar to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, except it was five hours long and always featured a few wrestling matches. “The wrestling,” as it was commonly called, was so popular that when World of Sport ended in 1985, wrestling continued as a standalone show for three more years, eventually being canceled as ITV attempted to brand itself as more upscale. From a pro wrestling point of view (but not necessarily a mainstream one), it felt like a weird criticism—as far as pro wrestling goes, the old British television product was about as upscale as you could get while still being pro wrestling. The in-ring style was technical and heavily steeped in rules that were numerous and well-understood by the fans. The announcing, done solo by Kent Walton, was a strange hybrid of wrestling and golf, quiet and analytical except when there was some particularly unscrupulous villainy. Still, Greg Dyke, then ITV’s newly appointed head of sports programming, canceled the wrestling in 1988, dealing a blow to the local scene that it’s only now recovering from.
In an early attempt to reboot World of Sport Wrestling, a pilot had aired on New Year’s Eve 2016 and garnered a large audience. But it was not picked up for series after a lot of drama over who would help produce it, and a schism with Impact Wrestling when it looked like the show would not be year-round.
When the new pilot aired, one of the main criticisms was that it was nothing like the original. It was shot on an ITV soundstage and overproduced in a way resembling ITV’s other studio programming, similar to WWE with a nauseating number of quick cuts between different camera. The in-ring style was nothing like the chain wrestling and rules-heavy original, and the main voice was Jim Ross instead of a British announcer, though he was flanked by British mat veteran Alex Shane. Outside of the production elements, it wasn’t a bad show at all on its own merits, but for a show attempting to trade on nostalgia, there was none outside of the name. Classic British wrestling was very much its own, unique thing, and this wasn’t that.
In the meantime, WWE saw an opening and ran a weekend of live WWE Network specials a few weeks later at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, built around crowning the first ever WWE United Kingdom Champion. Consisting almost entirely of wrestlers who had never been on WWE programming before, it was one of the company’s most interesting productions of the year, a stripped-down affair run by lead announcer Michael Cole. With matches that included more nods to the old British style, a unique setting, less flashy production, and a better balance of the American and British voices on commentary, it was generally better-reviewed than the World of Sport pilot both in the U.K. and elsewhere.
A WWE U.K. pilot taping was held a few months later in Norwich, but didn’t go anywhere and was dropped on WWE Network the day before a U.K. Title change took place at an NXT live special in Chicago. Since then, the exact status of WWE’s efforts in the U.K. have mostly been murky, though over WrestleMania weekend, WWE did announce a new tournament for a title shot that will be held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in June. The wrestlers from the Blackpool tournament are still under special contracts written up just for the series: Low five-figure guarantees that basically keep them out of other television promotions while still allowing them to work independent dates as long as WWE bookings have priority. Most have not appeared on WWE shows since the initial tournament, though the five wrestlers who have (initial champion Tyler Bate, current champion Pete Dunne, Mark Andrews, Trent Seven, and Wolfgang) are reportedly getting raises. In most cases, though, the contracts are effectively stipends keeping wrestlers from signing with ITV.
Also in WWE’s back pocket is whatever arrangements it has with two of the region’s top independent promotions, PROGRESS in England and Insane Championship Wrestling in Scotland. WWE co-president George Barrios (then CFO) has let it slip in the past at conferences that WWE has deals in place to air both promotions on WWE Network, but nothing has yet come of it. PROGRESS talent did work matches at the WWE Fan Axxess convention during WrestleMania weekends in both 2017 and 2018, and both PROGRESS and ICW have featured WWE-contracted talent on their shows. In a distinction that may show just how much WWE prioritizes the British scene and local fans, PROGRESS and ICW have been able to shoot and distribute video of matches with WWE talent, while Evolve, an American WWE-affiliated indie, has been unable to air any of its appearances from WWE performers. Perhaps even more illustrative of the U.S./U.K. divide is that Preston City Wrestling, which is not WWE-affiliated as far as anyone can tell, was able to book Apollo Crews, a main roster WWE wrestler, in February and distribute the video as part of a quid pro quo that grants WWE use of its Blackpool arena deal.
With World of Sport finally back in play for real and WWE producing U.K.–specific events again, it looks as if the new British wrestling war is going to keep heating up. And with WWE also releasing video of its WrestleMania week Business Partner Summit Wednesday, revealing the company’s plan for developmental territories all over the world, it looks like this may be its playbook for future locales. Certainly, not every region has the robust local scene that has bred a particularly polished group of local wrestlers in the U.K.. But if WWE tries to gain a foothold in other historical wrestling hotbeds like Japan and Mexico, then whatever the hell they’re doing in the United Kingdom is likely going to repeat itself a few times over.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix