Over the course of the last few weeks, a crush of news on the WWE talent development front has changed how many fans look at the company. A Monday report from WrestleTalk revealed major changes to the contracts for WWE’s United Kingdom-based developmental talent; the new language specifically limited who developmental wrestlers can work for after almost two years of only minor restrictions. This followed news couple weeks ago, during a wrestling media conference call , Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s Executive Vice President of Talent and Live Events, revealed that his vision of WWE now involves wrestlers spending their whole careers on the developmental circuits, never hitting Raw or SmackDown. (News also broke that Austria’s WALTER, arguably the best wrestler in the world, had been signed for WWE’s European circuit, taking him out of the independent mix and thus ruling him out of most of the shows set for WrestleMania weekend in New York City, but that was mostly just a bummer.)
A narrative soon emerged, or more precisely migrated from the more cynical corners of the internet into the mainstream of wrestling discourse. That narrative is this: WWE is warehousing wrestlers, possibly to depress wages and possibly just because it can, and is working to use certain smaller promotions to choke off the currently booming indie wrestling scene. Further reporting by Dave Meltzer in the latest Wrestling Observer Newsletter only added to this feeling. The U.K.-based indie promotions that have signed official working agreements with WWE all have contracts that allow WWE to decide to buy said promotions at an already agreed-upon price and shut them down, whenever WWE so desires.
This also meshes with a note in James Dixon’s WrestleTalk report, which had suggested that low turnout at the latest taping for WWE Network’s NXT UK television show may have led to the promotion’s decision to clamp down on contract talent. See, WWE’s UK contracts originally allowed the talent to work just about anywhere that didn’t have a television deal; even then, wrestlers could work with just about anyone. This was something of a throwback to WWE’s developmental contracts circa 1997, in which wrestlers were paid stipends to allow them to wrestle full time while developing their craft on the independent scene. That system worked, but it appears not to square with WWE’s current ambitions.
And so the contracts began to become more restrictive. Earlier this year, Revolution Pro, the British affiliate of New Japan Pro Wrestling (a WWE competitor) got blocked. Soon, nobody could take an independent booking in the seven days before NXT UK tapings. Now the contracted wrestlers can only work for affiliate groups, and not in matches with wrestlers under contract to other televised promotions. Oh, and those matches can’t be distributed on video, a reality that the non-“friendlies” had been dealing with for months..
In short: WWE has effectively removed dozens of wrestlers from the U.K. independent scene in one stroke. These are wrestlers that numerous promotions had come to rely on as draws, in large part due to their increased exposure on WWE programming and in the larger indies. If WWE wants, they can also now shut down some of those larger indies whenever they wish. And they are now admittedly making an effort to sign as many wrestlers as possible, with no real care or plan for if those wrestlers ever end up on the rosters that are actually profitable for the company at large. If this sounds like a monopoly play, that’s because it is one.
For the UK talent signing these contracts, the immediate situation seems like an improvement. Per Meltzer, they’re largely going to be getting full-time pay while not working anything close to a full-time schedule, at least for now. (“Largely” is a key word there, as some wrestlers are apparently still on the old and less restrictive stipend contracts.) Developmental pay has been trending upward in general, presumably thanks to the dramatic uptick in the number of wrestlers making a full-time living on the indies.
Improving conditions for some doesn’t mean universal improvement, though: One full-time indie wrestler who spoke to Deadspin on condition of anonymity said that he has turned down a domestic NXT tryout in Orlando because, “I wanna wrestle on TV and for a lot of money, not wrestle really hard for lower money and lower exposure.” That latter part refers not just to NXT’s status as a streaming-only show, but also to the fact that NXT has way too many wrestlers for all of them to appear on both its live events and especially said weekly, hour-long TV show. “It’s a weird time to be a wrestler; too many guys in NXT,” he added, expressing concern that getting signed could mean little more than “getting bumped by football players” on the regular for less money with little upward mobility.
Needless to say, not working much and having no chance at advancement is also something of a morale-killer. But ennui and violence aren’t the only risk a wrestler takes when they sign with WWE. Don’t like how things are going and try to leave? WWE could unilaterally try to freeze your contract, keeping you from working. WWE’s public stance, as stated by company co-president George Barrios, is that “both parties could terminate them in pretty short order” and that “we’re not trying to lock anyone up, it has to work for both parties,” but that does not appear to reflect reality. Take the case of CM Punk, who got into a dispute with WWE and saw the promotion decide not only to stop sending checks for the royalties he was owed, but refuse to reissue an existing, expired check that Punk had misplaced. A wrestler might join WWE because it’s the biggest company in the world, and it may very well be his or her childhood dream. But some bad faith is inescapably part of the deal.
Another full-time indie wrestler, also speaking on condition of anonymity, was in more outward agreement that WWE is trying to hurt the indie scene, but seemed doubtful that the more outwardly malevolent facets of such a plan could succeed.
“They will never accomplish it,” he began. “The talent pool is too deep and the wheel will continue to turn...the fans have literally nothing to worry about.” And personally speaking? “For me, I don’t want to go there yet. I’m making good money and there’s still stuff I want to achieve outside of the WWE universe.” The broader point is a good one. Indie wrestling’s baseline talent level is by far the highest it’s ever been, and any wrestler could become an in-demand name that gets flown across the country multiple times each weekend thanks to the right match breaking them out. As a result, the aforementioned full-time wrestler’s more immediate frustration was with the disappointingly high number of fans who expressed anger toward the WWE’s U.K. talent, accusing them of being sellouts and the like.
“I’d like to hope that when I do go there I won’t get attacked like a lot of this talent is for signing with them,” he said. “To some, this is better money and a safer, happier way to make a living. I honestly think it’s really gross of the people who supported these talents to turn their backs on them once these talents finally reach their goals. We are the ones putting our bodies on the line. I wish the fans truly understood how hard it is to be a professional wrestler. But it’s even harder when the fans don’t support us.”
There is a cautionary tale from the start of WWE’s national expansion that was widely shared on Twitter at the start of the current British expansion last year. In late 1983, USA Network cut ties with Southwest Championship Wrestling, a San Antonio-based promotion that had been buying a Sunday morning time slot on the network for almost a year. To be fair, Southwest made this decision easy when they stopped being able to pay. Vince McMahon, who had done business with the network for years on specials from Madison Square Garden, swept in to take over the slot and keep weekly wrestling on the popular cable network. Instead of presenting a show consisting entirely of his own matches, though, McMahon packaged the show as All-American Wrestling, a program featuring matches from across the country. He asked his friends who ran other regional territories to supply footage of their top stars, which wasn’t unusual in its own right. Promoters were used to sending tapes of incoming stars to other promoters all the time; the Georgia promotion’s Sunday evening show on Superstation WTBS aired that kind of thing all the time.
But this time, there should have been a warning sign before McMahon even aired other promoters’ tapes. Not only were the first three shows profiles of McMahon’s top stars, but the Andre The Giant episode, which aired in week three, featured an old match between him and Hulk Hogan with a conspicuous new voiceover. The new track was, curiously, built around the idea that Hogan had somehow been cheated out of ending Andre’s “career-long” undefeated streak. This was awfully strange, since Hogan didn’t even work for McMahon at the time. Starting in week four, McMahon began airing current matches putting over the top stars from other promotions—performers like Hogan, David Shults, the Junkyard Dog, Bobby Heenan, Ken Patera, and Barry Windham. Within the next year, McMahon wound up signing all of them. The magnanimous version of the idea that he pitched to his fellow promoters was never anything like his actual intention. The entire gambit was a Trojan Horse campaign to get the wrestlers Vince wanted seen by a national audience—specifically his national audience—so they’d already have new fans when he hired them.
The WWE U.K. plans aren’t a 1:1 duplicate of the All-American gambit, and at least for now McMahon’s “friends” aren’t the ones getting screwed. But even 1983 Vince McMahon didn’t ask his friends to sign contracts that would let him unilaterally decide to shut their companies down. The owners of U.K. friendlies like PROGRESS and ICW may be fine with the current deal as long as they continue to be involved with NXT U.K. But they’ve also given up control of not just their own destinies but the ripple effects thereof, to Vince McMahon. You don’t need to be a student of wrestling history to know how that might go.
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.