The Pandemic and Pro Wrestling

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In the November, 2019 Public i, I wrote about one of the earliest gig economies: professional wrestling. There, independent pro wrestler David Starr discussed the incredibly imbalanced power dynamics of the corporate wrestling scene in America.

While watching corporations and states favor profits over science and labor in their plans to reopen during the COVID-19 crisis, I was reminded of a quote from our interview: “When your number-one priority is maximizing profit over taking care of your people … that’s when you get this idea that the people at the top … can collect tens of millions of dollars in bonuses but they can’t seem to write paychecks that afford somebody the ability to live.”

His remark perfectly sums up the dynamics of how the largest corporate pro-wrestling entity in America—World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)—is handling the pandemic.

“Essential Media”?

As shelter-in-place orders and large-event restrictions went into effect across the nation, WWE moved production of its three weekly shows—Monday Night Raw, NXT and Friday Night SmackDown!—and a taped WrestleMania event to a closed set on their Orlando, Florida-based Performance Center facility. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office went to the site multiple times to tell WWE that it was not in compliance with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s executive order and that tapings would have to shut down.

On April 9, WWE owner Vince McMahon’s wife Linda announced that her American First Action super PAC would spend $18.5 million on pro-Trump television ads in Tampa and Orlando. On the same day that the PAC expenditure announcement was made, Governor DeSantis amended his stay-at-home order to categorize professional sports and media production with a national audience as essential services. On the following day, April 10, WWE announced that live tapings would continue from its closed Performance Center set.

Just five days after receiving the exemption deeming it “essential media” and receiving supportive statements from Governor DeSantis for its continued production, WWE announced that it would be releasing about 40 of its talent from their contracts as a cost-cutting measure—including some of the wrestlers who appeared on their “essential media” programming just days prior. These included main-roster wrestlers, developmental talent, a writer, backstage producers and a referee who had been with the company since 1989.

The pandemic has caused countless businesses to lay off employees or shut their doors due to the precarious economic situation. But this is entirely not the case with WWE, as it decided to fire workers at one of the worst possible times while being hugely profitable.

WWE announced other cost-cutting measures due to the coronavirus as well, including a six-month delay on constructing its new corporate headquarters to save $140 million. The company stated that it had $500 million in available cash and debt capacity to ride out the crisis. WWE also has television deals with the USA and Fox networks paying the wrestling entity a combined $465 million per year. Just a little over a week after the mass firings, WWE’s first quarter financials were released, showing that the company’s revenues increased 60 percent (by $291 million) compared to last year. Shareholders received $9.4 million in dividends, with $3.5 million going to Vince McMahon himself.

The estimated savings gained by the mass releases is just $700,000 per month.

Analyst Brandon Thurston of Wrestlenomics stated in a recent interview about the releases and cost-cutting measures that “… it’s WWE’s effort to try to protect the profit that they originally projected. I think it’s easy to look at it from the outside and maybe not know that much about WWE’s business and think that, well, everybody’s going through hard times here, and everybody’s business and lives are being affected … but it’s not a matter of keeping WWE profitable, I think it’s a matter of preserving their original profit projections.”

And in the rest of the wrestling world? While WWE continues to do weekly shows under the “essential media” designation and has released a number of workers from contracts, many in the pro wrestling world are not following suit: they are refusing to continue putting on live programming or to fire talent.

Of those that saw fit to continue programming, Tony Khan’s All Elite Wrestling began live closed-set production from Florida, but has had no releases. Khan noted that AEW “lost millions and millions and millions of dollars … but I can’t take it out on the people that work here [be]cause it’s not their fault.” Impact Wrestling taped 12 weeks of shows and has not cut costs by getting rid of talent.

There were also promoters that decided it would be safer not to run shows. Billy Corgan’s National Wrestling Alliance cancelled its Crockett Cup pay-per-view and the upcoming tapings for its YouTube program, Powerrr. Ring of Honor Wrestling (ROH) cancelled all shows through June, and has even honored bookings with non-contracted talent by paying them for cancelled shows. As ROH wrestler and booker Marty Scurll said, “That would be so irresponsible for us to run a wrestling show and put our fans’ health at risk and our talent and our staff’s health at risk.”

Major League Wrestling (MLW) also chose not to run shows. MLW owner Court Bauer stated, “That my competitors are putting on events in empty arenas and exposing their talent, crews, staffs and families to the potential [for] contracting the coronavirus I think is, frankly, grotesque.” Numerous other smaller independent companies have also ceased production.

In Japan, another center of this global business, many of the wrestling companies have chosen not to run shows for the foreseeable future, which has caused some workers to struggle financially. Some smaller companies like Big Japan Wrestling have taken to crowdfunding efforts to help pay their bills as they struggle with lack of any income during these tenuous times.

However, the largest and most successful pro wrestling company, New Japan Pro Wrestling, paired up with a number of smaller, independent promotions to meet with the Japanese government with two requests. They collectively asked for any extra available testing kits to help protect wrestlers and staff. They also asked for financial assistance to help those wrestlers whose livelihoods would be significantly impacted by their inability to work shows. While the contracted wrestlers of New Japan are able to get by due to the company’s healthy finances, this effort of solidarity to use corporate clout to help the industry as a whole was heartening to see.

In the aftermath of the mass WWE talent releases, WWE main eventer Seth Rollins stated that it was “a little upsetting” to see “all the negativity and hostility towards WWE.” While Rollins’ dedication to pro wrestling is clear, it’s also obvious that WWE was not and is not in any dire financial situation that would necessitate getting rid of workers. In fact, it was on pace for record profits. When a company has seemingly prioritized profits over people in its employ during a global pandemic where thousands have died—and almost no one in the wrestling world has replicated its decision to release talent—“negativity and hostility” towards the corporate entity seems like the appropriate reaction.

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