Everything Is Wrestling: 6 reasons why you can’t escape pro wrestling’s reach

Photos courtesy: All Elite Wrestling

Until recently, the closest I’d ever come to professional wrestling was one night in a school gym outside Salem, Oregon. And I’m pretty sure that was a cage fight. Then, I was invited to an All Elite Wrestling event. Pro wrestling is famously stunt work; it’s scripted, just like drag shows and live theater. What I experienced was a combination of those things, jacked up on the collective energy of a sporting event. I’ll be honest: I found the entire experience intoxicating and inspiring. And there are countless lessons for the B2B world hidden in the ring — whether its building connections through humor, creating community or creating new business models based on audience feedback, professional wrestling is (a) serious business.

1) It managed to be very accessible to the uninitiated.

For some of us, attending an event where you know no one is a special hell. And if it relies on audience participation? Forget it. To prepare for my evening with the wrestlers, I did ten minutes of Googling — enough to learn that we’ve come a long way from the pro wrestling I ignored in my childhood — and rewatched John Cena’s GQ interview. Which is to say: I went as green as could be and full of questions. What were the fans like? Were they angry, mean? What were the customs? How would I get caught up on the storylines? What, exactly, is a pile driver?

My anxiety was unnecessary. As we made our way to the stadium, the crowd was as agreeable as they were enthusiastic once we were in our seats. Pro wrestling, it turns out, is a participatory activity — you shout and react in real time, collectively but also genuinely.

Photo courtesy: All Elite Wrestling

And that’s because the show itself was genuinely spectacular. There were feats of athleticism, high drama and pyrotechnics to rival the ones I saw — and felt — at the Chromatica Ball. Nearly every performer came with their own chants, singalong songs or inside jokes. All of them were easy to pick up; homemade signs provided helpful reference points. Even when I had no idea what we were saying, I had a blast participating. It’s easy to know you’re supposed to lose your mind when confetti explodes from the ceiling.

2) AEW has come along as a new wrestling league (aka promotion) — challenging superpower WWE. And it has made everybody better.

The official name for a league is a “promotion,” because their business actually comprises talent management, event production and, yes, promotion. Pro wrestling and traveling theater are staples of the human condition. The World Wrestling Federation has been around since the mid–20th century, but the wrestling aesthetic as you probably think of it dates back to the ’90s, when wrestling entered its “Attitude” era. Think Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock and Chyna.

In 2002, the promotion changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment after getting pile-driven by the World Wildlife Fund in court.

Fast forward a few decades and All Elite Wrestling was launched in 2019 as an alternative to the WWE monolith. Debate abounds over what’s different about the two brands. WWE appears to be often characterized as sticking to what works. To my untrained eye, AEW feels like pro wrestling for the Internet generation: Fans raised on WWF (until the name change in 2002), of course, but also on Bleacher Report, Twitter — and, honestly, Tumblr. More on that in a moment.

Takeaway: When we think about creating events and experiences, there must be some middle ground between a church service and a midnight Rocky Horror show. One must always provide the opportunity not to participate, but why not make it easy for those who know nothing but are eager to jump in?

Photo courtesy: All Elite Wrestling

3) It was easy to ignore the cameras. Most of the time.

You know that feeling you get when you see someone working an event with their phone held horizontally, panning across the crowd they’ve assembled? That fleeting, depressing realization that for that moment at least, you’re just… content? A few months and a streaming upgrade after the event, I watched the television version of the AEW match I attended. Besides the obvious differences — seeing facial expressions, details on costumes, sweat flying through the air — there was one thing that really stood out.

During the IRL match, there would be long sections of silence soundtracked only by our cheering and reactions. It turns out, for our friends at home, those moments were actually filled with narration by the announcers. And not just descriptions of what was going on in the ring, but character narratives, history lessons and other juicy bits. We in the stadium only got to hear the announcers at the beginnings and ends of matches. Our function as the audience was to be a very enthusiastic backdrop for the cameras. In other words, we paid to be “extras” for a TV show.

To be fair, these days there are more ways to experience pro wrestling than ringside or streaming. That same night, I could have hit up a local bar with match nights or with a specialized online meetup group. I could’ve caught an indie league event or even enrolled in my local pro wrestling academy. Hell, there was nothing stopping me from capping off the night at Brooklyn’s own pro wrestling themed bar.

Takeaway: As experiences become as much about media from the event as the event itself, what are the ways we can make sure that our live audiences feel just as important as the unseen masses? And vice versa?

Photo courtesy: All Elite Wrestling

4) It brought the internet into real life without being cringe.

Asking attendees to use a branded hashtag is a staple of modern events; it’s also an exercise in wishful thinking. In my ten minutes of pregame googling, I came across AEW’s thriving online community on Twitter and Reddit. Again and again, I saw jokes about SCISSORS and DADDY. Excuse me?

It turns out, SCISSOR ME DADDY was the slogan of a wrestling duo called the Acclaimed. I learned this when I watched them win the AEW World Tag Team Championship, surrounded by signs featuring the slogan. The exclamation was combined with a hand gesture — one person interlocks their pointer and middle finger with another’s.

Photo courtesy: Joe Hollywood

It felt random, silly, queer-ish but not homophobic. It also felt distinctly of the internet: Irreverent but sticky. I saw strangers greeting each other enthusiastically — and unironically — by scissoring. It was far and away the most popular fan sentiment of the evening. That there were only two shirts for sale with the phrase made it seem like AEW was barely able to keep up with organic fan enthusiasm.

A slogan that is also a meme that is also merch and, somehow, an IRL expression of camaraderie? Through a marketer’s eyes, I saw organic brand engagement leading to sales leading to community building leading to even more organic engagement. The holy grail of brand building.

5) Kayfabe is critical to pro wrestling

This is a concept that boils down to: everyone knows it’s scripted, no one cares, so get over yourself. Through the years, empires have been built atop kayfabe – the blurred line between performance and real life. Example: In 2001, Dwayne Johnson was credited in The Mummy Returns simply as THE ROCK. It was only recently we heard about this Dwayne Johnson fellow. The ringside persona endures.

These days, the show never stops: Is the athlete tweeting in character? Or as themselves? The answer: kayfabe, now move on. In many ways, it’s more honest than reality TV. And really, does it matter? The SCISSOR ME DADDY t-shirts cost real money, as do the action figures, stickers, mugs and branded facemasks — I saw grown-ass adults walking around with championship belt replicas that can easily set you back a grand.

In the days after the event, I searched the internet for the origins of SCISSOR ME DADDY. And, I’ll be honest, I still don’t entirely understand it. But, crucially: do I now feel like I’m in on the joke? Sure do. And did I buy a $45 shirt on my way out? Reader, I’m wearing it as I type.

Takeway: There must be ways of incorporating authentic audience interest into the life cycle of an activation. Where we take those cues from may be unconventional, or might not even make much sense. The fact that it’s already working for real people is justification enough.

Photo courtesy: All Elite Wrestling

6) A grand slam deal

Ari Emanuel’s media colossus Endeavor, whose properties include the Ultimate Fighting Championship, officially bought World Wrestling Entertainment the day after 2023’s Wrestlemania, creating a live event behemoth and cementing its status as a leader in combat sport competitions. The combination created a new, publicly traded company that is 51% owned by Endeavor, with WWE. holding the remaining 49%. The new company is worth more than $21 billion; the all-stock deal values WWE at $9.3 billion and UFC at $12.1 billion. Endeavor’s other units, which include the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, will remain a separate publicly traded company.

The acquisition is the latest big win for Emanuel, who has become one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood by transforming his talent agency into a multipronged media group. Endeavor wants to tap into the growing demand for live events — a linchpin of cable TV and streaming giants like YouTube, which are acquiring broadcast rights. He will be CEO of the new company and retain the same role at Endeavor.

“Must-watch TV is a rarity these days,” Mark Shapiro, Endeavor’s president, told the Times. “And unicorns like the UFC and WWE will be heavily in demand.”

TV programmers are paying billions of dollars for sports rights. The WWE streams WrestleMania, one of its signature events, on Comcast’s Peacock. The UFC broadcasts matches on Disney’s ESPN+. Both companies also offer their matches on traditional TV, with UFC fights available on a pay-per-view basis and WWE programming broadcast on Fox and NBCUniversal’s USA channel.

The deal is the latest chapter in a tumultuous career for the WWE chief, Vince McMahon. He took over the company from his father and built it into a television and live-event juggernaut. McMahon retired last July, after the Wall Street Journal reported that the company’s board had been looking into a $3 million settlement he paid to an employee with whom he’d had an affair. But he returned in January as executive chairman to help guide the company through a sale and will retain that role in the new entity.

And guess what? With Vince back in charge, the internet is not happy. Time to make new signs. Make new t-shirts. But is Vince’s return real, or is it just kayfabe? Does it even matter? Tune in tomorrow to find out …

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