Ever since then ITV executive Greg Dyke pulled the plug on World Of Sport in 1991 the British Wrestling scene has struggled for decades to A. Find a core audience and B. Find an identity.
In the previous decades hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would regularly turn up to whatever televised event was being put on in their local venue.
Stars were created, bonds were formed and the audience passed on their love of the graps to their children and contemporaries, some of whom would become wrestlers themselves. Unfortunately once television coverage disappeared so did the crowds.
In defence of Greg Dyke he did the right thing in cancelling the show; the product was so depressing and anachronistic by the early 90’s it made Bullseye look like a bleeding edge glimpse into the future of entertainment (which it is if you’re still watching ITV).
Over the next 2 decades there were many false dawns for British Wrestling. Organisations that appeared to be have the potential to spark a revival would invariably vanish thanks to bad booking, dodgy business practices, overly ambitious spending habits or a combination of all three.
You think the recent 5 Star Wrestling debacle was bad, count your lucky stars you weren’t around to see Kevin Nash collecting money from fans at the entrance to a meet and greet because the promoter had already stiffed him on a huge advance.
Or the time a regional promoter tried to put on an event featuring ex WCW and ECW stars in the 2000 seater Doncaster Dome, only to sell less than 500 seats, make off with the money and eventually serve a prison sentence for fraud.
I’ve witnessed some of these farces in person. I was “lucky” enough to attend a dire WWA show in 2002 which was headlined by a match that saw Lex Luger and Sting bounce Buff Bagwell and The Wall around the ring for 5 minutes before swanning off to the back to hang out with the boys.
When I asked “Above Average” Mike Sanders what was going on he replied, “I don’t know, but they’ve been pulling that shit all week”.
Things eventually calmed down and, over the last 10-15 years, several promotions appeared on the scene that were successful enough to last longer than the previously failed attempts by unscrupulous business folk.
The main problem these promotions faced at the time was there was a glass ceiling they’d usually hit when trying to grow; the local talent could only pull in so many fans.
To expand they needed bigger names, and bigger names meant impressive international stars with suitably impressive price tags.
The idea was that you’d bring these big names in for a handful of events, get new fans through the door and hope that a decent percentage of them would stick around to see the hardworking crop of local talent perform when the big names had gone.
Imports also had the added bonus of exposing the British wrestlers to new styles. These (usually) high quality workers would be able to pass on their expertise through advice, training or working a match.
After a while the promoter would slowly ween the fans off the big names and push their now super-worker calibre local talent as the star attractions.
The quality of these events would hopefully lead to a handful of fans wanting to train with you. This could then guarantee a steady stream of enthusiastic trainees who, after being well trained and seasoned, would be ready to bring something new to your promotion and increase attendances…at least that’s the way it should work.
Unfortunately some promoters adopted a business model whereby they focussed entirely on bringing in big names and completely disregarded all the other factors that go into generating an income.
Long term planning and growth went out of the window in favour of huge short term gains that invariable lead to diminished returns. So many companies stagnated because they constantly pushed the imports over the local talent.
To compound things further the promotions didn’t train anyone to replace the departing or over exposed local wrestlers who – once they’d had enough of being beaten by whichever Indy darling was shilling t-shirts that month – eventually moved on. It’s almost like these people learned nothing from the demise of WCW.
This perpetual problem lead to growing resentment of imports amongst some wrestlers and created the perception that any UK company that regularly used international talent was doomed. Thankfully times have changed.
Not only is British wrestling in the middle of a new golden era (in terms of producing talent and quality shows) but it also happens to be coinciding with the growing influence of social media and the proliferation of streaming and on demand services.
Before 2014 most promotions survived by selling DVD’s and merchandise either at events or online (a model popularised by Ring Of Honor). Their use of the Internet was very much a means to an end and never really became a focus of their business strategy.
Then Zack Ryder got himself over using a YouTube series and super Indy promotion ROH started broadcasting their shows live online, and everything changed.
British promotions realised they could use these new platforms to tap into a market of young, niche hungry people that had probably never thought of wrestling as a potential venue for quality entertainment before.
It didn’t hurt that their talented new stars were also tech savvy enough to create and maintain personas on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms that gave their fans a direct connection to them.
As the use of these new avenues became the norm the playing field between British Wrestling promotions and larger American and Japanese promotions was somewhat levelled.
No longer did promoters have to bring in big names to draw crowds to their shows, the crowds could watch from home, communicate with each other in real time as the event happened and already knew the names and personas of the local talent. Any import would be a bonus attraction.
It’s even reached a point in 2018 where some of the British Wrestlers ARE the big name imports. People like Zack Sabre Jr, Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll, Jimmy Havoc, Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne are established names in the world of wrestling and can draw crowds anywhere they decide to work.
While the good times can’t last forever (just look what’s happened to the games industry since micro-transactions and grotesque levels of Gatekeeping became issues) we should be thankful that we are able to experience first hand a true renaissance in the way British Wrestling is perceived by the world.
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Picture Credit: @chelseacochrane