When the WWE Network launched in February of 2014 for just $9.99 a month, it caused something of a stir in professional wrestling and it’s just now that we’re beginning to see what a post-Network world looks like for wrestling promotions on a global scale. While some promotions were already beginning to embrace the new opportunities afforded to them by an increasingly online world, many more were slow on the uptake and still shackled to DVDs, which are proving to be an increasingly unfashionable means of content delivery in an age where convenience and ease of access reign supreme. Sites like Smart Mark Video have offered MP4 downloads of their shows for a number of years now, allowing customers a DRM-free copy of purchased events to do with as they wish, while promotions like Ring of Honor explored the realms of internet broadcasting with a video on-demand service and their (not always successful) ventures into iPPV. Other promotions have followed suit, but with wrestling more accessible than ever and a larger international audience within many promoter’s reach, there also comes with it a great deal of competition. If not locally, then certainly internationally.
As little as ten years ago, following international wrestling was still something of a chore for the average wrestling consumer. Even if promotions did ship their DVDs overseas, ordering them could be a costly endeavour for international fans (that is, if they were even aware that the promotions existed) and while embracing social media is something of a necessity for the modern wrestling promoter, it wasn’t at all as prevalent a decade past. But now, through sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, promotions and wrestlers alike are finding new ways to engage and entertain their fans, as well as draw new sets of eyes to their product.However, for all the changes the internet has brought to the ways we consume and interact with media, in the world of wrestling it has taken the game-changing arrival of the WWE Network to make people consider what that media is worth, both from the perspective of the fan and of the promoter. While WWE can afford to price their service competitively, some promoters are understandably wary of any changes to profit margins that are considerably tighter than the Stamford-based giant, which has left promotions in the unenviable position of having to charge more for a product that, to the casual observer, might seem like the minor leagues.
Despite this, there are a number of promotions following in WWE’s footsteps, most notably New Japan Pro-Wrestling, who launched their online streaming service NJPW World last December which, like the WWE Network, offers live broadcasts of events as well as VOD content. Independent promotions like SMASH Wrestling in Canada, Scottish-based Insane Championship Wrestling, London’s PROGRESS Wrestling and AIW in Cleveland have also jumped on the internet streaming bandwagon, allowing their devoted fans to sign up to their VOD services for a monthly fee that’s less than the cost of a physical DVD, MP4 download or single VOD rental. But already the market is becoming saturated. With the options available to the discerning wrestling fan becoming more numerous and varied, it’s inevitable that those fans will have to pick and choose between the promotions they want to and are able to support, which is why I think two of the key things for wrestling promotions to focus on going forward are providing options and flexibility to their customers. Options in terms of how they view the content and flexibility in terms of the cost. Perhaps I don’t want to sign up for a whole month, perhaps I just want to watch a single show. After I’ve watched the show, perhaps I enjoyed it so much I want to own it on DVD or MP4, but don’t want to pay full-price for a product I’ve already paid for once, and so forth.
But as fans of wrestling are forced to re-evaluate what their wrestling habit is worth to them, so will many wrestling promotions have to re-evaluate how best to provide their content to the consumer and how better to understand the landscape of a post-Network world. When WrestleMania costs just $10, perhaps pricing your iPPV at $30 isn’t the best idea. When I can watch multiple shows live from Japan for ¥999 a month, perhaps raising the price of your iPPV on the day of the show is more self-defeating than it is helpful. Sure, $5 may seem like a small obstacle to prevent someone from watching a show they want to see, but in an age where many of us are beholden to numerous subscription services, and not just in the realm of wrestling, $5 can suddenly become a step too far. Ultimately, it will be the fans who decide which approaches succeed and fail and technology that will dictate the future of content and delivery, but it’s up to the promotions to stay ahead of (or, at the very least, keep up with) the curve, unless they’re content to be left by the wayside, and to think about the unique and creative ways they can provide value to their subscription services beyond the basic concept of a video on-demand catalogue.