Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Promotion Allegiance

As we read our way through the beginning stages of American professional wrestling, I cannot help but notice the strange relationship that has always existed between the wrestlers and promotions. For the guys on the top of the card, it makes sense to stay until the money dries up. But what makes wrestlers who are not getting a major push stay with a promotion?

One of the first large scale wrestling promotions was the "Gold Dust Trio", made up of Ed "Strangler" Lewis, "Toots" Mondt, and Billy Sandow. In Fall Guys, by Marcus Griffen, it is claimed that the trio had over 500 wrestlers under contract. If even half that many wrestlers worked for the three, it is clear that not all could be pushed to fame.

The wrestlers may have thought about taking their skills to a different market, with hopes of higher paydays, but there was nowhere else to go. The trio controlled the wrestlers by controlling the wrestling clubs. The trio had a monopoly on wrestling in America, until other organizations later rose up from the stranglehold the trio had on wrestling.

For other organizations, like the NWA in the 1950s, a wrestler emerged who could carry the organization, and the NWA World Heavyweight Title, for almost a decade. Lou Thesz held the title for seven years straight, in a relationship that was obviously beneficial for both parties. The NWA had a credible champion, one that could withstand most double-crosses, and Thesz was a national wrestling icon. As long as the two stayed together, the money continued to flow.

But how much allegiance does a wrestler owe his promotion? This is a question that the TNA is trying to answer now. They recently issued a memo that all wrestlers under contract must get approval before doing any public interviews, and also warned against making any statements criticizing the promotion.


Joshua Shea said...

Interesting question, Kevin, and one that I had trouble with when I was an indy promoter in the late 90s. How could I put the title on someone who would go 50 miles down the road and get beat...especially if it's on television in both places.

I finally realized that these wrestlers wanted a)exposure and b)cash. They worked my shows because it was another indy that wouldn't rip them off. Unless I could produce enough money to convince the wrestler to sign a contract, I had no right to expect his allegiance. Neither does Dixie Carter or Vince McMahon. Neither did Eric Bischoff or Bill Watts or Verne Gagne. No contract, no loyalty.

First and foremost, above all else, professional wrestling exists because there is money to be made. It's a business. Once a wrestler signs a contract, he needs to honor it like any other employee. If he doesn't have one, his allegiance should be trying to make as much money or getting seen by the right people.

Alex Maki said...

I believe TNA is making the right move to keep their superstars where they want them, but it may anger some of the wrestlers and take away from their indie crowds...

Sam Ford said...

Kevin, your point is poignant, that some of the contemporary issues of wrestling have always rung true, at least for several decades. In Lipstick and Dynamite, look at the way Billy Wolfe was described. These were some tough women, to be sure, but so many of them let him dominate them for so long. Even more so, look at these women's relationship with Moolah. They hated her, yet most of them worked through her at least at some point. There is that interesting tension between whether she deserved her position or was a leach who sucked their pockets dry. Moolah says she sent them where they needed to go and just took her percentage, while they claim that she was merciless. (And the differing perspectives on those cheating husbands were awfully revealing as well).

It's the nature of the business.

And, while I think the depiction of The Gold Dust Trio in Fall Guys was a bit overstated, there's no question that those three men were instrumental in wrestling becoming what it is today. I doubt they ever employed 500, but they are one of the closest comparisons to the McMahon regime. "Strangler" Lewis is a man who is deemed a legend, was an absolute hero to Lou Thesz as we saw from the excerpts from Thesz's book Hooker but had an iron grip on the industry along with Mondt and Sandow. Of course, more people were willing to distrust the two guys who weren't as likely to be able to beat them up, so it's easier to find people criticizing Toots in particular, but I think the parallels between that era in wrestling history and the modern theatrical "sports entertainment" version are intriguing.

Josh's point about contracts is also important, of course, and wrestling has long distinguished that it's wrestlers are independent contractors signed to deals rather than employees. The company/wrestler relationship and contract status is especially interesting back in the day when contracts were signed as regularly and the regional rule was the stronger focus, so that has changed in the wrestlers' favor...at least there are some legal deals in place to set precedent for company/talent relations.

Mike W. said...

There are some cases (and this may be a case of there being "tiers" of indy promotions) where allegiance is earned. Samoa Joe "gave his notice" to Ring of Honor recently, and won't be working with them after early March. He made his name (somewhat) with them, and his matches with CM Punk among others made him look like a legit "superstar." He remained loyal to them for years, and in turn, the ROH title has a great deal of reverence and respect in it.

On the other hand, so did the NWA title, and Shane Douglas trashed that to further his career (though, since he was being loyal to another promotion in doing so - ECW - that's a stickier situation entirely).

I think that, extending Joshua's comments, you have a pavlovian exercise here: pay a guy regularly and treat him with some respect, and you've earned that respect. Of course, if someone else is offering more of either exposure or cash, then you can see that allegiance go away right quick.

I don't know what TNA is paying guys to wrestle, but working 3-4 days a month, I hope they don't even get half of their WWE counterparts. TNA can't afford those kinds of expenditures during a growth period. Nobody working that small a number of dates should be upset with their pay (I think we're all quietly alluding to Kip James and BG James). When TNA starts getting the TV ratings that WWE does, and when they work the number of dates WWE does, then the pay rate can compare. If I were TNA, I'd offer low-end contracts with performance incentives (for both talent and bookers). Will they have wrestler's allegiance at that point? Maybe some, maybe not. That's going to be the case at any point, really. Few wrestlers showed allegiance during the most popular and highest paid era of wrestling - the "Monday Night Wars."