Friday, May 11, 2007

Notes from Sheldon Goldberg

Sheldon Goldberg sent along a message to be put up on the blog that gives some background to his work on the independent scene. He also suggested folks read his short blog posts here and here.

From Sheldon:

Thank you to all you MIT students for reading this. I suggested to Sam, that since class time is limited and the subject matter so broad, I would give you some links to some of my blog posts and this document you’re reading now. The blog posts cover the subject of “independent wrestling” – what it is, what that broad and general term means and what that expansive category contains. This document will be specific to my company, New England Championship Wrestling – how and why it started, what its goals are and what we’ve gone through along the way.

Some of what I’d also like to touch on with you is the future of this professional wrestling business as I envision it.

I am really looking forward to meeting you all in person and getting further in depth on some of these topics that I’ll be covering with you.

Before I get down to business, let me say that you have had an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the sport and business of professional wrestling from some of the greatest members of its ranks. I told Sam Ford in a recent e-mail, that you’ve probably had more and better schooling on pro wrestling than a good deal of the people who are actually in it. Following J.R. and Mick Foley might seem like a daunting task, but I find that to be an exciting prospect and look forward to some well-informed dialogue.

Introduction to NECW – Playing The Changes

NECW was established in 2000. Prior to its formation, I had been in business with the late “Boston Bad Boy” Tony Rumble – a wrestler, manager and commentator for Mario Savoldi’s ICW promotion, which had national TV syndication in the late 80’s. After breaking away from Savoldi, Rumble started his own local promotion, initially called the Century Wrestling Alliance and later became NWA New England, the New England branch of the National Wrestling Alliance.

With the major territories disappearing and no controlling regional presence to take their place, anything other than WWF or WCW was considered “independent wrestling.” The absence of established wrestling companies promoting locally and regionally did two things: It lowered the entry standards, so that basically anyone who could put together a group of wrestlers, rent a ring and a building, could be a wrestling promoter. It also created an opportunity for those with the skills and knowledge to fill a niche that had been left behind by the national expansion era of pro wrestling.

Taking advantage of these changes in the landscape of pro wrestling would not be an easy task, as almost every aspect of the business had changed. In fact, you could say it was a whole new business entirely.

In 2000, when NECW started up, the local wrestling scene was in a pretty mediocre state. Prior to this, what passed for “independent wrestling” in this area were shows presented mostly by a few promoters who specialized in “sold shows” or “bought shows” as some describe them. The formula was simple. Take one or two or four ex-WWF wrestlers and put them in the main event. Use local wrestlers, mostly wrestling school students, as filler to populate the rest of the card. Sell the events as fundraisers to local police, fire departments, school booster clubs, etc. for a fixed price which includes a profit, and bingo, you are a wrestling promoter with no risk. Shows where the promoter actually rented a venue and sold tickets were not unheard of, but they were not the norm.

In the late 1990’s, the game was changed. It was a combination of factors. WWF started to keep their talent under wraps and not allowing them to take these “third party bookings,” which was the term they used for independent dates. The arrival of DX and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and their rise in popularity, which included children mimicking the crotch chop and “flipping the bird,” made local schools ban the wearing of WWF T-shirts and the decision to keep wrestling events out of local high schools, where most of these “sold show” events were held. The fundraising shows began to dry up and it was clear – at least to me – that promoting wrestling locally meant re-examining the business model and using a different approach.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Wrestling Company

NECW was started based on an idea that was almost completely against the conventional wisdom of the time. That idea was to recreate the concept of the “wrestling territory” as a local organization using almost exclusively local talent with locals in the lead roles. The events would be held in small venues (500 or less seats) and run on a regular basis, eventually creating a “circuit” of towns, with cheap ticket prices. The shows themselves would be storyline driven and not just a collection of matches. It would be marketed town-by-town on a grass roots basis, with the idea of building a loyal local following.

The easiest way to fully grasp what was being done here is to break it down two ways. There is the wrestling side and the business side.

On the wrestling side, New England was and is an area that produced a lot of pro wrestlers. Killer Kowalski, the legendary villain from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, had one of the first widely known wrestling schools in the country based here in the Boston area. (Kowalski ran numerous “sold shows” off of the students from his school and even had a local TV show for a brief period in the early 80’s.) The school attracted students from all over the country and even some from overseas. Kowalski boasts an alumni that includes some who went on to become big stars in the business, such as Triple H, Big John Studd, Chyna, Perry Saturn and Chris Nowinski. The school also produced local wrestlers some of whom would then go off and open up their own schools. The result was a lot of wrestlers in the area and a significant talent pool to draw from.

On the business side, New England, which was always a top drawing area for the old WWWWF (precursor to the WWF and later WWE), had a great built in fan base. In later years, when ECW would tour to New England, the major cities in the area were always top grossing towns. Even the sold shows that went to suburban towns once a year traditionally drew well. The fans were definitely here.

With the perception of pro wrestling being dominated and dictated by WWE, and the enormous media platform and high level production values that drive that perception, there was real fear that without name stars or TV exposure to create them, that our company wouldn’t draw fans in any great number. Being on TV, when we started, was a simple matter of paying out money to buy a time slot on a local station and supplying them with a tape every week. The problem was that the cost of the time was too high given our economics and the time that TV stations were going to sell you was time that they couldn’t sell or program with anything else, which generally means fringe time when no one is watching TV.

The goal of NECW was to have a circuit of towns run monthly, along with a TV show to support it. It was clear to me very early on that the company was going to have to be grown to reach those goals and that it would take years and patience.

Much of what was done with NECW was patterned after the business model for minor league sports teams with adjustments made for the unique requirements of pro wrestling. As a fan, I wanted to recapture the fan experience of going to the matches on a regular basis and following the story from month to month. There are three keys to the business of NECW:

• Intimacy – NECW presents a wrestling event that is up close and personal, creating an experience that WWE, or any other arena attraction, cannot duplicate.

• Affordability – Like minor league baseball, inexpensive admission is a major key to attracting families with children and making them repeat customers. A recent study published in local newspapers stated that for a family of four to attend a Boston Red Sox game, including parking, refreshments and souvenirs, the cost was $318. The cost for a WWE event is approximately $180. For the same family of four, the cost to see an NECW event is roughly $50.

• Availability – With the locations of our events in suburban area armories, we are able to target those specific areas and the surrounding towns. Families can attend events closer to where they live, eliminating the hassle of driving into Boston and having to find paid parking.

Combine those three elements and you have a very potent combination.

Problems and Patience

The NECW business model did not develop without problems that had to be faced and handicaps that had to be conquered.

Talent: While there were plenty of wrestlers in the area, there was no precedent for what NECW was trying to do. The concept of “local stars” was non-existent. Very few of the talent locally understood the idea of working main events and being the focal point of the promotion. This was a problem that only time has begun to solve. Now, as we close in on seven years of operation, we are seeing “stars” develop from within our ranks that can carry the company in the leading roles. At the same time, there are a lot more companies in the area trying to do what we do. Oftentimes talent is pulled in different directions, though we have managed to stay fairly consistent.

Advertising/PR: Small venues equal small grosses and with Boston being a major media market, the city and surrounding suburbs are high prices when it comes to finding mainstream advertising outlets. Radio is so expensive in Boston, that the cost of a decent schedule far exceeds what a typical event can gross. The negative image of pro wrestling also hurts when it comes to publicity in the mainstream media. While NECW is the most-publicized company of its kind in the region by a very wide margin, free publicity is never easy to get and never a predictable resource.

TV: Television is the life blood of pro wrestling. Without it, you must rely on grass roots effort, street promotion, and whatever advertising you can afford. Without it, it is impossible to truly establish the stories and personalities that comprise the promotion.

Again, I realized early on that solving these issues would take time and patience, as well as some creative solutions.

Answers an Inch at a Time

In a grass roots business like NECW, problems are solved by having a clear set of goals and a path mapped out to reach them. Sometimes that path is traveled in feet and inches and not miles.

Early on in NECW, I knew that the company needed to establish an aura of credibility to be able to grow and flourish. That aura of credibility was demonstrated, first in the wrestling product itself, which was storyline driven and presented seriousl

Secondly, we needed publicity of the right kind. Relationships I’d built up with local media through the years yielded some good stories focused on the NECW as a company. All press was geared as much toward the promotion as possible and not about the wrestlers themselves. This was because the wrestlers changed constantly.

Minor league baseball people will tell you that the most important figure on a minor league team in the mascot, but that’s the only consistent personality present on the team from year to year. In NECW, I filled the role of the mascot – company spokesman, “rule maker and enforcer” in the company storylines, TV announcer and front of the house greeter to those in attendance. There are a multitude of other reasons for me assuming this role – some having to do with convenience and others having to do with wanting to leave a personal impression on our fans.

Lastly, we needed to be on TV. This was going to be the toughest hurdle of all. And while we have not arrived on TV yet, that reaching that goal is eminent. We got to that place by approaching it in a series of steps.

Normally, when a local wrestling promotion wants to be on TV, they first go for local cable access. It’s free and it is TV. The problems with it are that no one really watches it in great number and you have to place the show on systems town by town, which is time consuming and in the end not very effective.

My solution was to go directly to the Internet. Before we had any video up there, our website was attracting roughly 3,000 unique visitors per month – far more than were attending the shows live. It stood to reason that there was interest in our company far beyond the fans we brought in live. By broadcasting matches and conveying the key angles and storylines on an Internet broadcast, we would be opening that window into our business wider to those who were already looking at our site and creating the foundation for an eventual move to conventional television. This was 2004, long before You Tube. In fact, NECW was the first wrestling promotion to produce a weekly original long form TV show specifically for the Internet – a concept that was quickly copied by TNA, WWE and scores of other independent promotions.

I had originally come up with this concept in 1996 when I was working for the late Hiro Matsuda. Matsuda, who was a great wrestler and trainer, as well as a partner in the old Florida territory, had the rights to the TV shows produced by New Japan Pro Wrestling in Tokyo. The shows were edited and re-voiced and syndicated overseas under the name Ring Warriors. We produced a few episodes for the Internet back in 1996 as way to introduce the product to North America, but since few people had Broadband access in 1996, that attempt quickly fizzled. I always knew, even back then, that the Internet would eventually become a viable alternative means of distribution.

NECW TV debuted in November 1994. We even established a separate site – NECW.tv – to host the videos. The concept was an instant success, though not a substitute for conventional TV. It did have a lot of benefits though. The shows get anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 views a week in over 60 countries. The talent now has a platform to get used to the concept of working matches for TV and to develop promo skills. It is also a means to promote our live events and DVD’s.

Present & Future

In 2006, NECW merged with PWF Mayhem, another local promotion to form a unified company that operates under the New England Championship Wrestling name. At that time, we also launched a “sister” promotion – World Women’s Wrestling – which features an all female roster. Triple W, as we call it, is unique for several reasons. It is the only regularly scheduled women’s wrestling promotion in the country. WWW, like NECW, is storyline driven with women in all the roles men portray in a typical pro wrestling promotion.

World Women’s Wrestling was a way to diversify the company without going outside what it normally does. As a product, it was something that was long overdue in my opinion, and the talent base was there to accomplish it. This is another case of having to grow the talent and the business over time, but the enormous publicity received for the launch benefited both NECW & WWW. The women’s matches on NECW cards are now billed as WWW Feature Matches and storylines cross between NECW and WWW events.

Since the merger and the launch of WWW, NECW’s business has grown steadily and substantially to where sellouts are frequent and new towns are being added.

We have recently made substantial investments in video equipment and physical production as we prepare for an eminent move to conventional TV. We are also setting up our own screen printing shop to produce our own T-shirt and other merchandise. DVD sales will be a growth area, as we ramp up our production capabilities and staff.

Last year, we ran a total of 28 live events. This year, we will be closing in on 50 before the year is up.

Closing Thoughts

NECW is, in my view, what the future of pro wrestling is going to be. It is impossible to compete with WWE on their level for many reasons: the buy in would be enormous, an equal TV platform would be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain and the competition for talent on that level would be fierce.

The concept of a local/regional wrestling “territory” is viable and getting more viable as time goes on. Changes in television between technology and channel capacity will open up opportunities for those who are savvy enough to be ready to take advantage of them.

Links

There are some entries in my blog – sheldongoldberg.blogspot.com – that cover the subject of independent wrestling that may shed some more light on our discussion for Monday.

You can also look at some of our recent Internet TV shows – NECW.tv – which will give you more of an insight into our product. Our websites – NECWwrestling.com and WorldWomensWrestling.com – are also good resources.

I look forward to seeing you all on Monday.

Sheldon Goldberg
Co-Owner/Promoter
New England Championship Wrestling

1 comment:

Brian "Louxchador" Loux said...

Interesting post. I really liked the allusion to minor league baseball which is astonishingly on point. Cal Ripken's franchising of his hometown minor league team leaps to mind when Sheldon discusses becoming the face of his company.

I'd add that a number of fans of minor league ball / college / high school athletics find a number of the games just as enthralling as the major leagues, even more so when the games aren't blowouts. So in addition to the fans looking for a cheaper option, there tends to be a "purist" aspect as well. Wonder if Sheldon has seen that carry over as well.

Also curious to see whether the concern of talent leeching has ever come into play for the new breed of local indy scenes, or if that's a bridge not yet crossed.