Independent wrestling is a tough business, with fickle fans. It seems the number one complaint of fans is that promotions don’t bring in “big names” consistently enough. What those fans don’t realize is the number of challenges logistic and financial that come with booking these “names.”
SLAM! Wrestling spoke with four promoters across Canada, all who have brought in established talent for shows: Devon “Hannibal” Nicholson of Wrestling Supershows, Mike Davidson of Wrestling Fan Xperience, Kurt Sorochan of the Prairie Wrestling Alliance, and Burt The Hurt of Blood Sweat & Ears, to find out about the pros and cons of bringing in talent.
Money is a big factor. One talent alone can cost thousands in airfare, hotel, and the cost of the talent themselves. When you bring in more than one name, you add to those costs. It’s not easy to break even.
“Wrestlers and fans don’t always realize the cost of putting on shows. It is actually easier to make money going to a very cheap building and using unknown wrestlers who work for $50 because the break-even mark is much lower. I have lost money on every single Supershow I’ve done, from a few hundred to well into the thousands, because it costs so much to put them on,” said Nicholson. “The name wrestlers get big pay, hotel and flights, the arena costs can sometimes be well over $30,000, as well as insurance, ring rental, lights, advertising and basic office costs, which can range from $2,000-$16,000.”
In short, it’s a can’t win situation a lot of the time.
“Also as a wrestler I used to think advertising was the big problem because I never saw or heard any from companies like Stampede. When I became a promoter I found out the people rip posters down very quickly and that radio, newspaper and TV spots cost a lot and a lot of people still don’t see them,” he continued. Nicholson co-promoted the TNA tour of Eastern Canada in December. “I spent almost $16,000 on advertising for TNA in Montreal and they talked about it for six weeks on the RDS TV show yet we only drew 851 fans and people were telling me the show did bad because of poor advertising/”
“When we have used names such as Lance Storm, Kurt Angle and Christian Cage to name but three, we have done so in Northern Ontario due to sponsorship and advertising,” said Burt The Hurt of BSE, which promotes out of Toronto. “The North is able to provide radio and print ads at an attractive cost so that the towns we tour know we are coming and we have done well promoting there. In the Greater Toronto Area our budgets are more restricted and the cost of advertising is way more expensive, so you can bring in a name, but it won’t dent your attendance if the general public does not know they are coming due to less advertising, or you can advertise your basic roster show and they may not draw as the wrestlers are not yet well known. Our biggest successes have been in Timmins and Iqaluit, Nunavut where we brought in Robert Roode, Tracy Brooks and Rhino and sold out the arena two nights in a row. That was a feat we are very proud of. It is frustrating that in the GTA a population of five million you can only draw 100-300 people, but in Iqaluit, Timmins and Kirkland Lake you can draw over 1,000 with populations of 6,500, 50,000 and 7,500 respectively.”
Challenge two is working with the talent. While most are professional, issues do come up. Dustin Rhodes was scheduled to work a supershow in Cochrane, AB, and for the PWA the next night in May of 2007 and simply no-showed the event. Sometimes issues like weather are a factor, such as Bret Hart being unable to make a show in Ottawa last year promoted by Nicholson.
“These issues really affect my interest in continuing to promote because I worry that the fans won’t believe that the wrestlers are coming the next time and just not buy tickets in the first place. For the Ottawa show we literally received hundreds of angry hate mail about Bret not being able to show up and people really bashed me because of it in reports about the show,” recalled Nicholson. “It really had nothing to do with me and Bret didn’t do it on purpose but judging by how angry people were about it I think they would not buy tickets to one of my shows again so it has a big effect on me ever doing a big event in Ottawa again. You always lose the airfare out of it but sometimes the wrestlers send you back the deposits and other times they don’t. Some people like Goldust, who I now despise, not only take the deposits but call you up the day before his flight and ask for more advance money or they won’t come then no-show anyway. Then they are rude to you on the phone when you confront them about it. Others like Bret are very professional.”
“Goldust was a nightmare. I think he was going through a very bad time in his life that affected him professionally. We paid him a deposit which he called for 25 times in a span of a few days and had a lot of odd requests that I had never experienced from any other wrestlers,” Sorochan added. “Getting in contact with wrestlers can be tough. Some have websites with contact emails but others you have to really do your homework or ask others for help. I have a great network of friends in the business and have a very good reputation that I’m proud of so most people are gracious in aiding us.”
Bringing wrestlers into Canada can be difficult for a number of reasons. Flights to prairie towns can be expensive compared to the eastern provinces, and wrestlers getting past Canada Customs can sometimes be a hassle.
“U.S. based talent needs to have clean criminal records or it can pose a significant challenge to get them into Canada. Lex Luger was the only example in my seven years of promoting experience where a talent was denied entry into Canada. That was confusing because he was allowed in two months before, but Canada Customs had a good reason to not allow him into the country.,” recalled Davidson. “The major challenge used to be paying in U.S. dollars, but now that the Canadian dollar is so strong it has become more feasible to do major events with such loaded rosters. With WWE coming to Canada less and less, if we don’t bring this talent to our events, wrestling fans loyalty to our product could continue to wane.”
A popular option then is to use TNA talent, which is booked through the TNA officein Nashville. This provides more security for the promoter.
“TNA has been great to deal with and very accommodating even though there have been a few glitches. We pay them deposits and they guarantee the talent will arrive or refund our money. They book all the travel for us through a select travel agency and it’s nice not to stress about deciding on flight prices and times,” said Sorochan, of Edmonton. “Our Fright Night show in October 2007 drew over 800 with less than three weeks of promotion and not a lot of money spent on advertising. They were impressed with the attendance we draw with only a few of their workers. Some of their house shows draw that amount with the entire roster. Everyone we’ve used has been nothing but professional, they really restore my faith in the business and are great representatives for TNA and of what’s right with the business especially in a time when there’s been a lot of negative criticism of professional wrestling. It’s been an honor to help raise their profile in Alberta and I look forward to continue working with them.”
“TNA is a growing company who we have an excellent working relationship with. It is our relationship with talent that I think separates us from many promotions,” said Burt the Hurt. “It really is who you know in this business and how you treat them, and if you ask any of the TNA talent from Christy Hemme to Kurt Angle and Christian Cage, they will all vouch for their treatment with BSE and our professional commitment to not being just another ‘indy.'”
Davidson has taken a different approach, focusing on bringing in Canadian talent as well as former WWE stars like Kishi Fatu (Rikishi), Chris (Masters) Mordetsky, and Joey Mercury.
“TNA has a strict policy that prohibits its talent from appearing on DVD or PPV for any other wrestling company. It makes perfect sense, and it’s a respectable policy, one that I would institute in the exact same position. TNA spends a great deal of resources building their talent as part of their brand, and I can’t say enough great things about their brand,” said Davidson. “So we went the route of using free agents. We would actually like to develop a relationship with more international talent as well, as we believe that will help our DVD sales, which is a very big part of our business plan. I can tell you, anyone who saw Kenny Omega vs. Ultimo Dragon, are definitely up for seeing more International flavour.”
Older stars are part of the booking for PWA and Wrestling Supershows as well. Nicholson has used people like Sid, Abdullah The Butcher, Brutus Beefcake, Honky Tonk Man and Tito Santana, while Sorochan has used Beefcake and Abdullah as well as Jim Neidhart and Tammy “Sunny” Sytch.
“The mix of stars really helps because they each draw a different generation of fans. Abdullah draws the older territory fans mostly that remember him from the Stampede and Montreal Wrestling days. The ’80s WWF wrestlers draw a different crowd again. The TNA fans are a different group as well as the fans that would pay to see someone like Eugene or Kishi,” explained Nicholson. “An ’80s WWF fan like me would not pay to see a TNA show but we would pay to see a show with Brutus Beefcake on it. So if you have a wrestler from every generation it will bring more fans and possibly more money.”
“We’ve been able to provide something for everyone and the fan’s reaction and appreciation has been great. It’s also helped raise awareness within the wrestling community from other promotions and workers from across Canada, U.S. and Europe. Alberta has always been a hotbed for wrestling and our fanbase in very diverse in age and personal tastes,” added Sorochan.
Bringing in names has its share of problems, but the positives often outweigh them.
“The benefits of bringing in draws definitely outweigh the costs as we’ve done well financially with the shows and created a lot of awareness for PWA. People perceive us as a very legitimate promotion and we are set apart from all the so-called backyard indy feds. This is important since perception is everything especially when trying to attract new fans, sponsors, media attention and cross promotional opportunities,” said Sorochan. “Our local talent is stoked to have them because these guys have been role models for the younger talent and the inspiration for many to get into the business. A chance to meet and work on the same card with them is very special and to get advice on how to progress in the business is invaluable. It creates a sense that what we have is very special and I tell them to cherish these times in this business. I believe you must live in the moment and soak it all up but keep a level head and take your time in plotting out a potential career. I think it helps to create a positive working environment motivates them to work harder so I’m happy to provide as much help as I can to see ANY of our talent make it!”
“The positives are countless for WFX. Sponsors definitely take the product more seriously, as do mainstream media and our fan base. The Canadian wrestlers also seem to embrace the experience more, and get a valuable opportunity to network that otherwise could be expensive for them to travel to achieve,” said Davidson. “It’s not a stretch to suggest that everyone involved with WFX, from support staff to in-ring Canadian talent, work considerably harder in events like this. There are probably two reasons for this, the networking opportunities of working with talent from other locales, but additionally the increase in fan interest to check out these higher profile shows. To me, it seems to bring out the best in everyone involved.”
“All the talent we have brought in have always been gracious to our younger guys. People like Lance Storm take the time to teach the younger guys, as do guys like Christopher Daniels and Rhino,” said Burt. “All the name talent have no issues with listening to the direction of our promotion and in general I think the homegrown talent like it when someone who has actually made it is there giving advice.”
With all of the ups and downs that come with trying to promote with “names,” the reason for doing it boils down to a passion for the business. Nobody is making a fortune promoting independent wrestling, but as Nicholson says, it’s an addiction.
“I definitely have more sympathy for promoters as a wrestler now. It’s easy as a wrestler to look at a crowd of 2,000 like we had in Ottawa in August and think I made a fortune. In reality, after taxes the gate was less than $40,000 and the show cost over $60,000 to put on. I was glad the Bad News Allan Tribute Show was done because it paid respect to him and got his death a lot more publicity then it had before. Even though I lost a lot of money in Ottawa I loved the show because it was such a great collection of wrestlers and styles in the same night and the crowd was really good. I also got to live out my ultimate dream wrestling my hero in front of thousands in the arena I used to see WWF in all the time as a kid and dreamt of wrestling there. The only reason I do these is because I’m addicted to them. I love putting on shows and keep doing it for some reason even though I’ve lost over $100,000 from putting on shows so far. They are satisfying.”