Monday, July 20, 2015

Wrestling Is Volatile: Unpacking the Situation among WWE, ROH, and New Japan

Dispute over Owens' image and likeness may be at the heart of the current heat between ROH and WWE
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Life comes at you fast in wrestling, and no bigger or better example came starting on Thursday night, when Jushin "Thunder" Liger was announced to wrestle at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn. The move seemed to be fraught with political implications, especially given Ring of Honor's working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling. As it turns out, the move was politically tinged, but not the way that was thought in regards to the NJPW connection.

NJPW held a press conference Saturday regarding the kickoff of its G1 Climax Tournament. If you want the most important coverage of it, read, the fashion report, read Shelly Deathlock's and Tom Blargh's recap at Wrestling on Earth. Anyway, aside from Bad Luck Fale cosplaying as Oddjob and Michael Elgin wearing a suit that was way too big for him, the biggest news that came out of that press conference was all about NJPW's global expansion. ROH officials can breathe a sigh of relief because the working relationship between the two companies will continue. Additionally, the note about working with NXT in early reports from that conference were false at worst and a mistranslation at best. NJPW announced that that it wanted its own NXT.

However, that news doesn't mean that WWE isn't necessarily maneuvering against ROH right now. Dave Meltzer has been making cryptic comments on the Observer message board about WWE's desire to squeeze ROH out of its normal arenas for the NXT brand. Of course, with news that Takeover: Brooklyn sold out of its allotment of tickets in seconds at the fuckin' Barclays Center, NXT doesn't need to run in places like Terminal 5 in New York. Reports of how many tickets were sold for the event are varied. The initial report was 5,000 tickets sold, but then upper-level tickets started going on sale, which would put that Takeover attendance number ahead of nearly every indie wrestling event ever. And even if WWE and NJPW don't plan on having a working agreement, NXT booking Liger in opposition to a ROH show with NJPW stars on it is a heavy shot, even if it's being framed as William Regal innocently ringing and old friend to come work a big show.

The WWE brand, even its developmental/premium brand is stronger than anything else on the continent of North America north of the Rio Grande River right now. So why would WWE officials necessarily care about a company it dwarfs in both revenue taken in and attendance? Merchandising. It always comes down to merchandising. Back in May, ROH unveiled plans on releasing a Kevin Steen action figure. By this time, Steen had already transformed into Kevin Owens, and WWE had already introduced him onto the main roster in a feud with John Cena. ROH still had rights to Steen's image rights, however, because of a licensing deal that may or may not even have been legal. Obviously, people in WWE flipped their shit at another wrestling company using the image and likeness of a wrestler on its own roster to make money. Of course, the important part in the whole thing is that Steen/Owens gets paid for his image and likeness, but in dealings between corporations, you know that the actual person is the least of anyone's concerns. Capitalism, baybay!

It bears to be mentioned that while ROH, the wrestling company, is small potatoes compared to WWE, the parent company, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, is a veritable giant. And for all political bullshit around WWE and its conservative leanings, it looks like the damn Green Party compared to the groups that SBG has donated to. WWE may not be the good guy in this scenario, but ROH's backing makes it more heel than face as well. But when corporations do battle, rarely does a party worth rooting for emerge. So basically, the licensing move on Steen and others is another dastardly corporate tactic.

But again, SBG is a larger corporate entity, but ROH is a smaller arm. The larger pissing match between WWE and ROH's powers that be will only end up screwing the talent. One of WWE's rumored reactions was to inquire about making WWN Live and EVOLVE its indie wrestling arm where it could vet wrestlers without the pesky problem of licensing deals from other national promotions like ROH and TNA. So in effect, ROH wrestlers may end up getting squeezed out of chances to work for WWE if this escalates even further. WWE is the only domestic wrestling outlet that pays the kind of money commensurate with the fame of being a pro wrestler. So, as with any pissing match between giant entities, the rank and file gets screwed. ROH will survive as long as SBG empties its deep pockets to keep it. But when given a choice between staying in ROH and going to NXT with the promise of making John Cena money, hell, even Kevin Owens money, what would the average wrestler do?

All in all, the situation is murky with no real good guys outside of the rank and file. It's easy to marginalize groups, especially ones headed by easily hateable entities like Vince McMahon or SBG. But if I were a wrestler, I'd be worried right now. It's a time of great upheaval, even if the longer term endgame may have some richer promises for everyone involved.