Monday, May 15, 2017

All (Bushi)Roads Lead to America

The prize to be crowned in Long Beach
Photo via @njpw_global
New Japan Pro Wrestling is the number two wrestling promotion in the world. I'm not sure anyone can argue otherwise. Granted, its footprint in America is a lot smaller than WWE's, the world number one by far, is in its own home country of Japan, but it has enough of a foothold that people know what it is. Obviously, that's the first step towards building a bigger audience. The company already announced that it was going to hold part of its annual G1 Climax Tournament in the states, and now, it will be introducing a new Championship to commemorate this visit and make inroads into the United States. If this story feels like a rerun, it totally is. The company made a visit in 2011, co-branding with Jersey All-Pro Wrestling, and ran a tournament to crowd its first ever IWGP Intercontinental Championship. While at first it seemed like a way to bring the country international, that title has become the company's co-top Championship with the IWGP World Heavyweight title.

I doubt the IWGP United States Championship that will be introduced during the company's sojourn in California will rise to that level, but a lot has changed for NJPW in the last six-plus years. It partnered with Ring of Honor and introduced its top superstars to a wider group of fans than the JAPW shows ever could. WrestleKingdom IX was broadcast on traditional pay-per-view, and shortly after, the company launched New Japan World, an over-the-top streaming service that actually costs less per month than WWE Network. AXS Network is even airing a weekly show featuring footage from its big native shows, a show that has had talent like Mauro Ranallo and Jim Ross on commentary at times. While the prior excursion into America didn't drastically expand the company's footprint here, the amount of work it's done to get to this point makes this attempt more likely to succeed on a wider level.

But following up on the July 1st and 2nd Long Beach, CA shows will be crucial. Both shows are sold out, which is a promising beginning. The question remains whether the partnership with ROH will continue to be the best thing going forward, or if more of a live touring presence in America will be the answer. NJPW already has regularly scheduled dalliances on the North American continent in Mexico with Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre on the co-branded Fantastica Mania tour every winter. It's clear that even though Sinclair Broadcast Group's footprint in America is expanding that the company on the whole isn't as interested in treating its wrestling arm with much more care than any other division.

Could Bushiroad, NJPW's parent company, expand with more shows in America, and if so, would that be the right answer? The former is unclear, but the latter is looking more and more like a resounding yes. More and more wrestlers are becoming free agents from ROH and Impact Wrestling. WWE can't sign everyone, and even if it could, NJPW has a history of absorbing American talent into its fold without having to go through a developmental ringer. The choice between higher base salary in NJPW proper but having to traverse the Pacific and staying close to home but getting paid greenhorn salaries in NXT would have been harder before and maybe even not as present as it might have seemed to those with the barfly perception of "hey why don't they just sign with New Japan?" But if NJPW has a presence in America, the travel will not only be a lot less strenuous, but it could have a lot more positions open for wrestlers looking to fill up US tours that the company might not want to bring the lower card guys over for.

Either way, New Japan succeeding in America would be a shot in the arm for wrestling on the whole, so everyone should be rooting for the G1 shows in Long Beach to lead into something more for the company here in the States. I don't know if it can compete with WWE immediately, but at this point, no one outside of a corporate mega-patrician like Ted Turner could pull that kind of coup. NJPW starting with momentum, name value, and history could succeed where other attempts have failed.