Sometime after Jason Reso walked into San Francisco’s Cow Palace in the early afternoon on Tuesday, October 25, for the Smackdown tapings, he was abruptly asked to sign a contract—on the spot—that would renew his employment with the company.
After having moved from RAW to Smackdown earlier this year, Reso had already seen a sharp decrease in pay. In WWE, wrestlers are paid for individual appearances on a sliding scale based on how many people pay to attend the shows they perform on. On average, Smackdown shows draw less than RAW shows on tour and, by extension, the wrestlers from Smackdown make less money on the road.
Often as a result of low ticket sales, Smackdown house shows are also more likely to be cancelled than RAW shows, giving the wrestler an extra night off in the middle of the tour (often spent idly in between towns) and a cut in the pay that supplements their downside guarantees and oftentimes is used to pay for traveling expenses.
So it must have been particularly galling when Reso, known professionally as Christian, after moving to Smackdown and after years of working for WWE, was asked to take a cut in his downside guarantee. While it was likely surprising, the practice is not uncommon within WWE. But in response, Christian made a decision that wrestlers are feeling increasingly comfortable making: he quit.
It is a liberty that scores of other former WWE performers—big stars including Steve Austin (who also walked out on the company this week) and Brock Lesnar and even very small-scale wrestlers such as Brian Kendrick (Spanky)—have taken.
WWE’s insistence on hard work, faltering morale among wrestlers, and diminishing opportunities to succeed in a contracting business have all contributed to the changes, but wrestlers have also had the growing opportunity to pursue endeavors outside of wrestling. The day of the single-track wrestler—who retires and fails as a used car salesman or a drunk before returning to wrestling—that can do nothing else has ended and for most WWE performers, while wrestling is what they love, it is not the only good option for them.
Wrestlers can now choose to leave WWE and pursue options on the independent or international scene, making their own schedule, and in many cases making more money per date than with WWE. Other wrestlers have opportunities and interests outside of wrestling that they now have the financial freedom and savings to pursue. Brock Lesnar left to pursue football unsuccessfully and Chris Jericho has contemplated leaving permanently to pursue music with his band Fozzy.
Even without the long-dreamt-of idea of a wrestlers’ union, wrestlers are finding it increasingly easier to say no to WWE, a change in a power relationship that has long been tilted against them. Years ago, when WWE lowered a downside guarantee, it was accepted widely and without significant protest, but now wrestlers are willing to speak up against ideas that they do not like, and, in extreme cases, leave the company when they aren’t offered what they want. They are increasingly educated about matters financial and are better about saving the money they make.
In leaving WWE under these terms, Christian looks to sacrifice between $400,000 and $500,000 annually before expenses depending on how well the live show business does, according to the Pro Wrestling Torch. For that money, Christian has worked about 107 dates on tour this year and would be expected to work about 20-30 more had he stayed. It sounds like a lot to walk away from.
But wrestlers are paid less for their contribution to wrestling as other athletes are paid for their contribution to the respective sports they play, according to a comparative study of WWE’s fiscal reports and other sports franchises done by the Wrestling Observer earlier this year. The Observer found that based the percentage of revenue that sports teams and organizations pay to athletes annually, WWE pays the least, a difference explained primarily by the lack of a union for wrestlers.
At the same time, wrestlers are considered independent contractors and not employees by WWE, so they are responsible for paying for most of their travel and health expenses.
It seems impossible to have a good morale and work for WWE at the same time. Talent is often not rewarded and, with such scattered exceptions as John Cena whose feuds as champion have largely been ignored, the proverbial glass ceiling remains in place. Christian is the perfect example of a person who worked hard for years and bloomed into a solid worker and above average interview and was given limited rewards for such improvement.
WWE preaches working hard to get attention and Christian did. But the response to his efforts was predictably nonexistent among a tone-deaf creative team that spends most of their time kowtowing to Vince McMahon and agreeing with his simple-minded vision for wrestling.
The wrestlers have been hoodwinked for a long time. What is different this time around is that they know it and they have got the power to say, for once, no.
Vince’s yes-men should act in kind.
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