Only months before the five year anniversaries since the respective deaths of WCW and ECW, there is the thread of a reason to be excited about the state of wrestling again. Again, it is the fledgling hope of a successful alternative to WWE in TNA. Their latest pay-per-view was another in a line of successes for the company that has included upgrading to a better time slot on SpikeTV. There was a title change—which is, in and of itself, cause for celebration—and Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, and Christopher Daniels were reliable in producing another great match.
Despite all these successes, for which the fan inside me wants to cheer, the company has yet to develop a clear roadmap for their success that can produce results in the long-term. How, I wonder, does the company propose to attract new wrestling fans—as opposed to simply skimming them from the competition—and create a business model that will sustain them financially? TNA has a healthy optimism, which I don’t intend to disrupt, but it should be grounded in a few basic realities that will help them define why and how they can continue to exist.
The first reality is that the basic existence of TNA—or really any promotion that intends to compete with WWE—presumes that, in the market for wrestling today, there are people willing to pay money to see a product that is not WWE. The fulcrum upon which this assumption rests is that with the death of WCW and ECW (which, in actuality, began well before that) millions of wrestling fans were suddenly no longer wrestling fans and did not switch to WWE. Furthermore, WWE is losing business every year, and this represents a loss of people willing to pay for the product offered. What these people are looking for, the arguers will contend, is a product that is dramatically different from what is offered today and would be willing to pay for it.
If you were to press me for my personal belief, I would probably agree with the assumption that there is a large group of people who would be willing to pay for a better product than WWE, but for the sake of realism, let’s realize the lack of evidence for this claim. At worst, of course, no one would care about a wrestling product no matter how good it is. But it would be fruitless to discuss TNA’s prospects if you are to assume the worst, so let’s presume that there is a market for what TNA is trying to offer. The question this leaves unanswered is: what sort of wrestling product would attract disenfranchised wrestling fans young and old, yet be relevant and exciting enough to create a new generation of wrestling fans?
This question is a very basic question of brand identity. TNA’s second main reality, and in this case a huge problem, is that the promotion is without a clear enough vision for its future. Despite the optimism, the company is without either a uniting vision or a profit. Right now, WWE lives without the former because they have the latter. TNA has neither at this point and their good intentions will not, in the long term, make up for the dearth. I don’t intend to suggest that progress in creating an upstart in this business can be either fast or cheap. But for TNA to succeed, they cannot simply thrive on the approbation they receive from dedicated wrestling fans that are giddy at the idea of a Samoa Joe match. Samoa Joe, the masterful and truly unique wrestler, is a start; but the company’s actions don’t signify that the company realizes that to succeed they have to create a brand identity for themselves that is as masterful and unique as the one Joe has worked hard to fabricate for himself. TNA has to offer a brand of a wrestling that is built on principles that, on occasion, lie in direct contrast to the product offered by WWE, while avoiding comparing the TNA product to what WWE does and does not do.
This does not mean they have to remake the wheel, but ground their product in basic principles of wrestling. They must present a product that is informed by what made wrestling successful in the past, but not constricted by traditionalism. It was the Paul Heyman approach to wrestling of understanding what makes wrestling work first and then finding ways to make it work today. Despite the fact that ECW went out of business, they were a success precisely because they were informed by basic principles and used them with a style of wrestling that was defined in contrast to the problematic norms of the business. TNA would be well served to bring the passionate scholarship, if not the wild-eyed lunacy, that was represented by Heyman to an indelible vision for the future of the product. With someone as studied on the business as Mike Tenay in their booking company, I find it surprising that they haven’t found a similar theme to direct their efforts and energies.
The crowning of Christian as champion is another first step. They have given a fresh face with potential and unrefined skills a chance to lead the company. They have, at least temporarily, reversed the Jeff Jarrett curse that has hobbled any of the company’s chances to succeed since the beginning. But if they believe it is enough to find the people around which to build the company and let the theme come to them later, they are working in the wrong direction.
Christian and Samoa Joe are the answer to a question that TNA hasn’t yet honestly asked of themselves. Much of being successful in wrestling is just waiting for well-laid plans to catch on and pay back your investment. TNA shouldn’t put the cart before the horse by hoping for a success before they’ve first created this identity. Because, like WWE, they may find that even with all the money in the world, you still can’t build a brand unless you know who you are—and by extension, your customers know who you are. This is WWE’s problem right now: no matter what they try, whatever attempts they make to draw attention to their product, their desperation is transparent. They have the deepest talent pool in the business, the prime time cable contract, and a massive and forgiving fan base. But they’ve long since lost touch with what is wrong with how they run their company. They’ve lost touch with the problems that hurt their company (they stopped caring, for example, that domestic live events are still struggling to draw fans). They’ve lost touch with the value of their talent, such as Eddie Guerrero, whose legacy to this business was not just that he was a genuinely good person but that he understood what made it tick and how to use the emotional bond between wrestlers and wrestling fans that is its lifeblood.
The leaders of TNA have to recognize that the most important thing they lack at the moment is a clear sense of themselves that threatens to sabotage their vision. I am optimistic that TNA can be a successful business and restore some of the genuine sentiment to a business that has been too long without an identity. They just have to tell us who they are first.
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