Monday, May 30, 2011

Conglomerate Wrestling Goes To Mexico

When was the last time you turned on the radio?  Not satellite radio, but just regular terrestrial FM radio?  If you are like me, you tend to have erratic listening habits, because quite frankly, radio sucks.  No matter where you live, you probably have a radio channel selection in your area something along these lines: a popular classic rock station, a popular pop-music station, a station that plays hits from the 60s-70s-80s-90s and now, an easy listening station, an alternative/rock station, the "Black station", and a station that "plays anything".  Along with these stations, you will have your public radio or college stations, and maybe a classical station or even an "oldies" station.  And that is about it usually, unless you live in a really big market like New York, Chicago, etc.

There are roughly 10000 radio stations in the United States, and Clear Channel Communications owns about 1200 of them.  That is over a tenth.  In addition, Clear Channel also owns the companies that promote artists to the radio stations, they own companies that promote concerts, companies that broker tickets, companies that own billboards and other forms of fixed advertising, television stations, and more.  Because they own so many media outlets, Clear Channel has a virtual monopoly on the music industry, without even owning a majority of any music label. 

Think of it this way: Where you live, Clear Channel probably owns the big popular FM "Classic Rock" station, the pop station (Kiss-FM), the easy listening station (Sunny-FM or Star-FM), the rock station (the "X"), the oldies station (Fox-FM), the "urban" channel (Power-FM or "the Beat"), as well as a sports talk and/or a news talk station over on AM.  Their competitors will then often have a station that tries to compete with each one of these, so they will try to match formats. 
Now, since Clear Channel usually manages concert venues and/or arenas, the radio stations often become a tool for promoting live events in the broadcast area.

So, how it often works is that when an act is coming to town (lets say the Black Eyed Peas), their record label will pay a promoter to get their songs played on the radio.  Since the group is going to go on tour, the record label for the act will gladly pay promoters (Affiliates of Clear Channel), who in turn pay the radio stations (owned by Clear Channel) to play the music as a way to plug their upcoming concert dates.  As a result, the concert gets hyped, and tickets are sold, which leads to the promoter of the event (Clear Channel) and the arena manager (Clear Channel) to profit.  Plus, in order to buy tickets, you will have to pay service fees to a ticket broker of some sort (Clear Channel).  Billboards and other advertising are also usually purchased for the event (thru Clear Channel, again).

What this has done, is fool a generation of music listeners into thinking that certain acts are popular, simply because they see and hear them everywhere, and often, when in fact they are simply being hyped to no end by a giant media corporation who is just looking to sell you the same product a number of different ways.  Although they do not technically have a monopoly, their reach is so big that it is impossible to promote any kind of major live event without going thru this company at some point.

In addition, there are a number of other large media conglomerates that, although not as big as Clear Channel, attempt to compete with them, such as Cox Communications, Cumulus Broadcasting, CBS Radio, and a handful more. Just by looking at the names of the corporations, you can tell that these are companies that have their hands in many different types of media, from television to newspapers, to cable service. 

So, what you end up having is a company that will essentially push and make popular whatever they are paid to promote.  So, what you have is a homogenized radio experience, where there is little variety of playlist, and everything is easily packaged to be sold, and has no uniqueness that makes it different.  This has led to many people complaining about radio - that all it does is play the same handful of songs/artists over and over again to the point of annoyance.  

In almost every walk of life, there is a giant conglomerate that has put a number of smaller, profitable long-term business out to pasture, by gobbling up resources so that they can produce a generic product cheaply that the mainstream is willing to buy.  Wal-mart is guilty of this.  Microsoft is guilty of this.  Nike is guilty of this.

And the WWE is guilty of this.

At one point in time, there were major wrestling promotions in a number of regions across the United States and Canada - and the world.  There were promotions centered around regions/cities/territories such as Florida, Georgia, the Mid-Atlantic, the Great Lakes, the Upper Midwest, Indiana, Tennessee, Mid-south, Dallas-Fort Worth, West Texas, Southern California, Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, the Central States and St. Louis, the Southeast, and more.  As the 1970s rolled to a close, there were roughly twenty different regional wrestling companies promoting events in the US and Canada.

Keep in mind that each of these companies had office staff; various promoters, and staff responsible for booking and producing the events.  It may be hard to fathom now, but in this era, cities and towns actually got shows on a weekly basis in most cases. 

Think about that.  With twenty territories in business, there were roughly 700 wrestlers able to make a living - not counting all of the other people kept in business by the regional territories. Some of the venues were owned and operated by the wrestling promoters - so their main source of revenue was the weekly wrestling event.  This also employed a number of workers at the venues,  from ticket-takers and ushers, to concession vendors, to the actual arena managers.  In addition, each individual territory had a stable of wrestlers to fill out the weekly cards - from 20 to 40 individual wrestlers in each territory, making a living by working the shows each week in the territories.

However, nearly all of them were all put out of work when the promoter of the Northeastern Territory, Vince McMahon, decided to take his product national and start running events in other promoter's territories.  Granted, many of the territories were being poorly run and were probably on the verge of collapse (and some had already gone out of business), but when Vince McMahon brought the WWE to town, much like Clear Channel has since done with radio, he brought a slickly packaged marketing machine to the public, and thru this machine was able to convince the general public that the McMahon version of professional wrestling was the only version of professional wrestling there was. There was no hope for another local promoter to rise from the ashes and take the territory over.

The last bastion of competition from the territories was Jim Crockett's version of the NWA, but in order to keep up with an ever-expanding McMahon, Crockett bankrupted the company, and eventually sold it to the media empire created by Ted Turner - Turner Broadcasting, which renamed the promotion World Championship Wrestling.  WCW was able to compete for about a decade, because Turner Broadcasting (which eventually became Time-Warner)  had deep pockets, and avenues in which to promote the company - namely shows on the Turner Cable networks (TNT & TBS).  Eventually the deep pockets turned on WCW, as the company once again lost money, and the company was folded, with the assets being sold to McMahon.

Now, in 2011, it has been almost thirty years since fans were able to experience a real alternative to the "McMahon style" of professional wrestling.  Many people my age look back at the wrestling boom of the 1980s with memories of WWF toys, cartoons, rock-n-wrestling,  ice cream sandwiches, and dolls.  To others however, wrestling was dark, smoke-filled arenas filled with fans cheering for hard fought contests between two wrestlers, fighting over championships, money, pride, and revenge.  When the NWA went out of business, many of them just quit being wrestling fans.  Then later, when WCW became a cheap rip off of the McMahon-style, many more fans just walked away, with any wrestling even slightly resembling the "old days" disappearing forever. 

As the 2000s dawned, WWE had no competition, and turned itself even more into a Clear Channel-esque marketing machine.  The WWE started making movies and music featuring their performers, in addition to the toys, merchandise, video games, and home videos they already produced.  The WWE focused more and more on crossing their stars over into other media, and making them "Superstars" and 'Entertainers", not just professional wrestlers.  However, along the way they lost more and more casual fans, as the product became more and more distant from what the fanbase actually wanted to see.  Some fans wanted nostalgia from the 80s and 90s booms.  Some fans are there to see the current stars.  But many, many American wrestling fans found a new outlet for the type of actions they wanted to see: MMA, and more specifically, UFC.

With WWE desperate for new markets and sources of revenue, they began to turn to foreign markets.  Since traditional wrestling "territories" had either never existed or had long since died out in Europe, the WWE found this to be fertile ground, and some of their biggest money making events began to be tours of Europe, India, and the Middle East.  The ability to tour these areas of the world not only added new markets for all of the products the WWE sold, but also allowed them to back off of their domestic market a bit, in turn making events "must see" when they come to town. So, it was no surprise when the WWE looked two two wrestling hotbeds to expand their business: Japan and Mexico.   

WWE worked their way into Mexico based on the strength of their television numbers.  For years and years, professional wrestling in Mexico has been a business built on attendance.  Until recently, many places in Mexico never had cable television.  So, the main sources of wrestling information were newspapers and magazines.  Children grew up dreaming of being like their favorite wrestling stars they saw in magazines, and who appeared weekly at the local arenas - much like in the US's territorial days.

However, as the 1990s drew to a close, satellite television became cheaper, and more households started to receive more and more television.  CMLL and AAA continued to produce television shows like they always had, but they still had a business model based on attendance at live events.  The WWE quietly slipped their made-for-television-soap-opera on in Mexico, and a generation of children became infatuated with the WWE product, and were victims of the WWE merchandise machine.  Soon kids were coveting WWE action figures and t-shirts, right along side their lucha libre masks. 

CMLL was considered a "serious and stable" promotion, as they were often the owners and promoters of their venues - thus why attendance was their driving force. When you own the building, your revenue streams are parking, concessions, tickets, etc.  CMLL used television, not so much as a promotional tool, but more as a way of televising their cards - Televisa televised the matches the same way ESPN televised Friday Night Fights, or the NBA.  AAA has a slightly different business model - they tour around Mexico, rather than running weekly events.  Essentially, they took the WWE's model of a national touring promotion, and modified it.  AAA would book their talent into a number of local shows, and then periodically bring the "big show" to town for a television taping.  AAA depended on their television to hook viewers, so that they would buy tickets and sellout the television taping. 

With WWE on television in Mexico, they quietly built up a following, but no one was able to see the product live.  It built anticipation.  Over the years, WWE made better deals and got on bigger channels, and eventually were on the top cable networks in Mexico, and garnering huge ratings, and increased merchandise sales.  WWE, recognizing their popularity in Mexico, began pushing Rey Misterio, a legend in Mexico who had rarely performed there over the past fifteen years, as a top drawing card - along with their other stars.  This led to the WWE doing limited tours of Mexico, which would always draw tremendous crowds - due to the sheer build up and novelty.  Then, the tours happened more often, and would get bigger.

WWE, looking to capitalize on the success of their television and tours, began signing Mexican wrestlers.  Sicodelico, Super Nova, and Incognito all signed with the WWE.  WWE began flirting with the top star in CMLL, Mistico, and they signed the CMLL Heavyweight Champion, Dos Caras Jr.  Alex Koslov signed with the WWE from AAA.  Yet, none of them seemed to have any siccess, until Dos Jr, after spending over a year in development, debuted unmasked in the WWE as Alberto Del Rio, and was pushed immediately as a superstar.  After winning the 2011 Royal Rumble, Del Rio was a bonafide WWE star, and suddenly the generation of wrestlers who grew up watching the WWE on television and collecting WWE action figures and t-shirts, were looking to become stars in the US - just like Misterio, Eddy Guerrero, and Del Rio.  Mistico signed with the WWE, and almost immediately debuted as Sin Cara with much fanfare - even holding a press conference in Mexico City announcing they had signed the CMLL star.

Now, looking to further expand into the Mexican market, the WWE has signed Averno - the top rival of Mistico.  In recent months there have been rumors of Mexican wrestlers Diamante, Hijo del Fantasma, Volador Jr, La Sombra, and others looking to jump to the WWE.

When the WWE began to expand into different territories in the 1980s, they obviously pushed their stars, but one of the reasons for their success was that they signed the top stars from a number of different territories, and they used these stars previously established in each area to put over their own talent.  They signed Paul Orndorff and Junkyard Dog from Mid-South.  They signed the British Bulldogs and the Hart Foundation from Stampede.  They signed Bobby Heenan, Hulk Hogan, Iron Sheik, Gene Okerlund, Adrian Adonis, Jesse Ventura and others from the AWA.  They signed Jimmy Hart and Randy Savage from Memphis.  They signed guys from St. Louis, Florida, Crockett, and Georgia.  They were able to draw good crowds in new areas because they used the stars established in that area.  What the WWE is doing here is no different.  They want to make Mexico a consistent draw for live events and merchandising, so they are doing this by signing the top stars from CMLL. 

I am a wrestling purist.  I love the sport of professional wrestling.  I do not really watch the WWE product, because to me, it is like listening to a Clear Channel station.  All it seems to be, to me,  is a homogenized wrestling-like product, but not professional wrestling.  You do not have the quirks and differences between different styles.  To get my wrestling fix, I usually have to turn to international wrestling.  Because of this, I  want to see those promotions and companies thrive.  It is becoming more and more obvious that the WWE is targeting CMLL talent for their expansion into Mexico, and it is becoming more and more obvious that CMLL has no idea how to deal with a talent raid.  Sure, in the past talent has jumped back and forth between AAA and CMLL.  But now, it appears that the WWE is specifically aiming to put CMLL out of business.  WWE is running Mexico City now, and they do not want to see CMLL packing Arena Mexico for their lucha libre shows.  They want everyone in Mexico to think about the WWE product first and foremost.  By covertly signing Dos Jr., Mistico, and Averno away from CMLL, as well as giving tryouts or offers to other CMLL stars, WWE has escalated a war that has been coming for the better part of a decade.  CMLL has ignored it.

I hope, for the sake of the sport of professional wrestling, that CMLL finally realizes that it is in a battle, and gets their shit together.  Otherwise, one of the greatest cultural institutions in their country is going to be wiped out, and replaced by a media conglomerate that doesn't care about the traditions or history of their sport, or how much that it has meant to the Mexican people over the last 100 years.  CMLL needs to stop being a promoter of shows at their arenas, and needs to become the defender of Mexican culture - lucha libre.  Without it, I fear that all of lucha libre will fall.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I am able to watch AAA and CMLL every week and the language barrier doesn't diminish my enjoyment of the shows.