"Show me a beautiful woman and I'll show you a man that is tired of fucking her". -- from Perfect Strangers (2007)
Almost as far back as I can remember being in the professional wrestling business, I have been around people bitching about how a promotion is run. It is a time honored tradition. I am pretty sure that athletes at every level of sports sit around after a game and have a few beers and bitch about the shit that management and the coaches do. Even outside of sports, happy hours all over the place are populated by people gathering around to complain about the things that their company does. It is just human nature.
The wrestling business is a different animal though. I am not going to write up a history of this business here, but the business had its origins in carnivals, and at its peak was run with the secrecy of La Cosa Nostra. When the territories died, when the internet came, and when the Attitude Era arrived, it became easier to run wrestling shows, and suddenly there was independent wrestling everywhere - and it started killing the business.
During my time in the business I was not only a wrestler and a trainer, but I also worked in promotions, had the book, and worked in lots of other facets of the business. The following are the things that separate professional businessmen that promote professional wrestling from some guy that rents a ring and is putting on a show.
1) It Takes Money To Make Money
What is the quickest way to make a small fortune in wrestling? Start with a large fortune!
Professional wrestling is a business. Unless you are a wealthy person who can afford to piss away money with no repercussion, you are probably not interested in shelling out more money to hold a wrestling card than you are going to bring in at the gate. No matter how passionate you may be about wrestling, you cannot pay bills with passion.
Just like anything else you would invest in, there is a cost. The cost of doing business can certainly vary, depending on what kind of show you are attempting to put on (more on that will follow). There are minimal costs to doing any show, and those minimal costs need to be met to have a very basic event.
First, you will need a venue. Are you going to rent a hall of some sort? Will the venue have seating? Will the venue have concessions, or will you be in charge of that (And either way, how is that money split?)? Is there an adequate lockerroom area? How many people will the venue hold? Is there adequate parking? Is the neighborhood safe? Is the venue climate controlled? What kind of insurance do you need for that venue, and can you obtain it? Maybe you have long term plans; Are you looking to lease your own facility? What is the monthly overhead for a venue like that?
You have some basic production to take care of too. You need a ring - are you going to buy one, or do you have access to a reliable rental? If you have your own ring, do you have a reliable way to transport it, such as a truck or a trailer (Not to mention maintaining and upkeep of both the ring and the transportation)? You need a sound system - buy or rent? You need insurance, in case something happens to the venue. Are you going to need things like curtains and railings? What about lighting?
Hey, who is going to run all this stuff? Do you have someone that can work the door and take tickets (Did you even get cash to make change?)? Do you have someone that can run the sound system, and some kind of ring announcer to introduce the wrestlers and make announcements? Do you have security, to keep fans out of the lockerroom, and out of the ring? Who is running the concession stand, or the merchandise table? Who is setting up the ring, the lighting, the sound, the chairs, etc?
The person running a wrestling event should never count on drawing a certain figure at the gate in order to cover these costs. These types of things are the fixed costs of running a show. These are all expenses that, in general, will provide you with no profitability, but are necessary to holding an event. Paying for all of the above should be taken care of in-full as part of the budget of running a show. None of the above will do anything to make your show more attractive, or bring more people to the event; however not doing these things will cause people to avoid the event.
Sure, there is some wiggle room here-and-there, and some places to cut costs. At the same time, increasing your investments in some of these areas may give your show a "bigger" feel. However, there is a certain minimum of acceptability that needs to be adhered to, and you cannot dip below that. You do not need to go hire a seasoned public address announcer to do your ring announcing; but you also cannot just use your cousin that works for free just because he watches wrestling every Monday night and "knows how to do that". You cannot run a show in a building with no AC in July when it is 102 degrees outside. You cannot have 500 people in a building without some kind of legitimate security.
2) The Talent Budget Is a Fixed Cost
After all the stuff we just talked about as necessary to stage an event, you cannot have wrestling matches without wrestlers. You need to have wrestlers. People are often not realistic about the type of wrestlers they can/should book on their events, and often when the fixed costs run high, they try to cut corners with the talent. Some promoters promise payoffs that they have good intentions of meeting, but they are not able to meet. Or, some people think that booking a "name" will automatically draw fans. Regardless of what you draw at the gate, you should have a fixed dollar amount for the talent budget. A promoter must view the wrestlers the same way as the venue, the ring, or the chairs - it is a fixed cost.
How to spend that fixed talent budget is up to the promoter. Maybe you have a $500 budget and you pay ten wrestlers $50 each. Maybe you take that same budget and pay one wrestler $250, and the other nine get $27 a piece. It really doesn't matter, but you have to have that $500 figured into that budget, and the money has to be paid out to the wrestlers regardless of what the draw is. That electronics store that you bought your sound system from isn't going to markdown the cost if you have a bad draw - neither should the wrestlers.
Often when promoters fall short of their obligations, the first place that they look to cut costs is from the payroll of that event. It is never the fault of the talent for not drawing; it is the fault of the promoter for not drawing with that talent. The quickest way to earn a bad reputation among the talent is to not deliver on a promised payday. One of the quickest ways to earn respect is by delivering on a promised payoff on a bad draw.
Let's look at it from a different point of view: If you work on the assembly line at Ford, you are paid a regular wage to build those automobiles. If the sales are slacking and the company is losing money, when you go to pick up your check on payday you expect to have the full amount of your wages on the check, correct? Ford cannot pay you less because the cars you built didn't sell. Maybe they can layoff/terminate you in the future to cut costs, but they cannot short you for pay you have already earned building cars.
So don't do the same thing to a wrestler.
3) It Is The Promoter's Job To Promote
To avoid problems of meeting your payroll and expenses, you have to draw paying fans to your event. You do this by advertising the event in a way that will generate interest and bring paying customers to the show. The idea
behind being a "promoter" is that there is some kind of event to
"promote". Often, promoters are underfunded, and since so much of their
budget is devoted to fixed costs, they skimp on advertising. This is a
fatal flaw, as advertising is just as necessary as the fixed costs, if
not more so.
No matter how much you spend on a venue or on
talent, people have to be aware of the event, and interested in it. There were more than a few times in my career when I was
traveling to a new town and I stopped into a gas station and asked for
directions to the "Wrestling show down at the Armory tonight", and
people were clueless as to what I was even talking about.
More than likely, the promoter is the person
who is investing their money into the events as the operating capital.
Thus, the promoter is the person who loses out if people do not attend. There are a variety of ways to advertise, but you have to find out what works, and then exploit that for your event. This is where so many so-called "promoters" fail, because they have no business acumen, and have no understanding of sales or advertising. Promoting is much more than putting up a few flyers or signs and expecting people to come.
A promoter will understand that putting someone's name or face on a flyer doesn't mean anything if no one sees it, and if people do not know what it is when they do see it. There isn't any one way to promote that is correct. For some folks, television advertisements work, but others may draw well with flyers. Some people work out agreements with sponsors and local businesses, while some promoters have success working hand-in-hand with community organizations and charities. There is no formula that always works everywhere, every time. If you are not the type of person that can do the type of work that generates interest in an event, then you should not be trying to promote.
4) Hire People That Know What They Are Doing
The alternative to not knowing how to promote is to hire someone that does know what they are doing. Maybe you have a venue, a sound system, and the investment money to run shows, but you have no idea how to advertise and market the events? If that is the case, look for a partner that has that ability, but maybe doesn't have the finances. Maybe you will have to cut them in on a percentage of the profits, or maybe they will work for a fee - but without them, all you will do is lose money.
Over my career I was in many lockerrooms at events where the promoter was clueless on how to run a show. Since he was the one putting his money into the promotion though, he was going to be the one running things. So there were quite a few shows where there were over thirty wrestlers in a lockerroom booked for an event, and the show ended up having fourteen matches. Or maybe the promoter booked a bunch of his half-trained buddies he used to backyard with, and the rest of the guys were all overpriced "names" that the promoter marked-out for.
If you do not have a grasp on how the in-ring side and the actual production of an event work, hire a booker to take care of these things. I cannot stress this enough. The talent is not going to respect you just because you are giving them a payday. If a promoter has a vision for how they want their promotion to be, they need to hire a booker to produce those types of events. Sure, there are some promoters out there that can successfully promote and book their events - but there are so many people out there that have no clue what they are doing. A person shouldn't have to solicit on messageboards looking for workers. If you do not know how to go about hiring fully trained professional wrestlers, hire a booker. If you do not know how to hire a booker, email me here.
5) You Are Not The Next "ECW"
I broke into the business in the late 1990's, during the wrestling boom of the "Monday Night Wars". I was actually a part of a wave of people that got into the business around that time, because with the help of the internet we were able to find out about wrestling schools and independent promotions. It may sound odd to people that were not around at the time to witness it firsthand, but ECW was a glorified independent promotion that gained enough of a fanbase that it was able to compete (to an extent) with the two big corporate wrestling promotions.
As more information about professional wrestling became available on the internet, more people decided that they had what it took to star their own independent promotion, and they could be the next promotion to gain a strong fan following and "take on the big boys", just like ECW..
The cold hard truth of the matter is that ECW gained the following that it did because of a perfect storm of circumstances that will never be duplicated in the same manner. ECW was based out of Philadelphia, which is where many of the "Apter Mags" were published at that time. In addition, many of the "dirtsheets" or "newsletters" that covered independent wrestling were based out of the Northeast. Many of these sheet writers were also active tape traders, and were prolific on Usenet groups. A lot of you reading the last few sentences are probably clueless to what I am even talking about. What it boils down to is this: ECW established a unique alternative product to the corporate wrestling product, but did it for an audience that was able to generate interest among other wrestling fans. At that point in time, if you wanted to watch wrestling, your options were Raw on Mondays, or WCW on Saturday night. The people involved with the sheets, Usenet, and tape trading were actively seeking out other types of wrestling, and ECW actually had a big enough budget and buzz to appeal to those people. When the internet boomed for everyone in the mid-1990s, and people went to search for "wrestling" on the internet, they found out about ECW as the awesome alternative to WCW/WWF.
That scenario isn't happening again. Right now WWE has a minimum of four hours of free wrestling on television each week, along with TNA's two hours, plus ROH's syndicated one-hour show. Plus, many people get CMLL or AAA wrestling if their cable/dish package has Latino channels. Plus, due to search engines and sites like Youtube and Dailymotion, you can find a ton of current and classic wrestling of every level on demand. Not to mention all the torrents of PPVs and DVDs out there.
This doesn't stop every two-bit wrestling promoter from saying that their promotion can be the "Next ECW" if everyone just works together, puts the company first, and sacrifices for the cause. This is all horse shit, even if they use another promotion like ROH or Chikara as the example instead of ECW. It is even a bigger line of bullshit if they say they want to be the next OVW, FCW, or are close to being a "developmental" promotion. This is a lot like every douchebag with a video camera thinking they are the next Scorcese.
6) You Are In Competition With Everyone
Wrestlers, promoters, and fans often do not realize that everyone is in competition with each other. Where people fail is in recognizing what they are in competition for.
The fact of the matter is this: Anyone that is a "fan" of professional wrestling has some kind of limit for what they will invest in their wrestling activities. Some people will only invest a couple hours on Monday Night to watch Raw, or perhaps will invest in a ticket to a WWE event when it comes to town. On the other end of the spectrum, some people will watch as much wrestling as they can, go to as many events as they can, and will buy as much merchandise as they can. This is not unique to wrestling, but to any leisure activity. Think of a baseball fan who might watch a game here and there, but maybe only goes out to the ballpark for one game a year, while another guy has a closet full of jerseys, a billion baseball cards, and is in three different fantasy leagues.
What a promoter needs to do to be successful is to make the oath that they will make their product as appealing as possible to the people that might spend their money on wrestling, so that when they go to spend that entertainment dollar, they spend it on their product.
In this sense, a promoter is in competition with every other possible alternative to their product, be it high school football, movie theaters, amusement parks, and - of course, other wrestling promotions. In the strictest sense, this means that your promotion is in competition with groups like the WWE. A lot of people misunderstand that, and automatically assume that that statement means that a promoter thinks that they can compete with the WWE on a monetary level. This is not the case.
What that statement means is that if an individual has a budget - for example $50 a month - to spend on wrestling, then you want that money spend on your product. For instance, on a regular Saturday night show, you average an attendance figure of 300 paying fans. If the WWE comes to town on the same night as you are running a show, you want those 300 regular fans to chose to attend your show over WWE that night. You are in competition for that $50. Even if it is not the WWE, maybe it is another independent promoter - you are competing for that same wrestling fan's budget. Maybe you are competing against a local hockey team's televised playoff game; Whatever may come between you and that fan's disposable income is competition. The promoter's goal should be to get as big of a percentage of that budget from as many fans in the area as possible.
7) They Are Not Marks, They Are Loyal Customers
Because professional wrestling has its roots in the carnival, professional wrestling has long had the tradition of treating fans like crap. It is not hard to find a story about some wrestler or promoter doing something "carny" in order to make a quick buck off of an easy target. Many people still have the attitude that wrestling is about getting as much money as possible from a fan, without giving them anything in return.
Many people use the term "Dusty Finish" without truly knowing what it means. The Dusty Finish was a booking strategy and promotional device that essentially gave the fans a happy ending, only to jerk it away and make them feel screwed. It was a bad promotional tactic, because if a fan feels that they have been ripped-off, they are less likely to spend their money to see another event. Carny promoters will cackle in joy at ripping off a fan, because they often have the mentality that "I already have your money". Their ignorance misses the fact that their actions will prevent them from getting any more money.
If a promoter wants to build a loyal fan base, they will avoid doing things that will make the fan feel as if they were ripped off. Sure, the bad guy has to come out on top sometimes, but there is a difference between a fan wanting to come back to see the villain get his comeuppance, and feeling as if they were cheated out of their money.
If you go out to eat at a restaurant, you want to have good food, a short wait, prompt friendly service, and a reasonable charge for those services. Have you ever gone to a restaurant and found out that the soft drinks did not include free refills, but only after your drank six cokes, and your waitress repeatedly asked if you wanted a refill (but never told you there was a charge)? Feel ripped off? Would you want to go back again, even knowing now how they worked you for money before, and being smart enough not to fall for it again? Probably not.
If someone no-shows your event, be upfront about it. Do not advertise wrestlers who will not be there. Do not advertise matches that you do not intend to have. Do not think that putting "Card Subject To Change" at the bottom of a flyer or on a ticket absolves you of having to deliver what you advertise. When something beyond your control happens and forces changes to an event, be upfront about why, and make an effort to "make good" on what was advertised.
8) Do Not Do The Same Thing As Everyone Else
One of the poorest kept secrets in wrestling is that wrestlers all have egos, and that they all think they are stars, or are going to be the next big thing. The truth is that most wrestlers are dumb jocks that are just looking to be famous. Sadly, a lot of people are in the business now that shouldn't be, because it is just too easy to get in.
What this leads to quite often is that in any given area you will have a local pool of talent that wants to be booked on every show in that area, and you are the asshole if you do not book them and pay them well. Keep in mind, they expect you to pay them more than everyone else in the area, but they still expect to work for everyone else in the area for whatever payoffs they have been getting. Guess what this leads to?
It leads to every show in that area looking exactly the same. Two guys are a tag team on this promoter's event, but across town at a different event they are in a blood feud over a girl. This makes everyone look foolish. Do not use the same talent as everyone else.
Wrestlers are always quick to point out how it is "independent wrestling" and you cannot keep them from working anywhere else. This is true. However, you also do not have to book anyone that you do not want to. If a wrestler works for everyone in the area, he isn't drawing anything for you. Any hard work you put into promoting them and making a name for them benefits someone else, so do not do it. If you are going to book them, do not make them a featured part of your promotion; use them to enhance the talent that you are going to build around.
While there are some business models built on using local talent, quite often it makes no sense to use more than a handful of local guys, along with guys from a multitude of other regions. If you are running a show in Columbus, doesn't it make sense to use three or four guys from the area, along with a couple from Cincinnati, a couple from Pittsburgh, a couple from West Virginia, a couple from Cleveland, and a couple from Detroit? Meanwhile, everyone else in the area is using the same ten to twelve guys from Columbus.
9) What Kind of Product Do You Want To Present?
There are almost as many different types of promotions as their are types of wrestling, or types of wrestlers. If done correctly, almost any type can be successful. The problem often stems from when the promotion has no real identity.
Many promotions branch out from a wrestling school. If you are running a promotion in tandem with a training center, then the training center needs to be top notch, and the events need to fit the needs of the school. If you only have three or four trainees, you are going to have to find other wrestlers to fill out the cards - do you want to use veterans and try to draw, or do you want to do low budget shows featuring young local talent?
Do you have access to a large venue once a month? Do you think you can fill 1000 seats with all local trainees? In a case like that, maybe you want to bring in a ton of veterans and "name" wrestlers to draw a large crowd? Maybe you have a business model where you will make money from DVDs, so you want a venue that looks good on video, and wrestlers that know how to work towards a camera?
Do you have a fanbase that likes a certain type of wrestling, like brawling, high flying, technical mat wrestling, etc? Do you want to try to build that fanbase, or just book guys of a style that you like? Maybe your fans love high flying guys, but you prefer to book bodybuilder types that work a basic style? Do you want to serve your fanbase, or satisfy your own preferences?
It is important to know what group you are trying to market to, what your goals are as a business, and how to get where you want to go. Like I said earlier, it is often hard to get there, so do not be afraid to hire/partner with people that can help you reach those goals.
10) It Is A Business, Not A Hobby
Wrestling is fun. It is supposed to be fun, just like any sport. However, bills do not get paid by fun. You have to take it seriously.
I am not saying that there can't be practical jokes, or that good times cannot be had by all, but the things that go into a show must be taken seriously. If you do not take advertising a show seriously, no one will show up. No matter how fun a card might look on paper, it is always better when there is a crowd there. If you forget to book a ring, or to book a wrestler, or whatever, it can lead to you losing money. And after you lose a certain amount of money, you are going to have to fold up shop no matter how fun things might be.
At the same time, you are probably a fool if you get into professional wrestling thinking you are going to make a pile of money. You should enjoy what you are doing. The goal should always be to have another show, and for it to be bigger than the last one. If you make money off of each show, that can happen. The goal should be to keep the doors open as long as possible. That goal can only be met by putting on quality shows with quality talent, and having a strong fanbase.
For a long time I worked for a promoter that figured out what the bare minimum was to keep his doors open, and he did only what he needed to get by. While it gave me a place to practice my craft, in the long term it didn't benefit anyone because nothing ever grew from it. Why risk more money on a big show that might draw a good crowd, when he could not do a damn thing and fifty people would show up? Hey, as long as the budget was less than what the gate was, the promoter made money, right?
Every wrestler that spends any time in the business gets to a point where they try to figure out of what they are doing to their body is worth what they are making from it. Promoters are the same way, but instead of the body taking the beating, it is the wallet. If you treat it like a business, the wallet will take less of a pounding, and the doors can stay open longer.
You should always be looking for feedback from your fans. The people that buy the tickets are customers, and you are servicing them. Find out what they liked and did not like about the show. Find out what wrestlers drew them to the show, and what else you can do to help bring them back.
However, you shouldn't live and die by what the fans say. In all sorts of different walks of life, people will offer up their opinion, and advice. Politics, sports, fashion, etc. Everyone is a great backseat driver. Look at how many people hop online after their local football team loses, and talks about all the things that would have done differently, and why the coach should be fired.
The important thing to look at is how people are spending their money. If you are growing your fanbase and your revenues are going up, you are doing something right. It is always good to get insight from your customers on what they think about the product, but you cannot live-and-die by what they say. Maybe you will find out that the fans think the seats at your venue are uncomfortable, or that the shows seem to go on too long. Those are things that are good to know, so you can address them. But if a guy think syour shows blow because Wrestler A Should be champ and not Wrestler B, take it with a grain of salt - especially if he keeps coming back to every event.
Part of being a good promoter (and a good booker) is being able to read the pulse of your fans, and to find out what things really concern them, and which things do not. A good promoter will take care of the actual wants and needs, and will leave the idle chatter where it belongs.