Tuesday 5 April 2011

Identity Crisis

For the good of the wrestling industry in general, Total Nonstop Action needs to be successful. By having a second wrestling promotion in North America, capable of offering an alternative to the stale WWE product, everybody would win. It would give fans the option of watching a product that presents wrestling differently to Vince McMahon (for a start, by acknowledging that it’s wrestling and not “sports entertainment”). Wrestlers would have an alternative employer able to offer competitive pay, or at least creative freedom for slightly less cash. Even WWE itself would profit, as history has shown that Vince produces his best work when his TV ratings are threatened by a direct rival.

Sadly, that’s not the world we live in. Dixie Carter’s TNA is a long way from being the company the industry needs it to be.

The obvious and easy suggestion to make is that Vince Russo needs to be fired. His track record is horrendous. The only reason he’s managed to become a name in the business is because he happened to work on the WWF creative team during the promotion’s hugely successful Attitude Era (he didn’t head the team, he was merely a contributor alongside many others, so his claims that he was the man solely responsible for everything good seen on WWF TV during that period are utterly untrue). From there he journeyed to WCW, put them out of business with his inept approach to wrestling writing, and then wound up in TNA because he’d pushed its founder, Jeff Jarrett, as a champion during his obliteration of WCW. He’s managed to cling on to his job this long because Dixie Carter, the woman in charge, is clueless and sees him as a safe pair of hands.

Replacing Russo with a creative team that knows what it’s doing is the necessary first step to making TNA a success. As I said, Russo’s kept his jobs through being  a known quantity. It’s certainly not due to a lack of alternative bookers. Jim Cornette, Adam Pearce, Dave Prazak, Gabe Sapolsky, Paul Heyman, and Dave Lagana are some top names that could be approached if TNA were serious about trying to improve itself. Some of them are working for rival promotions, some have sworn never to work for TNA again, and some have been in talks that have fallen through, but there’s no harm in approaching them. Making an offer costs nothing.

Speaking of costing nothing: the sooner they stop using the iMPACT Zone the better. By using Universal Studios for almost all its TV tapings and pay-per-view events they are denying themselves revenue from admissions (the Studio prohibits TNA from charging an additional entry fee as people have already paid to enter the larger grounds). It also denies them the opportunity to grow their fanbase, as meaningful shows are presented so rarely in other locations. Plus, most of the regulars at the iMPACT Zone are detrimental to business, cheering and booing for what they please, regardless of the booking. True, this is something all promotions must deal with from time to time but basing yourself somewhere where frequent heel and face turns are dictated so heavily by a fickle audience is madness. Just because the handful of regulars approve of something doesn’t mean the TV and PPV markets will.

Taking the product on the road would present the product to a larger audience, heightening chances of increasing viewing figures, whilst creating more revenue from merchandise and ticket sales. iMPACT Zone fans may love Mr Anderson and AJ Styles, but how many times are they going to buy the same T-shirt?

Finally, touring more banishes the image of a regional promotion. Even if the company picked just five cities and rotated through them for a year it would make TNA seem more of a national promotion.

Realistically TNA could be doing a small tour every two weeks. Live TV may not come cheap, but that’s not an excuse. If small companies like Ring of Honor and Dragon Gate USA are able to present live pay-per-views every couple of months then TNA should be able to manage bi-weekly live tours, especially when they want to be seen as second to WWE.

A TNA tour could start on a Thursday with a live iMPACT, with the next episode being taped the following evening (either from the same arena or somewhere nearby). Saturday could be a smaller venue for a house show, with Sunday either being a second house show or a live PPV depending on the requirements. This would mean the roster and crew would only be on the road once every two weeks, which is about the same as the current schedule. It would also make moving and setting up all the TV equipment far more cost effective.

Another habit the company needs to drop is presenting a sports entertainment style of wrestling. The bookers suggested above all have experience working for promotions that had or have a unique style to their wrestling and feel to their programming. That’s what TNA needs, because if people want sports entertainment they’ll watch WWE. Most people would agree that the best formula TNA could use would be longer matches, more logical use of gimmick bouts, a more realistic approach, and the occasional use of swearing and blood (preferably from someone other than Ric ‘crimson mask’ Flair).

This is a combination of things WWE don’t do and corrections of things TNA currently do wrong. Whether the new identity ends up being this one or not, it’s something that desperately needs working on. One of the biggest mistakes that the current creative team has made (and they’ve made a lot) was getting rid of the six-sided ring. That was something that separated the promotion from all its rivals at a glance, and benefitted the styles of its top, home-grown stars. If they can get it back, they should.

The marketing team should be far more active with regards to trying to showcase themselves to the WWE audience. Why there’s not an annual TV special the night before WrestleMania is beyond me. In the past decade the weekend’s become huge for wrestling in general, not just World Wrestling Entertainment. By staging events from the host city each year Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate USA and others open themselves up to fans from all over the world who are in town for the sports entertainment supershow. This is exactly the market TNA needs to attract, and by presenting their show on TV they would have access to a home audience that’s equally as hungry for wrestling action. Isn’t it worth arranging just one special a year to get such a great chance of exposure to a market crying out for an alternative?

You’ll notice I’ve not yet mentioned the roster. This is because TNA has amazing talent at its disposal already and just needs to utilise it more effectively. Rebuild Samoa Joe as an unstoppable heel and present AJ Styles as the absolute best in the world. Get them, and others, on as many media platforms as possible, as often as possible, and you’d have a roster of men and women on their way to becoming household names.

As for Hogan and Bischoff, keep them for as long as they’re willing to stay and be booked by someone else. Hogan, if used sparingly and marketed right, can still make a modest difference to ratings, and Bisch is a better on-screen character on his worst day than Dixie Carter is on her best. Neither man should be the omnipresent TV force they currently are, but they can both serve a purpose.

TNA has the potential to be THE alternative that western wrestling needs. It won’t be easy, or quick, but if it starts now and doesn’t deviate once it’s decided on a course of action it could become a profitable and creatively successful promotion. I wish it luck.

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