Sunday 24 April 2011

Fantasy Booker: WWE part one

If Vince McMahon were to call you up out of the blue to admit that he’d lost touch with his audience and offered you the job of WWE chairman with his full financial backing, what would you do? Obviously you’d very likely take the job, but beyond that what would your plans be? If you were in charge of every aspect of WWE, from which city would host RAW next Monday to who holds the WWE championship, what would you do?

This is a question I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Right now I’m going to attempt to get all my thoughts written down, across four blogs. There’s too much to realistically discuss in just one. In this first entry I’ll be focusing on the developmental system I’d put in place, before moving on to the behind the scenes changes I’d make to RAW and SmackDown in the second entry, and the booking system and creative direction I’d take in the third and fourth.

My belief is that in order to get everything else functioning correctly I would have to get the developmental system running correctly first. What is the talent developmental system? It’s a training facility used to help newly signed wrestlers hone and perfect their craft. Almost all new signings, male or female, no matter their wrestling background, are placed in the system upon first joining the company. It’s considered part of earning their way onto the main roster and paying dues in the business. They’re also taught how to wrestle the WWE style, helped to create a character the writing teams of RAW and SmackDown will want to use, and gain experience working in front of television cameras. With a knowledgeable team of retired wrestlers and wrestling personalities in place as teachers I think WWE has a tremendous starting point for such a system. But that’s all it currently is: a starting point.

The system currently consists of one small promotion, Florida Championship Wrestling. Wrestlers will be based there from signing with the company until they get promoted full time to the main roster. There is usually a transitional period where youngsters will travel with the main roster competing in untelevised matches, being evaluated by road agents, the management team and the writing team, to assess whether they’re ready for the move to the big leagues. The way in which people go from developmental to the main roster is fairly solid. There’s a lot of evaluation going on by people who will look at different aspects of a worker, which is good. I’d be more insistent on calling up people who are ready for the move than the current regime is but the process itself seems fine.

The area in which the system is failing the main rosters is in its size. The feeder system is far too small. One promotion is not enough. New signees all learn from the same group of teachers, in one place. It doesn’t matter how good these teachers are (and I think they’re very good), not everyone will learn what they need to being taught the same way. Different people are more receptive to different teaching styles.

So what’s the solution? In my mind it’s to recreate the old territory network, on a smaller scale and funded by WWE. Vince McMahon originally put the territories out of business by taking their top stars and invading their areas of business. He took his company from a regional promotion to a national one at their expense. So how can I make that old system work alongside the juggernaut that grew at its expense?

Firstly, I wouldn’t be trying to recreate it on the same scale. Those old territories used large buildings and toured around set towns. I would want the feeder groups to stay in one place, in a building holding somewhere around 600 to 800 fans. They would be designed as small time outfits intended to attract a loyal audience for weekly or bi-weekly shows. I wouldn’t be trying to recreate the ability of the territories to draw money, it would be more about having options for deploying new signings.

Under my system a newly signed talent would work for at least two of these promotions before being considered for a position on a main roster. This would give everyone in developmental access to a larger number of teachers and wrestling minds from whom to pick up different aspects of the business and be exposed to different styles of wrestling and booking.

I can see the benefit of every contracted performer knowing how to work WWE’s patented sports entertainment style: it ensures everyone on the roster can work with everyone else, avoiding style clashes thereby reducing the likelihood of bad matches. But it makes WWE’s television product predictable and formulaic and doesn’t play to the strengths of the talent. By exposing youngsters to different wrestling styles you give them wider experiences to draw on, and while I wouldn’t wildly deviate the main rosters’ style away from sports entertainment at first it would allow everyone to add manoeuvres or little tricks from different styles, giving viewers more variety and making the product more organic.

I also mentioned booking styles. That’s something I think WWE is desperate for. Using writers with more TV experience than wrestling experience for so long has damaged the company. I’m not saying TV experience is a bad thing but every member of the RAW and SmackDown writing teams should be familiar with wrestling too. That’s what they’re going to be writing so that’s what they should know.

I’ll be discussing the writing teams for the main rosters in part three, but a key change I’d make ties in with the developmental system. Writers (or bookers, call them what you will) would be sent to the territory system to learn their craft just like the wrestlers. Well, new ones would. I’m not going to hire Jim Cornette and insist he spend six months in developmental before coming to work for me.

Young writers just starting out would be taught how to put a show together, how to book a feud from beginning to end, come up with ideas for everyone on the roster, and pace a show so as not to burn an audience out. They’d also become versed in the process of structuring a match, cutting a promo and developing a character, so as to understand the process from a wrestler’s perspective. Most importantly they would need to understand how to make the audience come back the next week.

As with the wrestlers, writers would be called up as and when they were seen as ready. I would probably invite them to attend RAW and SmackDown script meetings, see which roster and stars they were most passionate about and on which show their ideas fit best. As with calling up a wrestler it wouldn’t be an immediate promotion, it would be a gradual process of acclimatisation to find the writers’ strengths and weaknesses. Jim Cornette would be hired to oversee this process, touring round the promotions and recommending times when a young writer would benefit from moving to a new territory to work with a different group of people or a tryout with the main rosters writing teams. As one of the most celebrated booking minds of all time I think he’s perfect for such a role.

What about the promotions themselves? Where are they going to be based? Who’s going to book them? Who’s going to be working in them? Firstly, FCW would remain. It’s already set up and doing the best work it’s capable of. I would leave it to operate as it does now, but I would take somewhere between a third and half of its training staff to be dispersed amongst the new start-ups, replacing them with a handful of new trainers. The same would happen to its roster as I feel it’s slightly unwieldy at the moment and could do with downsizing, plus the new promotions would necessitate such moves. Dusty Rhodes and Ricky Steamboat would remain in place as head writer and trainer respectively, as I see them as key forces in the current success of the group.

The first new promotion would be established in either Philadelphia or Chicago. Both have big wrestling markets that could sustain regular shows with passionate fans. This company would be loosely based on ECW. I don’t mean the hardcore style, the blood and profanity (though of all the feeder promotions this would be the one to feature those things if any did), I mean more the style of booking. Paul Heyman’s greatest strength was finding something in every wrestler that could be turning into a gimmick. He was also very talented when it came to pacing feuds and creating a big match atmosphere. I’d offer him the job of getting this promotion up and running before joining the RAW or SmackDown writing team, because he’s such a phenomenally talented wrestling mind, but realistically I don’t think he’d accept. Anyone else I name in this series of blogs I feel would be willing to taking whatever job I’m attaching to them or could be persuaded to do so, but I just can’t bring myself to say I’d get Heyman because I think he’s moved on from wrestling and would have no interest in coming back.

In place of Heyman I’d hire Shane Douglas. He’s long been thought of as a man who could have made a good booker and having spent years in ECW he’d be familiar with the style I’d want for this league. I’d hire Bill DeMott, Brian ‘Road Dogg’ James, Monty ‘Billy Gunn’ Sopp and Peter Polaco as the key trainers, with them being joined by whoever seemed a good fit from FCW. Dave Prazak and Dave Lagana, as experienced bookers who have worked in the production side of wrestling, would be hired to join Douglas on the booking team to help him format things and temper his relative inexperience, with an eye to bringing Lagana to one of the main rosters and touring Prazak through the feeder groups in an aide role.

FCW wrestlers posted there would need to be able to work a slightly stiffer style and be prepared to work a larger amount of gimmick matches than they’re currently used to. One of the aims of this promotion would be to prepare the talent for those aspects of wrestling.

The second feeder group would require more technically sound wrestlers, with the emphasis being more on technical wrestling and sportsmanship. Ideally this league would be based in Canada around Lance Storm’s wrestling school. My knowledge of US and Canadian visa law is rusty but I’m assuming the majority of American signees would be able to work in Canada without much hassle. If that were the case I’d go with this plan. If legal issues became too problematic I’d establish the company in Detroit.

The reason I want to base a group around Storm’s wrestling school is because the man’s a great teacher and wrestler, and the school has been up and running for a number of years. Lance Storm would be hired as the head trainer and would be joined by Dean Malenko from the main roster. I’d hire Austin Aries and Mike ‘Nova’ Bucci to provide insight from men with different experiences to Storm and Malenko. Aries would be working as an active member of the roster too, with the aim to call him up to one of the main rosters once this feeder group were established. As with the first league the numbers would be filled out with relocated FCW staff who would be familiar with the incoming talent and WWE head office personnel. In an effort to make the deal seem more attractive to Storm I would not only be leaving him full ownership of the school but also signing all the trainees he already has there to developmental contracts. Along with the men and women relocating from FCW this would give the group a sizeable roster to work with.

Booking this would be Adam Pearce and Gabe Sapolsky alongside Storm and at least one newly signed developmental writer. The plan would be for Gabe to help get things up and running (he was the first Ring of Honor booker so he’s familiar with being with a promotion from the start) before joining the main roster’s writing team, at which point Pearce would take over with longer term plans, assisted by Storm and the newcomers.

That puts me at three feeder groups. I would attempt to re-establish ties with former successful developmental federation Ohio Valley Wrestling, because they always did great work. This would be a partnership rather than an acquisition. If a deal was made I would leave it to operate exactly as it currently does, only requesting that one or two new writers be posted there to learn the role. Again I’d sign all current members of the OVW roster to developmental contracts to get a good core roster. OVW would give me a more old school group to send talent to. That’s something I feel the current system is really lacking, a less rushed approach that has a well paced logical approach to booking.

Finally, I would set up a league in Britain. Ireland and Britain have produced a number of stars for WWE (and the WWF) over the years, and with no language barrier I think we’ll see WWE looking here more in the future. I know I’d be looking not just in Britain and Ireland, but in Spain, Italy, Germany and Switzerland too, as wrestling is so popular there. A British training facility would also have the handy bonus of being able to provide extras and jobbers during WWE’s European tours.

The group would run bi-weekly shows at Bethnal Green’s York Hall or Broxbourne Civic Hall in Hoddesdon. Buying a gym in London to function as a training area and HQ shouldn’t be difficult, and it would be close to both venues.

The downside is that Britain doesn’t have local TV stations as America does, so getting a TV deal would be harder (most WWE developmental territories of the past have had a deal with a local TV station). It’s possible a late night slot could be found on Freeview but I’d be more inclined to have the group do a webcast, allowing a wordwide audience to see the product, including WWE’s management, agents and writers.

I’d sign an entirely new roster to avoid relocating people from Florida to Britain, and would hire Mark Sloan, Flash Barker, Jody Fleisch, Greg Lambert, and Dean Ayass as trainers, with the latter two also helping out with the writing. There’s only one man I’d want heading up the booking of this promotion and that’s Alex Shane. He’s had modest success booking British indies in the past, only ever coming unstuck due to financial restraints and a keenness to grow too quickly. As a WWE subsidiary he’d finally be able to produce the product he’s always wanted, without needing to worry about national expansion.

I think what I’ve outlined here is a fine in-house system for training the next generation of WWE wrestlers and writers, not to mention referees, commentators and various on-screen personalities. It wouldn’t be set up quickly but I think within six months most of it could be in place. A lot of new signings would need to be made and it would need to be accepted that some would never make it to the main roster full time. I think that’s okay. The developmental system would be comprised of five separate federations so even if a talent was in each for just two years it would still be ten years before they’d been everywhere. At that point they could start the journey again, passing on advice and pointers to newcomers and segueing into an agent or trainer role. Or they could leave and try their luck in Japan, Mexico or the US indy scene as a well rounded performer.

I feel I’ve adequately explained the training system, so we’ll draw part one to a close here. In part two I’ll look at the behind the scenes workings of the main roster, as well as detailing the talent scouting system I’d put in place to keep new blood pumping into developmental. I’ll give one spoiler for that: John Laurinaitis will be getting demoted.

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