What it’s like to attend a Tony Khan media scrum

On Saturday, I got the chance to participate in the media scrum following Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor event in Lowell, Massachusetts. I know that there has been a lot of interest in these scrums ever since AEW started doing them after their major events, so people might be interested in what the experience is like. I decided to chronicle my experience and provide some thoughts and insights to the public on what participating in the scrum is like, as well as potential ways to make the experience better for everyone involved. 

For starters, the event isn’t really a media scrum. A media scrum is typically somewhat informal and spontaneous, with one person standing and answering questions while media members jostle around to get the best position to stick their recording device close to the interview subject. The post-AEW/ROH events are much more like press conferences. They are organized, public relations staff assist in organizing the questions from the media, everyone is sitting down, etc.

How to participate is straight-forward; if you have been approved for a media credential, when you pick it up before the show, a staff member will instruct you where to meet up after the show. In the case of Death Before Dishonor, the meeting place was right behind the section where the media was sitting. A member of the PR staff led us down a hallway into a small conference room, where a podium had been set up for Tony Khan and talent to speak.

When Khan (and whatever talent arrives with him) is there, media members take turns asking questions. To get in the queue to ask questions, you must signal to one of the PR staff members who are passing around the microphone. This can be somewhat challenging, since the pace of how Khan and his wrestlers tend to go through their questions is slow, meaning that a backlog of people waiting in the queue to ask a question builds up quickly. You may find yourself bumped in the order as it can be hard to keep track exactly when it is your turn. 

The advice I’d give to people is to continue to remind the PR staff that you would like to ask a question. This is very much a “squeaky wheel gets the grease” situation, and it never hurts to be aggressive in reminding people that you would like to go next.

For Death Before Dishonor, it was a smaller crowd of media members than for AEW PPV events. There were approximately ten people at the presser; Nick Hausman of WrestlingINC was the only person I know for a fact who flew in for the show. The rest of the group was made up of some national outlets that had local people on their staff (e.g., Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated, Liam Crowley of ComicBook.com) as well as some local sports media that occasionally dabble in wrestling coverage.

During the presser you are pretty much free to ask any questions that you want. There is no vetting of questions beforehand, so media members are free to fire away. I asked two questions during the presser, and while I would have liked to have gotten more questions in, I was at least satisfied with my experience. 

The first question I asked was for Claudio Castignoli, which was about if he felt like he had more in-the-ring freedom working in AEW and ROH, as opposed to WWE. After pausing for a second and making an incredulous face, Castignoli did give what I would consider a substantial answer.

The second question I had was for Khan, which asked if we would ever see The Briscoe Brothers on Dynamite or Rampage. Khan declined to give a straight answer, saying that he “doesn’t know” if they will ever appear in AEW, but said they’d be a big part of ROH. 

While Khan declined to give a definitive answer, he essentially did give us one. There has been speculation online that The Briscoes have not been able to appear on Dynamite or Rampage due to controversy surronding Jay Briscoe and a homophobic tweet he made in 2013. This speculation has been fueled by their noticeable absence in the build-up to Death Before Dishonor, since they were in the main event of the show against FTR. By declining to give a clear answer and saying that he “doesn’t know”, Khan, who we are led to believe controls every aspect of what appears on AEW television, is giving the indication that The Briscoes will not be on AEW TV going forward. 

The response was about what I expected. I did not expect Khan to give a definitive answer, since if our suspicions are correct, he isn’t going to acknowledge that Jay Briscoe may be problematic. Public figures are not obligated to give great, clear answers when the media asks them a question; it is up to the media and the public to decipher what something means based on the evidence that we have.

On social media there is a lot of frustration with the kinds of questions that are being asked during the pressers. I fully understand that frustration; and at times during the presser I was annoyed by some of the questions, particularly the ones that are kayfabe-based, or ones that are compliments of the show disguised as questions.

What I think is helpful to keep in mind is that media members have different interests in the kinds of questions they are asking. Some outlets are looking for comments on kayfabe storylines or angles, searching for news headlines like, “Claudio Castignoli says he is going to defend the ROH World Championship again at  ____” . Others might be writing feature stories and looking for quotes on certain subjects to round out their articles.

As a representative of Wrestlenomics, I knew my questions had to be fact-based and oriented on the more serious side. Personally, I think the pressers would be a lot more interesting if the kayfabe questions were dumped entirely; the pressers are too good of an opportunity with one of the most powerful individuals in wrestling, as well as numerous top performers being available for questions, to be wasted by asking kayfabe-based questions, or complimenting the people on their performances. However, I understand that there is a market for kayfabe-based comments and “soft news” and those questions will always be a part of the pressers.

I do think there should be more people at the pressers pushing for real information. The conduct of some members of the media is questionable. Before the presser started, I heard one media member loudly talking about how people on social media complain about the media not asking “tough questions”, and stated that you simply cannot do that. The individual then said that if Vince McMahon was in front of them at a presser, they would obviously not ask McMahon about the recent NDA scandals.

That shows the difference in mentality between the various members of the wrestling media. To me, not asking Vince McMahon about the scandals if presented with an opportunity to do so would be a complete dereliction of your duty as a member of the press. To other people, it’s a toxic idea, something to steer clear of at all costs for fear of ruining a relationship with sources. My response to that would be how valuable of a relationship do you have with a source if you are not allowed to ask them the most important questions?

There is also a tendency for some people to include their own opinions before asking a question, things such as, “I think that was a great match. What do you think (wrestler X)?” 

Not only are these questions boring, they also pose an ethical dilemma. By asserting your own (favorable) opinion into the question, you are admitting a clear bias towards a particular response, something that reporters should steer clear from.

Why do people choose to insert their own views into the presser? One explanation is that they are afraid of having a negative relationship with the person they are interviewing, such as a wrestler they like. By prefacing a question with a compliment, they are indicating that they are a fan of the wrestler, and that the wrestler should appreciate them for saying they had a great match or whatever. 

Another explanation is that the line between analysts and reporters in wrestling media (and in all media) has been blurred. For many people in the presser, if they were not attending the presser they would either be writing reviews online of the show or hosting a podcast reviewing the pay-per-view. I suppose that can translate to people assuming it’s common to add a little of their opinion into their questions. Either way, I think it would be an improvement if the media attempted to have a more publicly unbiased disposition when asking questions to the talent (and please, hold your applause).

On the AEW side of things, there was one major negative. At one point during the presser, while Wheeler Yuta was fielding questions, Daniel Garcia came in and shot an angle, interrupting Yuta and complaining about how he lost his match. He was ushered out by security and that was the end of it. The whole thing lasted under one minute. 

I understand why AEW/ROH does things like that; it makes the show feel more “real” and Garcia was very good in the angle. However, I’m here to do a serious job based on real issues, and I don’t like being used as a prop for a wrestling angle. My time is more valuable than that, and I’m not interested in being part of the show. It also creates an awkward transition where Yuta and Castignoli had to react in kayfabe for a minute before going back to answer real questions.

In my experience, AEW/ROH does a pretty honest job with the press conferences. They are much more media-friendly in this environment than WWE ever is. You are allowed to fire away with any question you can come up with, and even if Khan or the wrestlers decline to say anything substantial, you at least are able to get those answers publicly on the record, something that is almost non-existent in wrestling coverage.

The pressers can be improved the most by the wrestling media taking itself more seriously. If more media members were committed to asking real, honest questions and gathering relevant information, as well as being willing to be a little tough sometimes and not shy away from the hard questions, the experience would be improved across the board. 

We would get way more relevant information out of the subjects, and it would also create an environment where the media supports each other more, since people can ask follow-up questions if they feel like a previous question was not answered in a satisfactory manner. It is difficult to do that when we are bouncing between honest questions and kayfabe commentary.

Lastly, I’d add that if you ever have the chance to attend an AEW event as a member of the media, I strongly suggest you go. The coolest thing about it is getting to meet other media members in-person, and network a bit. Wrestling media is a very isolated job. Most people work out of their homes and only communicate digitally with their colleagues. Major events with media coverage allow people to meet up with one another, share thoughts and ideas, and promote a healthier media environment.

Jesse Collings is a writer and reporter who has written for WrestlingINC, Voices of Wrestling, and other outlets. He is currently a reporter for Gannett/USA Today.

A Brief State of the Pro Wrestling Business at the End of 2020

I’ve gone to some lengths the last few years to research and try to understand the popularity and finances of the pro wrestling business.

There’s good reason to believe World Wrestling Entertainment’s popularity diminished each of the last three to four years, based on consistent annual declines in ticket sales, merchandise sales, Google web search, WWE Network subscriber losses in 2019, and Raw’s viewership has been under-indexing since at least 2019 compared to other TV trends.

WWE is the industry leader, obviously. The company attracts the vast majority of the eyeballs and view time globally, and the vast majority of the revenue.

WWE will report somewhere around $1 billion in revenue for 2020. I estimate All Elite Wrestling, WWE’s new competitor, generates somewhere around 10% of that amount. The likely next-closest company, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, in its most recent non-Covid fiscal year, reported $53 million in revenue, about 5% of what WWE will generate this year.

The business model for the biggest wrestling companies transformed drastically over the last several years. No longer is U.S. pro wrestling such a “destination” business: where promotions’ TV programs are a loss leader used to promote sales of tickets and pay-per-views. (This raises questions about what the optimal creative approach is to wrestling storytelling in this environment, but that’s another article.) A progressively large portion of U.S.-based wrestling companies’ revenues come from television broadcast rights. This has little to do with anything wrestling companies have accomplished and more to do with the media economy. As cable homes and viewership have diminished, the most-viewed programs have become increasingly valuable. Top wrestling programs are among these.

To maintain their diminishing subscriber bases, cable networks and cable/satellite systems are increasingly reliant on highly-viewed programs that people watch live. Viewing programs that are live (like sports and news) is emerging as cable TV’s enduring valued function for consumers. Netflix and other streaming services have absorbed much of the time viewers used to spend watching scripted programming, but those services have yet to do so much in the area of live programming. Because of that, cable networks are paying increasingly huge fees for highly-viewed programs that are best watched live.

For the first time, WWE will get the majority of its revenue this year from TV rights fees. That will be the case after Covid is long gone too. This will also be WWE’s inflation-adjusted most profitable year ever, despite not selling a single ticket since March and not being able to do Wrestlemania in front of fans.

So while cable TV is perceived to be a dying medium, it’s actually making wrestling more profitable than ever.

And — you may be thinking: But what happens to wrestling when cable actually dies? I’m skeptical it truly will, but even if cable subscribers were to evaporate entirely, I don’t see the value in highly-viewed live content diminishing much. Big live audiences will be highly monetized some way or other. And if the large FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) companies ever get involved in live sports rights bidding — a topic explored on the previous WWE earnings call — that may drive the going rate for sports rights, including wrestling, even higher.

Clearly there’s a ton of watch time and other forms of engagement happening digitally, across many wrestling brands. That digital consumption drives far less revenue, though, even for WWE. Even if you live in an economy where the digital CPMs (ad rates) are high, an hour of watching WWE content on YouTube is probably worth about 5% of what it is when you watch on traditional TV.

Keep in mind, too, cable television is not just an ad platform (like YouTube is), but it’s a subscriber-supported platform too (unlike free-access YouTube).

Not only are advertisers paying more per eyeball on cable TV versus digital platforms, but networks rely on highly-viewed programs to justify the affiliate fees they charge your local cable/satellite system. (And, by extension, your local system relies on top programming to justify the subscriber rates they charge, you, the end-consumer.) And those affiliate fees make up the majority of cable networks’ revenues.

Revenue sources breakdown for TV networks that distribute WWE and AEW in the U.S.

Consider, too: Netflix has been hugely successful. It’s in more than 73 million homes between the U.S. and Canada, as of Q3. But major cable networks like USA Network and TNT, for now, likely still have the edge. As of 2019, USA and TNT were in 89.7 million and 89.2 million U.S. homes, respectively. Those counts are almost certainly lower today, but probably still marginally above the count of Netflix subscribers in the U.S.

That said, time spent on wrestling is probably stable, maybe growing. WWE still easily makes up the majority of time spent, but people are engaging with a wider variety of wrestling brands, which probably make up a larger minority of the engagement than at any time since the end of World Championship Wrestling in 2001, especially with the introduction of AEW on cable in October 2019.

Quality of the current content notwithstanding, it’s a great time to be a fan. Fans have more easy and low cost access to a wide variety of current and historical wrestling content than ever. There’s an enormous supply of wrestling footage for free on YouTube. Every wrestling company of note with a substantial archival library has a streaming service for about $10 monthly or less.

And creative fulfillment notwithstanding, it’s a great time to be a wrestler. There are more living-wage-paying positions for wrestlers in the industry than at any time since the fall of the territories. And that’s the case as we head toward a time where WWE might cut back on house shows post-Covid, and AEW will probably never run them, meaning there are more positions with less travel, time away from home, and physical wear required. Even as house show fees for wrestlers may disappear, competition for talent among major companies is tremendous and should result in increased salaries. It likely already has.

At the independent level — where many of today’s top wrestlers started — wrestlers and promotions are empowered (and hazarded) with the tools of social media, which allow them to connect with fans, wrestlers, and promoters like never before. As mentioned, there’s an endless relatively low cost video library at wrestlers’ fingertips to study. And the eagerness with which top companies are signing wrestlers to exclusive contracts means roster spots at the more prestigious independent promotions have been largely vacated, and those companies should be desperate to cultivate a new crop of independent stars.

The enormous time people spend using the internet also empowers those ambitious indies to monetize video in various ad- and subscriber-supported platforms. Companies like FITE work with a variety of wrestling companies to stream live pay-per-view events, and IWTV (which I’ve done limited work for) live streams some of its partners’ events. I expect before long live streaming events for most any indie of note behind a paywall will be commonplace. All this allows relatively small companies to monetize not just live events (via ticket sales) with fans in the local area but to monetize video as well with fans globally, without the expense, shipping, and labor required of creating a physical product like a DVD.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.

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