Monday, November 17, 2014

Putting the Sport in Sports Entertainment Part 1


If you are a regular reader of my work here on the Asylum, you know I have certain preferences for wrestling, namely a focus on the importance of belts and an emphasis on competitive elements one should expect from a professional wrestling show balanced with competition-centric storytelling. Basically, I want it to feel more like a sport and edge toward realism. That being said, I am one to propose ideas and solutions. So I came up with an idea regarding a direction I hope professional wrestling moves in the future; I hope you like it.

Notes: This series has been in the works since February 2014, so there are elements in the series that will reflect time periods earlier in the year relating to TNA. I have been working on it off and on, as time permitted, since that time. The series is not time specific and uses elements of respective timeframes as the series was being worked on for illustrative purposes. In fact, parts of the series will clearly be outdated with current happenings going on in TNA; I have not changed anything despite this due to the nature of the concept being introduced. It uses various TNA concepts as applicable to the idea.

Also, the series is conceptual in nature in an attempt to present new sorts of possibilities in wrestling in general. It uses TNA Wrestling as an example, applying familiar TNA concepts, events, and ideas, to introduce, present, and illustrate a larger idea as a whole for professional wrestling. It also is a thought exercise in finding potentially original directions wrestling could go in presentation. Much of the explanations go into details on issues, given the ideas presented, a member of a creative team would likely have to consider when developing such concepts. Of course, all ideas presented are awesome [hyperbole]. The series is quite in depth, so you might find things you like or dislike over the course of the series. The concept is meant to be malleable in nature. Feel free to contribute your own thoughts, ideas, additions, and suggestions to the concept in the comments section. Enjoy!

A Little History

The professional wrestling of today has its origins in actual sport. Coming about in the mid to late 1800’s, the sport had its origins as a blue collar sort of competition deriving from an amalgamation of several wrestling styles, including the Irish collar and elbow—where the initial lock-up and three count originate—the British grappling of catch wrestling, and Greco-Roman style. In particular, it happened as brawling duels in bars and working class neighborhoods. Eventually, saloon owners turned their places into entertainment venues where customers would pay to see fights. Businessmen turned into promoters. And an organized sport developed over time.

The sport had really gotten popular by the early 1900’s and spread internationally. In 1908 and 1911, two matches between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt demonstrated both the popularity and problems with the sport. In the first match, Gotch became the first widely recognized world champion. However, matches at the time tended to last hours and could be quite boring to the audience. In the rematch, Gotch had paid a trainer to “accidentally” injure Hackenschmidt in practice, causing the match to last minutes, which left a very dissatisfied audience and had long term repercussions for wrestling.

By the mid-1920’s, promoters realized they could make more money fixing matches than carrying it on legitimately as a sport. Over time, this came to light publically and became more widely known so as to kill off the popularity of professional wrestling by the 1930’s. The “sport” was a laughing stock by this time and lost the popularity it once knew.

By the late 50’s, television changed the game. Wrestling found a new method to display itself. This was embodied and popularized by the character of Gorgeous George, whom portrayed an overly flamboyant and stuck-up dick of a character that got under the skin of the audience. Wrestling had found magic again, and the sports entertainment element of wrestling slowly introduced itself with over the top characters and storylines and has developed from there to the products we see today. The medium had its ups and downs in popularity. We are most familiar with the boom periods of the early 80’s and late 90’s.

A Little Further Perspective on Wrestling’s History 

As professional wrestling evolved into the television era, there was still the emphasis of portraying a simulated sport emphasizing the athleticism of the competition. The likes of Lou Thesz and Verne Gagne continued the tradition of demonstrating the more athletic side of wrestling from the 1940’s onward. The southern style we know today as rasslin’ continued this tradition while still adopting some of the sports entertainment elements of storytelling and over the top characters. This style still emphasized the competitive aspects of wrestling.

Even as the medium developed into its modern day version, there was still importance placed on competition, being the better performer, and the glory of being a champion in the drama. The most renowned periods of modern day of the early 80’s and late 90’s, with the stress on story elements and explosion of sports entertainment aspects, the competitive emphasis and importance of titles was not lost on professional wrestling. Only in recent years do titles seem to be an afterthought of a prop, when the mainstream wrestling promotions are putting their most prestigious titles outside of the main event off and on and reducing their stature [Current TNA product not withstanding.]. Perhaps there is a turnaround of this occurring, but as of yet, it is hard to say.

Since the 1940’s, the concept of wins and losses has never really mattered so much as how they occurred. Bookers would decide how events transpired based on what they wish of the outcome and are trying to portray to the intended audience. Rules did not so much matter unless it was to further a storyline. It is not uncommon to see some rules enforced at times while they will later be totally ignored. Of course, none of this is new to you, the readers here at the funny farm.

You are more than familiar with how wrestling works. I am sure you have at least a working knowledge of modern wrestling history of the last 20 years, and you perhaps already knew its early history as well. What I presented was a very quick, generalized synopsis, as the simulated sport is rich in history. With this, I move into a potential new direction it could go. But if you want to delve a bit further in depth, try out these pieces. They are a bit dated, but accurate.

The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling (Documentary):

“Professional Wrestling and Its Fan: A Sociological Study of the Sport of Professional Wrestling” Alex Kreit (Academic Article):

Full Circle: A Wrestling Future in Its Roots

Wrestling’s origins was in sport; perhaps its future can be a closer resemblance. My proposal is we bring the feeling of sports back into professional wrestling. Certainly, there is still a minimal semblance of it in the medium, but it continues to drift further and further away from that sense. Yes, there are still championships and wrestling matches, but the aspects emphasizing story over competitive elements and cartoonish and over-the-top characters, known today as “sports entertainment,” is the direction in which it continues to move. Belts and competition are not the center of stories much these days in mainstream wrestling.

First, I would like to deconstruct what professional wrestling is at its most basic form, its foundation; because without a foundation, everything crumbles. If you watched the documentary at the link above, you saw a discussion of this. Professional wrestling is a unique medium. It is part sport, part performance art, and part drama. It is an art form at its core. What it does is take a fighting sport and adds the drama around it. That has and always will be the base of professional wrestling.

I would argue that when you divert too far from your true center, to put it into gravitational lingo, you fall down. Or in other words, you become artificial. Of course, wrestling is an artificial sport, but it is its own thing. At what point do you cease to be professional wrestling and become a simple drama that takes place in a wrestling ring? Like the popular game of Jenga, when does the tower fall down?

Professional wrestling is at a low point in popularity in this modern time, at least since the early 1980’s that is. If you read my columns regularly and see what I say in our comments sections, you know I do not care, as a fan, about ratings or PPV buys, or whatever, because more people watching does not determine my enjoyment of wrestling itself; I just want a quality product to enjoy.

But for the purpose of this column, it is necessary to understand professional wrestling, as you likely know, is not popular in mainstream society right now. There are so many things to choose from that it is hard to really be in the overall mainstream anyway. However, what are popular are the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MMA, college sports, and other competitive sports. In popular television, The Walking Dead has triple the viewership of wrestling’s most watched show and more. That is the simple truth.

So this is my view: If professional wrestling companies want to become truly “mainstream” again, they must change the game and truly innovate into new territory; it must get away from the cookie cutter menagerie it is and not accept the “everything has been done in wrestling” mentality, and if that is not actually possible (I’m not in the business, so maybe I am delusional on this.), it must at least make it seem like it is doing so. I know we see some marginal innovations with new concepts, match types, and story stylings, but overall, the medium is in a general recycling mode (Wrestling is just copying its own history over and over again). So why not exercise some creativity here?

Ironically enough, perhaps wrestling’s history is the source of real innovation. I will use TNA as the backdrop of the concept. Keep in mind this idea can be adapted to any promotion for each unique case. Much of what will be talked about is explaining the reasoning for how and why it would be done in such a way in TNA and goes into what the creative would have to think about, as opposed to what would be presented to the audience. Overall, the concept is fairly simple, venturing into familiar territory sports fans and the general public could understand already or could learn about over time.

The Concept: Doubling Down on Sport 

If doubling down on “sports entertainment” is not taking wrestling back into the mainstream, perhaps a different direction is a better way to go. Pull a 180 and take it back to its roots in sport. Make the prestige of championships the most meaningful part of your creative product. Make it center on competition. Make wrestling matches central to what is being portrayed. Make it as close to a sport, without actually being one, as possible while retaining many elements of storytelling. Here is my concept for TNA.

First of all, give wrestling what it has decided to ignore since the 1940’s when it was first discovered that promoters were staging it. Give it the elements of sport it is missing. Clarify an actual season for the organization, even though it is year round. Keep track of wins and losses and basic statistics, such as pin fall versus submission victories. Have an actual playoff season that you identify as such. Develop a level of importance for competition.

In fact, I feel TNA has the basic set-up to easily do so already. Wrestling generally already has sort of an unofficial season anyway. For WWE, it begins after Wrestlemania all the way back to itself. For TNA, it is post Bound for Glory culminating back to the big show. The year-round nature of TNA is not going to change for business purposes, obviously. However, it will be openly declared as a season, wrestling calendar, or something similar with a clearly defined annual itinerary—basically a marketing scheme like the Attitude Era was. This simply can be the regular wrestling calendar we are used to— nothing too complicated.

The season will begin with the season kickoff show and build to a seasonal playoff the month before Bound for Glory. Further, the Bound for Glory Series will act as the playoff. Bound for Glory will essentially act as the championship game, so to speak. Of course, being a fighting sport, they generally do not have a playoff season, but with the existing infrastructure in TNA, it becomes easy to apply the concept. It makes the idea of build and hype much more important for TNA as well—something they would definitely have to get better at. These are all ideas that are easy to understand and are already generally understood by most people uninitiated to wrestling. I will go into more detail on this later.

Extending the sport aspect of wrestling, wins and losses will actively be kept track of by TNA, as well as simple statistics. Wrestling has obviously stopped doing this since it ceased to be a sport, and wins and losses are not as important as how things occur until someone is a champion or a big star. Wins and losses help, of course, under the current scheme, but they are not integral.

This idea takes that and turns it on its head by making them much more important. They are recorded over the season; wrestlers are placed in active standings, which can be used for any needed purpose; there is a competitive championship ladder, running from the low-card to mid-card championship scene to word title scene; and TNA can use the history from each season as they occur to use for stories. Essentially, the idea takes the competitive aspect of wrestling and turns it up to 10 with the utmost importance for stories. Again, I will go into further detail in Part 2, as we are just laying out the basics currently.

Now, the idea definitely is to emphasize a sports feel, but stories are an integral part of professional wrestling and will be so here as well. However, the nature of how stories are told will have to adjust with this new concept. They will have to be told in observance of this change. First, stories and the whole shebang will have to operate in light of more consistent use of the rules in wrestling (e.g. always using the 10 or 20 count even when inconvenient). Second, championships and the integrity of competition will have to be treated as the center of character motivations and stories themselves.

Third, this does not mean faces and heels, cheating, and stories that do deviate around gaining championships go away. They just occur with the fact that they have to deal with the new reality. Faces will fight faces more often; heels will be in matches with heels. There might have to be certain, tangible repercussions for cheating, depending on how things are desired to occur. You can still have power struggles in wrestling operations, involve relationships, or the classic feud, but it will have to deal with the reality of the competitive aspect occurring on the show; it cannot be ignored when it more closely resembles an actual sport. I will go into further detail later on storytelling as well.

This concludes Part 1 of Putting the Sport in Sports Entertainment. Be on the lookout for Part 2, as it moves into further details on the competitive elements of the concept.