We often scoff when WWE brags about their zillions of social media followers. Great, you have a lot of them. But what are they good for? What’s really important for WWE is TV rights fees, Network subscriptions, TV ratings and arena attendance.
But how do you measure the success or popularity of the hundreds of independent promotions that have no television station to give their product visibility? Revenue and profit, ultimately. But none of the indies are publicly traded companies like WWE and open about their numbers.
On the ashes of ECW and with inspiration from the King of the Indies tournament in the summer of 2001, Ring of Honor was founded in early 2002. As far as I know, it was the first time a wrestling company tried to appeal to a global audience with no TV distribution since the advent of TV itself.
Thirteen years later, there are a growing number of wrestling promotions running at least sustainable businesses with very little or no traditional TV distribution. The promotions I have in mind don’t just appeal to people in the one town they regularly run shows; they appeal to fans around the country and around the world, selling DVDs, iPPV and video downloads. For most if not all of the promotions mentioned below, video products are probably not their largest source of revenue, but rather an additional means to make the promotion viable.
In lieu of traditional TV, these promotions have reached their fans primarily via the internet. The internet and word of mouth were the sole forms of media that kept ROH alive through the 2000s, and maybe a few companies that hardcore fans from around the country or world were following. However the emergence of social media in the current decade, I’d argue is what has enabled wrestling products with no TV to have more visibility than ever.
So if social media is so important to promotions that want worldwide appeal, which ones have the strongest social media presence? We might have an intuition about which promotions have the most buzz, but which ones have the best numbers? To study this, I collected data on Facebook likes, Twitter followers and YouTube subscriptions to a number of promotions’ official pages. (I stopped short of Instagram since many of these promotions do not have official accounts for that site.) As far as I’m aware, these are the 14 US/Canadian indie promotions that have over 10,000 social media touch points among those three platforms:
EDIT: Pro Wrestling Syndicate‘s social media numbers (Facebook: 19,997; Twitter: 7167; YouTube: 3171) were high enough to be included in this data but were unintentionally overlooked.
For combined touch points, Chikara tops the list. Despite its lower profile since its return from the elaborate shutdown/rebirth angle, Mike Quackenbush’s promotion still has more social media followers than anyone this side of Ring of Honor.
An important difference about social media followers as opposed to traditional big time metrics like attendance, TV ratings and pay-per-view buys is that social media followers don’t easily go away. Sure, a user can unlike/unfollow/unsubscribe, but most never will. Whether those users continue to be exposed to your content, though, is a different story.
A tricky issue here is a lot of this is skewed by how long a promotion has been around. If you’ve been around since the rise of social media, you’ve got a much better chance to have top numbers versus an upstart indie that’s gathering more buzz lately but just doesn’t have the years of existence in to accumulate these somewhat permanent touch points.
It’s surprising Combat Zone Wrestling’s presence is so strong. Most probably don’t think of them as being as popular as PWG and Evolve among passionate fans. To their credit, it may be indicative of the strength of a brand that’s been around for 16 years running. CZW is third-best overall behind the Reseda, California-based indie dream match promotion Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and just ahead of SHIMMER, the popular US women’s wrestling indie.
The presence of Gabe Sapolsky’s Evolve also doesn’t seem consistent with its prestige. Triple H implied in the recent NXT conference call that “Dragon’s Gate” [sic] is one of the promotions WWE has its eye on when scouting indie talent. I could see for some fans the brand identity for Evolve being confusing. There hasn’t been a Dragon Gate USA show since 2013. The DGUSA brand appears to be on permanent hiatus. Evolve is now the most prominent brand under Sapolsky’s WWN umbrella. So should we just say ‘Evolve’ now? ‘WWN’? Triple H thinks it’s called ‘Dragon’s Gate.’ There’s also no official Twitter account for Evolve. Instead, you need to know that you should follow Sapolsky’s personal account (@BookItGabe) for Evolve news on Twitter. Likewise there isn’t an official Facebook page, but rather a Facebook group which has just over 3000 members. However the Facebook page for Sapolsky himself has over 6500 likes where he regularly posts about his promotion.
Social Media Manipulation
Keep in mind these numbers are subject to manipulation. One of the keys to Facebook’s advertising model is getting other businesses to pay to advertise their own Facebook pages in order to drum up ‘likes.’ Twitter offers a similar ad service to help you gain followers. A quick search of Google or the Apple App Store reveals a number of bots and apps that will supposedly help you gain Twitter followers. And of course you can just manually practice the “follow and unfollow” strategy where you follow many accounts in hopes they follow you back.
Some of the indies here are clearly practicing some form of that strategy. SHIMMER is following more accounts (38,000+) than it has followers (35,000+). AIW follows about the same number of users as it has followers (12,000+). Same for AAW (about 16,000+ followed and following). Chikara has 36,000 followers, it follows 19,000.
Others like PWG only follow 37.
Family Wrestling Entertainment actually has 471,366 Facebook page likes, more than even Ring of Honor. However their Twitter and YouTube numbers (9,154 and 9,008, respectively) are drastically smaller. A discrepancy that large makes it hard to believe much of their Facebook number is “organic” (i.e., not driven by paid ads). For that reason and because the promotion is apparently defunct, I omitted FWE from these charts.
YouTube subscriptions are probably harder to manipulate than Facebook or Twitter touch points. YouTube does not have an ad service like Twitter or Facebook to help its channels promote themselves and build up their subscription numbers and views. That doesn’t mean YouTube is immune to manipulation and “view fraud,” but supposedly YouTube is working against fake view counts and will terminate channels, especially monetized ones, that are attempting to artificially enhance their views.
“We actually put a lot of stock in MySpace to distribute the YouTube videos at the beginning; the use of Facebook ‘pages’ wasn’t even prevalent yet,” said Beyond Wrestling’s Drew Cordiero. “I kept a close watch on what other independent wrestling promotions were doing. We experimented with different titles, tags, and eventually thumbnails to maximize YouTube’s search function. Today, over 80% of our views come directly from YouTube.”
Beyond Wrestling was founded in 2009 by Cordiero. The promotion is probably best-known for deliberately running shows with very few or no fans in the audience. Lately they’ve gained notoriety for hosting #RAWlternative events, a YouTube broadcast of a collection of matches from throughout the indies.
“In 2008, it seemed like there were only two sources of revenue for most independent wrestling promotions: live event tickets and DVD sales. I wanted to come up with a concept that wasn’t reliant on either, since it seemed like every promotion was one snowstorm or one pirated DVD away from going out of business.”
For what it’s worth, today Beyond is the only promotion among those mentioned whose YouTube numbers exceed both their Twitter and Facebook totals.
And unlike most social media platforms, promotions actually can generate some money from YouTube. The site allows users who produce original content to monetize their videos in partnership with YouTube, which runs ads before or during the video. Has this actually produced significant revenue for promotions like Beyond?
“Being able to monetize individual videos as opposed to the entire channel was a game changer. In 2011 and 2012 when we were struggling with our live event format, the money coming in from YouTube helped us scrape by from show to show,” Cordiero said. “YouTube continues to be a big part of our overall promotional strategy.”
Cordiero argues if Beyond had started out as a traditional indie that tried to rely on ticket and DVD sales right off the bat, they wouldn’t have gotten where they are today.
“If we started as a traditional wrestling promotion we would have never had a chance to build up our YouTube channel. And through YouTube we were able to distribute free content to give fans a taste of what we offered,” he said. “You’re not going to pay for something you’ve never heard of, right? A lot of other promotions only released pre-show or student matches for free — throwaway content — while we released main event caliber matches. Just because something is free doesn’t mean that it is good. And that was an enormous hurdle we had to overcome.”
Ring of Honor
But doesn’t Ring of Honor belong in the category of the above indies? Let’s see.
Even if that relatively astronomical Facebook number for ROH is heavily manipulated, ROH’s other metrics tower over the other indies. Its Twitter followers nearly double the nearest indie. Its YouTube subscriptions almost quadruple everyone else.
Is ROH still an indie? It’s semantics, but I’d say no. They have a traditional weekly TV show, watched by at least 420,000 to 520,000 viewers according to the recent Wrestling Observer Newsletter. None of the other said promotions have anything close to that. And their social media numbers compared to other top indies support the notion that they belong in another category.
TNA, ROH, Lucha Underground, GFW
What about the other national promotions aside from WWE that that are on TV, or in the case of Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling, hope to be on TV?
It’s interesting to note that ROH and Lucha Underground are neck-and-neck for Twitter followers. Despite being such a new promotion, Lucha Underground’s social media presence has picked up exceptionally well.
World Wrestling Entertainment
And when you compare those four to the mighty WWE?
If you ever get too insulated in the “internet bubble,” keep this image close by. While social media followers don’t yet mean a lot yet about directly generating revenue, it is a metric that all wrestling promotions produce, and I believe makes for a fair comparison if you want to look at how far each promotion has penetrated into the consciousness of the masses.
As you can see in the raw data at the bottom of this article, GFW does not yet have as many touch points as Chikara. To be fair though GFW’s accounts are just over a year old, while Chikara’s accounts are all no younger than seven years.
To call the following pie chart a “market share” representation is not quite correct. Social media touch points are obviously not exclusive among wrestling promotions. However it is another informative visual on just how much of the market WWE has cornered.
Clearly WWE is every bit the far-and-away number-one they’re said to be. By comparison GFW is rendered almost invisible. Nearly the same for Lucha Underground and Ring of Honor. The combined indies accounted for in the article actually muster up a greater social media presence than either Lucha Underground or ROH. And only TNA can just barely be seen from the heights of Titan Tower. And given the recent news about TNA, they may soon disappear from sight as well.
The following data was collected on May 25, 2015.
Note: For YouTube subscribers for Lucha Underground, I used the El Rey Network’s official YouTube channel. The vast majority of the videos on the channel are related to Lucha Underground.