The state of wrestling has shifted dramatically in the six years since IMPACT Wrestling has entered the death spiral from which it has yet to escape.
In 2013, WWE was number one, TNA was number two, ROH were trucking along underneath both at number three and there was a thriving and vibrant indie scene below them. The bottom fell out of TNA when they left Spike as they have played to smaller and smaller audiences each step further down the ladder they went (the most recent episode of IMPACT peaked at a meager 3,328 viewers on Twitch last Friday night). ROH rose into number two off the back of NJPW and The Elite before failing to cement that spot and entering freefall while WWE has sought to even further tighten their grip on the industry with aggressive recruitment targeted at forcing other players out. While that approach was more directed at taking down TNA, ROH and World of Sport – it has equally served to dramatically dry the talent pool available to indie companies.
The biggest change however, the one most detrimental to IMPACT’s presence in the market is the rise of All Elite Wrestling.
AEW has been running shows for four months and has already broken IMPACT’s record attendance and PPV buys multiple times over. They are the second largest company in the US by default. They have filled the void IMPACT was looking to move into. In retrospect IMPACT’s new management regime had a year in 2018 to gain as much ground as they could before AEW swooped in to eclipse IMPACT in its shadow. In hindsight the failed Jarrett reboot of 2017 is all the more costly now, more for the lost time than anything else. There is only room in the industry for one plucky rebellion and right now that’s AEW. IMPACT will not be able to compete with AEW on scale, resources, reach or star power.
A more subtle but equally important change since IMPACT’s peak has been the globalization of wrestling. The barriers of geography have well and truly broken down. This is most clearly evident in New Japan Pro Wrestling’s expansion west. New Japan has managed to overtake both IMPACT and ROH in the US and just drew over 6,000 people to Royal Quest in the UK. With a generation of world class performers in their prime – all immensely popular across the globe – it’s a difficult proposition competing with them for quality of wrestling. Similarly, that’s allowed companies like RevPro and Progress gain international footing. This isn’t the 2006 market of WWE, ROH and TNA anymore. Now you’re fighting with OTT, NOAH, Evolve, wXw, All Japan, Beyond, Riptide, AAA, Smash, DDT, MLW – any company with a streaming service, with any sort of easily accessible digital option is your competition. With that much choice at your fingertips there is more wrestling than you could possibly watch. If you don’t have a clear value proposition, you’ve already lost.
That’s not even mentioning the absurd amount of content WWE puts out. Three hours of RAW, two hours of SmackDown, starting next month two hours of NXT, 205 Live, Main Event, WWE UK, one off specials and tournaments as well month monthly PPVs and quarterly Takeovers – just keeping up with WWE’s output alone could be 10-18 hours a week on any given week. Never mind watching obscure indies or keeping up with wrestling from the UK or Japan, just watching everything WWE related makes you a diehard, hardcore wrestling fan based on the number of hours put in alone. WWE smothers competition via sucking up all available talent but also through sheer mass number of content hours produced.
All that is to set up my new mantra in pro wrestling: good is not good enough anymore.
Just trucking along producing a good, affable, forgettable wrestling show is not enough in a pro wrestling landscape with so many other alternatives across the globe. Simply existing isn’t enough to get attention any more. Being good isn’t enough to get attention anymore. For the last year, that’s been one of IMPACTs biggest problems. 2018 was the company’s strongest creative year since 2012. When building the IMPACT match of the year poll last year I assembled 37 honest to goodness very good to great matches from the year worth watching. Slammiversary 2018 was one of the best shows in America last year, LAX had defining feuds with The OGz and The Lucha Bros, Gail Kim had the retirement match she truly deserved passing the torch to Tessa Blanchard, The Lucha Bros sparked life into the company’s wrestling and the Knockouts division has continue to be dynamic and multi-dimensional. But there’s been one problem: despite all of that the company’s weekly TV has rarely been good enough to break through and capture people’s attention. Just watch the four yearly PPVs, you never need the rest.
As IMPACT has gotten further and further into 2019, into the Pursuit and Twitch era, they’ve become increasingly stuck. LAX, Austin Aries, Eli Drake, Matt Sydal, The Lucha Bros, and Johnny IMPACT are all gone, Killer Kross is on ice and they haven’t been replaced. IMPACT has instead opted to fill the void with the likes of Rhino, Rob Van Dam and Johnny Swinger. While Michael Elgin is a welcome addition to deliver high end main events, TJ Perkins has done literally nothing of note since his return. An absentee World Champion, an over reliance on ECW nostalgia – a well that had already run dry a decade ago but IMPACT finds itself stuck down once again – inexplicably tethering the hottest act in the company Tessa Blanchard to those ECW castaways, a failed lean into inter-gender, an inefficient use of the existing roster when it comes to get the most out of them and a failure to actively recruit the next LAX success story have left the company stuck with fewer and fewer viewers. IMPACT has never been available to more people – it airs live on Twitch for free every week – and yet it has never been watched by fewer since the weekly PPV days.
You can’t simply produce pro wrestling in 2019 and expect people to find it. That’s a recipe for failure.
If you’re not asking yourself fundamental questions like “Who are we?”, “What do we stand for?” “How are we different from everybody else?” and most importantly “Why should people care?” then you’re never going to rise above the pack. Simply putting your show out there, even if it’s good, is not enough. You need a top to bottom cohesive brand message and direction coupled with a top-notch product to even begin getting attention. With Anthem buying AXS, IMPACT will exist as long as Anthem needs content to fill the schedule. IMPACT needs to go into the AXS era with a thoughtful plan to jump start interest in the company, taking accountability for the recent creative failures, analyse what connects in the market right now and craft a product that resonates with the audience.
If they do, the AXS deal could be the jump start the company needs to break its six-year death spiral. If they don’t, the AXS deal will simply keep the company on perpetual life support.