“We are a live event company, and the first priority of a live event company is to run in more venues. Once people are in those venues, then we can fire them up and have them ready to spread the word to larger and larger audiences.” — Takami Ohbari, New Japan Pro-Wrestling of America CEO, October 21, 2019.
When New Japan Pro Wrestling of America (NJPWoA) was announced last October it represented what was supposed to be a serious evolution of NJPW’s American expansion efforts. According to their press release, the creation of the new subsidiary was set to kickstart the “third phase of NJPW’s expansion into the US and other international markets” and to help the company become “ingrained in the everyday fabric [of American] fans’ wrestling consciousness.” The subsidiary’s CEO, Takami Ohbari, clearly articulated how the initial backbone for the new NJPWoA venture was going to be regularly occurring, multi-city, regional-based tours in small 2,000 seater (and potentially smaller) venues. While many fans welcomed the announcement with excitement, there was also a lot of initial skepticism to the idea that a small touring model could effectively create the type of new NJPW fans in America that Ohbari was stating that they were hoping to attract.
Six short weeks after this initial press conference, New Japan announced their first American tour of the NJPWoA era, The New Beginning USA 2020. Following in the footsteps of 2019’s NB:USA tour, the new tour was scheduled to hit five cities in the American southeast, and after the previous year’s visas fiasco, the company was proud to state that they could “confirm one thing: all our Japanese wrestlers have visas and are ready to travel!”
Now, six more weeks later the New Beginning USA tour has reached its conclusion, officially putting the first NJPWoA tour in the books. Unfortunately though for NJPW and its’ American fans, the tour that was meant to be a true new beginning for New Japan in America was largely met with apathy and poor ticket sales, and failed to generate the same levels of excitement and fan interest as the previous year’s Fighting Spirit Unleashed and Showdown tours, let alone build additional momentum on top of those successful tours.
But before diving into some of the critiques of the NB:USA, it is also important to acknowledge some of the positives that stemmed from the tour.
Perhaps most importantly, and similar to the previous year’s NB:USA, it appears that the vast majority of fans who attended the shows enjoyed the shows as the limited fan reports that are floating out there mostly speak quite highly of the respective events. Additionally, outside of the enjoyable fan experience, I am guessing that despite lackluster ticket sales that NB:USA was still just about able to break even, or even turn a small profit, due to a combination of cheaper building rentals, high ticket prices, and only having to fly a small number of wrestlers over from Japan. Finally, for those who care about such things, the tour was another data point for Bushiroad to highlight their presence in America to their Japanese investors, which people who are smarter than myself have told me is an important, and often overlooked aspect, of Bushiroad’s expansion efforts.
Still, while acknowledging those positives, the reality is that I think most people would still view this tour as a general disappointment. As already mentioned, ticket sales for the tour as a whole have to be viewed as discouraging, and there seemed to be very little buzz for the tour in the American wrestling community other than individuals who were trying to diagnose the reasons behind the lack of excitement for the shows. This lack of interest from the fan community is all the more unfortunate when you consider that this was the first tour of the new NJPWoA era.
As for the ticket sale details, by the end of the tour not a single stop came close to selling out the ticket allotments that were originally made available, nor did a single show even sell 1,000 tickets, as attendances ranged from the low end of 525 in Miami to 863 in Tampa/St. Petersburg on the high end. Additionally, in trying to draw comparisons with the previous year’s tour where The Great O-Kharn was the only featured Japanese wrestler, the Nashville attendance dropped about 10% from the previous year and the North Carolina show (though in Raleigh-Durham market vs. the previous year’s Charlotte show, and in a smaller venue), had 34% less paid fans.
While there are obviously a lot of factors that contributed to these poor ticket sales, I believe that the most likely factor was due to the limited rosters that NJPW announced for the shows (or at least the limited rosters matched against the relatively high ticket prices).
While Kota Ibushi and Hiroshi Tanahashi were a couple of exciting headliners, the rest of the announced roster was seen as pretty thing by most fans, with FinJuice and GoD representing a second tier of stars behind Kota and Tana, and then being rounded out with some CHAOS and Bullet Club lower card wrestlers, New Japan dads, young lions, and a good number of American wrestlers…most notably Lance Archer and Jeff Cobb.
The reason for this roster being so thin on stars (even compared to the aforementioned Fighting Spirit Unleashed and Showdown tours that were also running 2,000 seat and less venues), was that NJPW decided to run the NB:USA as part of a split tour, with most of their roster staying in Japan for their domestic New Beginning tour, and only a handful of wrestlers traveling to America for the concurrent NB:USA tour.
It was perhaps this decision to run in competition with Japan’s New Beginning tour that doomed it from a fan interest perspective more than anything else. What makes the decision even more inexcusable from a NJPW perspective is the fact that based on their previous efforts in America they knew that split tours were unlikely to do well in America. Consequently back at their October NJPWoA press conference they stated “US events will take place while the Japanese schedule is between tours. If there is high demand from fans, simultaneous tours may become a possibility.” Yet despite saying that American tours would take place in between Japanese tours, the front office decided to disregard their own guidance and run the very first tour of the NJPWoA subsidiary against a popular Japanese tour that was running in large venues that would by their nature necessitate the majority of top stars staying in Japan. Unfortunately for New Japan, not only did the limited roster fail to produce much initial excitement for the American tour, but it also created further problems when Kota Ibushi had to be pulled from the shows on the eve of the tour due to illness, which pretty much ended any hope of a significant walk-up reversing the disappointing initial sales.
While the limited roster might have been the biggest problem facing the tour, it was not the only miscalculation made by the NJPWoA office. Assuming one of the company’s goals for the tour was to attract potential new fans to these shows, the high ticket prices for what was being treated as a series of house shows seemed to prove a barrier to most non-hardcore fans. Consequently, while the most expensive tickets seemed to sell relatively well, the company seemed to struggle to move their mid and lower-priced tickets. Additionally, NJPWoA made some odd location and date choices, most notably running a large venue on the outskirts of Miami (a notoriously difficult event/sports city) just two weeks after AEW ran a much more visible show in the city (which sold approximately 3,900 tickets compared to NJPW’s 525) and their decision to run in Nashville at the same time as the WWE’s Royal Rumble, which remains one of the company’s few shows that can attract fans that have otherwise become disenchanted with the WWE product.
Related to the problems with scheduling Miami, the tour as a whole also seemed to fail to realize how drastically the American wrestling landscape has changed over the past six months. NJPW’s hope for American expansion was always largely built on the idea of being an attractive alternative for American wrestling fans who had given up on WWE. Unfortunately for NJPW, as they continued to take baby steps in America, AEW emerged practically overnight. Since the kick-off of Dynamite last October (right around the same time as the NJPWoA press conference), AEW has pretty much sucked up all of the oxygen in the room (and disposable income) for the companies that are actively trying to court these WWE-alternative seeking fans. Yet despite this change in the American landscape, NJPW presented the American market with their weakest line-ups since the previous year’s NB:USA tour, increased the ticket prices from that tour, and failed to do any significant marketing and outreach campaigns in support of the shows.
Finally, NJPW did not seem to have any infrastructure in place that could help generate additional buzz around these shows in the American market. Perhaps the biggest challenge on this front was largely out of the promotion’s control, which was the unanticipated loss of the NJPW show on AXS TV (again, going back to the October press conference Ohbari was quoted as saying “Up to now we have been working very well with our partners at AXS TV, and plan to continue doing so.”). While the AXS show had relatively low visibility, it did represent a regular and entertaining way for many American fans to watch NJPW, and would have been a good vehicle to help push shows on the tour. In addition to the loss of their television show, NJPW failed to use NJPW World as a way to increase the visibility and discourse around the tour, as not a single show was scheduled to air live on NJPW World. Again, this fact stood in stark contrast to the spirit of the NJPWoA press conference, where it was stated that “As much as is humanly possible, we plan for events to be live on NJPW World. Where we can’t arrange for live broadcast, they will be on demand.” Yet by the time the tour came to its conclusion, the only part of the shows that had been uploaded to the streaming service (and thus could be seen as a hype option for upcoming shows) was the conclusion of the Miami event which featured a quick disqualification to the FinJuice vs. Yujiro Takahashi/Chase Owens tag match, which then morphed into an eight-man tag that added Tana, Rocky Romero, and GoD to the action.
Luckily for New Japan and American wrestling fans, the limited successes of the NB:USA tour doesn’t mean automatic doom and gloom for their American expansion plans. I still believe that NJPW can find a true foothold in America, but to do so they need to demonstrate that they have learned the lessons of the past three years (and in particular from this past tour), and then actually apply those lessons so that they can grow their business in a strategic and sustainable manner.
The most obvious lesson is one that we have already discussed, but it bears repeating, and that is that the split tours need to become a thing of the past for the foreseeable future. New Japan themselves have already said these tours don’t make sense for the current American market, so now they need to follow their own advice and scrap the junior varsity American touring model. There is now plenty of evidence that the NJPW name, and even the names of a couple of big stars and pushed Americans, are not enough to draw a crowd on their own anymore. Instead, I truly believe that American fans want to see a touring roster that represents a full cross section of the NJPW roster (if not a full touring roster similar to Japanese tours), which would help the shows develop a more authentic New Japan feeling compared to the NB:USA shows. At the same time, if they are truly wanting to create new fans of their brand, and not just maximize dollars from their small existing American fan base, they need to revisit their ticket pricing model for what is a house show tour. The reality is that the majority of these shows were over in two hours, had limited star power, and largely felt like an afterthought in the American market…and yet for the most part ticket prices rivaled and even exceeded the price for similar AEW tickets, a company that no matter what you think of, is out there delivering a highly visible, weekly wrestling event that is chocked full of stars and where pretty much every show feels that it matters.
Speaking of trying to make shows that matter, now might be a good time to state that if you are going to bother having a United States Heavyweight Championship, it might be a good idea to actually have it featured on every American tour…otherwise what is the purpose for a fourth heavyweight singles title (if you include the NEVER Openweight as a contested heavyweight title)? Maybe the Lance Archer departure rumors are true, and put a monkey wrench in what NJPW was originally hoping to do. But even if that is the case, it was NJPW who booked themselves into that corner, and then decided to solve it by putting the title on a wrestler who couldn’t defend the title in America right before a tour that they already knew would be lacking the star power of other recent American outings.
Finally, while Bullet Club and GoD might get much better crowd reactions in America than they do in Japan, that general American fan support simply doesn’t translate to box office success on its own. Every single show on the NB:USA tour was main evented by Bullet Club, and more specifically included GoD, including two big two vs. two tag matches on the final two nights of the tour (or at least the Miami show was supposed to be 2v2 until an in-show angle turned it into an eight-man tag). Yet despite the popular Bullet Club being positioned as the main eventers of the tour, not a single show came close to selling out their small seat allotments. And perhaps most disappointingly based on the being booked in what was by far the two largest venues of the tour, the Miami and Atlanta shows that marketed GoD in two big tag team main events, (including a challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag titles), both failed to sell 1,000 tickets…and in fact, the Miami show sold less tickets than any other show on the tour.
By the time NB:USA wrapped up, it felt ironic that a tour branded as “The New Beginning” ended with GoD winning the IWGP heavyweight tag titles for the sixth time, and less than thirty days since their previous reign (which lasted most of 2018).
While I have no connections/insights into why NJPW books the way that they do, if I was to fathom a guess for this decision, I would assume that a part of this booking calculation for GoD’s win might have been to show American fans that these tours do matter to the larger NJPW universe. Unfortunately for NJPW, based on the significant amount of shrugs and frustrated reactions, as well as the lack of ticket sales for this tour, it appears obvious that GoD main events and title wins do not represent the meaningful New Japan moments that most potential American NJPW fans are looking for.
Still, despite the struggles of their most recent tour, I remain hopeful that when NJPW returns to America for a full tour post-Lions Break, that they will do so with a deeper roster, and with storylines and matches that generate genuine interest from large swaths of wrestling fans and potential New Japan fans. I still genuinely believe that New Japan can find success in America as a touring company, but to do so I also believe that they cannot risk burning any more goodwill with American fans. To truly increase their awareness in America they have to deliver tours and shows that look like genuine New Japan shows (even if it is just Korakuen Hall road to caliber shows), instead of shows that come off as afterthoughts to what is happening in Japan. Now we just need to see if NJPW is willing to invest in that level of shows for five, multi-city tours in America every year (plus a big flagship show as has been rumored), or are we going to see more tours like NB:USA that are met with apathy from large majorities of potential New Japan fans and fail to fill even the smallest of buildings.