On Thursday all the eyes of the baseball and sporting world were drawn to a small, makeshift ballpark in middle-of-nowhere eastern Iowa. The first-ever Field of Dreams game was taking place between the Yankees and the White Sox near the small town of Dyersville and it was an incredible site. The game was being played on the farm and site used for the 1989 film in which Kevin Costner follows mysterious voices only he hears to turn his cornfield into a baseball field.
Being a Midwestern kid (born in Iowa, raised in South Dakota, and now living in Nebraska) with a father who grew up in Iowa, the Field of Dreams will always hold a special place in my heart. I visited it multiple times as a child, and even was able to play some ball on there with my family a few times. The text messages were coming fast and furious from my dad, uncles, and cousins last night as we watched players emerge from the outfield wall and Aaron Judge hit a home run into the corn.
“If you build it, he will come.”
This is the first of many instructions Kevin Costner’s character receives during Field of Dreams. Over the years, popular culture has turned it into – “If you build it, they will come.” While watching the fantastic old-timey aesthetic of the stadium and uniforms at the Field of Dream’s game, I couldn’t help but think of the quote. And later that night, while listening to the Voices of Wrestling Flagship Podcast (live on Patreon for only $10 a month), I couldn’t help but relate that quote to the current state of NXT.
“If you build it, they will come.”
Well WWE did build it. They built a multi-million dollar performance center with state-of-the-art equipment and everything needed to develop WWE superstars. But did they come? And who are they? Who was this performance center meant for in the first place? Was it supposed to be a place where prospects who had never wrestled a day in their life came in to learn the business? Was this a way for people with the right look and athletic background to be groomed by the WWE from day 1 to be main eventing RAWs and Peacock special events someday? I remember hearing about many basketball players, gymnasts and amateur wrestlers being signed to developmental deals, but I don’t remember many of them breaking out in NXT, or especially on the main roster.
The people that did come to the PC were largely independent wrestling talent from around the world. Raids of ROH, PWG, Japan, Mexico, and more stocked the warehouse with wrestlers of all experience levels. But to what purpose? Plenty has been written and spoken on this subject, so I won’t belabor the point of WWE trying to hoard talent in the attempt to undermine various wrestling companies worldwide. Still, though it is quite baffling.
The real question though, is why wasn’t the PC both of these things? WWE did build it, and they did come. But the real problem was what to do next.
“Go the distance.”
It’s not just a great song from Disney’s Hercules (shout out to Garrett Kidney’s “Magic by Design” podcast) – it’s also another one of the utterances that Costner’s character Ray Kinsella hears over the course of Field of Dreams (1989). WWE didn’t go the distance with the PC though. They could have had a perfect set up, where young wrestlers and athletes trained and then had veteran independent and international talent to wrestle on on USA, or the Largo Loop, or some other show – preferably in front of fans.
A major fault in the development of NXT as a “third brand” was that the true developing wrestlers now had nowhere to get their reps in. Hip toss class in the PC ain’t gonna get it done brother. Wrestlers need to go out and have the pressure of performing in front of an audience. They need to learn how to react to the audience, and make the audience react to them. When NXT outgrew developmental, WWE got scared to put green wrestlers on NXT events, and so they never even got the opportunity to grow. NXT could have had its own version of young lions wrestling “the dads” on a regular basis, but it never happened. In fact, WWE made a point to often hide wrestlers that they had pegged for the main roster from the start – people like Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, and Omos had minimal, if any exposure on the “developmental” brand in any of its forms. This only added to the perception that NXT wasn’t really developing talent for the main roster (it wasn’t).
In the end, the PC reminds me of what many college sports programs do. They build new arenas and tout their “state of the art” practice and workout facilities. The athletic department of my Alma matter, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, did this with their basketball facilities. Much like the Field of Dreams, they tried to build something in the middle of a cornfield, and hoped they would come. Nebraska though, is a football school first and foremost, has no basketball history (in fact, it remains the only major conference NCAA men’s team to have never won a March Madness game), and again, like Field of Dreams, is more or less in the middle of nowhere. The fancy buildings and shiny new equipment don’t mean anything without the right people or plan in place.
Really it’s all a marketing ploy and “branding.” Something to sell investors and TV executives on. In a board meeting a powerpoint with pictures and videos of these buildings looks impressive. Saying you are going to form WWE superstars from the ground up sounds impressive. Having a map with NXT logos all over the world will appear to be a great business strategy to the various executives in the room who have very little wrestling knowledge and love buzzwords like “global expansion” and “entering new markets”. And make no mistake, WWE’s target audience these days are these executive. Brandon Thurston (@wrestlenomics) has shown over the years how WWE’s revenue has shifted, with the majority now coming from other companies paying them, not directly from consumers. It’s easy to think – sure, Nebraska will finally win an NCAA tournament game if we have the amazing facilities and a new arena to attract greater fan interest and the basketball talent from across the country.
Spoiler alert – it hasn’t happened yet.
In the same way, it was easy to buy into the vision of the PC being the way that WWE created an everlasting source of new talent to replenish their TV products for years to come.
“Ease his pain.”
One of the final commands the mysterious voice gives in Field of Dreams is now also applicable to NXT. After the mass releases and rumors of direction changes, it’s finally time to “ease the pain” of this brand and put it down for good. While the promise of the performance center and talent development was never fulfilled, NXT did for a while fill the niche of being WWE’s own “super-indie” (as documented by Garrett Kidney’s great column, hate to shout him out again, but I have to). However, even that has been going downhill over the years.
The brand has already been tarnished to the smark fans that once loved it by the escalating melodrama of Ciampa-Gargano, and has been painfully limping along like the zombies that once haunted the mind of Cameron Grimes. NXT has fallen from grace. The memory of what it once was, and the dream of what it could be are now nothing but pain.
“Ease his pain.”