By Phil Varlese
If you’re in the business, you aren’t going to like this blog.
Most of you who know me are aware that I haven’t promoted a show with Coastal Pro Wrestling since July of 2012. A lot of that had to do with my time being accounted for by taking care of my dad, who ultimately passed away on August 15th of this year. After he passed, I decided to take some time off from promoting, and taking a realistic look at what I was doing with Coastal.
Coastal Pro Wrestling started in 2010 with lots of aspirations. My then partners (the legendary referee Fred Richards/Rubenstein and ECW original “Iron Man” Tommy Cairo) had plans to take Coastal to the same levels we’d done in the past, like we’d done with the Outlaws of Wrestling and the original Force One promotion.
Fast forward 3 years, and none of what we’d planned happened. Without being specific, by the end of 2012, we’d withdrawn from the National Wrestling Alliance, Cairo splintered from the promotion to start a new group called Global 1, and Fred was spending more time in Florida working with Howard Brody’s Ring Warriors promotion. That left me to try to steer the Coastal ship.
Enter John (Johnny Calzone) Short and Jon Dahmer. Calzone was in Force One promotion as a student when I was there, and had come a long way over a short period of time, ultimately taking over what was a dying promotion after Cairo & others had essentially abandoned it due to personal issues, and Calzone brought F1 back to prominence by retaining the most talented workers from the original Force One, but integrating them with some of the best talents on the indy circuit today. Dahmer, a veteran of the business, was the booker at CZW when CZW was at its peak, and was responsible for much of its success with his creative booking & story lines. The 2 of us sat down and had a meeting of the minds, and I believe we all left with what we thought was a solid game plan to make an impact on South Jersey/Philadelphia wrestling. Everyone who followed the indy circuit in the years prior knew that there was some legit heat between the old Force One regime and Calzone’s new F1 group. What better way of generating interest than to use that heat (even though it had long died down between most of us, the fans were unaware of that) to start a war between Coastal and Calzone’s guys.
The 4ce was born, and the fragment group of Calzone, Dahmer, Ryan Slater and Alex Payne were to become our version of the NWO. Our first show with the new group was held at the Rollway Skating Rink in Hammonton, NJ. Both versions of Force One (F1) ran there with great success, with crowds of several hundred people buying tickets to see what we offered. Coastal had yet to run in that territory, so we alluded to the “Coastal Tidal Wave” crashing into Hammonton, and Calzone & his group quietly countered that it was us who were actually invading their turf. At any rate, our first show drew about 160 paid. Not bad, considering most of our posters & signs had been removed, either by the town, or other promoters who thought we were too close for comfort. We used Pancoast Productions to tape & edit our show, fresh off the termination of his agreement with CZW to do the same. Michael did an incredible job building the set, and generating the graphics that we felt would allow us to present our product in an effort to get some sort of regional TV deal. Obviously that kind of production involves considerable expense, but we thought it would be worth it, since we could likely recoup most of the cost of that via DVD sales. My old Wrestling Guys partner John House provided a lot of solid advise during that time.
The second show in Hammonton didn’t do as well, drawing less than 120, despite putting more time (and money) into advertising. We were perplexed. We felt like the invasion angle was viable enough to generate interest with the former F1 fans. We KNEW the production quality from Pancoast was incredible. We looked at our roster. We had solid workers who were coming in from all over, from Virginia to Pennsylvania to New York and points beyond. We were confident in their talents generally, and even though there were some stumbles along the way, the 2 shows we’d run in Hammonton provided good content that we could build from.
Hammonton unfortunately wouldn’t be the venue for the next show, which we scheduled for July of 2013. We thought that it would be wise to try to hit areas where wrestling seemed a bit more successful. The Deptford/Bellmawr area is where we focused our efforts. Dahmer had done a good job scoping out buildings, and we decided that an indoor baseball complex called Sportz Central would be the best venue for our next show. Same work promoting, same advertising budget (again, including a larger cable advertising budget) and a new location should bring different results, especially since we had a charity group working with us who’d receive a percentage of the gate.
It did bring different results…..it was a disaster. Granted, there were situations that were out of our control. It was one of the hottest days of the year, and we also had severe thundershowers (at one point, we lost power in the building). It was unbearably hot inside. It affected some of the workers, and several were hurt as a result. Tempers flared, one of the matches went shoot at one point. It was ugly.
That was my last show for 2013. My father passed away a month later.
Over the past couple of months I’ve taken the time to look at the state of independent pro wrestling, not only in the state of NJ, but all over. I also looked at what we’d done as promoters over the past 3 years to see if we’d done something wrong, or if the business had simply passed me by. I’ve concluded it’s both, though the percentages vary.
Let’s face it, the indy wrestling business is, and has been, in a bad way. Fewer “fans” are attending indy show. Promoters inflate their numbers as an ego move, but we all know if you report 250, more than likely you drew 75. Now, while that’s not true for all promotions (I heard this morning that the Extreme Rising Show drew close to 1000 fans), the fact remains that as a promoter, you can’t make money drawing 60-75 people unless you’re not paying for the building/ring/insurance/advertising/workers, or a combination of such. For Coastal, an average show cost us just under $3,000, including production, and when 75 people show up at $10 a ticket we lose…..well, you do the math.
So why are 60-75 showing up when just several years ago you could draw several hundred? Lots of reasons (though some will call them excuses). They include.
1. Poor economy
2. The rise of MMA as a more viable entertainment option
3. The way the WWE does business
4. The amount of indy promotions “in” the business, as well as their quality, or lack of
5. The lack of capital to invest long term into most promotions
The first reason is out of everyone’s control. The economy is what it is, and only the economists can guess when our economy will get back on track (or IF it will).
Back in 1999, John House and I hosted a Wrestling Guys show, and our guest that night was Dana White of the newly purchased (by Zuffa Group) Ultimate Fighting Championship. While he gave us a great interview on air, it was what he said OFF air that has remained with me to this day. White told us 14 years ago that his plan was to take the market that was watching kayfabe wrestling, and turn them all into MMA fans. For the most part he’s done just that, as the more mature fan who was watching the WWE back then is now forking over $40-$50 for their UFC PPV, and has forgotten about wrestling, while wrestling fans today are comprised of 1. Fans of more extreme wrestling, 2. Kids, and 3. People who live in the past days of wrestling’s glory, and come to see a more nostalgic wrestling show. What I’m saying is that the pie known as wrestling fans has shrunk.
A lot of that is the fault of the WWE, in my opinion. Vince McMahon has changed the way we watch wrestling today. I grew up in the 60′s. Watching wrestling as a kid, I used to love to see Bruno Sammartino on TV, but it didn’t happen very often, as the champion was kept off TV except to cut an occasional promo, or work a match that could be interrupted by the #1 contender. That would sell tickets for the “House” show. That formula worked for many years. What has trended (led by the WWE) is to get your champ all over TV in an effort to sell the PPV, which can take place anywhere, if one wants to pay the $40-$50 for the event. We have become an audience that is conditioned into thinking the payoff takes place only on a PPV, and there’s no longer a sense of urgency to ATTEND live events. Of course, with the rise of the internet, results are up almost immediately, again reinforcing that you don’t have to pay anyone money to know what happened.
Our little promotion was in South Jersey. Within a 40 mile radius, I counted 22 promotions that also run (even if only occasionally). Obviously the state of NJ doesn’t exercise licensing regulations for wrestling promotions. Over the past couple of years, promoters from the surrounding states (NY & PA) have all started to target the NJ market to run shows, since their state have strict (make that COSTLY) regulation. Why run in PA or NY, where you have to pay the commission, pay a doctor to be in attendance, be under the scrutiny of the state to report your gate, when you can come to Jersey and avoid all of that? There’s an incredible saturation of product in Jersey. Not all of it is of quality. There are a ton of promoters who use ticket sellers, backyarders, and untrained “workers” to cut costs on their shows. If you’re a fan, with all of these promotions running, it becomes difficult to sort through all of them to find out who’s good, and who isn’t, so they end up not bothering with any of them. Recently I was offered a venue where several promotions have run in the past and turned down the building, despite the fact that the price was reasonable. Why? Because 2 other promotions who aren’t very good ran in the building and killed any chance I would have of coming in and running a $ucce$$ful show.
This leads to my last point. Capitalization. Most promoters have some sort of capital to invest in shows, be it their own, or via a money mark. You can’t survive without it, as it provides the seed money for the next show you run. It’s not limited, and the smart promoter will sit down and put together a budget that includes talent, ring rental (if needed), insurance, promotion, tickets, and any other costs. If you don’t have enough money to do that, the odds are stacked against you having a successful show, since you’d have to spend less in one of those areas. Go ahead & advertise less, and see what that does. Same with talent. Fans want to see certain guys on your card, and if they aren’t there, they won’t come. So you have to hire guys that are bankable, and they cost money. When all of these things you’ve budgeted for don’t come together, you lose money, and your scratch capital for your next show shrinks. A few months ago another promoter approached us about “partnering up”, meaning that he’d contribute equally to the cost of my shows, and we’d contribute equally to the cost of his. The problem was, in looking at his costs, they were almost 3 times the cost of our shows, and we could run 2 more of our shows with what we’d be contributing to his. It was a no brainer for me, and he was turned down. I believe he’s gone into partnership with others now, and I’d wish him luck, but he got pissed off that I did the math and decided to hang on to my money.
These things are what ALL promoters face these days, not just me. My decision to not play the game for now isn’t because I don’t love the business….anyone who knows me knows how I feel. For me however, I don’t need to throw money into a bonfire just so I can say that I’m in the wrestling business. I’m not bitter, I’m fiscally responsible, and I won’t jump back into promoting until one, or a combination of the following changes occur:
1. Bad promotions close their doors for good (maybe via state regulation)
2. Venues become more realistically priced.
3. Untrained/backyard workers remove themselves from the business, or get removed.
4. Promoters stop trying to be the next Vince McMahon & begin to pool resources to save money.
5. WWE /TNA return to a mentality of pushing house shows, putting local indy talent on those shows, and allowing their stars to work the indies
Look, I’m well aware that there are promotions that seem to be defying the odds. I was happy to hear of the success of the recent Extreme Rising show in Philadelphia. Same is true with FWE in NY. I also give props to smaller promotions like Warriors of Wrestling in Jersey, and Victory Pro Wrestling, who have a group of really talented guys who pool their resources to make their promotions successful and have done so for several years. There are others, but the purpose of the blog today was to discuss where indy wrestling is today, at least from where I’m sitting……which is on the sidelines, and where I plan on being until something fantastic is presented to me, or until my soul begins to burn to jump back in.
And for my friends & readers who are in fact wrestling fans, don’t support indy wrestling as you know it today. Take the time to find out which promotions are giving you your money’s worth. Put money in THEIR pockets, so they can continue to bring you the product you feel you deserve. YOU have the final vote, since promotions with no money coming in can’t continue to promote forever.