Wrestling Streaming: The World in the Comfort of Your Home by Jerry Whitworth
In 2014, the wrestling world took a major step into the future. WWE, the world leader in professional wrestling entertainment with a library including the likes of WCW, ECW, AWA, Smoky Mountain Wrestling, Stampede, and more founded the WWE Network. A streaming service for $9.99 a month that will gradually make its vast intellectually owned content available instantly anywhere in the world with an internet connection, the Network was a major undertaking that has placed a great financial burden on the company already undergoing tough times in recent years. Of course, this advent in technology has inspired other companies to follow suit although, interestingly enough, the company’s closest North American competitors have yet to get in line. TNA, formed to fill the vacuum left by the loss of WCW, tried to dip its toe into streaming in an arrangement with YouTube in 2013 with TNA Wrestling Plus for $4.99 a month only to be all but abandoned within two months. Today, TNA has started posting its earliest pay-per-view programs as the Asylum Years for free on YouTube Thursday nights (which started December of last year). It should be noted, WWE entered into a similar agreement to that between TNA and YouTube with the latter’s competitor Hulu Plus in 2012 which continues today despite the formation of the WWE Network (likely, some contractual obligation exists necessitating this duality though Hulu Plus does not air WWE events which are included as part of membership of the Network). As for the United States’ third largest promotion Ring of Honor, for some time they’ve offered their latest weekly television episode streaming for free online and made a portion of their library available on demand on their website for $7.99 a month. Although TNA and ROH at this point don’t seem to be trying to offer their own version of the WWE Network, independent US promotions have been more accepting of the transition.
With the dominance of the internet for media, the landscape of pro wrestling has forever changed. Independent promotions, largely only known to locals or tape traders, have transformed with its ability to develop a wide audience on a small budget. This is especially true for the largest US indie promotion Chikara which has become something of an internet darling due to the farcical nature of its performance art, pinballing from comical to epic in narrative scale. Last year, the promotion started CHIKARAtopia, a streaming service with the majority of its fifteen season library available for $7.99 a month (available on Roku as of last Fall). Chikara’s chief indie rival (and one of the fastest growing promotions in the country right now) in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla has joined the Highspots Wrestling Network which includes the third biggest US indie promotion in CZW (as well as PWX and WSU) for $9.99 a month (also available on Roku). Other major promotions on the US indie scene like Shimmer, Evolve (which has formed into a feeder system into WWE’s NXT brand), and Shine are available on demand as part of WWNLive where specific events can be ordered for an individual price (available on Roku). There are even more options rounding out the top ten and beyond indie promotions.
House of Hardcore, from ECW Legend Tommy Dreamer, airs in Canada on Fight Network which happens to be available on Roku for $3 a month. Beyond, a Northeastern US based promotion (one of the top ten US indies), helped make a name for itself with its RAWlternative events of which it held three that aired last year (every five to six months). Streaming live for free against WWE Monday Night Raw on YouTube, RAWlternative is a showcase of independent wrestling featuring matches from the top indie promotions (the first two from the US and the latest from Europe, predominantly the UK). Beyond and the majority of top indie US promotions have digital content available for individual purchase on the Smart Mark Video website. AAW, based out of Chicago and one of the top ten indie US promotions, also has a streaming site called AAW OnDemand offering much of its library for $7.99 a month (available on Roku). NWA has also started a streaming service featuring its older content in NWA Classics for $8.99 a month (with a Roku app in development). ICW in Britain is also available online for $6.99 a month. Lucha Underground, from the minds of Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) and Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk till Dawn) and featuring talent from AAA (Mexico’s premier wrestling promotion), pushed for a Netflix deal for a while but seemingly failed to generate enough interest (but is available on Sling TV which runs $20 a month). Global Force Wrestling, from wrestler Jeff Jarrett (who co-founded TNA) with David Broome (The Biggest Loser), has been trying to secure a television deal to no avail yet but did help bring NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom (Japan’s premier wrestling event for its premier promotion) to PPV and iPPV last year. However, NJPW decided to spread its own wings this year for its marquee event.
New Japan Pro Wrestling, the second largest wrestling promotion on Earth (after WWE), began its own streaming service at the end of 2014 in New Japan Pro Wrestling World (or, NJPW World). Running ¥999 (roughly $8.50) a month, the promotion has offered arguably the closest parallel to the WWE Network including content from its vast library, live streaming its events (which generally occur in the middle of the night in the US due to time differences), and there are plans to expand as NJPW’s owner Takaaki Kidani has announced a pursuit to purchase the libraries of FMW (which had a working relationship with ECW), UWF (whose invasion of NJPW inspired the nWo), WAR (whose junior heavyweight division helped inspire WCW’s legendary cruiserweight division), and SWS (WAR’s predecessor and which had a working relationship with WWE). In fact, in a similar manner to how the WWE Network at one time aired Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling (before the fallout with Hogan’s racist comments), NJPW World has classic episodes of Kinnikuman (better known in America as M.U.S.C.L.E.). As noted, Wrestle Kingdom is NJPW’s biggest event of the year and this year, decided against taking the PPV route and chose to stream the event on its World service offering its own English language commentary in-house. Arguably, the last few years have been the biggest in New Japan’s history as the very eyes of the world have become transfixed on the promotion (due in no small part to the attention brought to it by the foreigner stable Bullet Club). In fact, WWE’s recent talent grab from New Japan including notable Bullet Club members (as well as Shinsuke Nakamura, arguably New Japan’s biggest star) puts a spotlight on the company as one WWE is paying close attention toward. NJPW has also announced development of a Young Lions program similar to NXT. New Japan’s chief rival in their home country seems to be close to starting its own streaming service in All Japan Pro Wrestling Life (AJP Life) from acTVila for ¥777 (roughly $6.60) a month at some point this year.
Alternatively, Mexico (arguably the third country in the world where pro wrestling is most popular) has been slow to enter the streaming arena. AAA, described as the WWE of Mexico, tried its hand at iPPVs in the Lucha Libre World Cup 2015 and Triplemanía XXIII to mixed results. The former drawing parallels to Chikara’s King of Trios tournament saw competitors from AJPW, Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, Noah, and more and was generally well-perceived. Triplemanía, however, despite being AAA’s biggest event of the year, was plagued with streaming issues that have seemingly stunted the promotion’s development toward its own online service. CMLL, Mexico’s second top promotion, streams live weekly for free on Monday nights on the company’s YouTube channel (generally 9 to 11 pm Central time). At this time, it doesn’t appear Mexico will be moving toward a stronger online presence although, it might not be long before they have to in order to compete with what’s becoming a growing market.