I was in a really great twitter thread a few days ago about some old NWA stuff that carried over into a discussion on smaller wrestling companies operating today and whether or not between them and the indies out a new territory system could be forged. Which led to an episode of the Rant with Ant podcast where this very topic was discussed. Which in turn led me to kick it around in my own head. There are a lot of moving pieces so I’m breaking this up into parts.
Part 1: Can it be done?
A bit of history for the uninitiated (thank you Bane). The territory system has long been a romaticized relic of a bygone era. Up through the mid 80s wrestling companies were local or regional outlets covering anywhere from a few neighboring cities to several states, with local TV programs to advertise their house shows. Some of them were part of the NWA and shared a world champion who traveled and defended the title in each one (the last of which essentially was Ric Flair). Others were independent, but they cooperated and occasionally collaborated when there was money to be made. Then Vince McMahon went national and squeezed them all out one by one mainly by undercutting their TV deals but also by signing away their talent. By the early 90s they were all pretty much gone. But fairly recently a lot of smaller companies like PWG have emerged while others like Ring of Honor and TNA have managed to stay afloat.
So with these developing and surving companirs are things ripe for a return of the old territory system? My answer to that is…..maybe. There is definitely a space for smaller companies working on a local basis to make real money through streaming services and social media word of mouth without needing a TV deal of any kind, and to not make enough noise to bring the WWE hammer down on them. We know this because it’s already happening.
But where’s the ceiling? Have they already hit it or is there room to grow? And what are the real objectives? Do you want an NWA-style collective of regional operators that serve as a national competitor to the WWE? Or just a bunch of smaller outfits doing their own thing and catering to their own local niche audiences? With Ring of Honor and TNA still out there, do you partner with them or not?
I don’t see another NWA being viable now. The original model wasn’t really that strong a partnership in its heyday and didn’t take much pressure to start splintering. I imagine keeping an alliance together in 2016 would be even more difficult; the money may not be much better, and your agreed upon teaveling champion has much more incentive to eschew that role in favor of just working his own independent schedule. And then of course there’s the neverending shadow of the WWE with their offers to buy you out or co opt you once your little promotion proves useful to them.
But a loose network of shops that mostly keep to themselves without being antagonistic might be able to survive as an unofficial alternative to the WWE. Not a competitor mind you, but just another option. I honestly don’t think there will be an real competitor to the WWE on a national scale in the forseeable future. Easy access will always be Vince’s trump card and I don’t ever see him or his heirs surrendering it. Why would they? With things the way they are now there will be a viable, successful WWE even in the leanest years.
But with today’s advancements in broadcasting, the time to make a move is now. While he can keep you off major TV networks and out of the most accessible arenas Vince can’t throw you off the internet. And he can only have so many guys working for him so there will be ready supply of good young workers and former WWE guys to fill out your rosters. It’s all about keeping your expectations in the right place and staying within your means.