From a good idea, to a bad dream: The self-destruction of TNA Wrestling
It was a nice, calm September night in Little Rock, Arkansas, back in 2013. I was crossing the Arkansas River, en-route to my home, following a long day at work, when I approached my exit and caught a glimpse of a TNA advertisement on the LED marquee at Verizon Arena.
While I waited at the traffic light, I looked once again at the advertisement and to my surprise, TNA was bringing iMPACT! to my town and this was the first time I had heard anything about it. Now, to be honest, I try to keep up with any wrestling related events that come anywhere around my area, but this was an event that I had heard nothing about.
Not only that, but this was to be a televised show as well.
Keep in mind, this was during a time in which TNA was traveling each week for iMPACT, outside of the Universal Sound stage in Orlando. While I wasn't a huge fan of TNA at the time, I still watched iMPACT on a regular basis, yet I had still heard nothing of the upcoming show.
Furthermore, I didn't find out until 3 days prior to the show. With that in mind, I honestly figured I had no chance at getting a good seat, considering the show was just a couple of days away. However, when I went to the box office the next day, I learned that not only were there still good seats available, but there were actually still ringside seats left as well.
I went ahead and bought a couple of tickets, along with the meet & greet passes, which they called "eat and greet," because those who bought these passes, got access to catering prior to the show. All of this was under a hundred bucks for each person, which was amazingly low, considering what you got in return.
The day of the show arrived and we were really excited about this show. On the passes, we were instructed to arrive at the arena at 5:00pm local time. When we got to the arena, there was just us and about four or five others in line. As the doors opened, we went straight backstage to catering and took our seats.
At first, there were no wrestlers anywhere to be seen, but within a matter of minutes, the floodgates opened. Before we knew it, guys like Jeff Hardy and Kurt Angle were sitting at our table, eating with us. Even Hulk Hogan and Sting eventually came through and took time to visit with the few of us who were there.
It was an amazing way to start off the night, and the show had not even started yet.
About an hour or so after arriving for the meet and greet, we were escorted to our ringside seats. By this time, a majority of the fans had arrived and there was a clock on the tron screen, displaying that there was under 12 minutes remaining until show time.
However, as I looked around, the first thing that caught my eye, was all of the empty seats and sections which were blocked off. The Verizon Arena holds roughly 18,000 fans for wrestling events, but at the time, there may have been 500 fans in all, inside of the venue.
My first thought, was that we might just have a lot of late arrivals. There was still a few minutes left and from my experiences, there have always been fans who don't show up until after the show begins.
Unfortunately in this particular instance, that wouldn't be the case. I believe the total announced attendance for that show, was somewhere around 2,000 total. But, to be honest, that number was extremely generous. If there were 1,200 people in that building that night, I would be surprised at even that number.
As the show got underway, the crowd that was there remained very vocal and involved the entire night.
TNA kicked things off by going live for iMPACT. Immediately afterwards, they taped another episode of iMPACT, to be aired the following week. They also filmed two episodes of Xplosion as well.
This was one show that you certainly got your money’s worth. Another really cool element of the experience, was the interaction with the talent. The ladies, also known as the TNA Knockouts, would come around, all through the crowd, signing autographs and taking photos, all for no charge at all.
Not only that, but after the show, you could pay ten bucks to step into the ring, for a photo op with Kurt Angle, Jeff Hardy and Sting. Also, a majority of the wrestlers came out after the show and interacted with any and all fans who approached them. The merchandise was also extremely affordable as well. There were some t-shirts as low as five dollars.
The whole experience was incredibly affordable and a real treat, all in all.
When I left that show, I was completely dumbfounded. I could not, for the life of me understand why this company was not doing well. I just attended what I consider to be the best live experience I've ever attended in my entire life.
Folks, I'm in my late 30's and I've actually attended Wrestlemania, as well as countless WWE house shows, Raw, Smackdown and so on. This doesn't include the Indie shows and all of the WCW shows I've attended in the past. But, when I take into consideration the entire show as a whole, the experience I had at the TNA show trumps them all.
This is all primarily due to the fact that their wrestlers were so involved with the fans. Don't forget, I'm not even a TNA guy, yet I still rave about this experience.
After days and months of recounting the events from that night, I finally concluded that the primary reason TNA has not seen the level of success that they should have by now, is lazy marketing and promoting. Had it not been for me passing by this marquee sign, I wouldn't have known about the show until I was watching it on television.
TNA had months to advertise for this show. However, they never mentioned a word of the show on the radio, there were no TV ad's, no billboards, nothing. When WWE comes to town, even for a house show, they flood the entire city and surrounding areas with promotional material and advertisements.
You can rest assured that WWE will put butts in the seats. Granted, WWE is a much more well known product, but still, there's no excuse for such a poor attendance. When I asked friends why they didn't come, they all had the same response, "I didn't know it was here!"
TNA was born as an idea that was brought up during a Jarrett family fishing trip. WCW had just sold to the WWE and Jeff Jarrett was trying to plot his next career move. While fishing, Jeff, his father and Bob Ryder began coming up with ideas on how to not only form a new promotion, but how to kick things off.
With the WWE being the only major player left, Double J felt like he could potentially put something out there to possibly compete one day, with the juggernaut.
After securing the financial backing needed, Jeff and his band of misfit dreamers held their first weekly pay-per-view show in Huntsville, Alabama, on June 19, 2002.
On that first card, Jeff booked big names such as Scott Hall, Rick Steiner, Ken Shamrock, Buff Bagwell and even Ricky the Dragon Steamboat. All of them were in the building for the first of their series of weekly pay-per-view shows.
TNA had locked down a partnership arrangement with the National Wrestling Alliance as well. Along with partnering in sharing talent sources, they would also utilize the vacant NWA Heavyweight Championship as the company's top title.
A lot of people in the industry looked at this as a good idea, considering it would help bring a relevant look to the upstart promotion, as well as putting one of the most historical titles back into play. As for the opening show, Ken Shamrock would walk away with the legendary 10 pounds of gold, becoming the inaugural TNA/NWA Champion.
Despite very modest results, as far as a PPV buy rate is concerned, Double J was pleased with the first show and began looking forward to continuing, all while working out the kinks as they went along.
After the first show that took place in Alabama, Jarrett began holding most of the following shows at the storied Nashville Fairgrounds Arena, more appropriately known as The Asylum. Eventually, TNA would develop a strong following in the Nashville area.
It would become more of an ECW type of feel and the legion of early TNA fanatics loved it. The weekly shows were a huge hit and fans would line up early in the day, just to secure a seat in the old building. Along with the strong home base of fans, TNA was beginning to pull in better pay-per-view buys as well.
Don't get me wrong, they weren't doing WWE numbers, but comfortable numbers nonetheless. Things were going well with the small, Nashville based company. But, Jarrett had bigger things in mind for TNA and that's exactly where you can almost pinpoint the moment when things took a wrong turn.
In mid-2004, TNA reached a deal with Fox Sports to begin airing TNA iMPACT! on a weekly basis. Along with moving to network television, TNA also went with a six-sided ring and moved production to a sound stage at Orlando's Universal Studios.
Suddenly, the up and coming professional wrestling company started looking more like a sports entertainment operation and to be honest, the fans didn't respond too well to the notion.
The loyal fans that gravitated to the company enjoyed the idea of having a more gritty, grunge type of pure wrestling production, as opposed to the theatrical vibe of sports entertainment.
In 2005, the contract with Fox expired, leaving TNA without a TV home. Not knowing which direction to head, TNA began airing a weekly webcast. Fortunately for them, SpikeTV would come to the rescue less than a year later and in late 2005, iMPACT! began airing on Spike.
Thanks to the broader exposure, the company would once again start to rise in popularity. In 2006, they began hitting the road, bringing their product to fans all over the country. While things were getting better, they still couldn't seem to get over that proverbial hump.
Big names such as Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff were hired in 2010. Hogan initially came on board as a consultant, while Bischoff would help with the creative side of things. The idea at first, would be to use the name recognition alone, while only bringing Hogan and Bischoff on-air sparingly.
More top-tier talent was also recruited to join the TNA roster. Now with the likes of Jeff Hardy, Rob Van Dam, Ric Flair, Sting and Jay Lethal all in the TNA locker room, this would surely be the last ingredient for immanent success, right? Wrong.
Sure, there were some good periods along the way. The angle between Flair and Lethal remains as one of my favorite storylines of the last 20 years. The Main Event Mafia was a great idea and the Aces & Eights were fun as well. Bully Ray would go on to become the top heel in all of wrestling in 2012 and 2013.
Kurt Angle became a TNA Hall of Famer, as did the Stinger. Dixie Carter had a pretty good run with having Ethan Carter III as her nephew in a great storyline. In fact, EC3 had his career completely resurrected thanks to TNA, as he would eventually become one of professional wrestlings top contenders.
The bottom line is, TNA has had a plethora of opportunities at hand, when it comes to top level talent. There is no reason whatsoever, as to why these guys should not be absolutely thriving right now. Let's be honest, it's not like the WWE was exactly knocking things out of the park for a while there.
So, the competition shouldn't have been an issue, at least for a while. So, why is it that today we are hearing rumors of TNA's complete demise? Why are there rumors of WWE buying the TNA library, to hock it off on the WWE Network? Why, just why?
As I stated in the beginning, I am not now and have never been a huge TNA fan. However, I am indeed a wrestling fan and if quality wrestling is being offered, I'm taking. I would love to see someone come in, take control and successfully guide this crippled ship to calmer waters.
The fact is, whoever has been controlling things, they're just not cutting it. Period. TNA needs someone to come in and passionately do whatever it takes to salvage this mess.
TNA employs roughly 150 people at their Nashville office. This isn't counting upper management and on-air talent. I'm just talking about the guys and gals who push paper, make calls and do whatever chores are vital to the day-to-day operations of a company.
Those people deserve security. However, the problem is and always has been the powers that be. The ones who make marketing and promoting decisions, those are the ones who should be called to the carpet.
They are the ones who should give answers for why only 800 tickets were sold in a venue that holds 15,000, they are the ones responsible for the empty arenas and delayed payroll.
At the end of the day, professional wrestling is and always will be centered around what takes place inside arenas, stadiums and bingo halls. In order for any company to succeed, there needs to be a rear-end ever 18 to 20 inches.
It doesn't matter if the event takes place in Madison Square Garden, or Mayberry High School, there must be an audience for the talent to perform in front of. Everything else will fall into place.
TV deals, licensing agreements, apparel contracts and so on, all of these things will come to a company that is succeeding, but there must be someone sitting in the big boys seat, putting the right people into place, making the right calls.
My experience at that show back in 2013 is the exact moment when I started questioning why TNA wasn't doing as well as they should be. I couldn't wrap my mind around why so much great talent was not being seen by more eyes.
After several years of contemplating this issue, I finally came to the very simple conclusion that the company was simply not being operated by people who truly cared about the sport of professional wrestling.
If so, there would be better attendance figures, there would be a traveling show and there would be a product intriguing enough to captivate the massive wrestling fanbase. Unfortunately, these are intricate details which the company has failed to deliver on. You can be as delusional as you'd like, but the numbers don't lie and never will.
As I've said, I'd love to see the crooked places made straight. I would thoroughly enjoy seeing someone take the helm and lead this product to a stable, successful place, to where all parties involved can be happy with the outcome, as well as have viable income coming in.
There's room at this massive table for more than one thriving company. There's plenty of talent, plenty of venues, plenty of television space and more importantly, there's plenty of fans who will make the jump, if you give them something to believe in.
TNA began as an idea. It was an idea of creating a place where displaced wrestlers could have a home and fans could come support them. At first, that idea was being fulfilled. However, there came a point when the desire to be a corporation, superceded the dream of being a professional wrestling promotion.
That's the pivotal point where the tide turned and while it's shown signs of brief promise, it never went back to what made it great. Sometimes you simply have to take things back to the simplicity of its humble roots, in order to see the promise of a great idea become a successful reality.
Maybe TNA just needs to take that trip back to Nashville and seek the modest, grassroots inception that gave everyone hope.
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