Just under a month ago TNA were hoping for a big bump in television viewership for a widely promoted episode of Impact Wrestling which would feature in its main event a World Title, ‘Full Metal Mayhem’ (TLC without the copyright infringement) Match between Bully Ray and Jeff Hardy. TNA promoted the match on the back of the heel turn which saw Bully reveal himself as the president of the Ace’s & Eights in the culmination of a 9 month storyline that took in Hulk Hogan and his daughter Brook as well as practically every other member of the TNA roster. They also tied the match in to Hardy and Bully’s long history stretching back a decade to the WWE when, with their tag team partners Devon and Matt Hardy in conjunction with Edge and Christian they took part in their phenomenal TLC series.
Given all the build and the way that TNA had pushed this as a major rematch from their Lockdown encounter it is fair to say that TNA management would not have been pleased with the TV rating that greeted them the following morning. On the night, Impact overall drew a 2013-low of 0.93. To put that into perspective, the previous week’s rating that had been given relatively little hype (but did take place in the pre-Wrestlemania week) drew a 1.11. The rating was a big blow to the company who had invested so much in Bully Ray as their main heel character and given him the backing that comes with being the on-screen mastermind behind a story that has dominated TNA programming for nearly a year.
On closer inspection of the rating it was clear that quite a lot of fans were drawn to the prospect of the Title match, as the rating for just that match reached the 1.1 level that the previous programme had drawn overall, however the first hour and a half of the show had bombed so much that it had dragged the overall rating down considerably. Whilst this portion of the show didn’t feature anything quite so well hyped as the Bully/Hardy match, it did include a Tag Title match where Austin Aries and Bobby Roode took on Chavo Guerrero and Hernandez and the decision of the most recent Gut Check contestant’s attempt at securing a TNA contract, essentially the same sort of thing that appears each week on TNA’s broadcast.
Why was it then that this particular Impact, with a main event that had been so loaded with reasons to watch, drew such a low TV rating overall? As far as I can see there are two main reasons. Firstly, the show came on the Thursday night after Wrestlemania, where fans of the sport had already taken in 4-hours of wresting on Sunday night, 3 more the night after on Raw and over another hour on Tuesday when WWE presented its Hall of Fame coverage. It’s not hard to see how all of this could have left wrestling fans feeling a little burnt out. Secondly, it is clear when you look at the breakdown in the ratings of everything prior to the main event, that TNA’s midcard is simply not appealing to enough people.
The thing is, that the first issue isn’t going to go away just because we are now a month removed from Wrestlemania again. In 2013, WWE produces 8 hours of original content every single week (Raw, Smackdown, Main Event, Saturday Morning Slam and NXT) not including the content provided on their app, the Diva show that is soon to start on E! and the new Raw pre show that has been announced for the Yahoo video platform. Essentially, if you want your fix of WWE style entertainment, WWE is going some way to providing you with it. The challenge that faces TNA then is to provide wrestling fans with something different from WWE- this is one of the big factors in TNA’s mid-card struggling to generate satisfactory interest.
One of the biggest challenges facing TNA is the direction in which the company has gone with its recruitment drive. In the early days of Impact, TNA focused its efforts on bringing in the cream of the crop from the US’s independent scene and building a roster of highly talented, modern and youthful workers who would put the one-dimensional likes of John Cena, Batista and Bobby Lashley to shame with their athleticism and innovation. To that end, the company recruited the likes of Samoa Joe, Awesome Kong, Jay Lethal, Low Ki and Petey Williams who for reasons of size or style were unlikely to make it in the WWE. In recent years this policy has changed to bringing in either former WWE rejects such as Luke Gallows, Mike Knox, Chavo Guerrero and Wes Brisco or workers who would fit in well with the WWE product- Jesse Godderz, Robbie E and Rob Terry. In the meantime the WWE have in fact gone the other way and are now scouring the independent scene for wrestlers who previously would not have gotten a look in.
Taking inspiration from the success of CM Punk, WWE reached into Ring Of Honor and began snapping up its best workers, with Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and Antonio Cesaro all being established in the main roster, the new direction is working a treat and with El Generico and Chris Hero currently biding their team prior to being called up the main roster in NXT, this new source of talent seems set to continue to produce the goods. This however wasn’t the limit of WWE’s new scouting, the company also reached into the UK indie scene and brought in current stars Sheamus, Wade Barrett and Drew McIntyre (and currently have PAC and Oliver Grey in NXT). WWE has always been the biggest forum on which to exhibit one’s talents in US wrestling, but until recently if you were a smaller guy or had a unique in-ring style, you were considered to have much better prospects of success in TNA, due to both companies recent changes in policies this is no longer the case.
TNA must start to change the perception that theirs is the place for past WWE stars to pick up a full time job once they’ve been dumped by the company, but they also must get back the edge in recruiting experienced, talented and underexposed talents from the independent wrestling scene. One only has to glance at the additions to the TNA roster over the past year to see that there is very little to get excited by on the undercard in the company. Firstly there is Wes Brisco and Garrett Bishoff, both men who would never have become full time wrestlers in a major US promotion if not for their famous fathers. In Bischoff’s case, he is still struggling to learn the basics after making his in-ring debut 3 years ago, whilst Brisco was written off by the WWE despite having had years to prove his worth to the company in their development system.
Gut Check is an interesting concept in terms of signing new wrestlers but of the few that have made it to the main roster so far, Christian York demonstrates week in, week out why, after 16 years in professional wrestling, he had never had a permanent role in a major promotion until TNA signed him last October, and Joey Ryan, though he has potential, has been presented as a jobber for all but his first few weeks in the company. In the X-Division, Kenny King and Xema Ion both have ability, but their futures are dependent on the company building a strong and meaningful X-Division, which they have not managed up to this point. D.O.C. and Knux are fine in their roles as muscle for the Aces & Eights but neither have the potential to be anything more than this in the future. Jessie Godderz has shown some personality as part of his double act with Tara, and if he shows improvement in the ring as a result of his training in OVW, he might be able to become something more than a comedy act. Finally, Rockstar Spud has made the grand total of one appearance on Impact since being the winner of British Bootcamp.
It is clear that TNA’s recent arrivals are not exactly the basis on which to build the future of the company but even if they were doing a far better job of bringing in new talent, they would still be struggling due to the lack of selling points on which the company can be promoted to potential new fans. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a wrestling fan tunes into Impact only to see a bunch of guys who are, for the most part, not as well-known as their WWE counterparts, playing at being WWE wrestlers, and then switching off. TNA needs to distinguish itself from WWE all over again, it needs to offer wrestling fans the things that WWE is either unable to or has no interest in doing so that people looking for an alternative to the WWE’s highly corporate, formulaic product can genuinely find it in TNA. One obvious place to star in my opinion would be the company’s Knockout division.
Given the lack of attention and general downward trend of the quality of WWE’s Diva content, this is an area TNA can make its own. Though far from perfect, TNA’s ladies are much better in-ring workers than their WWE counterparts, as they have (in general) been recruited for their ability to work a match rather than their prospects as a model. In Mickie James, Gail Kim and Tara, the Knockouts division is the one place in TNA where hiring former WWE talent has paid off, and with them competing against the likes of ODB, Velvet Sky and Miss Tessmacher, TNA can build a division which is competitive, vibrant and, most importantly of all, relevant.
Undoubtedly, TNA could do with bringing in some new ladies to freshen things up; practically all of the Knockouts have had a programme with each other at some point over the last couple of years, and they should maybe look at writing more than one storyline at a time for the women, so that it genuinely feels like a division, and not just the champion and their latest challengers. But with work on both these points, TNA could grow a reputation for being the place to go to see quality women’s wrestling in a mainstream environment in the US, something that can be invaluable as they continue to try to draw more viewers to their television shows.
Whilst it is known that Triple H is not interested in women’s wrestling, he has made it public that he intends to rebuild the WWE’s tag team division which has been in a black hole for the best part of a decade. This is an area that If TNA could get a jump on WWE and invest time and effort into it they could really set themselves apart. In Bad Influence, they have one of the most over and talented tag teams in US wrestling. Having got to the point in their careers where their chances of realistically making it as headliners are over, Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian are in a great place to be the focal point of an exciting tag team division. Moreover they have the talent both in the ring and on the mic to build up other tag teams around them and eventually, when the time is right, help elevate said teams to the same level. For years wrestling fans have yearned for a tag team division which means something, TNA should be doing everything they can to fill that need.
One area that used to genuinely provide TNA with that alternative to WWE feel was its X-Division. A unique premise, TNA built this around those highly talented individuals from the independents who worked a much higher impact and faster paced style, as the catchphrase went , it was about no limits, not weight limits. Moreover, it was something that WWE could not replicate within the boundaries of its chosen style. The successes of the X-Division led to many of its biggest stars moving up to the main event and vie for the World Title. As a consequence of this, the X-Division stopped feeling special with most of its best talent working as part of the main roster and the division fell on hard times, a state which it has not yet recovered from. Obviously recognising that, TNA have come up with a new concept for the X-division which it hopes will restore some of the former glory to it.
Setting the weight class at under 230 pounds and having all competition taking place in 3-way matches, TNA are trying to give the X-Division a unique feel again. The new concept has its critics and whilst I am sceptical about the likelihood of it taking off, I am trying to keep an open mind until we’ve seen it bed in slightly. In order for this premise to have even a small chance of success, there are 3 things which TNA must do. Firstly, they must put the individuals in meaningful feuds and storylines, simply lining them up in straight matches with nothing to make them relevant on a personal level will not create characters and stars that fans can invest in. Secondly, they must push the idea that wrestling in a 3-way match is a unique discipline, suited to only certain types of wrestlers and that if the current World Champion was to become involved in such a match he would come unstuck due to the unique tactics and skill set required to compete.
The third thing they must do is ensure that three way matches are exclusive to the X-Division, if matches that are competed in between members of the rest of the roster are three way matches it will only serve to render the whole concept of the X-Division as it now is pointless. If TNA fails to apply these booking principles to the division then it will feel as though these matches are simply a way of filling air time rather than a significant part of the overall product. With improvements made to differentiate the Knockouts, Tag Team and X divisions as aspects of TNA that can’t be seen in the WWE, TNA will have gone some way to presenting a genuinely alternative offering, it is my opinion however, that TNA needs to go even further into the reaches of where WWE will not.
Taking inspiration from the UFC who have in the past couple of years introduced weight classes below what they had previously, there is in my opinion a gap in the market for a weight division below the typical Junior Heavyweigh/Crusierweight level in US Wrestling. If wrestlers were brought into TNA to compete in a lower weight class of between 140 and 180 pounds, this would be a feature of the promotion that would look and feel massively different from anything the WWE does or has done in the past. These wrestlers would be significantly smaller than either the current TNA or WWE rosters and so would really stand out. TNA would have to cultivate the message that this lower weight class was a stand-alone, prestigious competition in itself. The wrestlers could never be taken seriously if they were to move up to the heavyweight division, and so their sole ambition should be to reach the top of this new weight class, in the same way as it is for a lightweight in UFC. With WWE not interested in wrestlers at this size, TNA would have the pick of the talent in the independents coming up and be able to assemble a division with no alternative anywhere else in mainstream US wrestling.
It would be foolish to believe that TNA can truly compete with the WWE in any real way for the foreseeable future. WWE is too embedded at the top of the industry in 2013 for any competitor to gain traction in a Monday Night War style attempt at the top spot. What TNA can do though is really carve out a bigger niche for themselves, the WWE can’t possibly offer everything to its audience and as a consequence there are a number of areas for the TNA to exploit and make its own. If TNA are serious about growing their brand and improving their share of the market they must find a way to represent themselves as something different from the WWE, there is simply too much WWE television for TNA to piggyback on its success and offer more of the same.
Even if the company is happy at its current size, they have to be aware of the potential for oblivion without continued growth. As it stands TNA is not pulling in the kind of numbers that give it security in its current position. What would happen if say tomorrow, Spike TV called a meeting where they decided that they were going to change the direction of the network and professional wrestling did not fit into that direction? TNA is not doing strong enough numbers to be certain of securing a new deal to appear elsewhere. It needs higher numbers than it currently has to have that safety blanket. Also, the company made the choice earlier this year to take Impact on the road and for the first time in its history become a fully functioning touring company. This means added cost and a need for fans to buy tickets to see the shows, which means in the long run, just in order to survive, TNA must strive to grow beyond its current level of popularity. The only way to accomplish that in today’s WWE saturated world is to be as little like WWE as possible.