Remember back in 2007…
WWE was going its usual course, enjoying its final year before being fully enraptured in the binds of PG entertainment. However, a smaller company based in Florida was enjoying its own renaissance. Founded in 2002 by Jeff and Jerry Jarrett, it had survived for years in the minor leagues with minimal funding, and had developed a roster with impeccable talent and a hardcore fan following. The unique matches, such as Ultimate X, Lethal Lockdown and King of the Mountain were attracting more and more viewers as they moved onto television, and also began to blend famous names into their group of X division stars. The likes of Sting, Kurt Angle, Christian, Kevin Nash, Booker T and the Dudleys all performed for the company, and their recognisable status brought the fans in, whilst the performances of AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels and The Motor City Machine Guns kept them coming back. It appeared, given a few more years, these upstarts from the deep south would eventually be the competition for WWE all wrestling fans had desired since the end of the Monday Night Wars.
Fast forward to 2014, and nothing could be further from the truth. Years of uncertainty have replaced the feelings of optimism within TNA. Issues with the roster around missed payments and criminal activity have sullied the reputation of those at the top of their hierarchy, alongside doubts over the capability of those in positions of creative power. Now, from once having a company that was firmly establishing itself as the second best in America, now the Jarretts are looking to develop another organisation as Impact Wrestling slowly ebbs away. The latest blow certainly though has been the most severe, as Spike TV are reportedly set to cancel their relationship with the company. With the bad press surrounding the franchise, as well as unspectacular ratings, it is difficult to see where another bidder will come from, especially with the notoriety of Spike. Whilst it is still speculative to consider this the death of TNA Wrestling, this certainly will not silence any scaremongering. The company is certainly now on life support.
But, the real question is how did TNA go from one of the most exciting and innovative aspects in wrestling to its current status which has it hanging onto its mere existence by a thread? Let’s consider five of the most compelling reasons why Spike TV decided to cut TNA from their weekly line-up.
1. Boardroom/Creative Ineptitude
The key reason behind TNA’s decline has been ineptitude at the top of the company’s hierarchy. Say what you will about Jeff Jarrett’s wrestling career, but he did have some semblance as to where the company could go and how to get there. Furthermore, he knew the length of time it would take. When Janice Carter and the rest of the family bought into the company, it brought the money that was required to push the company to the next level. However, it appears that the owners decided to skip the progressive stages the Jarrett’s started and tried to get to the top as quickly as possible. The signing of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff could have worked out if they had taken that momentum, consolidated it, and then moved forward. But they signed Rob Van Dam, Jeff Hardy, Mr. Anderson, EV 2.0, Orlando Jordan and numerous other superstars so quickly that the money disappeared as the quality remained stale.
This overspending on talent was combined with a lack of creative direction. It’s difficult to entirely believe all the negative stories and rumours surrounding Vince Russo, but it has to be said that the little he introduced wasn’t particularly original or compelling. The Immortal stable was a clear rehash of the nWo, and making Jeff Hardy a heel was not a great way to get fans on board. In recent memory also, the Eric Young World Championship run was a clear attempt to capture some of the magic Daniel Bryan was working in WWE. Over the years TNA had matches that have bordered on ridiculous (Reverse Battle Royal, Feast or Fired, Doomsday Chamber of Blood), but these were somewhat made up for by the talent and stories. But, from 2010 onwards there was usually only one decent storyline going at a time, and considering the bills that were spiralling whilst the product slowly dwindled, it is surprising they were able to last this long.
2. Roster Additions/Departures
Following on from the mismanagement of TNA comes three of their most prominent mistakes that would have undoubtedly caused the rapid decline of the company. Firstly, the additions and departures to the roster, and encompassed within that the manner in which the wrestlers and knockouts have been reportedly treated by the executives. The X division was at one point the element of TNA that kept fans coming back to the product, much like how the cruiserweights worked for WCW. But, this group of talented performers were afforded less and less time on TV and their numbers got decidedly thinner. The likes of Daniels and Kazarian were released and rehired time and time again when they should have been staples of Impact Wrestling. The likes of Amazing Red, Petey Williams, Sonjay Dutt, Homicide, Elix Skipper and Low Ki were let go, and thus the company not only lost wrestlers, they lost fans that had seen these guys’ journey and had developed a close affinity to them. In their place came the likes of Shannon Moore, Robbie E, Suicide and Zema Ion, all talented wrestlers, but unfamiliar to the fans that put the organisation on the map in the first place. And the stories surrounding Jesse Sorensen and his neck injury sunk TNA’s reputation to a new low.
The Knockout’s division was the other area hit with constant changes and lack of numbers, where once they were another selling point away from the WWE Divas, who at the time were seen as models rather than wrestlers. ODB, Gail Kim, Velvet Sky, Angelina Love, Madison Rayne, Roxxi, Taylor Wilde, Mickie James, Awesome Kong, the list goes on. And gradually those numbers dwindled to the point that these Knockouts were no longer prominent parts of the product. They became afterthoughts, and whilst today Kim, Sky, Love, Rayne and Taryn Terrell remain, they are essentially the last bastions of what was once a thriving part of the roster. Instead, money was funnelled into the likes of Mr. Anderson, who never drew a cent during his runs as champion. It was wasted on Orlando Jordan, D.O.C, Jetthro Holliday, Crimson to name but a few roster members that had forgetful and unnecessary spots. Even at the top, the likes of RVD, Bischoff, Scott Hall, Sean Waltman, King Mo and even Hogan did not have nearly enough drawing power to attract viewers regularly to Thursday nights on Spike.
3. Touring The Globe
Secondly, the producers of TNA looked to travel away from their base in Orlando, Florida far too soon, and far too often. When the outlook appeared positive for TNA back in 2007, their live-events coordinator Craig Jenkins stated the company wished to stage eight PPVs and 96 house shows outside of their home. However, the costs for this steady travel across the globe was not manageable based upon the ratings they were achieving in the US. Of course, this situation was a double-edged sword for the company. As a UK resident, I recognise that the company is far more popular demographically in the UK and Europe than in their home country. Furthermore, touring and house shows are a vital component in transforming a company into a marketable global product and generate a genuine connection to your fanbase. However, varying sources have suggested that they often failed to market their product effectively to local populations, leading to half-empty arenas for the actual shows.
The negative consequences of this failed attempt to spread the Impact Zone abroad were broader than the humiliating climb down of having to return to Universal Studios for the foreseeable future. Tapings of Impact Wrestling moved from their original Sound Stage 21 to stages 19 and 20 in recent months, smaller venues than previously. Moreover, fans have been sharing on social media embarrassing photos and videos of arenas that are more than half empty but carefully filmed to hide such issues. Low attendances as well as fans being admitted for free just to make up the numbers has shown how far the company has fallen since their travels across the globe, and demonstrated beyond all doubt they once again attempted too much too soon. Maybe if they moved their base to the UK permanently, they would be able to recover more easily.
4. Monday Night Humiliation
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The final element of the biggest management mistakes of TNA defies all logic. Whilst the roster departures may have been beyond their control, the signing of ex-WWE superstars designed to attract casual fans, and the global touring a necessary if ill-fated decision, the attempt to compete head-to-head with Monday Night RAW was nonsensical. It appeared as though Eric Bischoff felt he was back in 1995, where he had available to him Ted Turner’s millions, a primetime spot on TNT and a Monday Night RAW in its infancy. In fact, this was 2010, the WWE had a monopoly over professional wrestling, and promising the introduction of Hulk Hogan to TNA was not going to drag millions of fans to their product. If they expected it to be that easy, then they were moronic. If they felt this would be a slow start but develop over time, they are equally moronic. If they thought they may get people watching for a few minutes at a time during the RAW, then they were being optimistic.
Though the company’s ratings were not spectacular, the thought of them improving dramatically on Monday nights was either the height of naivety or the height of arrogance. This worked for WCW because they were in a position and in a time where something could challenge WWE if it was innovative enough. For TNA to believe that they were competitors with the giants was ridiculous. It is like Mansfield considering themselves competitors to Manchester United, or Bart Gunn thinking he was a match for Butterbean. Fans of TNA were most likely also fans of WWE, and few chose one or the other. And given a choice between the two, no matter how poor the WWE product may seem, there is only one victor. Thus, whilst WWE posted ratings between 3.5 and 5.0 during the “feud”, TNA wasn’t even hitting 1.0 by its conclusion, leading to a swift return to Thursday nights. The damage in ratings wasn’t lasting before the recent drop in quality, but the humiliation led to the first indications from fans that TNA would never be able to compete. Now TNA is in a feud with the WWE Network’s NXT for Thursday night dominance, and if there is justice for quality, they will likely lose that one too.
5. AJ Styles/Samoa Joe
A final mistake made in TNA surrounds the problem of marketing the top superstars. How WWE has grown and developed as a the leading wrestling organisation is promoting and marketing their biggest superstar effectively to audiences. This superstar will be the epitome of what their key demographic desire. From Hulk Hogan to Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels to Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock to John Cena, these carry the brand and bring both casual and smart fans back week after week. TNA, in order to grow and keep the fans returning, had to keep to the same strategy. From the start, they had two superstars that had the potential to carry the brand, and in both cases they dropped the ball. For the record, these aren’t former WWE superstars, as the company should have been promoting someone who came from their own ranks rather than harking on to wrestlers’ past reputations.
The first of these was AJ Styles. John Cena is a fifteen-time World Champion, whether the smarks like it or not, and that has been to keep him at the top of the card and increase advertising and fan support every time. AJ Styles comparatively is a five time World Champion in the same time period. The first X-Division Champion, Styles had been through the indies and was at TNA from the very beginning in 2002. He had paid his dues, and the connection he had with the fans was genuine and had a reality beyond the in-ring product. For fans that detested the cartoonish nature of Cena or the melodrama of WWE, Styles made TNA the home of the hardcore fan who wanted wrestling, and his passion and craftsmanship made him the ideal main event star. However, far to often he was forced down the card, or back to the X-Division or tag team division whilst Sting, Kurt Angle, Jeff Jarrett and Jeff Hardy carried the belt. Especially at the end of his run, the ridiculousness of the Claire Lynch storyline or his feud with EV 2.0 was a waste of his talent, and he left with a loss for the World Championship against Magnus. The refusal to rehire Styles was a huge middle finger to long-standing fans of TNA and its originals, losing more respect for the company.
The other potential marketing boy was Samoa Joe, who would be there for his unique look and uncanny athleticism above all else. His lengthy unbeaten streak engendered him to the audience as a killer, with his immense power, speed and submission speciality. His sole run with the TNA World title coincided with one of the most successful periods for the company, as his feud with Kurt Angle lifted him and TNA to new heights both in ratings and reviews. However, for reasons unknown, he was never again given a run with the belt, to this writer’s perpetual confusion. Considering his ring-work, success and how over he was, he should have been a multi-time champion no questions asked, and a on-off feud between Styles and Joe could have helped maintain solid ratings for the company for years. With numerous foils, both originals and ex-WWE talent, to work alongside, Styles and Joe could have and should have become the standard bearers for TNA, and the demonstration that Impact was different and exciting. If anything, it would have been far more profitable than promoting former WWE and WCW talent whose best years you could find being presented by Gene Okerlund on WWE Vintage rather than every Thursday night.