The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Five years ago, news coverage of professional wrestling was very much a niche business. There has always been The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, as well as specialty sites, such as Wrestling Inc., but mainstream media coverage on the industry was rarely seen. The only time wrestling news would crack the front page on major news outlets would be if a major star from the past passed away.
However over the past several years, wrestling has seen an unexpected increase in mainstream coverage. Major news outlets, such as USA Today, Yahoo, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Forbes have all dedicated time to regular coverage of the wrestling industry. This sudden rise in coverage has affected the industry in several ways, and has the potential to make an even larger impact in the future.
Justin Barrasso previously covered professional sports for the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald before eventually pitching the idea of writing a wrestling column for the Herald, which he began by covering WrestleMania 30 in 2014. Eventually Barrasso began working for Sports Illustrated, where he sold his editor, Andy Gray, on writing a piece on the Montreal Screwjob. The piece, which included quotes from Bret Hart, ended gaining a lot of traction on SI.com, with Barrasso touting that it was one of the top 25 most-read pieces on the site that year.
In the sportswriting industry, there has been a stigma about covering professional wrestling, since at the end of the day, it is not a legitimate competitive sport. However Barrasso said that for news organizations, their goal is to attract readers to either buy a subscription or click on a story, and that professional wrestling coverage has proven to deliver those results. As an organization, WWE is eager to work with those publications in order to get their product on the front page of USA Today, Yahoo News and other mainstream outlets that are dedicating time to cover pro wrestling.
"As the industry leader, WWE is capitalizing upon the fact that these major outlets have no choice but to cover pro wrestling. The readers are there, if these major outlets are covering pro wrestling, it is because the clicks are there," Barrasso said.
When wrestling news was exclusively being covered by wrestling news sites, it was only being consumed by wrestling fans. However, with more mainstream sites covering professional wrestling, that coverage is being viewed by the general public, which increases the general awareness of the industry. This has somewhat created the impression that wrestling is more popular than it has ever been; because even during the height of the Monday Night Wars, Sports Illustrated was not providing weekly coverage of the industry.
Statistically, wrestling is less popular than it has been in many years; television viewership, live attendance and other metrics tell us that. The increase in coverage though, has helped wrestling seem more like a mainstream form of entertainment, and fans who previously may have been more secretive with their fandom, are encouraged to be more open about their interest in pro wrestling. The coverage also creates the potential to create new fans, or bring back lapsed fans, who may have overlooked the industry for years, but discover something new when they are reading one of the mainstream news outlets.
Barrasso believes that social media has helped create a more mainstream atmosphere for the industry, but is incredulous when it comes to the increased coverage creating new wrestling fans.
"I think a big contributor to that is social media, where wrestling events are constantly trending worldwide. I don't know if it has turned non-believers. The goal of my column every week is to appeal to wrestling fans, that is the audience and that is who is constantly reading," Barrasso said.
Turning a critical eye on the industry
While WWE is quick to jump on board whenever any positive coverage is thrown their way, no episode of RAW is complete without Michael Cole touting some recent coverage from Yahoo or the Today Show, by seeking out these mainstream news outlets, the potential lies for the darkside of the industry to be exposed in a mainstream setting.
Since wrestling has lacked mainstream coverage in the past, that meant that any nuanced criticism of wrestling was limited to the fans on the niche websites. While the coverage of WWE and other promotions has increased in the mainstream media, there is still somewhat of a barrier between that coverage and real, hard criticism on some of the larger issues, such as WWE's involvement in Saudi Arabia, the lack of health coverage provided by WWE for its talent, smaller promotions hiring wrestlers with criminal backgrounds, are among the issues that haven't necessarily been highlighted by ESPN or Forbes.
"If we are collectively doing our job, we have to highlight the good and highlight the bad, this is not the WWE PR department," Barrasso said. "They are in Saudi Arabia because of the money, politics aside. It's not the worst thing to be critical, as long as you are fair and honest. Wrestling kind of lived in an alternate universe for a while and had its own set of rules. In 2018 it is a different culture with different standards."
Change could be on the horizon; back in March WWE announced that the women's battle royal at WrestleMania would be named after Fabulous Moolah. Some fans on social media took exception to that, due to allegations that Moolah during her career drugged and pimped out younger female talent she was supposed to be supervising. Mainstream media outlets that were now covering wrestling on a regular basis, such as Forbes, covered the criticism, and eventually that criticism was heard by a key sponsor, Snickers, who brought the issue to WWE and forced WWE to drop Moolah's name from the battle royal.
It was a small victory, but in the past it likely wouldn't have happened. The criticisms over the naming of the battle royal may have been discussed by Dave Meltzer, or on some of the niche sites, but chances are an executive at Snickers wouldn't have been reading those. They may however, be reading Forbes, or another major news outlet. In the future, mainstream media coverage could create an atmosphere of change within the industry that could have never existed without that kind of coverage.
A unique opportunity for mainstream media coverage could potentially take place next fall, when SmackDown begins airing on FOX. While nothing has been confirmed, there is a lot of discussion about FOX creating a wrestling, or more likely WWE-based, talk show on FS1. This would make sense since FOX already has a UFC talk show on FS1, and since UFC is leaving FOX for ESPN, a WWE show would be a viable replacement.
The big question is how WWE will react to a potentially independent talk-show about their company, that will be advertised during their programming. WWE has done pre and post shows for years, but those have always been hosted by WWE employees and kept in kayfabe. An independent show produced by FOX would be very different, with the potential for the hosts to both be critical of the product, and also discuss wrestling topics outside of WWE.
Barrasso believes that FOX has a chance to put together a compelling show, but that it needs to be independent from WWE. Barrasso used TNT's award-winning Inside the NBA as an example of a studio show done right, and how WWE should follow that model.
"If Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith were getting paid directly by the NBA, that show wouldn't nearly be as good. They are being paid by TNT to give their honest opinions. I hope FOX goes a similar route, they hire people who love pro wrestling who can be honest and critical and share their opinions," Barrasso said. "When Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal are arguing about a player, it never feels manufactured, and when something is a manufactured opinion, you can tell. FS1 has a great opportunity to have a special type of show, where you should be allowed to say things like 'What if Kenny Omega headlined WrestleMania?"
Creating a spotlight for other promotions
While a majority of the mainstream media's coverage is focused on WWE; and to the general public WWE is the only wrestling company that exists, there has been room for other promotions to grow thanks to the increase in coverage.
Casual fans may not know very much about New Japan Pro Wrestling, but if they are combing through SI.com and see Barrasso's article on a NJPW show, they may discover something new. In the past, wrestling outside of WWE was unknown to the general public, only a few sites even dedicated regular coverage or results to NJPW or Ring of Honor. Unless you were reading one of those sites on a regular basis, a name like Kazuchika Okada would be a complete mystery.
Today, it isn't hard to find that kind of coverage, and thanks to social media and streaming services, fans can read about a wrestler and be watching matches of that wrestler a few moments afterwards. That coverage has probably helped increase NJPW's fanbase in the United States; it's not a surprise that the company has begun touring regularly in the US over the last five years, the same time period where mainstream coverage of wrestling increased greatly. Old fans who stopped watching wrestling years ago because they were burned out by WWE are not reading WrestlingInc every day; but they may stumble across a piece on SI.com and learn about a new promotion.
"When I went out to San Francisco to cover the NJPW show, I really wanted to write a recap of that show, not because it would be a Pulitzer Prize winner, but because there was really not a lot out there, certainly not like after a Patriots game where you could read about everything and have quotes from Tom Brady and things like that," Barrasso said. "I hope that the audience that doesn't know much about NJPW is reading those pieces. I'm passionate about pro wrestling, and there is so much great wrestling out there. If I'm going to cover the business, I'm going to do my best to cover the business, and do whatever I can to widen the horizons of the business."
Must Watch Matches
Kenny Omega vs Tomohiro Ishii: ****1/4 - NJPW Destruction in Hiroshima
Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi: ****1/2 - NJPW Destruction in Kobe