On March 17, 1997, the ominous Undertaker stood behind a podium with then WWF co-chief executive Linda McMahon and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Adorned in black leather with a black teardrop etched on his pale cheek, ‘The Phenom’ was the perfect representative of the WWF and its position that the colorful characters and over-the-top antics found on WWE programming are nothing more than entertainment.
After decades of keeping kayfabe, or presenting professional wrestling as a competitive athletic contest, the WWF changed course. While embroiled in a legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund, the World Wrestling Federation replaced ‘Federation’ in its name with ‘Entertainment’. Similarly, WWE started referring to ‘professional wrestling’ as ‘sports entertainment’ and even revealed that WWE matches have predetermined outcomes. Accordingly, we must ask, why the change?
At the WWE Business Partner Summit in April 2018, WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon stated that WWE started calling its genre ‘sports entertainment’ as a means of attracting advertisers.
“Advertisers either had an adverse reaction to the words ‘professional wrestling’, or they simply didn’t understand what it was,” McMahon argued. “So, how could we create a term or a label that potential partners could understand? How could we describe the WWE was based on larger-than-life characters enthralled in relatable storylines? That was when we coined the term ‘sports entertainment’.”
Of course, this is only part of the story. In addition to creating a broader label for its wares that more prospective advertisers could get behind, WWE started describing itself as ‘entertainment’ and admitted that storylines and match results are booked in advance to avoid regulation by state athletic commissions.
“By signing this legislation,” Whitman said from behind the podium. “We are recognizing that professional wrestling is entertainment, not a sport. By eliminating this [$100,000 media] tax we will bring these productions back to New Jersey, creating jobs and generating revenues that are currently enjoyed by our neighboring states.”
In one fell swoop, and against the wishes of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, WWE managed to repeal the $100,000 media tax applied to televised sporting events in New Jersey and crawl out from under the regulation of the aforementioned athletic commission.
“With the help of The Undertaker, I will now put this tax to rest,” Whitman declared as she signed the legislation into effect and handed The Undertaker her pen. “And may it rest in peace.”
Wrestling Inc.’s Lavie Margolin wrote in his informative and entertaining book, TrumpMania: Vince McMahon, WWE And The Making Of America’s 45th President, that WWE lobbied for deregulation in New Jersey as early as February 1989.
“Linda McMahon participated in a February 1989 New Jersey legislative hearing in an attempt to deregulate professional wrestling in the state.” Margolin continued, “to push deregulation, Linda had to commit the ultimate wrestling sin and admit that professional wrestling was fake, a show, predetermined. Although this may read as somewhat curious today, and although things were very much out of the bag at the time, there were still some trappings of secrecy in the business, even in the WWF.”
As a result of WWE’s lobbying efforts in New Jersey, WWE events returned to ‘The Garden State’. WWE Superstars no longer require physicals before performing in New Jersey, nor are professional wrestling performers required to be licensed by the state. Nick Lembo, legal counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board explained to Wrestling Inc., “once the WWE stated that they featured scripted sports entertainment with a predetermined outcome, it was ruled that we had no authority to regulate.”
On the surface, WWE’s lobbying efforts seemed to be based in reason: if professional wrestling is not a competitive sport, it should not be regulated by state athletic commissions that are responsible for overseeing combat sports such as boxing or mixed martial arts. With that said, why shouldn’t professional wrestling be regulated by state athletic commissions? Such athletic commissions are commonly charged with the responsibility of protecting the health and safety of the athletes at sporting events and the attending public. Just because professional wrestling bouts are choreographed and they have predetermined outcomes, that does not mean that similar incidents and injuries do not occur at professional wrestling shows as boxing or MMA events.
Some may aver that the meaningful difference between competitive sports and scripted professional wrestling from a regulatory perspective is that preserving the sanctity or validity of the outcome of an athletic contest is the crux of regulating competitive sports. This is especially true for athletic commissions that function under the auspices of a state gaming authority. Conversely, more and more we are seeing people gamble on professional wrestling. As betting on professional wrestling continues and grows, the stronger the argument for regulation becomes.
While many American jurisdictions such as Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee, and West Virginia have deregulated professional wrestling as a means of attracting business to the area, other states have moved away from regulation due to the lack of funding and resources. For example, Alaska does not regulate professional wrestling for financial reasons. In 1960, a $10 licensing fee was set; however, it was not enough to cover the Athletic Commission’s costs of regulating boxing and professional wrestling. Sara Chambers, the Acting Director of the Alaska Division Of Corporations, Business, And Professional Licensing professed that “in 2002, with the program over $15,000 in debt and no pathway to generate enough revenue to successfully administer it, a letter was sent to licensees and members of the Alaska boxing and wrestling community informing them that the Department would no longer issue licenses under the program.”
Hawaii does not regulate professional wrestling on the grounds that such events are a rarity on the islands. Alan Taniguchi, the Executive Director of Hawaii’s Department Of Commerce And Consumer Affairs reflected:
“Our state legislature has the sole power to decide what professions need to be regulated.” Taniguchi said. “As of yet, they have not mandated my Division to regulate wrestling. Wrestling was very big in Hawaii in the 60s – 70s. I would assume they would have done so then. There [have not] been very many events since then.”
Although Minnesota, South Dakota, Utah, and Nevada do not regulate professional wrestling and have no immediate plans to do so, Jeffrey Mullen, the Chief Assistant of the Nevada State Athletic Commission suggested to Wrestling Inc. that professional wrestling may warrant its own standalone regulatory body in Nevada:
“It should definitely be regulated for the health and safety of the participants,” Mullen shared. “I just don’t think we are the proper regulatory body for the job. We only regulate combat sport. Wrestling is combat entertainment. It should be regulated, maybe by a commission established for pro wrestling and its unique needs.”
Even though WWE artfully escaped regulation in New Jersey by admitting that professional wrestling is not a true athletic contest, and many states have followed the deregulation trend, other states have implemented their own individual methods of maintaining regulatory authority in a few different ways.
Tela Mange, the Public Information Officer for the Texas Department Of Licensing And Regulation advised Wrestling Inc. that its Division Of Combat Sports used to regulate professional wrestling till professional wrestling got the label of ‘entertainment’:
“Although TDLR regulated professional wrestling at one point, the program was considered entertainment and regulation move to the Texas Secretary Of State’s Office many years ago.”
Other states that have moved the regulation of professional wrestling from an athletic commission or similar body to a form of professional licensing department include Missouri, Washington, and Virginia. Missouri’s Department Of Insurance, Financial Institutions, And Professional Registration “regulate[s] independent wrestling for the safety of the participating athletes and the attending public,” according to Lori Croy, the Department’s Director Of Communications.
Croy outlined to Wrestling Inc. a number of measures that the Department undertakes to achieve its ends, including mandatory physical examinations for professional wrestling performers and having inspectors attend live events.
“All wrestling must take place in the ring or a barrier, which ensures that the attending public is not injured during a contest,” Croy explained. “All props used by a contestant must be cleared by the attending inspector [and] any prop that may injure the opponent [or] may cause a risk of parts coming loose are rejected by the attending inspector.”
Despite the fact that many states followed New Jersey’s lead to deregulate professional wrestling, Mary Broz-Vaughan, the Deputy Director Of Communications And Board Operations of Virginia’s Department Of Professional And Occupational Regulation, indicated that ‘Old Dominion’ “last amended the statutes governing professional wrestling in 2015, and did not take the opportunity to deregulate.”
Of course, taking the regulation of professional wrestling out of the small confines of athletics presents regulators with unique challenges.
“Everything about the boxing, martial arts, and professional wrestling program is different, rather a square peg, so to speak,” Broz-Vaughan divulged. “One-time event licenses, for example, just don’t correlate to anything else in the occupational regulation world. [Department Of Professional And Occupational Regulation] just isn’t an athletic commission, which of course is where such programs tend to be assigned in most jurisdictions.”
Instead of regulating professional wrestling through a professional licensing regulatory body like Missouri or Virginia, Arkansas regulates professional wrestling through its athletic commission in conjunction with the Arkansas Department Of Health. Interestingly, Meg Mirivel, The Office Of Health Communications’ Public Information Director, shared that “Arkansas Code Annotated §17-22-101 and §17-22-204 and §17-22-302 include professional wrestling as an aspect of combative sport under the authority of the Arkansas Athletic Commission and Arkansas Department of Health.”
As of this writing, neither North Carolina nor Indiana regulate professional wrestling; however, both states have contemplated it. Jennifer Reske, Deputy Director of the Indiana Gaming Commission, divulged that “the IGC is monitoring this issue, including the recent decision to regulation professional wrestling in Kentucky.”
With respect to Kentucky, the Commonwealth is one of the rare United States jurisdictions that created a new body to regulate professional wrestling. Established in 2016, the Kentucky Boxing And Wrestling Commission oversees boxing, kickboxing, MMA, and professional wrestling in the state.
Much like Kentucky’s Boxing And Wrestling Commission, Delaware regulates ‘combative sports and combative entertainment’ together, but under the state’s Division of Professional Regulation. As alluded to above, overseeing professional wrestling through an administrative body pertaining to business and professional licensure seemingly takes professional wrestling out of the small box of athletic regulation.
New York State saw the deregulation movement coming and refused to flinch. Not only is professional wrestling regulated in the ‘Empire State’, it is still overseen by the New York State Athletic Commission. In this way, New York saw through the red herring that professional wrestling is a work and recognized the value and need for regulation.
Although WWE has had great success in eroding government oversight and its associated costs, and has continued to lobby against regulation in places such as California, state jurisdictions interested in regulating professional wrestling have adopted a myriad of measures to deal with the issue. Whether it is ignoring WWE’s assertions that professional wrestling is predetermined and carrying on with athletic commissions as regulators, creating new bodies to regulate professional wrestling, or deregulating entirely, the array of approaches and perspectives on the issue reflect the diversity of the nation and the autonomy of her states. While we all agree that the health and safety of professional wrestling performers and fans is supremely important, we disagree as to how to best achieve those desired ends. Only through creativity, compassion, and communication will we arrive at an appropriate balance.