As the 2010s come to a close, the trends of independent wrestling remain murky. While established independent promotions such as ROH, PWG and CHIKARA remain viable promotions, one of the side-effects of being in the business for decades is fans' familiarity with the brand and the product and their expectations for the promotion. While that familiarity is important to building a fanbase, it also may sometimes limit their ability to innovate, allowing younger promotions to be more experimental in their product and thus steal some of the independent buzz that used to be possessed by the older companies.
"I'd wager that less than 5 percent of wrestling fans know what Beyond Wrestling is, and that more than 50 percent know of Ring of Honor; that is more of an audience that has made up their mind one way or another," Drew Cordeiro, owner of Beyond Wrestling, said. "Those older companies are still around, but are they dictating the trends in wrestling? I think it is pretty obvious they aren't at the forefront of that."
That kind of thinking led to Cordeiro and Beyond Wrestling to launch a weekly, live wrestling show, a first for independent wrestling in the US. The show, Uncharted Territory, runs each Thursday and is broadcasted on Independentwrestling.tv.
"The idea for Unchartered Territory was to pivot Beyond Wrestling away from what everyone else was doing, and instead try something that no one was doing," Cordeiro said. "A lot of wrestling fans remembered small wrestling shows in the area that took place every week, so we thought there was a market for a new show that did that."
Uncharted Territory also enabled Beyond to better deal with the nagging problem of having talent scooped up by larger promotions, including WWE, ROH and AEW. By running one show a week instead of one show a month, Beyond was able to feature more talent, allowing themselves to establish a wider pool of wrestlers that fans would recognize and be interested in seeing, allowing the company to better absorb the blows being rained upon them by such a competitive market for talent.
"We are used to having our talent leave after six months, and that gets factored into our decision making. Take someone like Leyla Hirsch, now that she is back from Germany she is going to be featured heavily in Beyond Wrestling, and we need to get her hot over the next nine weeks, because the fact is by 2020, she is going to be signed somewhere else," Cordeiro said.
How wrestling talent is developed has become a debated point in the wrestling industry. In the past, when WWE had a stronger aversion to signing independent talent, wrestlers like Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens could spend more than a decade on the independent circuit before finally settling in WWE, allowing them to travel all over the world and wrestle various styles to hone their craft. Today, WWE is signing independent talent at an earlier stage in their career, meaning that they are greener and often less advanced than the talent that was signed a generation ago.
"If you go to WWE and 2 or 3 years into your career, everything else you are going to learn is based on their one style, so talent becomes homogeneous," Cordeiro said. "A guy like Matt Riddle, a great talent who took to wrestling faster than anyone else this decade, how do you get him and turn him into Seth Rollins? On the short term, WWE gains buzz from signing these people, but over the long term their product is going to get worse and worse because their talent isn't going to have that kind of experience."
On the flip side, WWE does provide an atmosphere at the Performance Center in Orlando that is unprecedented in the history of the industry. While the talent may not have the same experience coming into the company as Daniel Bryan did, they may be better suited to gain it through WWE and NXT.
"When it comes to developing talent, the best thing for people to do is to work with people who are good. (In WWE), they have a lot of people who are really good and they are all in one place, so talent is able to get that experience working there," Brandon Thurston, head trainer at Grapplers Anonymous, said.
One additional consequence for the independents is WWE is not just signing the talent that has the most potential as performers, but are also mining the independents for any veteran with experience that can be passed on to their new recruits. Whether it is PROGRESS wrestling creative head Jim Smallman, or veteran trainers Lance Storm, Adam Pearce and Pat Buck, WWE is on the hunt for anyone with veteran knowledge. Those kind of acquisitions may ultimately weaken independent wrestling as those valuable figures are taken off the board.
"Rookie wrestlers are going to be starved from the knowledge of veterans that can pass the torch. What you are going to end up with a lot of wrestlers that are self-trained, or trained by wrestlers who shouldn't be training wrestlers," Cordeiro said. "Who are going to be around to teach the next 18 year old wrestlers? They are going to be people who were never good enough to even get a sniff from WWE."
The Information Superhighway
One thing that all promoters can agree on is the power that the internet and social media has had on independent wrestling.
"All of it has completely transformed professional wrestling in ways that can never be accurately measured," CHIKARA Owner Mike Quackenbush said.
The concept is simple, the internet allows information to be shared at a far faster rate than ever before, and since everyone can access it, it allows promotions to reach their customer base in ways that could never have been dreamed of in decades prior.
"Anyone that has an internet connection can access IWTV and stream Beyond Wrestling live. In some ways, it makes us more accessible than RAW or SmackDown or AEW because we are not restricted to cable television," Cordeiro said. "Without social media, without our YouTube channel, we wouldn't be able to be where we are at. Realistically we are only drawing 150-200 people per show, that isn't enough to pay the bills but when you factor in streaming, and distribution rights, and the ability to put some matches out there for free, that creates a larger worldwide audience and it becomes a much more significant business."
For some wrestlers, entire careers have been made based on social media success. Through savvy self-promotion, New Jersey backyard wrestler Joey Janela was able to promote himself on social media to the degree that thousands of fans were attending his self-promoted shows over WrestleMania weekend.
"A guy like Joey Janela, if he had started wrestling during the year I did, I don't know how long he would have lasted. Yet today, what he has been able to accomplish with his 'Spring Break' events is unprecedented in pro wrestling, and that was built on the back of social media. He drew thousands of people to come to one show, once per year, that is the power of social media in this generation," Quacknebush said. "Joey is a friend of mine and I like him a lot, but in previous generations, I don't know if you ever even see Joey in a match. It is fascinating to me to see how many more people are able to connect in that way due to the ubiquity of social media platforms."
While social media has given a platform for performers and promotion, it is hard to draw a direct line for promotions between having a lot of social media followers and making money.
"I'd be hard pressed to find an example where that is true," Quackenbush said. ""Does Fight Club Pro have more followers on social media than they did 8 years ago? I bet. Does that mean they are making any more money because of it? I bet it doesn't."
"We have 30,000 Twitter followers, that doesn't mean we have 30,000 people coming to Beyond Wrestling, we are lucky to have 200," Cordeiro said. "It isn't the be-all-end-all of pro wrestling; if a company has 60,000 followers and another has 30,000 followers, that doesn't mean they have twice as many fans coming to every show."