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What does the UK Expansion say about WWE?

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With the expansion of the NXT UK brand recently, including its first live Takeover special early next year, WWE brass continues to put the pieces of the puzzle in place for its global network of affiliates. Management is smart enough to know that they will always need a feeder system to stock talent as their plans are expanded so within the past few years, the publicly traded, global company made working agreements with a variety of independent companies.

Evolve in the United States, as well as Progress and ICW in Europe are allowed to maintain the use of some of their homegrown stars that ink WWE deals. This is a very wise move and a win-win for everyone because it brings top talent into the WWE system to use as they promote in different locations, while keeping key independent groups around to provide a platform for talent to be discovered.

Could the WWE sign dozens of wrestlers to exclusive contracts and the indy groups fizzle out? Sure, but if those organizations shut down, that would make it much more difficult for new talent to be discovered. The WWE allows these groups to work under their umbrella and thus have a continuous pool of talent to choose from when they test the market in new areas.

Roughly a decade ago, there were rumblings about the WWE expanding into Mexico, Japan, and Europe. It was a concept that seemed very possible in theory because of WWE’s global reach, but proved to be much more difficult in application because of the style and culture of some of those regions.

For example, Lucha Libre has been wildly popular in its native country for many years. While it’s had downturns similar to wrestling anywhere, Lucha has done consistent business south of the border for decades. Names like Santo, Blue Panther, Guerrero, Mysterio, Barr, and many others decorate its extensive history. That being said, Lucha has a completely different approach than anything seen in main stream pro wrestling in the United States. More specifically, modern Lucha has a complete lack of psychology that is used for most American wrestling. Another key point is that much of the popularity of lucha in Mexico is based on the traditional and cultural aspects of the country.

The WWE events that are held there usually yield mixed results, sometimes drawing well, but other events will only have moderate attendance. The WWE product is totally different product than the events that draw major crowds in Mexico so the American export just doesn’t completely translate to that audience. The point being, because professional wrestling is already so well established in Mexico, it’s doubtful that there’s a market or a demand for a WWE promotion based in the country.

The same could be said for the Japanese market, on the surface, an expansion there would make sense because there’s an established fan base, but much of that popularity was established decades ago. While there are similarities, the Japanese style is still different from what’s presented on American TV, and much of that style is based on the Japanese culture. The WWE tours of Japan usually draw well, but that is for an annual tour, which might not necessarily draw if events ran on a regular basis. The downturn in the Japanese market was around 2005, which might’ve been a time period when a new product could’ve been introduced, but the point is moot because that wasn’t an era when the WWE had the leverage for such an expansion.

Another important consideration is that the Japanese landscape already has many different promotions that market towards different demographics so it’s not as though there’s a demand for a WWE Japan group. New Japan Pro Wrestling has done very well the past five years and draws the biggest crowds in the country. There are a few women’s companies that run successfully and draw decent crowds. There are also death match groups like Big Japan that have done well in the past few years.

So, what made the UK expansion possible?

Most importantly, until a few years ago, the UK market didn’t have any major companies with a noticeable buzz around them. However, more recently, the European scene boomed in popularity and many talented wrestlers had the chance to be discovered. Jimmy Havoc, Pete Dunne, Mark Andrews, Marty Scurll, and several others began to perform in front of diehard, sold out crowds. The UK saw its major homegrown wrestling disappear when the traditional World of Sport program was cancelled from TV in the early 90s so there was undoubtedly a demand for live wrestling in the country.

Make no mistake about it, the WWE launched a UK-based brand because there was money to be made in the European market and they weren’t going to leave that cash on that table. There was also the opportunity to cater to that fan base because while the World of Sport tradition is very well-known, the style that was popularized in the modern era is more of a hybrid style often seen on the independent scene so the WWE has a chance to get a market share because it’s a relatively new era of the sport in Europe. The opportunity is there, but such an expansion is a process and it remains to be seen if the project is successful on a long-term basis.

According to The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, management recently made changes to the UK talent contracts, prohibiting them from working for certain promotions that aren’t affiliated with WWE. Reportedly, the move was made because an injury to Travis Banks at an event for a different group forced NXT television to be rewritten. It was said that those UK talents were given a raise to compensate for the shows that had to be eliminated from their schedule.

Despite what some might think, I’d guess this decision was made more to protect their investment in the UK project than any attempt to harm smaller indy groups. Keep in mind, if WWE wanted to sign all the talents to an exclusive deal and take talent away from UK independent organizations, they certainly could’ve done that. Clearly, WWE brass knows the value of a system that allows talents to learn different styles, and thus there are the previously mentioned working agreements that keep talent around Evolve, Progress, etc.

What could be the plan for this expansion?

It can’t be understated how much of a tedious process an expansion into other places around the world would be for the company. It’s not as simple as putting the WWE logo on a product and expecting a major draw, which is why the NXT UK brand was built from the use of UK talent to test the market. As mentioned, the European market is probably the WWE’s best chance for a full-time brand because of the demand for the hybrid style of the sport. That being said, I’d say it would be much more difficult for the company do to the same thing in Japan or Mexico because of the previously mentioned traditional and cultural aspects of the genre in those places. But, who knows what this could bring in other markets? PWInsider’s Mike Johnson reported that the German star, Walter, recently signed a WWE deal, and there are plans for him to primarily work the UK brand and continue to work for his home promotion WXW. Could there be an eventual WWE expansion into Germany?

Aside from the actual new markets and the fresh talent that could be discovered there, this type of expansion really shows how much the WWE dominates the market share in the United States. If that’s a good thing or not depends on the context, but the depth of the overall talent roster and the ability to sign so many talented athletes is possible because Vince McMahon completely owns the sport in the United States. If there was legitimate competition in America, it’s possible some talents might’ve opted to sign elsewhere, but for the major money in this country, WWE is the place to go for majority of talented prospects. With the domination of the United States market, it makes sense for the company to expand overseas and it will be extremely interesting if the NXT UK brand becomes a full-time project.

Hopefully, with the WWE more willing now to work with smaller promotions than anytime in history, these working agreements will lead to more opportunities for the athletes on the roster and some unique matches for the brand.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta

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