What Sports Broadcasting Could Learn From Wrestling

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My wife walked through our living room after making herself a bowl of yogurt and granola Saturday night, and upon seeing me watch the 6-Man Ladder Match from NXT TakeOver: New Orleans, offered an astute observation.

“I’ve never seen you watch so much wrestling.”

Now, I wouldn’t say I am a bigger wrestling fan now that other times in my life — hell, when I was a high schooler during the WWF Attitude Era, wrestling probably occupied one-third of my thoughts, sharing equal time and energy with sports and girls. I can only imagine how much wrestling I’d have consumed circa 2000 with the access available to fans today.

The broadcasters of sports should follow the model wrestling organizations have adopted, opening up the archives for unfettered access to their libraries.

For the uninitiated, let’s reset to the 1990s.

As I mentioned in my ranking of Wrestlemania main events, I owe the early days of my wrestling fandom to the local video store. Renting pay-per-views came with inherent risk; nothing was worse than popping in a VHS copy of a show like In Your House 4 and realizing you’d wasted $1.99. Even worse, as I came to learn at the end of the decade when I began purchasing pay-per-views, was the feeling after dropping $50 on a lackluster card.

The turn of the millennium marked the end of wrestling’s boom, coinciding with me starting college. Watching WWE was increasingly laborious in the early 2000s, and with no competition stateside, my itch for the genre went unscratched.

My starting college is relevant to this story, as this marked my introduction to T1 internet lines and file-sharing services. The magic of Kazaa and Morpheus exposed me to Japan’s Pro Wrestling NOAH, as well as the upstart Ring of Honor independent promotion in Philadelphia. Of course, finding reliable (read: not virus-infested) files was its own struggle, say nothing of the moral implications with stealing money out of the performers’ pockets by downloading the content for free.

The recent boom of streaming services dedicated to wrestling more than satiates my demand for the genre. I can watch any number of different federations, including those on the other side of the world; I owe my love of New Japan Pro Wrestling to NJPW World, for example. And not only am I able to keep up on current shows, but I often take a few free moments to watch classic matches of years past.

Services like NJPW World, and most prominently, the WWE Network, are an obvious win for fans. They’re also great for the promotions. My $9.99 for WWE Network each month is a giving; I’m not picking my spots on PPV purchases, as I did before the platform’s launch. There were plenty of years I did not spend $120 on shows, so it’s a net positive for the company coming from me. I’m not using free services like Daily Motion to keep up with NJPW, and I will gladly spend a few bucks for independent promotions to check out intriguing cards.

Meanwhile, the giants of sports broadcasting struggle to find answers to declining viewership — and thus, declining revenue. Wrestling’s model offers relief.

The April 12 launch of ESPN’s streaming service, ESPN+, presents sports broadcasting’s behemoth and the equivalent to WWE with an opportunity to emulate the Network. Streaming live events is an obvious hook for sports fans — and as someone who both loves college football and basketball, and covers both professionally, streaming games is a must. However, one reason I don’t discontinue WWE Network when the federation has a run of stinker shows is its catalog of classic content.

I was a fan of ESPN Classic before my old cable provider replaced it with the ESPN-owned SEC Network, but Classic suffered from the limitations of linear cable. An internet platform like ESPN+ has the potential to offer subscribers an almost limitless library at any time. To differentiate itself from the current ESPN3, and appeal to the die-hard niche, an option to access any game from the past (or even long-since cancelled shows, like the NFL-sabotaged Playmakers or criminally under-appreciated Sklar Brothers’ Cheap Seats) is invaluable.

It’s a concept I suggested in the past, even broaching with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott during a media session (albeit without actually using the words “WWE Network”). For a fledgling network such as the Pac-12’s, offering a direct subscription plan reaches a more captive audience than simply being one of 500 channels on a cable or satellite package.

The audience is smaller in sheer number when compared to cable; but, like an international wrestling promotion of indie, an active paying audience is worth more in revenue.