Wrestling is ready to return back to the future.
Yet the re-launch of the National Wrestling Alliance, with Smashing Pumpkins legend Billy Corgan at the helm, plans to incorporate a piece of nostalgia with a reformation of the way in which wrestling is viewed.
“We want to be part of a new revolution of how wrestling can be consumed by fans and matches can be presented,” said Corgan. “This NWA brand dates back to 1948. The past few years have not been as kind as we would have liked, but we plan on building this into a powerhouse over time.”
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Corgan purchased the NWA over the summer amidst a throng of questions–and even scattered laughter–due to the fact that the brand has not been relevant since the late ‘80s. But many discount Corgan’s vision.
Another important note is that Corgan retained the licensing agreement on the Boesch Family Houston Wrestling video library, which is still owned by the family, featuring nearly every major star from the ‘70s and ‘80s. By no means is the success of the NWA a certainty, but Corgan has a 20-year business plan that he believes will allow his company to thrive.
“People asked, ‘What are you buying?’” explained Corgan. “We’ve looked at how the WWE has positioned itself and how Anthem has positioned Impact Wrestling, and now a brand like the NWA, which has built-in recognition value and a history that is unmatched, suddenly starts to become more valuable in this shifting landscape. Maybe we’re not so crazy for buying these three letters after all.”
The wrestling business, with industry-leader WWE producing live programming twice a week, as well as increased popularity from New Japan Pro Wrestling during its voyage into the United States this past summer, appears robust.
There are a plethora of independents operating around the country, as well as television programs from Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, and Anthem’s Impact Wrestling, but wrestling’s overall numbers, including attendance and ratings, are down significantly from the turn of the century. In addition to the decrease in viewers, the market is flooded with professional wrestling.
“I faced similar circumstances and odds when I entered the music business in 1988,” said Corgan. “It wasn’t like I looked on MTV and saw a million bands playing the same kind of music that bands like us or Nirvana or Pearl Jam were playing. We knew there was a market out there that wanted a different type of product for a different set of reasons.
“The numbers show that wrestling, at its peak, was averaging eight-to-ten million people a week on television. Where did all those people go? I think they’re still out there, and there always new fans to be made.”
The NWA’s former owner, Bruce Tharpe, leased out affiliated licenses that expired on Oct. 1. The promotion, and its vision, is now entirely in Corgan’s control.
Vince McMahon clearly has a plan of where he wants to bring WWE, with a yearly benchmark at WrestleMania. Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff has also developed concrete goals. Anthem Executive Vice President Ed Nordholm, who oversees Impact Wrestling, admitted that his company did not have a plan upon its purchase, which has continued to lose money over the past 12 months.
“Our focus is on the NWA plan, and we have a 20-year plan,” said Corgan. “We’re not going to just come in and throw money around for two years. We’ve learned from the past mistakes of TNA, which we have intimate knowledge of.”
The NWA initials are far from unknown in the wrestling community, though not nearly as powerful as it was decades ago. Corgan has a plan in place to rebuild the brand.
“We’re armed with this knowledge, and we’re setting out to rebuild the brand so a fan that currently doesn’t know anything about the NWA will respect the tradition and also respect what we’re trying to accomplish, like a Ring of Honor or a New Japan. That’s where we are starting, and we’re building from there.”
Corgan’s intimate knowledge of TNA dates back to his time as president of IMPACT Ventures, which he was named in Aug. 2016 and saw him oversee daily operations of TNA/Impact Wrestling. However, he was no longer associated with the company by that November, and an ensuing court case ruled that Impact’s new owners, Anthem Sports and Entertainment, would repay Corgan’s loans to the wrestling company.
“I was very, very frustrated by the obstacles I faced internally, both culturally and fiscally, at TNA,” noted Corgan. “I dealt with a lot of backstabbing and lies.
“I was able to push through some things that ended up being successful at TNA, and I was very frustrated because you would think the success would have led to more leverage and further opportunities. But it was exactly the opposite. People were out to get me because I had power. At least now, in this situation, I am my own boss.”
The NWA has a vision, dovetailed with a business plan and concern for the wrestlers’ bodies, and Corgan is moving toward the future of the entertainment business.
“You have to build your own infrastructure from the bottom up and work with people you really trust. The traditional ‘carny’ aspect of the wrestling business that plagues a lot of companies, and has plagued a company like TNA, are problems that hold the business back. You can’t run an effective business if it’s like Game of Thrones every week.”
Corgan has noticed out of his peripheral vision the struggles that Anthem has encountered. Impact Wrestling, in Nordholm’s own words, has not been profitable. Although this may come as a surprise to some, Corgan has built a healthy relationship with Anthem’s Nordholm.
“I speak to Ed at least once, if not twice, a week,” said Corgan, who, contrary to popular belief in the wrestling community, never lost his lawsuit. Corgan only lost a motion when the judge ruled there was not yet enough information. Once that motion was declined, Corgan and Anthem came to a satisfactory resolution.
“After everything was resolved in the settlement, I called Ed and said, ‘I think we’re going to be doing business together in the future and I want you to know there is no issue.’ I obviously got involved in the Hardy situation which never got resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, though it was close at times. Ed has had to clean up a lot of messes and he takes a lot of stick in the press. Behind the scenes, I’ve found him to be a pretty straight-forward guy.”
Corgan was asked to comment on whether Anthem, which has dealt with constant reports of being strapped for cash, reached out this past July for an investment.
“We’ve made various overtures to Anthem along the way and they’ve made various overtures to me,” said Corgan. “We haven’t found anything that is ideal, and I’m a firm believer that if a deal doesn’t go both ways, then it’s not a good deal to make. If the NWA was going to be involved in some level with Anthem, we’d want it to be a good way all the way around.”
Corgan revealed that he proposed a deal that would have allowed Anthem to work directly with himself and the NWA.
“We made a very aggressive offer in the last month to go in and help reboot the company,” said Corgan. “We’d have helped Impact stay more in the lane of the traditional Impact brand, and then set up the NWA as a natural rival, a la Raw versus SmackDown. Unfortunately, we didn’t get where we wanted with that offer.”
Of course, in any wrestling company, the spotlight is on the champion. Corgan has current NWA champion Tim Storm working in well-respected David Marquez’s Championship Wrestling from Hollywood to reintroduce the belt to a larger audience.
“We don’t see the brand, or, in this case, the NWA title, as proprietary as having to be on our turf or on our terms,” said Corgan. “We need to create relationships, much like Anthem is trying to do with AAA, to build and create audiences. Hopefully we can build a long-term relationship with Marquez that is mutually beneficial. He has shown great agility at taking the local TV market and running a profit. He has history with the NWA since the mid-90s, and that was our first shot at doing something across the bow.”
The NWA championship will be appearing on Marquez’s program for the next few months starting this weekend on his syndication network, including select CW stations.
“We like to turn up the flame of what we’re doing slowly until we’re really ready to come out full guns blazing,” said Corgan. “That’s the way we want to work, we want to build relationships. I said this repeatedly at TNA, and I say this at our meetings, the future of the business is people working together.”
Corgan worked meticulously with trusted business partner David Lagana to create a pathway for NWA success. Reintroducing the NWA brand to the wrestling vernacular will be a calculated process, and their plan is to partner with “friendly” territories over the next year with Lagana in charge of day-to-day operations while Corgan tours for his new album.
Lagana has been a successful wrestling content creator for multiple different promotions. He has been writing, directing, and producing for over 15 years in WWE, Ring of Honor, and Impact Wrestling, as well as directing Corgan’s Thirty Days documentary and the superb End of Independents documentary on Drew “McIntyre” Galloway.
“Like myself, David came into wrestling perceived as an outsider,” said Corgan. “We both bring other-world experiences into our passion to be in the wrestling business, and his ability to write and produce, as well as an incredible eye for talent, is very strong.
“David comes from television and I come from entertainment, and we stay very focused on the bottom line of advancing the ball forward in terms of reaching an agile and younger audience in the means that they’re consuming content, you’re setting up your own suicide in the long-term.”
The fundamental goal for the NWA is to create a 21st century entertainment brand very much pointed at the digital realm.
"You have an aging fan base that has shown in the past few years that it is willing to pay more to have access, but it’s a shrinking, aging fan base,” noted Corgan. “For probably the first time in wrestling’s history, it seems to be moving away from youth where every other entertainment culture is obsessively focused on youth to create their next generation of fans.”
Corgan explained that he has read a plethora of different reports, including a study that reported the average age of the wrestling fan is 57 years old.
“That does not bode well for any business,” said Corgan. “If you’re going to target a younger audience, knowing full well that you don’t want to lose the audience that you do have, the question then becomes how are you going to find them? Is it behind a pay wall or is it free? That is the fundamental question.”
Corgan shuttered the NWA’s on-demand system, and is planning on delivering a foundation for longevity that is an outlier in wrestling and strongly opposite to the instant gratification business plan that has doomed countless other companies.
“That’s where most people lose their nerve,” said Corgan. “Everyone wants to book the amazing card with the seven hottest indie wrestlers in the world. The bottom line of putting together those cards is figuring out who is going to pay for that.
“In the brand-building business, which I am, you have to be willing to make investments, find the right talent, and cultivate a culture resolute in believing that you’d rather have more people seeing your product and having access to your product.”
Corgan explained that he would rather have 300,000 people watching the NWA for free than 4,000 people watching behind a pay wall.
“Not everyone would agree with that, because they’ll say you are going to run out of money, but I disagree,” said Corgan. “You need to be able to command an audience in this changing television culture.”
The NWA represents a similar challenge as Corgan first faced in the music business, as doubt lingers that he will succeed. Yet wrestling is a better place with Corgan. Whether that will lead to success and longevity for the NWA remains an unknown, but its destiny is in the hands of a man who built a legacy in the face of an already crowded landscape that believed there was no space for his success.
“We could run a show on October 15 in an empty hall, but it would look like every other,” said Corgan. “In essence, there is no hurry. We want our first move to be in the right direction with a vision, and not just more wrestling hype.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.