When WWE superstar Daniel Bryan (above) took to Twitter last week to announce his retirement following a string of concussions, wrestling fans reacted with a mixture of shock and happiness: They were shocked that a living legend was forced to hang up his boots at the prime of his career, but were happy that he did so before his injury situation got any worse.
Within minutes of Bryan's tweet, news stories appeared on websites like the Wrestling Observer, Pro Wrestling Torch, and Squared Circle, the popular subreddit that serves as the online base of operations for many of the sport's fans. News of his retirement was even picked up by mainstream outlets like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Quartz, which seized upon his retirement to discuss how athletes treat brain injuries.
But for many fans, it was podcasts that offered them the most intimate forum to pour their hearts out over the retirement of an all-time great.
"If I'm watching The Walking Dead, there's going to be 7,000 people that I know who are watching it as well," said Rich Kraetsch, the co-host of Voices of Wrestling, a podcast that provides in-depth coverage of WWE and Japanese pro wrestling. "I can go on Facebook and talk about The Walking Dead. I can go to work and talk about The Walking Dead. With wrestling you're kinda on your own, especially if you're an adult. When I was in middle school I could say, 'Oh my god Steve Austin is dead because they buried him!' Now if I did that people would be like, 'What the hell is your problem?'"
Kraetsch's main point speaks to alienation: Pro wrestling is decidedly nerdy, even in a pop culture landscape that regularly sees superhero movies top the box office. Without a more traditional outlet, like the sports talk radio format that dominates AM radio, wrestling fans turn to podcasts to digest the week's news and ruminate on topics like Bryan's retirement, why Big Show is main eventing Monday Night Raw in the year 2016, and who best deserves the Vincent J. McMahon Legacy of Excellence Award.
And unlike traditional sports like baseball or football, pro wrestling, which grew out of the traveling carnivals of the late 1800s, was designed from day one to essentially trick people out of their hard-earned money, staging phony (or "worked") bouts where the winner, unbeknownst to fans, was pre-determined, no matter how realistic the matches seemed. This underlying tension, where dedicated fans are conditioned to assume ulterior motives behind the scenes, plays into the popularity of podcasts.
"Pro wrestling goes out of its way—and I can't think of any other medium that does this—to almost wag its finger at the fans that are the most passionate," said Damon McDonald, co-host of the Purocast, a podcast that focuses on Japanese wrestling. "[Wrestling promotions] will go out of their way to criticize the 'smart marks' [fans who close pay attention to wrestling news] saying, 'Just let [the storylines] play out and watch it.' Can you imagine the NFL doing that? 'Don't criticize Peyton Manning's performance, just watch the Super Bowl.'"
"With wrestling there's so much stuff that [the promotions] don't tell you, that they try to hide," said Wrestling Observer Radio co-host Bryan Alvarez. Podcasts, therefore, can help fans understand "what's going on or can analyze what's going on in an intelligent way."
One of the first people to begin talking about wrestling in an intelligent way through podcasting was Colt Cabana, a professional wrestler who in 2010 launched the Art of Wrestling, an in-depth interview show that set the template for later podcasts created by the likes of Chris Jericho and Stone Cold Steve Austin. To Cabana, who recently launched a paid podcast (it's part of a $5 per month network of podcasts known as Howl.fm) called Pro Wrestling Fringe, podcasts offer fans a way to better understand "our lives' journeys as wrestlers."
"Just like anything, the cream will rise to the top," said Cabana, who believes the low barrier to entry has helped create the thriving pro wrestling podcast ecosystem. "At the end of the day anyone can create a podcast, whether there's three people listening to it or 100,000 people listening to it."
A quick trip to iTunes shows that wrestling podcasts are among the most popular around. As of Tuesday afternoon, three of the top 10 sports podcasts on iTunes are wrestling podcasts: Live Audio Wrestling, Talk is Jericho, and The Steve Austin Show. Another podcast, Off The Script, is featured in the New and Noteworthy section, as is Cabana's Art of Wrestling and The Steve Austin Show Unleashed (which is similar to his family-friendly Steve Austin Show but is intended for mature audiences).
And while Cabana treasures his intimate audience, a November 2014 episode of Art of Wrestling featuring an interview with CM Punk (who had left WWE nearly a year earlier and who is now preparing to fight in the UFC) is among the most famous of wrestling podcasts, having been listened to by 3 million people.
"For me it's about finding like-minded people," Cabana said. "I've spoken my heart out to these fans over these last six years, and I want these fans for life."