Tech by VICE

Pro Wrestling Has Become a Petri Dish for the Future of TV

Following in the footsteps of the WWE Network, smaller pro wrestling companies are expanding their experimentation with streaming video.

by David Bixenspan
Oct 28 2016, 11:00am

Scenes from an Evolve show in Queens, NY in 2015. Image: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard

On Monday, FloSports, a popular website for niche sports, officially announced a new addition to its portfolio: FloSlam, a pro wrestling website that also includes a subscription video streaming service. While the journalistic coverage of pro wrestling and the name of the site were known to be coming thanks to the company's want ad soliciting an editor for the website, the streaming service was a detail that had been kept private for months.

At launch, FloSlam subscriptions include access to live events from the World Wrestling Network family of promotions (Evolve, Shine, and Full Impact Pro), as well as its back catalog as it is uploaded over the next few months. The first event, from Shine, a women's wrestling promotion, airs Friday, November 4, with the first shows from Evolve, WWN's showpiece promotion, coming November 12 and 13.

Oh, and one more thing: WWE invested venture capital in FloSports, but apparently has no decision making power and was not aware this was coming. Coincidentally, WWE had been looking to add a new, more expensive tier to its WWE Network service that would include independent wrestling events.

All of a sudden, it's a very different world for independent wrestling promoters.

"FloSports made us an absolutely tremendous offer," WWN Vice President of Talent Relations Gabe Sapolsky told Motherboard. "After researching the company, we're very excited about what FloSports has to offer, the potential for growth with the company, and their promotion of FloSlam, the way that they're willing to get behind the WWN family with it. So it [was] the obvious next 'best move' for the WWN family."

WWNLive, the company's pay-per-view streaming service that had been used to distribute its shows, will still exist, but only for events from third party promotions and video on demand titles that customers had already purchased.

For Sapolsky, not having to be concerned with both the event itself as well as the logistics of streaming is a welcome change that is "definitely a weight off our shoulders." It's also part of a bigger change that lets the company move more freely towards a more modern business model. "We also recognized that the future was in subscription services," he said. "If other promotions want to try to a la carte model, it still does business, so it's not like it's a dead model. But if you're going to do this consistently, [as] the backbone of your business, it is about subscriptions at this point. This deal really allows us to seamlessly move into [having a] subscription service, without it being a huge risk for us."

If WWN had jumped headfirst into launching its own subscription service, it would, in Sapolsky's words, "have had to increase our viewership a great deal" to equal internet pay-per-view revenues. "Maybe we would have had 10,000 subscribers, maybe we would have had 1,000. But we're not faced with that pressure right now," he added. Sapolsky is confident that the FloSports machine will provide the promotion that WWN wouldn't be able to get on its own.

Reception from wrestling fans has been mixed so far, largely due to launching with just WWN and the price, which is the same as the other Flo services. Month to month subscriptions are $20, while FloPro, which gets you access to all of Flo's streaming services, is a $150 annual lump sum.

If you already get all of Evolve's shows, which start at $10, it's a push at worst. The question is if it's too much for new fans who are just used to paying WWE $9.99 a month, at least right now.

The announcement also impacts other growing players in the wrestling subscription space. Adam Lash of Powerbomb TV, which has yet to launch, offers a different approach. "It's a truly independent service that aims to give independent promotions and wrestlers from around the world a platform to build their names and generate revenue," Lash told Motherboard. "We're truly, 100 percent independent, all of us involved have been a part of indie wrestling for years and years, and most importantly we care about independent wrestling and it's long term health and growth."

FloSlam's launch could also throw a monkey wrench into the booming business of independent wrestling-themed channels on PivotShare, which makes it easy to launch your own subscription video on demand service (but no live streaming) with a Roku Channel. While most are run by independent promotions themselves, one, Highspots Wrestling Network, features a mix of content from numerous sources, both produced in-house and licensed. An extension of their previous web-based Highspots.tv service, the first wrestling-based subscription streaming platform, which ran for seven years. It's the closest thing to a direct competitor to FloSlam... except for one key thing. Due to PivotShare's limitations, it doesn't offer live streaming, though Highspots also does live internet pay-per-view on its own website.

"I don't know if they're a competitor or not," Highspots founder Michael Bochicchio told Motherboard, referring to FloSlam. "I will tell you that it's very difficult for people within our industry, and I think I'm one of the bigger players within it, to do what Flo is asking anybody to do, which is deliver live content. A lot have people have tried it, [and] delivering live content is a big challenge."

It's not a secret that, for a long time, internet pay-per-view was a dirty word in wrestling due to technical issues that a number of companies had. According to Bochicchio, the source of the most hiccups is one that doesn't apply to FloSports' other genres. "It's very difficult to get a dedicated internet line at the type of venues, that professional wrestling [promotions], at least on the independent level, run." Why? They tend to only have one hardwired connection, and usually, it's occupied by their point of sale devices. "So when someone goes and buys a beer, or some nachos, or whatever, you see a dip in the speed of the internet, and that affects the stream. So when people see dips [in quality], that's why they occur."

The future looks brighter than it's been in a long time for non-WWE wrestling companies. There's more quality talent than ever, WWE is acknowledging the independent scene more and more, and now, there are more options for monetizing their content. The question is just what it will take to get the average fan who just knows about WWE Network to buy it.