OP-ED: TNA Should Take Impact on the Road

Your first thought when clicking on the link to this post may have been "who is this guy, and why does he think he can have an informed opinon on TNA?" Since this is my first post here on GeekWeek I'll do my best to answer those questions before moving on to the topic at hand. My name is Vince Berry and I am a graduate of the University of Hartford with a BA in Media & Journalism. Currently I am attempting my MFA in Communication (Media Studies) and am a graduate assistant.

As I tell the students in my Intro to Communication course establishing credibility is essential in both writing and public speaking. It answers the "why" question I posed above. For the past few years I have been working with Northeast Wrestling, one of the largest non-televised wrestling promotions in the US. Employment with NEW has afforded me the opportunity to work with wrestlers such as Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Mick Foley, Jeff Hardy, Scott Steiner, Samoa Joe, and many more. My duties with NEW are ring announcer, backstage interviewer, promo/commercial producer and editor, promotions, and general go'fer. Being involved on many levels has allowed me a unique perspective that most of the viewing audience isn't privy to.

That being said, I think I've spend enough time on the road, working with top-tier talent, and corresponding with upper-management to offer my take on TNA's current situation. I've been enjoying the TNA product since their days on Fox Sports Net but have always felt that one thing was really holding them back: The Impact Zone. It's been the home of some classic matches (Joe vs. AJ. vs. Daniels comes to mind immediately) and a staple of TNA programming since its move to cable television, but I've always felt that TNA would make a bigger impact (excuse the pun) if they took their tapings on the road. I believe it is both financially feasible and in the best interest for the future of TNA Wrestling if they were to make this move with Impact.

Dollars and Cents

One argument I've heard in interviews with Dixie Carter and others in TNA is that taping Impact from different cities is not financially feasible for the company. I don't believe that is true. With TNA's history of financial risks I think they should have been able to make room in the budget for travel years ago. Big ticket acquisitions like Sting, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Jeff Hardy, and Rob Van Dam coupled with their multiple timeslot moves (which are a significant risk) indicate to me that they should have enough in their coffers to at least make an attempt. As it stands, they have house show loops every month and adding a production crew to one of those proceedings every week or two should not put TNA in dire financial straits.

While WWE is a much bigger company, let's briefly look at their touring setup. About two years ago (pre-HD set) I spoke to a WWE truck driver. She said it took three 18-wheelers to deliver all of the equipment needed for a television taping. Being a smaller company with a less intricate set TNA would need less trucks to haul their equipment. Considering that TNA rents the ring from local promoters during their house show loops all they would need in the trucks would be the staging, lights, and production equipment. But the size of a company is not relative to their ability to go on the road.

Ring of Honor has been on the cutting edge of production technology since their inception. Starting with DVDs of most of their events they have been successful enough to move on to television tapings for HDNet and pay-per-views that stream online. ROH has a much smaller budget than TNA but still has a set, lighting, and production equipment available for all of their events. TNA could copy that formula and add significantly to the production quality in regards to staging and overall graphic design.

A low-risk scenario would see TNA adding one truck of production equipment and a small staff to one house show every two weeks to make it an Impact taping. Since most of their top name talent (Hardy, RVD, all/most of Fortune, MCMG, etc.) are already on the road there wouldn't need to be a drastic change in the roster. The event could still be post-produced (editing, voice-overs, graphics) in their studio, which would leave a number of the crew off the road and by extension save them on salary and travel expenses.

Financially speaking, television tapings could see an increase in their live show attendance. The WWE Fan Appreciation event was held at the XL Center (formerly the Civic Center) in Hartford this weekend. This is a fairly large venue that has been sold out for several WWF/E shows (Survivor Series, No Way Out, several Raw tapings, and more) but had trouble selling tickets for this non-televised event. Tickets were slashed to $10 in order to draw a sufficient crowd and some attendees, like myself, were given free tickets. The bottom line is people will be more apt to attend a wrestling show if they know it's going to be on television. My bet would be that these "converted" house shows would exceed TNA's house show average by several hundred people and would only serve to strengthen the attendance at TNA live events over time.

Getting Over

Watching TNA for several years I've come to realize it is fairly hard to get over as a performer in the Impact Zone. The core group of fans (The Pit) are extremely critical and can often bury a character on its first night out. To prove this theory I am going to tell you a story about one of TNA's newest employees: Robbie E.

For those of you not familiar with his independent work, Robbie E started out as Rob Eckos. His nicknames on the independent scene were "The Knight Rider" and later "The Platinum Poppa." You may have seen him work Kofi Kingston on ECW or playing a security guard for WWE on numerous occasions. Rob has been working for NEW longer than I have and had been a mainstay by the time I came on board. He always had the "TV look" and was a good hand in the ring, but never really had a character that got over with the crowd. "The Platinum Poppa" gimmick, in which he was a huge music star in Western Europe but unknown in the US, was his springboard to notoriety. This character allowed him to come out of his shell and really excel as a performer.

Rob was signed to TNA after a tryout match this summer and none of the NEW crew really got to see him until our fall tour kicked off. There were many congratulations exchanged and discussions about the future of his new Robbie E character. At this point he had worked two TNA house shows against Rhino (one featuring Mick Foley as ref) and it seemed that the gimmick was really taking off. And indeed, as I announced him for his match in Waterbury, CT the crowd was excited to see him. He played a good heel to Carlito's babyface and the crowd went nuts when Cookie got the apple spitting gimmick to the face.

The next night saw similar results. We were in Liberty, NY and Robbie E was in a match with Tommy Dreamer. Again Rob and Becky (Cookie) got heat on themselves, the crowd really on them for being "Jersey Shore wannabes," and the crowd popped for Tommy getting the victory. But there's a slight problem.

This gimmick did not translate to the Impact Zone at all. The Pit got all over the duo in a bad way, chanting "boring" and "who are you?" from the second they stepped into the ring. They were never given a fair shake to get over. I have two theories as to why this occurred and they both end with the conclusion "the Impact Zone audience doesn't get it."

First, with TNA constantly taping in Florida they are a very regional promotion. They're in Southern "rasslin" territory and they know it. Remember when AJ Styles took Karen Angle on a date to Gator World? My point is, it's possible these Southern fans don't get the gimmick. Up here in the Northeast the Jersey Shore show, and by extension Robbie E and Cookie, are way over. People either love or hate the people on that show, and it's translated really well to the wrestling crowds.

Second, it's possible that The Pit just doesn't keep up with popular culture. It could be that they're so wrapped up in TNA, WWE, and other wrestling that they aren't aware of what's hip or cool or popular. I can honestly tell you I've never watched a single episode of the Jersey Shore yet I know about GTL, Snookie getting punched in the face, and fist pumping. It's that pervasive in pop culture.

If either of these theories are even close to being true then moving the show from city to city, region to region, would help the characters in TNA get over as they are intended. AJ Styles is intended to be the biggest heel in TNA, yet the Impact Zone crowd cheers for him because of his history in the building. If the show was taken on the road then he would get legitimate heel heat from the crowd that would translate to the television audience more effectively.

Christmas Every Day

Speaking of getting over, have you noticed the pattern with all the top-tier talent that TNA has brought in over the years? Christian, Kurt Angle, Team 3D, Hulk Hogan, and Jeff Hardy all have something in common. They were pushed to the moon as babyfaces, couldn't get over, and eventually had to turn heel to keep interest. Of course it's expected that a character turn every now and again to keep things fresh, but the constant flip-flopping tells me that things weren't going as planned. I'm attributing this to what I call the "Christmas Every Day" theory.

The Impact Zone crowd has come to expect big name signings from TNA, especially if the person has been recently released from WWE. They're no longer anticipating or hoping, they feel like they're entitled to see these stars. So the initial pop for them is huge, but each successive appearance by them becomes less and less special. It's like having Christmas every day, eventually getting presents isn't such a big deal.

Sporradic appearances by top-tier talent helps to drive both ticket sales and audience interest. To again call back to my past experience I have been ringside for post-WWE matches for (among others) Jeff Hardy and Mickie James.

When Jeff wrestled in Newburgh, NY this spring the roof nearly came off the building. Over 2,000 people came to a high school gymnasium to see him wrestle. For comparison, TNA's Bound for Glory PPV drew an estimated 3,000 or so fans with a loaded roster.

I was also ringside for Mickie James' matches in Waterbury, CT and Liberty, NY and her crowd reaction was similar to Jeff's. Ask Shelton Benjamin how pissed he was when she killed the crowd for him two nights in a row. They were so excited to see Mickie that most fans didn't care about the main events, which both involved "name" talent (Shelton vs. Daniel Bryan, Shelton vs. Carlito). But in the Impact Zone she's just another Knockout, because the fans expected TNA to sign her.

It's my estimation that if TNA were to move out of Florida their attendance would see a significant increase. As it is they can only fit around 500 people into the Impact Zone and a good number of them see these stars every single week. They're burned out, they're jaded. Their reactions aren't what TNA management wants and it's reflected every week on Impact. Moving Impact to new towns would give TNA a real chance at getting the crowd reactions they want.

To Get Where You're Going, Act Like You're Already There

For all the positives about TNA (the talent, the production quality) their Impact Zone presentations look very low rent. The staging and the ring have always looked professional, but when the camera pans back you see that it's a soundstage that holds 500 people. Now that they're in HD, if you look closely you can see a lot of people in the crowd tuned-out when someone is cutting a promo.

There's also the issue of seeing the same fans every week. I remember for years there was a guy sitting dead center in the Impact Zone that would swing towels plugging Jimmy Hart's "Mouth of the South" energy drink. Nowadays I constantly see the guy with the beard and white sunglasses who does this arm/finger waving gimmick to try and get himself over. If I'm seeing these guys so frequently it reminds me of TNA's stagnant situation in Florida.

Different venues and changing/bigger crowds would make their episodes look that much more polished and professional. The camera crew is doing a great job at making the Impact Zone look bigger than it is, but there's only so much they can do. Having a static location for television tapings makes the event seem less special. A fan can go see a TNA show any time you want by going to Universal Studios but I remember a big part of being a wrestling fan as a kid was watching that "Upcoming Events" commercial and hoping a town nearby was on it. Wrestling is like a circus or a rock concert, it's special because it comes to town for one night only and leaves. If TNA can capture some of that mystique it will positively effect this reputation among their audience and potential audience which can lead to increased attendance, merchandise sales, PPV buys, and ratings.

If it seems like I'm treating wrestling in a manner than focuses only on money I'd like to remind everyone that wrestling is a business. Telling a story and entertaining fans is great, but it all comes down to the financial bottom line. I'm sure WWE writers would love to put together an intricate storyline like the old Mankind/Shawn Michaels "Mind Games" program, but they're making so much money putting John Cena vs. Bad Guy of the Month that they don't need to take that risk.

Working with NEW I've seen talent come and go, most of the time because they're not a draw. Even if you're some independent guy that was picked up to put someone over, if you're not selling tickets you're not getting booked again. Being on the inside I'm constantly reminded that wrestling is a business and you should always strive to turn a profit. Having a good match and reaching out to the fans is all part of the business, but again they are a means to an end.

I hope that you, the reader, will take this information and think about it as you watch wrestling on television. By providing this behind-the-scenes perspective to you I want you to both watch and think critically about the TNA product, and by extension all the wrestling you consume. I am skeptical that this post will enact any change on the overall TNA product, but if even one person in the company reads what I had to say I'll consider my first post to GeekWeek a success. If even one person in general walks away from their computer feeling more informed about this subject I'll consider it an even bigger success.

My purpose is to utilize my knowledge and experience, as limited as it may be compared to some on GeekWeek (like Helms), to better inform you about the world of wrestling. Media critcism is one of the foci of my graduate studies and I encourage everyone to watch television with a more critical eye. Discourse and debate can propagate change, even at the smallest level. I'll continue to provide my perspective on wrestling as long as GeekWeek affords me the opportunity and I hope you enjoyed my first attempt.

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