Only a torn triceps could keep John Cena from being an active wrestler. There are very few injuries in professional wrestling that would keep a man like him out of action for weeks, let alone months. There he was on Twitter, right after his surgery with Dr. James Andrews, showing up an Incredible Hulk size cast on his arm. Doctor’s advice appears to be six months of time off, which would peg Cena’s return for the Elimination Chamber or Wrestlemania show(s).
Of course, that’s probably not going to happen. His return may get rushed as soon as January for the Royal Rumble. The pressure is on. WWE needs him on television for ratings. He’s their most reliable crutch. He’s also their biggest merchandise driver. For Cena, he won’t be able to stand not being on camera every single week. The crowds are addicting. The money is huge. The clock is ticking on how many years he has left in his active in-ring career.
Ask Randy Orton all about this.
Orton, who according to recent news reports related to his divorce, allegedly makes a healthy six figures each week to wrestle. Name me a job that a pro-wrestler can find where that kind of cash flow exists. Only someone like John Layfield can figure out how to pull that off. The rest of the boys? Not so much. Despite the fact that Orton has only been around for a decade, it feels like his stint has been nearly a generation. With the advent of weekly live telecasts for WWE, the stakes have become so much higher for the wrestlers to hang around even when they need some time off from the road to recover from injuries and refresh the value of their characters.
Only Acts of God or acts of the human body, like Achilles, can stop the circus from continuing.
With RAW going from two to three hours each week, there is even more pressure on the wrestlers to not only show up but deliver each and every match. Throw in the house shows and you’re talking four days a week, 16 days a month, and nearly 200 days a year. And most of the wrestlers would tell you it’s absolutely worth it because where else are they going to live out their dreams and find that kind of cash flow.
However, there is also a crazy imbalance at play here. It’s not just an imbalance when it comes to personal lives, which often get completely blurred because so many wrestlers end up hooking up with each other. When you spend as much time on the road as they do, naturally you migrate towards those who you spend the most time with and also those who have the best understanding of the business you work in. But even with those factors rolled into the equation, the infidelity rate amongst people in pro-wrestling is super-high and many wrestlers lose their ass financially when it comes to breaking up with Cupid and paying a visit to divorce & family court.
Is there a way to extend the longevity of wrestlers by changing the way wrestling is produced? Outside of Elon Musk coming through with his plans of a Hyperloop to change the way we travel, the only answer so far in the wrestling business is the tour series system. New Japan Pro-Wrestling is the biggest promotion that uses such a system… but they have a lot of reasons for using it. One, Japan is a small country in terms of travel. Two, they tape a lot of television and thus aren’t under the pressure of being live week after week. Three, the country is dominated by the broadcast networks and less so by cable, which means a lot of what you can do on television is often already pre-determined. You know your limits. That’s not to say that New Japan isn’t a company with a global potential. After all, they will attempt to export their product in markets such as Singapore in the near future. The issue is that New Japan is largely a Japanese operation whereas WWE physically runs shows all over the world. WWE has no reason to embrace a tour system, even if it means going through wrestlers at a startling rate due to burnout. Burnout is no match for Vince McMahon’s empire. Even with special deals cut for guys like Chris Jericho & Rob Van Dam, Vince isn’t going to push wrestlers at the top of the cards if they aren’t available for him on a whim 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
How much of a financial hindrance would a tour/seasonal system be for a company like WWE? Despite having a big year in Japan, New Japan’s revenues are about 10% of that WWE generates. The financial gap between number one and number two is incredible.
For WWE, the idea of a tour system where you have weeks of time off in between shows or the concept of having seasonal wrestling is never going to happen because their promotional machine demands constant activity. However, the idea of a tour system or a seasonal format does come into play for alternatives to WWE in the promotional landscape. In fact, it should be a tremendous sales pitch. Unfortunately, it’s not a pitch you see made much in the States. TNA is attempting to run house shows, albeit not on the same voluminous level as WWE, every week — but many of the shows are in small markets, lose cash flow, and put wrestlers under stress.
Believe it or not, longevity actually can be used as a marketing pitch for whatever promotion in the future wants to be competition to WWE. Look at WCW. Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and countless others never would have extended their careers if it wasn’t for the NWO angle. WCW not only paid well, they also gave the wrestlers plenty of perks like time off and health insurance. We probably won’t see a WCW-level competitor to WWE in the near future, but promoters who are attempting to become mid-majors in the States are going to have to address ways of appealing to wrestlers that they are the place where they can be assured of career stability while providing more incentives that will encourage revitalization.
Who will step up to the plate — and with what kind of solution?