Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Kit MacFarlane, Lecturer, Creative Writing and Literature, University of South Australia
Professional wrestling may seem to exist on the fringes of mainstream pop culture, but it has a bigger cultural bootprint locally and internationally than many people might realise. A long-established performance art, wrestling moved onto screens in the early days of television and is still big business for TV, live events and streaming.
A company like WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has the economic clout to have cities bidding for the right to hold major events. Its ongoing partnership with Saudi Arabia has also led to serious concerns about the company aiding Saudi Arabia in “sportswashing” human rights abuses.
Perth is the latest city with a connection to WWE – a major show is set to be held in its 60,000-seat Optus Arena and streamed internationally after negotiations with the WA government. Government partnerships like this seemingly reduce or remove financial risks for organisations such as WWE while allowing governments to promote tourism benefits.
Right now, pro wrestling is breaking its audience and ticket revenue records and there’s no indication that its presence as a pop culture staple is going to diminish any time soon. This makes wrestling an important part of pop culture discussions that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Breaking recordsEarlier this year, All Elite Wrestling (AEW), a US-based wrestling promotion founded in 2019, announced that its All In show would be held at Wembley Stadium in August. Fans and the wrestling media immediately began speculating about how many people would actually show up to see a relatively new wrestling company in the UK’s largest (and Europe’s second largest) stadium.
That number was announced triumphantly at the show as 81,305 people (live paid attendance) from more than 70 countries filled the stadium. It was reportedly a new paid attendance record for professional wrestling.
It followed hot on the heels of WWE announcing its own record-setting gate numbers for its two-night event Wrestlemania 40 next year.
WWE reported that in one day it surpassed its previous record gate of US$21.6 million (A$33.5 million) for the two-night Wrestlemania 39.
What do these numbers actually mean?
With all the focus on numbers, whether AEW’s 2023 All In event was actually pro wrestling’s largest event has led to considerable fan debate.
There are likely bigger numbers in the past, such as a controversial 1995 show in North Korea, where the crowd may have been required by the government to attend, or a 1933 event in Athens where Jim Londos faced Kola Kwariani.
WWE has actually announced previous attendance figures well above AEW’s announced number, such as 93,173 for 1987’s Wrestlemania III (featuring Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant) and 101,762 for 2016’s Wrestlemania 32 (featuring Triple H vs Roman Reigns).
While these events drew crowds among the highest in wrestling history, the numbers that WWE announces at their shows are broadly recognised as being “for entertainment purposes only” – which is a polite way of saying they’re made up.
There was so much interest in AEW’s announced numbers (and whether or not All In 2023 was really the largest pro wrestling event in history), a Freedom of Information request was lodged with Brent Borough Council.
This brought the response that:
actual numbers registered entering the Stadium through the turnstiles was 72,265 […] reflective of what attended on the night and not the total number of tickets sold or no-shows.
Exactly what wrestling record AEW has a claim to remains hotly contested by fans.
Do these records matter?
However reliable or relevant the numbers may be, AEW’s Wembley show is still likely to create some ripples. AEW has already announced their return to Wembley in 2024.
The fact a new attendance record was widely accepted as being from a relatively new company isn’t likely to be overlooked by sports entertainment behemoth WWE. WWE has responded strongly to competitors in the past and is currently facing an anti-trust lawsuit by a smaller wrestling promotion company, which accuses WWE of “monopolistic actions and anti-competitive conduct, as well as antitrust injury”.
While AEW’s Wembley success (record-breaking or not) might be a sign that it represents a real competitor in the world of professional wrestling, the relatively new company still has a long way to go before it has the cultural footprint and financial rights deals of WWE. AEW’s primary US TV ratings and attendance levels also have a way to go.
What does it mean for fans?
How much these records mean really depends a lot on how you find value in culture. Certainly, pop culture fans on social media can often find themselves in a state of tension between evaluating art and culture on a personal level (do I enjoy it?) and being attuned to its business performance and success as a commercial product (do other people enjoy it?).
Pro wrestling can encourage fans to focus on business. WWE’s self-written history regularly focuses on its victory in a 1990s-2000s TV ratings “war” that saw the end (and WWE takeover) of rival company WCW (World Championship Wrestling).
For some fans, records, ratings and numbers can be signs of wrestling’s overall cultural health. For others, they can be ammunition in another perceived ratings “war”. Resources such as Wrestlenomics and Wrestletix allow fans access to this type of ongoing information.
Wrestling probably isn’t going anywhere.
Pro wrestling was a key part of early television and remains a strong, if often overlooked, presence in the pop culture TV and streaming landscape today. Up ahead, there are also some big-name movies on the way, in production and rumoured.
With governments actively seeking corporate connections for local economic boosts, the need for ongoing scrutiny from the media into a powerful and scandal-ridden, but often-ignored, industry becomes even more pressing.
Whether we’re talking about art and “acts of creativity”, business, the importance of representation, moments that have an impact, or finding ways to hold some of the media’s deeply concerning powerbrokers and cultures to account, there are plenty of reasons to make sure pro wrestling is part of any discussions about the modern pop culture landscape.
Kit MacFarlane does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
– ref. Smashing records (and chairs): why pro wrestling is having a moment both in Australia and overseas – https://theconversation.com/smashing-records-and-chairs-why-pro-wrestling-is-having-a-moment-both-in-australia-and-overseas-212786