Monday, April 24, 2006

ECW - Why now?

ECW: Why Now?
By Zip Whittle of indeedwrestling.com (indeedwrestling@gmail.com)

Surprising news broke on Sunday, April 23 2006 that the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) brand is being resurrected as a fulltime product as part of the Vince McMahon wrestling empire. There has been plenty of talk in the past, but this development was much more than just idle chatter. Stories have been circulating that as early as last week, some former ECW stars were offered a one-year deal (with options for two more one-year extensions) for this new brand. Most importantly, head honcho and evil genius Paul Heyman had signed on to the project as head of ECW Creative. He is expected to head a team along with Tommy Dreamer and Ed Koskey (current RAW writer and former ECW fan).

Dave Meltzer, Bryan Alverez and websites such as Pro Wrestling Insider have been reporting that the ECW brand name would return for “merchandising purposes as well as some form of weekly television and house shows.” The latest news suggests that WWE will be sitting down with USA Network this week to pitch the show for a timeslot. It’s believed they are aiming for a weekend timeslot. One imagines that it would preferably be late at night. If they are unable to get another timeslot for a new show (WWE have been decreasing programming since leaving Spike having lost both Heat & Velocity in the past two years and only has a few syndicated shows mostly playing in international markets), they could replace a show like “AM RAW” (which plays 9 am and 2 am on Saturdays). As a last resort, the brand could be relegated to internet-only “television” though that would seriously impact the brand’s ability to create a real resurgence. Allegedly, the talent would be a mix of “former ECW wrestlers and new WWE development wrestlers”. As it currently stands, one of the most controversial ideas is to simply hold ECW television tapings prior Smackdown or RAW events instead of adding a third day of television. Some have likened this to the WWF “Los Superastros” television show that was shown on Spanish Language stations such as Univision in the late 90s.

This is the information that is currently available. A host of questions have been raised including:

• What happens with WWE developmental? Currently, there are two groups: OVW (Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, KY) and DSW (Deep South Wrestling in Atlanta, GA).
DSW: Deep South Wrestling has a bad reputation. It’s owned by the former director of the WCW Power Plant, Jody Hamilton and run under the auspices of lead trainer Bill “General Hugh E. Rection/Hugh Morrus” DeMott. The group has been described numerous times as “a mess” though it continues to run shows. The first show was held on September 1, 2005. They continue to hold weekly shows on Thursday nights in McDonough, GA. Many aspiring developmental talents opt to get moved to OVW if possible. It’s expected that if the ECW brand is resurrected, DSW will probably be on the chopping block with talent being reshuffled between the remaining company resources or simply cut.
OVW: Paul Heyman is currently in charge of OVW. After Jim Cornette was removed by the WWE in July 2005 (following a number of incidents including a confrontation with Kevin Fertig and Johnny Geo Basco), Al Snow & Tommy Dreamer had short runs in charge of the federation. If Paul Heyman truly takes on the ECW brand fulltime (as he would be expected to do), he’s expected to leave OVW. The federation could be shut down as a WWE affiliated developmental. (That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the federation. Danny Davis and partners still own it.) If the federation continues, who would take over in creative? Al Snow might return to power. Lance Storm, the former trainer in OVW, would have been a strong choice but he left the group after his WWE contract ended on July 7, 2005. If DSW does shut down, it’s possible that someone like one of the trainers such as Bill DeMott would move to OVW. Alternately, someone like Jim Cornette might make a triumphant return as booker, though this is an unlikely or at least hugely speculative scenario.

• Does it work to tape ECW alongside RAW or Smackdown?
As is the honest answer to all of these questions: that remains to be seen.
However, in short, the idea does seem a poor fit. The ECW atmosphere – violent, bloody matches, original but unorthodox production values, minimal sets and maximum attitude – seems like it would clash with the elaborate pyro, giant stages and carefully scripted nature of RAW and Smackdown shows. When WWE revived ECW for their ONE NIGHT STAND PPV last year, they had the luxury of performing in a separate venue (Hammerstein Ballroom) re-using a small location that had been established back when ECW first lived. An important part of the ECW appeal lies in the intimate settings and interactions with the personal crowd. It doesn’t seem like the large arenas with the elaborate sets and staging for RAW & Smackdown would be a good fit. However, current plans call for exactly this. Thus, we should consider the advantages:
a/ Roster travels together, at least to television. Rivalries (and differences in locker room etiquette) between the RAW and Smackdown brand have grown up partially because the two brands rarely share a single space. They tend to tour separately and only see one another every few months during either a supershow (double taping) or combined major PPVs. Keeping everyone under one umbrella (TEAM WWE) is probably a good idea if they don’t want to have the ECW brand treated a second-rate or minor league.
b/ Developmental Talent would have the ability to mix with the established talent. Ideally, a wrestler gets their educated on the road, in front of live crowds and not only performing but watching others perform. Being at the main shows would be an excellent environment for new talent to learn the ropes and see many different facets of the wrestling environment.
c/ Preferably, writers and creative talent would be exposed to wrestlers as they improved. One major compliant about the current developmental system is that not only do inexperienced wrestlers often get called up solely on look (but not wrestling ability) but also they are given complete makeovers. One hopes that by keeping developmental closer to the creative teams means that both groups are able to give feedback to each other so the wrestlers can develop into the best possible attractions. However, this is quite an optimistic attitude considering just recently a person like Frankie Kazarian quit after realizing that writers had no clue who he was despite being on Velocity for several months.
d/ The demand for the ECW product (and former ECW stars) might be strong enough where taping at the large television venues creates an atmosphere where you have thousands of people at the television tapings and an intimate feeling at the smaller house shows. ECW might create a good reason to attend a houseshow. In many ways, that’s one area where RAW & Smackdown brands really fail – they don’t create a compelling reason to see the action live unless it’s a televised event.
e/ Merchandising – more people = more money. Being able to sell tons of ECW merchandise to a bigger crowd is always a good thing.

• Where does ECW fit into the house show/PPV business model?
Domestically, House Show business is up. While overall WWE PPV buyrates are holding strong, when you strictly consider North American buys, the bottom has really fallen out. International business is contributing growing percentages of PPV buys and strong touring houses (on the whole) to the WWE coffers. However, in the USA and Canada, the story is really MMA promotions (domestically categorized by UFC) that have been drawing phenomenal gates and stellar PPV buyrates.
While the television taping aspect remains to be worked out, the question rises whether ECW would work as a touring brand by itself. After the nostalgia PPVs held last year (Hardcore Homecoming and ECW ONS), there was lots of talks of hitting major ECW hotbeds with a crew of wrestlers. Those involved with the Hardcore Homecoming show did launch a short ill-fated “ECW Reunion Tour” (not officially called that but generally recognized as such) went on to hit some old ECW markets while other shows in places like New York were advertised but subsequently pulled. These tours did okay but not amazing business. However, in the end there was a lot of talk and very few shows. The resources for putting together tours like these aren’t easy. In this way, WWE would have a very strong advantage (with their deep pockets) over competitors trying similar ideas. In addition, WWE would be well-leveraged to consider international tours (Japan and Europe) where the gospel of ECW has grown much larger than even when it was an active promotion. The question is whether increasing international touring would ultimately weaken the uniqueness of professional wrestling as a draw overseas and hurt one of the last markets that have been so strongly supporting WWE. It’s expected that ECW would also have the luxury of PPVs (hopefully more like quarterly). Would these ECW PPVs cut into branded (RAW or Smackdown-only) PPV revenues? Would ECW be included in Wrestlemania? These questions remain to be seen.
The latest from Meltzer (4/26/06) reports: “WWE is looking at booking house shows in the buildings ECW use to run in Philadelphia (looking at 6/24 at the ECW Arena), Detroit, Chicago, Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, Cleveland, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Hammerstein Ballroom in New York for more events, Tampa, Long Island, throughout New Jersey and in Pittsburgh.”

• What are the disadvantages and advantages of this being under the WWE empire?
As previously mentioned, the media and financial resources of the WWE is an immense asset to ECW. WWE is going to the bat with USA for a television deal. ECW nearly had a USA deal in the past though when that fell through, they moved to TNN (the predecessor to SpikeTV). It’s also important to note that while remembered fondly, ECW never really made money. It wasn’t a rating hit and drew very few large houses that were honestly sold-out. However, that isn’t to say ECW had no impact on professional wrestling in the 1990s. Rather, it had an enormous impact and that legacy: part nostalgia and part influence is still felt strongly today. Paul Heyman is the position of creative genius without also having his fingers near the purse strings is a good thing. If he’s truly inspired to keep working in professional wrestling, this could be the opportunity he’s always dreamed of- creative power, major media exposure, deep money backer. However, Jim Cornette probably felt the same way about his OVW opportunity and eventually the rug was pulled out from underneath him.
If ECW talent is signing these three-year contracts, it’s likely they would also be part of the WWE “wellness” program. Can aging stars perform the violent and bloody style, while maintaining a healthy drug-free lifestyle? Would WWE just cast a blind eye on the group? One imagines that failure to address this question would further bring the entire policy into more question?
There is always the issue of politics in wrestling. In this case, it’s obvious that certain factions in WWE are very for the project while others are very much against it. It’s rumored that the McMahon(-Helmsley) family itself is split on the idea. No idea could be green lighted this far without the approval of Vincent K. McMahon. On the opposite side, I would postulate the people such as Steph McMahon and HHH are very much against the idea of bringing back the ECW brand.
There has been a large amount of media released in the past two years concerning ECW. There is at least three books (Scott Williams’ “The Extremely Unauthorized story of ECW” is already out, John Lister’s “Turning the Tables” and the upcoming WWE-endorsed work by Thom Loverro “Rise & Fall of ECW”), two major documentary DVDs (WWE’s “Rise & Fall of ECW” and “Forever Hardcore”) and two major shows (WWE’s “ECW: One Night Stand” and “Hardcore Homecoming”). With the upcoming PPV in June, perhaps immediately following this will be the best time to launch the ECW brand. Last year, WWE was roundly criticized for not only showing little faith in the ECW product by adding a WWE feud to the storyline but also failing to piggyback on momentum from the PPV the next night, virtually ignoring all the events on RAW that following day. However, it sounds like the timetable for a permanent and active ECW brand is accelerating. Meltzer reports that arenas are already being contacted for July 2006. Originally, things sounded more they would begin in the Fall following the August Summerslam PPV in Boston, MA.
One major advantage of being part of the WWE umbrella is the media division. WWE releases DVDs within one of major PPVs now. UFC and TNA take 3-6 months to complete the same task. Similarly, WWE has been expanding its magazine division to a possible third brand that could be devoted to ECW coverage. In addition, WWE has their 24/7 network, already owns the ECW Video Library, has distribution deals with cable networks around the world and an established brand name associated with professional wrestling.
In terms of major ECW talent, the roster is split between the indies, WWE and TNA. In WWE there are people such as Rob Van Dam, Mick Foley, Taz(z), Heyman, Stevie Richards, Tommy Dreamer and Nunzio (along with visitors such as Rey Mysterio, Dean Malenko, Chris Benoit, Psychosis, Super Crazy, Vito and others). However, only RVD, Nunzio and Richards are really active wrestlers at this point. In TNA, there are the Dudleyz (Bubba Ray and D-Von under contract with Spike making appearances), Rhyno (also probably tied in TNA contract), Jerry Lynn (working backstage as an agent, interested in ECW), Sabu (who has finished his TNA engagements and signed with WWE). On the indies or partially retired include Mike Awesome, Lance Storm, Tajiri (working in Japan though expected back for ECW ONS), Terry Funk (also expected for ONS), Steve Corino (working largely in Japan and World-1), and others like CW Anderson, Ball Mahoney (reported already signed), Sandman (reportedly signed), Francine (reportedly signed), Blue Meanie and Justin Credible (reportedly signed) floating around the indy scene. Of course, two major players in the ECW adventure are Paul Heyman and announcer Joey Styles – both part of the WWE family. One assumes (though it has not been officially announced) that Styles would be announcing this new incarnation.
One notion that has been brought up is that this new ECW would incorporate WWE developmental talent. Most notably, I would expect CM Punk, a Heyman pet project in OVW to make the transition into ECW. This is especially interesting because if WWE essentially puts developmental talent on television, it makes it much harder for them to ignore those storylines and characters when they call up talent to the “main” rosters. In the past, this has been an infuriating and mind-boggling process for OVW bookers as their top talent would get called up and immediately changed with virtually no warning.

• Will it work?
All, the $25,000 question. Actually, the failure or success of the WWE relaunch of ECW will cost a hell of a lot more than that! To get wrestlers to sign contracts with a one-year minimum on them, to create the marketing promotion behind the movement, to relocate talent, reallocate resources and most importantly – create a new television show and a successful tour – this will be an expensive endeavor. Consider TNA’s “success”: three years running, somewhere between $20 and $30 million spent.

Some people have suggested storylines like RVD winning the WWE title from John Cena at the ECW One Night Stand 2006 and throwing it down ala Shane Douglas/NWA/ECW 1994 incident. Others have joked about ECW becoming ENTERTAINMENT CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING. The real question remains: can you bring back this environment and this atmosphere? Some argue that ECW was a revolution or at least a passing fad. Wrestling has definitely evolved in the past decade – growing fat on the backs of the Monday Night wars, the Rock/Austin years, the sale of WCW, the crash after the Invasion angle, wrestling jumping networks, the rise and fall and rise again of MMA, the birth of a competitor in TNA, and this latest, and this most recent upswing in professional wrestling. In honesty, ECW cannot survive by simply living on the past. The original stars are retired (Taz), not likely to rejoin a WWE-version of ECW (Shane Douglas), otherwise employed (Dudleyz) and passed away (Chris Candido). Still, ECW was an attitude. It was about exposing people to new forms of wrestling (i.e. bringing in luchadores, adapting the Japanese garbage style of FMW) as well as being the grounds for fresh faces and people looking for a second chance to prove themselves. Perhaps we’ll see some of the stars of ROH who haven’t made a splash in TNA get a shot in this new, developmental league of ECW. Perhaps we’ll see the reintroduction of different body types, different hair lengths, and different wrestling styles into the WWE family. It’s a new world out there. WWE should recognize that it can’t continue to coast domestically using the same product that is losing fans and failing to connect to the new generation. Perhaps bringing back the ECW name with a mix of established and new talent will give the momentum required to reinvigorate it’s product. Then again, in a federation full of reprisals of successful angles (nWo, possibly DX) – could this just be the latest incarnation of the Horsemen - one that the public doesn’t actually plan on paying to see? Time will tell.

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