Friday, July 11, 2014

Ryan Carse's Dissertation: "Is Professional Wrestling Coverage a Form of Journalism?"

While I've been producing Wrestlenomics Radio episodes, one thing I've consistently sought out is people who've written academic research and detailed pieces about professional wrestling. This has included John Lister on ECW and British Wrestling, Bryan Alvarez on the Death of WCW, Paul Fontaine on calculating MMA Draws, Matthew Timmons on Kayfabemetrics, David Bixenspan on the myriad of Ultimate Warrior Lawsuits, Matt Farmer on Biggest Draws in History and History of Portland Wrestling and Brandon Quinn on his UFC Buys Thesis (among many others).

After my most recent show (with the excellent Dylan Hales), a listener from Dublin tweeted me a link to an interesting piece by Ryan Carse. It was Carse's Journalism dissertation at the University of Chester on the topic, "IS PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING COVERAGE A FORM OF JOURNALISM?" which was completed in April 2014. I was intrigued.

Today I finally had a chance to sit down and read the whole piece. I think it raises some interesting questions and presents some fascinating findings.  Here's a quote from his abstract:
The result of the study established that whilst professional wrestling coverage may not be as extensively covered within the mainstream media, the basic rules of good reporting must still apply and therefore can be deemed a form of journalism.
Carse's research quotes from many professional wrestling writers (David Shoemaker, Dave Meltzer, Findlay Martin, Phil Mushnick, John Pollock, Aubrey Sitterson, Bill Apter, Sam Gascoyne and so froth). As with any high-minded piece on the topic professional wrestling, it includes the obligatory (translated from the French) snippets from Roland Barthes' 1957 essay, "The World of Wrestling".  However, for me, the most interesting section was the results of a 1,500+ respondents survey answered by Reddit's /r/SquaredCircle readers.

Ryan's dissertation set out to research (and answer) two central questions:
1: Does the mainstream media have a negative connotation of professional wrestling?
2: Should professional wrestling journalism be treated any differently to other sports journalism?
Here were his hypothesis going into the study:
H1: Wrestling fans and journalists will believe that the mainstream media have a negative connotation of professional wrestling.
H2: Wrestling fans will believe that professional wrestling shouldn't be treated any differently to other sports journalism.
It's an interesting pair theses.

(I aim to talk to Ryan about it more on an upcoming episode of Wrestlenomics radio, but at first blush, I was not sold on the second point- that professional wrestling should be part of sports journalism. I was a reassured when found that both Sitterson and Gascoyne, neither whom I was not familiar with before reading this piece, agreed with me on this. As a non-sports fan, I can't speak in depth about how sports are covered by others, but my bias is towards researching and understanding the entertainment and business aspects of professional wrestling. I feel what I'm doing isn't really sports journalism. But this topic of wrestling journalism/sports journalism split the interviewees, with Pollock/Apter on the other side of the coin. It also split the survey respondents, as you will see.)

The reddit survey results were captivating. Having occasionally posted on there, it's clear that it's an active place that appeared to holds some pretty preconceived notions about "wrestling newz". I wouldn't consider this project to have been a statistically random sampling by any means, but it's an intriguing glimpse into the subforum's population.

WWE's Corporate webpage notes their viewership is "36% female, 25% under the age of 18". The reddit survey was "96% male with 89% 18-34 years old". By contrast, I often refer people to the 2013 Scarbourgh research which found that WWE's audience of adults was "63% male, 37% female" with only slightly over a third of the WWE fans having "any college education" and half "earning less than $50,000 annually" (with a third "earning less than $30,000 annually"). I believe that while the reddit sample is likely skewed, it's doesn't meant that it's irrelevant. If anything, it gives you great insight into who is frequenting and reading the SquaredCircle forum.

Carse's Findings included:
  • Only 40% of participants saying they do not buy or read any newspapers on a regular basis (I thought this would be much higher)
  • At least one participant's consistent of "the entire movie script for the film 'Bee Movie'"
  • 97% of the survey respondents said they "read news on professional wrestling" but yet only 4% said "they currently have a paid subscription to a premium news outlet" such as the Wrestling Observer.
  • 51% indicated their primary source for "news on professional wrestling" was through Wrestling forums with "Copy & Paste sites" representing 22%. Paid subscription to WON represented less than 2%.
  • Less than 5% of respondents thought the Wrestling Observer was "not very reputable". In fact, over 70% of participants viewed the news from the Wrestling Observer as "very reputable" (near the top or at the top in a five point scale). Conversely, only a third (33%) of respondents considered news from the top news source, wrestling forums, to be "very reputable". 
  • 92% did believe that mainstream media has a negative connotation of professional wrestling. (H1)
  • 50% ("dead even split") thought that wrestling journalism should be treated differently to other sports journalism. (H2)
  • Key words for responses to why so many believed that the mainstream media had a negative connotation of professional wrestling included "Benoit" (8%), "Steroids" (8%) and "Fake" (35%).
Carse prints several responses to the open-answer questions he included in his survey. However, there was one response which contained a passage which I categorically disagree with:
"It is scripted and therefore can not be covered in the same way. When one looks at sports journalism, you want to see statistics to gain an insight into what may unfold. Looking at statistics in wrestling to gain a clearer picture of what is happening is entirely pointless. It needs to be covered in the same way the rest of show business is." (Male, 25-34 years old, United States, Diehard wrestling fan.)

As the standard bearer of #wrestlenomics, I must carry forth the notion that statistics in wrestling are not pointless. There's a lot we can learn. Statistics reveal how people's subjective ratings systems are influenced by match length, location and context. Statistics reveal which wrestlers have worked the hardest, the longest, and the most. Statistics reveal which wrestlers are (and are not) meaningful to making promoters money. Statistics reveal which wrestlers have the most potential and least opportunity. Statistics reveal which business measures are improving and collapsing and what talent programs are affecting that. We can learn a lot about the inner-working of professional wrestling through the lens of statistics. The temerity of that respondent! Simply put, as Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". Statistics teach us much about the history of professional wrestling and what worked and what did not. Moving on.

I do recommend people take the time to read Ryan's dissertation. He's also begun a beautiful online magazine "The Tag Rope" which I highly recommend people check out. I look forward to him going me on a future podcast.


Anonymous said...

The last sentence of the "pointless" quote is that it wrestling should be treated "like show business," meaning stats are "pointless" for predicting what the result of the match will be, even if stats will be helpful in analyzing the business aspects.

In theory, knowing Mike Trout hits X% on fastballs low and away but Y% on off speed pitches in the same area can tell a pitcher which pitch is more likely to make an out. It is not a guarantee (he may make an out on the pitch he prefers, or he may have changed his swing to address the weakness), but the stats can show how he has done on the two types of pitch in the past.

In contrast, Ambrose being more effective at dodging dropkicks than cross body blocks is based on agreement beforehand/in the ring as to what moves will be done before the prearranged finish. In the same way, any patterns in, say, The Rock's fighting style vs. Vin Diesel's in the Fast and Furious movies, is not outcome determinative as to who will win the fight: the script is. Even if the fight choreographer (or agent for wrestling) has the same pattern for every one of his fights (e.g. the fighter who connects with the most left-handed punches loses), the outcome is not "caused" by the left-handed punches.

Both sports journalism and show business can use stats to analyze the business aspects (e.g. do more home runs = more attendance?), but wrestling falls into the show business category because the outcome is predetermined.

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Jason Presley said...

I would guess that the only "statistics" considered by the person who made the "pointless" statement were wins/losses. It was likely an off the cuff comment with little or no actual thought put into it. But as the previous commenter pointed out, even if wrestling is covered more as entertainment media (movies, TV, theater, etc.) that just means you're dealing with a completely different set of statistics to measure performance or predict future outcomes. And by outcomes, I don't mean match results, I mean ratings, buy rates, merchandise sales, etc.

However, as dozens of wrestling journalists (like you) have proven over the years, there is a lot of interesting knowledge to be gleaned from match results using the metrics you layed out; number of matches, match length, position on the card, etc.

If anything, I would think the surveys would reveal just how predictably dismissive opinions about pro wrestling tend to be.