Author: Don Obrien

Major League Wrestling CEO details plan to take on WWE and AEW juggernauts

The COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges to businesses and executives across the globe over the past 19 months, with Major League Wrestling (MLW) and CEO Court Bauer among them.

On top of dealing with the chaotic logistics of running a company in the middle of one of the largest global health crises in 100 years, Bauer was tasked with surviving in a business dominated by Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Tony Khan’s All Elite Wrestling (AEW) promotions.

“We had to find a way to serve the fan base, keep the talent and crew active, and do all of that with an abundance of care from a health perspective,” Bauer told Yahoo Finance. “There was no playbook for it — there was no experience with any of this. It was totally uncharted territory. We had to adapt and be nimble, all while battling two billionaires. It was the most unique situation you can have as a smaller company trying to emerge and grow your business.”

Bauer’s strategy for MLW to succeed further involves targeting a specific demographic that he believes WWE and AEW have missed: Spanish-speaking viewers in the U.S.

(Source: Major League Wrestling)

Jacob Fatu. (Source: Major League Wrestling)

Major League Wrestling ‘instantly took a huge market share’ on Spanish-language TV

MLW’s first major television deal, signed in 2018 with beIN Sports, was quickly expanded to include beIN en Español. MLW’s product initially resonated well with a Spanish-speaking audience and Bauer, a former AAA Mexican wrestling consultant, opted to double-down on those efforts.

“We instantly took a huge market share there from people who wanted a piece of the homeland,” Bauer said. “Because of that, we showcased a lot of luchadores and, during normal times, run shows in Mexico. There have been struggles in the past for promotions to get into Latin America, trying to tour, bring talent up to the U.S., and it’s hard to capture that audience. Finding this unique lane has been our biggest success in battling the two billionaires.”

In addition to MLW’s focus on a Spanish-speaking demographic, the company also compiled its roster in a way that allows for a “revolving door” of talent.

Stars such as Bobby Fish and Lee Moriarty are currently working with MLW. Following his release from WWE earlier this year, Fish began working with both MLW and AEW, and Moriarty is currently under contract with Khan’s AEW promotion as well. This free agent approach to roster building allows for MLW to generate significant buzz in the wrestling community while not needing to lock in long-term contracts with a portion of its talent pool. MLW also allows some of its talent to work cross-promotionally, but that is primarily with overseas or foreign partners.

“I think you have to be careful when working with competing promotions domestically because you open the door to tortious interference,” Bauer said, referring to when one entity harms a competitor’s business or contractual relationships. “You’re the shepherd, the advocate, the guardian for the talent, so you need to make sure you’re putting them in the best position to succeed and represent the fan base you have built. It’s much easier when you work overseas or with Mexico because it’s smoother transactionally.”

Court Bauer (Source: Major League Wrestling)

Court Bauer, CEO of Major League Wrestling, wants to expand MLW’s Spanish-speaking audience. (Source: Major League Wrestling)

Major League Wrestling enters booming market

Luckily for Bauer, the wrestling business is in the midst of a boom similar to the mid-to-late 1990s when McMahon’s WWE and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) went toe-to-toe for ratings supremacy and forced their way into mainstream culture with stars such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the NWO (New World Order) faction.

McMahon’s WWE signed a $1 billion agreement with NBC Universal this year to move its archive footage, network specials, and pay-per-view events to NBC’s streaming platform, Peacock. The Peacock deal came three years after McMahon’s company signed five-year television contracts with NBC and Fox worth $265 million and $205 million annually to air “Monday Night Raw” and “Smackdown,” respectively.

Khan’s AEW has experienced similar success since debuting in 2019. AEW’s flagship show, “Dynamite,” has been the top-rated cable television show on Wednesday nights for six consecutive weeks. And AEW launched a second weekly program, “Rampage,” in August as part of the company’s deal with WarnerMedia.

Given the dominance of these promotions, MLW shares a similar position to that of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in the 1990s when ECW was up against McMahon’s WWE and Turner’s WCW. Despite experiencing a degree of success, ECW eventually was forced to file for bankruptcy in the early 2000s. The promotion was subsequently purchased by McMahon, which left WWE as the only mainstream professional wrestling company in the United States.

Bauer and MLW hope to learn from ECW’s shortcomings in this new Golden Age of wrestling.

“You have to make sure you are buttoned up as an operation, make sure your talent stays intact, continue to build on that foundation,” Bauer said. “There certainly were lessons to be learned from ECW’s rise and how they weren’t able to address volatility with their talent as they emerged on a national stage. Looking at that, we try to be very buttoned up as an operation and have great infrastructure that has allowed us to find the right business model and stability to grow into 20 countries, have TV deals with VICE, beIN Sports, and continue to grow.”

As Bauer continues to grow MLW’s footprint on cable television (one of the traditional building blocks of any successful wrestling promotion), his long-term plan to compete doesn’t involve simply replicating what WWE or AEW are currently doing. Instead, Bauer sees an opportunity for MLW to continue to expand its offerings abroad.

“We have to keep finding new opportunities our competitors aren’t tapping into,” Bauer said. “That said, we really see Latin America as that huge area of growth. It’s really important to me. My head of production is bilingual, a lot of our team is bilingual, the future, even in America to me, is having a very bilingual, Latin American-leaning, authentic product. I think we have the sweet spot to build that out here in the United States, in Central America and in South America.”

Alex Hammerstone (Source: Major League Wrestling)

Alex Hammerstone (Source: Major League Wrestling)

‘Complementary strategic programming’ for all sorts of fans

Major League Wrestling’s approach to programming is a bit different than its peers as well. 

While WWE and AEW rely primarily on live programming, MLW tapes its offerings in advance and airs them on Wednesdays on YouTube followed by replays on streaming platform fuboTV as well as on beIN Sports, beIN Sports en Espanol, and VICE TV.

The omnichannel programming approach allows for wrestling fans of all levels — casual to obsessed — to be served equally.

“We experimented a lot in the first few months with the weekly show on beIN,” Bauer said. “We ultimately found there were three separate audiences. The beIN audiences were a very casual fan base, so we wanted to super serve the die-hard fanbase with the streaming but then reach that broader demographic with the show on beIN, viewers who flip the channel and it captures them.”

Hammerstone dropkick. (Source: Major League Wrestling)

A Hammerstone dropkick. (Photo: Major League Wrestling)

MLW’s latest effort, a partnership with VICE TV, begins on Oct. 7. In the wake of VICE’s successful “Dark Side of the Ring” documentary series, the network is airing MLW’s “Fightland” special immediately afterward. With “Dark Side of the Ring” serving as the lead programming, Bauer believes there is an opportunity for an “incredible one-two punch.”

“When you have an established franchise like ‘Dark Side,’ the strategic move is to build on that by having it as the lead in,” Bauer said. “When I was at WWE and we were on Spike TV, there was the opportunity to lead into UFC at 11 p.m. on Mondays. I told them not to let that air. I love UFC, but considering my responsibility to WWE at the time, I believed that they were letting a competitor on, and in that case, it could jeopardize the business. In this case, we’re not a competitor, it’s more complementary strategic programming.”

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