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The Ballance Sheet #3 : Solid Crowd Ignites Top Performers

Hey, folks. I’m Gary Ballance, and this is my guide to the often weird, occasionally wonderful world of independent wrestling.

Last time, I went through a few of the factors that go into a successful show, and the various ways fate can intervene and mess them up. This next element deserves its own article: the crowd.

The crowd is the lifeblood of any successful show. For the promoter, a large crowd means tickets sold and costs covered. Large enough, and it could also mean the difference between breaking even and actually making a profit.

For the wrestlers, we feed off the energy of the live audience. They can be the difference between a good match and a great match. There’s really no comparable feeling to being in the ring and knowing you’ve got the crowd switched-on, engaged, and firmly entertained by everything you’re doing. It’s amazing. By the same token, wrestling for an audience that’s listless, sluggish and unresponsive can be interminable.

A lively crowd can actually make poor matches bearable, too. The Goldberg/Brock Lesnar match at WrestleMania XX was a plodding, pedestrian effort by both men. In front of an ordinary crowd, it would’ve just been an extremely below-par bout; the intervention of the crowd in New York’s Madison Square Garden, though, made it a bizarrely entertaining affair to observe. So too with Jeff Hardy’s abysmal début in ROH in 2003- the incredibly anti-Hardy audience made the sloppy, botch-heavy match interesting to watch.

The point, at any rate: any good show needs a good audience, both in terms of attendance and enthusiasm. But what goes into that? What are the factors that make an independent wrestling event must-see, and what are those that not only turn fans off watching your product, but indy wrestling in general? Let’s have a look…

For starters, if you’re looking to run a promotion long-term, the name, surprisingly, can be a factor. A lot of promotions across the UK and Ireland advertise their shows on posters and flyers as “American-style pro wrestling”, with American flags and iconography on the promotional material. Why?

Well, for some reason- certainly in this country- there seems to be an aversion to anything home-grown. The influx of American brands into Ireland over the years, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Starbuck’s, and clothing lines like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, along with the influence of American television shows like The Hills and Jersey Shore have led to an Ireland, nowadays, with an identity crisis. Faux-American accents are more in circulation- look at Jedward (if you can.) Anything Irish seems twee and uncool in comparison.

In a way, it’s understandable. A shame, but understandable. Bar the popularity of Love/Hate, I can’t remember an Irish-made show, in donkey’s years, that has generated any kind of buzz . (Father Ted was made by the Brits and Channel 4, so that’s exempt.) My point, anyway, is that putting ‘Irish wrestling’ in the name of your promotion is a risk, and something that could potentially put closed-minded members of the public off attending your event/show; unless, of course, there’s a radical about-face in the national psyche. A more general-sounding name for your promotion would be a safer course to follow.

How you promote your show is another factor of what kind of a turnout you’ll get on the night. Social media, and the internet, are invaluable tools for promoting, but they are certainly not the be-all and end-all. Look at any wrestling event page on Facebook, and you’ll see about 600 names that claim to be “Going”! Once show-day comes, however, you might be lucky to get a tenth of those names through the door. Businesses these days- and business experts- go on a lot about ‘engaging’ with people on social media, and getting them involved online. For a wrestling show, however, I  firmly believe the best way to promote your show is to get out on the streets with posters and flyers, and engage people face-to-face; sell your show to them. It’s more expensive, and it’s time-consuming, but it’s a necessary step to achieving a large audience on the night.

So, the night of the event comes, and you’ve got the fans through the door. Here comes the tricky bit: how do you ensure they’ll come back, and provide repeat business down the road? The easy answer is to put on a bloody good show. But let’s break it down. What’s the first thing that they’re gonna notice when they step into the venue? The ring.

This is the first impression you’re gonna make on the audience, so it’s well worth the time putting in the effort to have a good ring that looks the part. Along with the aesthetics, a good, well-made and safe ring gives the wrestlers a good platform to work on, and allows us the best possible opportunity to put on a good show. Skimping on the ring may save money in the short run, but a cheap-looking, badly-made ring that limits what the wrestlers can do- either through slack ring ropes or areas of the ring that aren’t safe to bump in- will definitely affect customers coming back, and the quality of the show they’re gonna see.

The show’s production values will also make a difference: a proper music system, an entrance way, barricades, maybe a smoke machine or dry ice. All of these help create an atmosphere. I’ve worked shows in the past with no-frills. Loads of them. A tiny sound system where you could barely hear the music. A PA system where you couldn’t hear the ring announcer. Having to come in an emergency exit door, or through the same door as the general public. Having to squeeze your way through a load of chairs and the crowd to get to the ring. It all adds up. The wrestling may be good; it may even be excellent. But the whole setup just screams ‘cheap’.

I worked a show for a promotion called RQW in York Hall in London in 2006, and the setup there was incredible. An elevated entrance aisleway, big screens on the stage with videos, and barricades around the ring. It looked the business. Their budget was pretty massive, but even for a smaller, independent show, there are plenty of practical ways to try to dress up a venue, on a budget. It’s just about putting the effort in to do so.

Ring and production values aside, it will ultimately be the wrestlers, at the end of the day, that will make the biggest impression on the audience. Wrestling’s what they’re paying for, but the quality of that wrestling will absolutely depend on the wrestlers you use, and how much you’re willing to pay. Wrestlers provide a service and should be paid for it (albeit some more than others.)

Everything I say in these articles is 100% pure opinion. It might be right, it might be wrong, but it’s mine. That said, I make no room for argument in the next thing I’m about to say: if you are running a show, and you don’t have the money to pay the wrestlers, and are relying on ticket sales on the night, you should not be running a promotion.

Just as a brief aside, there’s the story of 1PW; a UK-based promotion that went through an almost never-ending cycle of running shows, shutting down, reopening under new management, and completing the cycle anew. On many occasions, their eyes were bigger than their wallets, and they booked far too many US-based, ex-WWE or TNA wrestlers without having the money to pay them. They relied on ‘the draw’ on the night and, many times, drew less than they hoped to, couldn’t pay the wrestlers, or ended up cancelling, and absconding with money from fans who had bought their tickets in advance. (1PW promised to have Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and other members of DX at their show a few years ago, but through their inability to pay flight costs and so forth, the event fell through, and they took off with the pre-sale money.) It’s this kind of nonsense that puts people off attending local wrestling.

Tribute shows, using fake Undertakers, Kane’s and so forth, also leave a bad taste in people’s mouths though, to my knowledge, these haven’t been around in a good while. You’re much better off using original characters and letting the audience get to know them, rather than trying to slavishly copy another act. More importantly, though, you are much, much, much better off using properly trained professional wrestlers, who know what they’re doing and are good at their craft. They may cost more, but you get what you pay for. Wrestling itself may be “the draw” in this country, rather than any one performer- a Hulk Hogan or John Cena, for example- but many wrestlers in this country would, in my view, have re-draw ability, in that their performance on a show might lead to fans coming back, and their name on the advertising material might lend it a little more credibility.

Such performers would be guys who have trained hard, put on good matches, work on their physiques outside the ring, and have professional-looking gear. They’re providing the wrestling that is selling the show, so they should be paid. Nothing exorbitant, but a fair wage. A good few promoters go down the road of using cheap, untrained (or badly-trained) talent to save money and bolster their profit, but the berth is in quality shows, when it boils down to it. An audience can tell good wrestling from bad.

I heard a quote a few years ago that was attributed to Hulk Hogan: “Once they’re in the building, you’ve already got their money.”  Very true, though getting their money again will be an uphill battle if you give them a substandard show.

The final factor, in my view, on getting people back is the length of the show. Three hours, to be honest, is a bit much. I’ve done shows that have lasted longer than that- ones that have inexplicably ran about four or five hours. The crowd just gets burnt-out, and you couldn’t blame them. There’s giving people their money’s worth, and there’s completely satiating their appetite for wrestling. Where the latter is the case, it will also be a tough job getting them back for another show. A two-hour show with a small break in the middle should generally do the job, and give people a good taste of the promotion, while leave them wanting a bit more for future events.

That’s it pretty much. Not an exhaustive list by any means, and more of a broad strokes approach to the topic of running a show, but hopefully mildly insightful in some way, if a little preachy and lecture-heavy. The next one of these will be a bit lighter- promise.

If anyone has any requests for what you’d like to read about, please get in touch.

‘Til next time, take care.

Gary

Photography package courtesy of John Morrissey Photography & Design.

Follow Gary “Bingo” Ballance on Facebook today.

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