2017 is shaping up to be an unprecedented year for professional wrestling. Streaming services have made any wrestling we want available with the click of a mouse. The rise of such services has expanded the potential audience for any wrestling promotion, and the two biggest wrestling companies in the world are poised to take advantage of that.
New Japan is firing some serious shots at the WWE. Their management has made no secret that they see the WWE as competition. No doubt some of this comes from the events of early last year, which saw the WWE sign away four of their biggest stars. One way NJPW has countered this is by signing their talent to longer contracts. They have also announced their intentions to bring New Japan wrestling to the United States.
Before the G1 tournament this year, New Japan will be running two shows in California, as preview shows. While NJPW runs a joint American tour with Ring of Honor each year, this is the biggest solo opportunity for the company to expand into American soil. With the hype increasing each year, the time is ripe for NJPW to take advantage of it. New Japan announced that they had over five thousand new accounts to New Japan World for WrestleKingdom 11, and fully half of them were non-Japanese. They also have plans to set up a training dojo in California, and you only have to look at guys like Samoa Joe and Daniel Bryan to see how well that can go. They have plans to get on more American television, and have more content in English. Every major show in 2017 will have English commentary, and these are all fantastic things.
There’s definite risks to New Japan’s plan though. The first is to their own product. They have to be careful not to devalue their own brand. If they just stick independent talent under the New Japan banner, it could very quickly go bad. Fans of professional wrestling want to see high quality content from New Japan. If they sacrifice that to cater to a western audience, they could see a pretty strong backlash. New Japan should continue to put on the best wrestling in the world, and focus on making it more accessible to English speakers. English commentary is a great start, but New Japan World could definitely be more user-friendly, and promo’s should have translations, for starters.
If New Japan succeeds in expanding, there’s a bigger risk on the horizon. We’ve already seen what happens when New Japan gets the attention of the WWE. Expect to see a lot more talent raids from WWE should New Japan make more waves. There are lots of tactics WWE could do to limit their growth. They could block off venues, they could try to restrict their access to cable television. Kidani, the president of New Japan, has made no secret of wanting to challenge the WWE. Hopefully he knows what he is getting himself into, as Vince McMahon is ruthless on his competition, and isn’t know for playing fair.
The WWE is also looking to expand internationally. NXT ran a tour of Japan and Australia late last year, and they just finished crowning the first ever UK Champion in a very good, two night tournament. The rumors are there are more of these tournaments planned, for Latin America and Asia with the ultimate goal appearing to be establishing global divisions and weekly television shows. The UK tournament was a great success, though we’ve seen the follow up of success’s be terrible in WWE.
But the risk for WWE is expanding is much less then that for NJPW. As by far the biggest wrestling company in the world, the WWE already has international viewer bases by name recognition alone. They can use international content to fill time on the WWE Network, which reaches over a million homes. And they can put pressure on whatever other wrestling company they want. It’s pretty widely regarded that the WWE did their UK tournament in a rush in response to the threat of there being new, homegrown, wrestling content on UK television. By locking down the names in the tournament, and with rumors always circling about independent promotions making a deal to be on the WWE Network, the WWE remains in the drivers seat.
What happens next with the UK grapplers will bear strong watching. The WWE should be doing everything they can to make stars out of guys like Pete Dunne and Tyler Bates. If they can show that they can turn your countries home talent into superstars, they’ll be able to convince major players from every company around the world that they should sign with them. If the rumored UK show stays only on the Network, or flounders like 205 Live, wrestlers are more likely to stay with their home promotion. The ball is, as always, in the WWE’s court.