Until March of last year, “The Vivacious” Vicious Vicki lived the life of any independent professional wrestler: traveling throughout the country to perform, sometimes twice in one day, what is known in the wrestling world as a “double shot.”
“Pre-pandemic, I was on the road every single weekend,” said Vicki, 27, “It was a routine you got used to for months and months, or a year even, and then the world just stopped.”
The pandemic brought the live entertainment business, including professional wrestling, to a standstill. For performers, that meant a sudden loss of income — not just lost appearance fees for canceled shows, but also lost opportunities to sell merchandise at those shows, which can account for a majority of a wrestler’s earnings.
Even the WWE wasn’t immune to the pandemic. Previously scheduled tapings of television shows as well as non-televised shows, called “house shows” all around the country had to be cancelled. This began with the cancellation of WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw, on March 16, 2020 at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
But the WWE was able to find other sources of revenue. It continued to produce shows without live ticket revenue, with wrestlers performing on a closed set. The conglomerate reported making close to $1 billion in revenue in 2020 and gaining an additional $1 billion signing a licensing deal with NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock.
The wrestlers themselves weren’t so fortunate. The WWE doesn’t hire performers as employees, instead classifying them as independent contractors. Most wrestlers rely heavily on merchandise and apparel sales for their income, and the vast majority of wrestlers rely on the interactions with fans making purchases at live shows.
Bobby Venom, a 20-year wrestling veteran, said it is essential for wrestlers to invest in their merchandise and bring it with them to bookings to sell as they interact with fans.
“If you have merchandise, and you’re known in a particular region or area, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not promoting that merchandise and bringing it with you to those shows,” he said. In many of his bookings, he added, “I actually made more money in merchandise than I did for my actual match.”
When live shows were canceled by the pandemic, merchandise sales went with them.
Venom estimated that if a wrestler were making $300 for an appearance with booking fees and merchandise before COVID-19 disrupted the business, they would now be making $100 for those same services.
The pandemic exacerbated existing tensions between the WWE and some of its performers relating to outside work. In the last quarter of 2020, WWE prohibited their talent from using third party platforms such as Cameo and Twitch in order to gain revenue and interact with fans.
Many wrestlers objected to the ban, and some of them refused to follow it. Perhaps the most infamous violator of this rule was Thea Trinidad (known during her time in WWE as Zelina Vega), one of the most popular WWE wrestlers, who was building her brand on Twitch and OnlyFans in conjunction with her WWE responsibilities.
The WWE retaliated by releasing Trinidad, who tweeted her support of unionization amongst wrestlers 10 minutes before her release became official.
The diverging fortunes between independent wrestlers and the WWE has given new momentum to unionization efforts in wrestling, with some wrestlers seeing a union as a way to protect their right to build their individual brands. One suggestion has been having wrestlers represented in the Screen Actors Guild, (SAG).
“What we’re doing really isn’t that different,” said Steve “Monsta” Mack, a professional wrestler since 1997. “When you compare what we’re doing to what movie actors are doing, it’s pretty much the same thing, so we should get the same benefits.” Mack also emphasizes the importance of wrestlers protecting their individual brand.
But Actor Marc Chouen, a SAG member who has been involved in the wrestling business as a manager and commentator for two years and is a voice of the Shot of Wrestling podcast, said a potential wrestling union would need to be different from an actors’ union because wrestling is a “different beast.”
“You can’t apply the same logic and the same groundwork for wrestling,” he said. But, he added, “if wrestling were to come up with their own union, it could work. Don’t copy exactly what other unions are doing, learn from it. Figure out a structure as far as how to best fit wrestling.”
Trinidad’s fight with WWE highlighted the growing importance of streaming as a source of revenue for wrestlers, especially women. Venom said the disparity in pay between men and women in the wrestling business is a reason Trinidad potentially felt the need to use these platforms.
“I heard she actually made more money during her Twitch streams than what she did for WWE, and that says a lot for the disparity in pay that women get…especially during a pandemic,” he said.
The pandemic did not completely shut down live wrestling. Vicki wrestled in New Jersey for the first show Titan Championship Wrestling held after the pandemic, which took place under socially distant restrictions, with attendees watching live wrestling from their cars.
“Everyone was in the car around the ring, which was awesome,” she said. “You could have a carload of people for $50 and people could split the cost. ”