A closer look at how the TNA office handles outside bookings

  Dixiecarter_medium

I have briefly touched upon the difficulties facing independent wrestling promoters when they attempt to book TNA wrestlers for their shows previously, but felt a closer examination of the problem was in order as more and more stories emerge of mid-card frustration in TNA and the gaping flaws with third party booking process become even more apparent. For this column I have spoken to several indie promoters, as well as Bill Behrens, who was the only TNA connected name willing to go on record with a defence of the company. My gratitude to all concerned for their help with this article.

I should start off by saying that TNA’s current practice of allowing their contracted wrestlers to work independent dates is something that does sound like a great idea on paper: The company’s flagship show, TNA: iMPACT, is seen by an average of 1.5 million viewers, and provides the ideal showcase for wrestlers to get over and build up a name. The exposure garnered from iMPACT will then allow wrestlers to ask for more from independent promoters, under the premise that, as big television stars, they will boost ticket sales for that event. The wrestler in question may also have a chance to do profitable autograph signings at these shows, charging roughly $10 for a signed picture or sell their ring gear at a merchandise table for a puffed up price, once again using the television exposure to their advantage. The company’s light schedule will also allow wrestlers more time to do indie dates. This process also benefits TNA too. The company is either unwilling or unable to fork out livable wages to all its wrestlers, so allowing wrestlers to work outside dates helps boost the income of the talent and keeps them happy. In this version, wrestlers are far, far closer to the term "Independent Contractor" than WWE wrestlers are, having real control over their own careers and ability to seek money-making options where and when they choose.

Of course, as time goes on, a litany of problems have materialized, and the scenario I just mapped out has become little more than a fantasy.  For one thing, TNA has insisted of inserting themselves in the process: almost all bookings must be made through them and they receive a portion of the money. (It was actually reported at the time that part of why TNA managed to dig its way out of the financial doldrums and start making a profit in 2008 and 2009 was because of the money from outside dates. And in the July 21st 2008 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Dave Meltzer noted: "TNA got into booking its talent on these indie and foreign shows as much as possible because the company needed the money." Although this attitude seemingly changed after they became profitable that year and thus started limiting what wrestlers did outside of TNA.)

Indeed, the main issue seems to be they also insist on setting the price, with wrestlers having little or no say. Shimmer’s Allison Danger has complained on-record about the overcharging, noting in amazement in various interviews with http://www.diva-dirt.com/ the huge contrast between the peanuts TNA paid their women and what they expect promoters on the indies to pay. One promoter confirmed to me in an email: "I haven’t booked TNA talent in over a year because of high rates." Another told me he had looked into hiring a talent for a show who he found out was in the area at the time, but the price he was given from the office was so "f****** ridiculous" he dropped the idea right there and then. More after the jump.

 

Dave Meltzer later elaborated on this problem in the November 28th Wrestling Observer Newsletter:

A lot of indie promoters feel TNA overcharges because its talent doesn’t add enough to the gates to pay off based on what TNA asks. That’s why right now TNA talent for the most part don’t get as many indie dates as they did in years past, plus TNA is booking more of its own events.

TNA running more of its own shows would seem a suitable solution to wrestlers not getting indie dates, but is it really? The low pay rates in the company have already been reported, and it stands to reason, that if you’re only making $200-$300 a match, with no expenses, you are eventually, no matter how frugal you are, going to be losing your own money, when car rentals, gas money, food and hotel rooms are all factored in. The increased house show schedule has caused problems for the lower paid people in the company, with many wrestlers in TNA complaining to the Wrestling Globe Newsletter’s Mike Aldren about the huge costs involved with "just going to work" in May. It has also, allegedly, led to certain talent skipping house shows because they simply cannot afford it (this was rumoured to have happened to Madison Rayne on at least one occasion in 2010.) Additionally, Mike Mooneyham, in his recent defense of Ric Flair’s behaviour on Ringsiderap radio, mentioned that Flair had noted to him, in surprise, how all the other wrestlers paired up and shared hotel rooms on the tour, mainly for financial reasons.

With indie dates, it’s a different story: hotels, and flights are usually covered, and wrestlers will often get to do meet-and-greet sessions, sell their signed merchandise and gimmicks, as well as taking pictures fans for a cash sum. In this respect, it seems indie dates are far more preferable to talent than TNA house shows. 

There are also legal issues. Firstly, the fear that unscrupulous promoter will use a TNA wrestler once, and then continue to dishonestly advertise them in the future. One promoter I spoke to claimed when he wanted to book a TNA wrestler on his show he was faxed through "an insane amount of paperwork, like just crazy."  In fairness to TNA, these were, from what I understand, all legal wavers, and one cannot fault the company for trying to protect itself. So, this is possibly a necessary inconvenience. Another recurring problem is if the promoter intends to sell DVDs, they are greatly limited in how they do it. For an example, we can look at TNA’s 2007 dispute with indie group PWG, which led to the group pulling TNA wrestlers off their show entirely for a lengthy period of time after the TNA legal team demanded they refrain from using a third party retailer to sell their DVDs, apparently citing a fear of TNA wrestlers in competing DVD markets. In May 2007 PWG released the following statement:

"On April 24, 2007, TNA Wrestling presented Pro Wrestling Guerrilla with a contract that would prevent TNA Wrestling employees from appearing on TNA sold through or distributed by any third parties. Because this would include long-time partner Highspots.com, as of May 3, 2007, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla has severed all ties with TNA Wrestling."

Many wondered if this was some sort of power trip on TNA’s part (come on: would it really affect TNA’s business if a few lowly X-Division wrestlers appeared on some DVDs?) Some speculated that perhaps TNA’s distributer had made the demand. But if that was indeed the case, it never came out.  James Caldwell of http://www.pwtorch.com/ noted at the time the development finally proved the blatant falsehood of any claims TNA personnel made of their wrestlers being "true independent contractors" and that the situation in TNA was entirely different from the one in WWE:

From a legal perspective, TNA has maintained throughout its company's history - whether in press interviews or on Stephen A. Smith's former ESPN talk show - that their wrestlers are truly independent contractors. In actuality, TNA handles a contracted wrestler's bookings through their office and negotiates a fee to be paid to the wrestler, with a specific percentage passing through Nashville. This helps wrestlers ensure proper payment and that the wrestler is protected by TNA if the promoter skips town or bounces a check. However, it gives TNA a significant measure of control over the wrestler's work outside of TNA and limits the wrestler's ability to decide who to perform wrestling services for and under what conditions.

This recent development by TNA to take a harder look at competing promotions in the DVD market will prohibit wrestlers from taking bookings from promotions that compete with TNA. This has the potential to cut off significant income opportunities for wrestlers, which might suggest TNA contracted wrestlers are employees rather than independent contractors. The classification is key because TNA is not obligated to provide health care benefits or cover essential worker health issues, such as Konnan's recent kidney transplant, as long as their contracted wrestlers are classified as independent contractors.

One of the key tests for determining the type of employment is the "Right to Control" test. TNA appears to be taking more control over the appearances made by talent, which increasingly suggests TNA is treating talent as employees of the company rather than independent contractors capable of working for any outside organization that forms an agreement with the wrestler.

 

Additionally, TNA wrestlers can also not appear on ppvs or ippv’s. This led to TNA splitting and severing ties with ROH in 2007 as well, after the group announced its internet expansion onto ppv.  Things were eventually smoothed over, though, and the (occasional) TNA star will do a date for ROH, provided it’s not on ppv, of course. 

 

There are also booking problems. TNA management have been known to demand a say in how talent is booked. For example, The Motor City Machine Guns went to a disappointing disqualification with the ROH tag champions Kings of Wrestling in May 2010 after the TNA office insisted Sabin and Shelley couldn’t lose, and ROH, having no intention of having their champions lose, were forced to come up with the compromised ending of the Briscoe’s running in and getting involved. Fans weren’t happy about that one at all.  

Frustration has been brewing between people on the indies and the TNA front office for some time, and WSU promoter Sean McCaffrey, under the premise that he would "expose TNA’s business practices with promoters" wrote recently a lengthy diatribe here, detailing his frustrations. Some excerpts:

  

 

"The worst part about all these mistakes is that it is affecting the lower card people in TNA. I'm talking the people you know on the indy scene and are only making $200-$300 from TNA. But let me clarify - these people only get paid when they appear on Impact. So say Robbie E doesn't show up on the Impact tapings for a month - that's $800 out of his pocket. It's even worse that Terry Taylor is telling all these lower end people (The Young Bucks, Jersey Shore, Sarita, Red, Kendrick, Daffney, British Invasion, Sharkboy, So Cal Val, etc) that TNA has to pull some house show dates from them because of budget cuts… What's even worse is that TNA has the right to pull people, who only get paid when they are booked by TNA (aka no guaranteed deals) from paying gigs. So if a promoter can pay a wrestler $500 for an indy show, while the TNA person only gets $200, TNA can do it because the wrestling business is so dead that wrestlers are forced to go along with what they are given."

 

"It's a shame. A lot of indy promoters won't book TNA talent because the prices are ridiculous. The reasons a lot of indy companies are going out of business are because of TNA's high rates for talent. TNA also hurts the value of indy talent and does not promote them well. It is sad that a company like ROH, with no TV exposure or cable backing, can make bigger stars out of guys like Samoa Joe, Homicide, Christopher Daniels, etc, but in TNA, their value has decreased. Does anyone remember when Samoa Joe was a monster on the indies/ROH? Now he's that fat guy who shows up from time to time. It is impossible for a lot of indy promoters to make money on these TNA wrestlers when TNA's awful booking buries the talent on TV."

For the record, Dave Meltzer did indeed note in a recent issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that several indie promoters had shared with him that Samoa Joe actually garnered far more ticket sales and meant more to business while he was tearing up the indie scene before his time in TNA, than he currently did as a heavily featured performer on TNA television with years of national exposure. 

McCaffrey also claimed that at least 50% of the roster had secondary jobs because they could not make a comfortable living from TNA. This is a figure I am not personally going to dispute.  Some of these stories are confirmed (for example, Becky "Cookie" Bayless was recognized by a star of Jersey Shore and TMZ while she was bartending a birthday party, Robbie E is a high school gym teacher and Taylor Wilde was embarrassingly spotted by a stunned fan while she was working at Sunglass Hut); others are rumours.  We can question Mike Mooneyham’s recent claims about Ric Flair and TNA, and whether he is too close to Ric to truly be reliable,  but there does seem to be an unmistakable hint of truth in Flair’s assertion to Mooneyham that there was little point in asking wrestlers in TNA for money when his credit card at the bar was declined (as he was alleged to have done) because "none of those guys have any money, anyways."

 

In an email to me, McCaffrey also complained to me about the general stupidity of the TNA front office and their habit of pulling talent from dates with no notice:

"I have had too many experiences of incompetence to count. The one thing that should be mentioned is that TNA can pull talent off your show with no warning and you have to accept it. For example, Nikki Roxx was my champion three years ago, and we had a big program all set for her. Unfortunately, TNA pulled her a week from the show, saying she had to be at a house show they had. So even when you do book TNA talent, they are still not 100% confirmed. TNA should just pay their wrestlers like a real company and not even do the third party bookings, in my opinion."

He did, however, acknowledge Bob Ryder (who took over from Bill Behrens in July 2008 as the man in TNA who oversees third party bookings) as easy enough to get along with, although claimed he had problems with others in the office. For the record, I contacted Ryder to ask if he wanted to be quoted for this article and perhaps offer a defense of the company, but he did not respond.

I also encountered another borderline-comical story of TNA incompetence with outside bookings, from one source:

"A few months ago Daffney was supposed to do a guest shot for a promotion in Cleveland. Everything was set up and the advertising was sent out and whatnot. A day before the show, TNA gets in touch with the promoter to tells them that Daffney would not be appearing. Daffney then sends a note of her own to the promoter apologizing and explaining that she has no idea why TNA pulled her from the show, because she had absolutely nothing going on that night - no bookings or any other appearances for TNA or any other show."

Bryan Alvarez also noted in the August 24th 2010 F4W Newsletter that while some performers have been allowed more freedom, it hasn't helped: "A few guys are given the opportunity to do their own bookings with certain promotions, but even that is hard because TNA has them write down dates on their calendar that they “might” work TNA house shows, and then they can’t book those dates with anyone else, and then nine times out of ten the shows they were told they “might” work they’re not booked for. So guys are really struggling to make a living here."

In an email, Bill Behrens disputed some of the allegations mentioned here and defended TNA management. However, he also acknowledged the process as flawed and admitted this likely couldn’t continue: "First of all, no promoter is forced to book TNA talent, or any wrestler. If a promoter wants TNA talent then, however TNA provides them is fair, as the promoter can always say no.  There are lots of folk to book out there. Promoters have the ultimate power as TNA can not force the booking." He also insisted: "TNA talent was pulled from events only a handful of times in the 2-3 years I did the bookings for TNA, and replacements were offered or money refunded. TNA experienced many examples of promoters cancelling shows, not paying deposits as required, bouncing checks (some promoters repeatedly) and worse so TNA being strict with promoters is necessary. I question how many promoters really have ever suffered.  It’s easy to bitch.  Solution is: don't book TNA talent. Stuff like this is why WWE stopped doing it in 1998.  As TNA grows likely it will stop doing it too."

 

Behrens is right that TNA do need to strict with indie promoters, on certain things at least. Getting the money for dates upfront is smart and quite sensible, considering how unreliable certain promoters can be. He, and McCaffrey, are also right that TNA doing away with third party bookings altogether is probably the best solution for everyone involved. However, can they afford to do away with third party bookings and pay their employees livable wages? Well, maybe they could- bundles of money always seem to spring up for the latest B-list celebrity that becomes available, after all, and they were more than happy to pay out for Nash, Booker T and Sting before Vince McMahon scuppered their plans; but the company has also shown a steely unwillingness in the past to pay performers what they are worth and offer livable wages to most of their employees.

For the record, Berhens' claim that unhappy promoters can "always say no" is, unfortunately, being proven true, as most companies decide it’s not worth the headache anymore, or financially smart, to bring in TNA stars. And it’s the wrestlers that are primarily suffering for this as they struggle to make a living working for a company that not only pays them peanuts but severely restricts what they can do outside the company too.  

To be fair to TNA, it is simply unprecedented for a national promotion with a TV deal and a significant viewing audience to let their talent go elsewhere and allow this process for as long as it has. One could argue ROH do it too, so it’s not that unusual, but they have nothing close to national and international presence TNA does. Indeed, as Berhens correctly noted, WWE eventually dropped the practice in 1998 because it caused too many problems. So what is the solution? Well, Eric Young accepted a deal for lower money under the condition he would be allowed to handle his own dates and name his own prices (he still has to fly it by the TNA office though, because they still get first dibs on him for house shows and such). Letting more performers do this may be the best option TNA has right now. Alternatively, they can simply do nothing and continue to make a mess of things in the office, as their loyal and hard-working employees struggle to scrape together a living from their meagre earnings. Considering what I’ve learned about this company in the past few years alone, the saddest thing is that this may be the most likely option of all.

 

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