In advance of the premiere of SmackDown on Fox in a few months, and a WWE-focused studio show (and maybe NXT) on FS1 in the near future, WWE’s been sending Superstars to be interviewed by American Ninja Warrior host Kristine Leahy for her show on the sports network, Fair Game.
For the most part, these went pretty much as most mainstream wrestling interviews do. Paige plugged Fighting With My Family, Becky Lynch talked trash about Ronda Rousey... you know the drill. Based on the YouTube clip FS1 released of Leahy’s recent talk with SmackDown Women’s champ Bayley, it seemed that one followed the usual pattern, too.
But then then Leahy herself tweeted out a clip where she asks the Hugster to tell her “the first things fans would be surprised to know about life on the road”. In the course of an answer that wouldn’t cause any wrestling fan to bat an eye - finishing a show, getting a rental car, driving four hours in the dead of night through strange towns to get to the next show - Leahy is incredulous. “You don’t have, like, a driver? What!?!”
The exchange that follows is quite something, as the host can’t believe wrestlers aren’t treated like, well, pretty much anyone else on a television show the producers just got a billion dollars for the broadcast rights to, and Bayley tries to toe the company line before just asking to change the subject...
Leahy: You’re driving yourself?
Bayley: Oh yeah, we drive ourselves.
Leahy: You don’t have, like, a driver?
Bayley: We drive ourselves, we get our own rental cars, so we drive ourself...
Leahy: You get a rental car?
Bayley: Yes, how do you expect us to get around to these towns? And entertain our people?
Leahy: I don’t know, you’re superstars! I feel like after the show there’s like, “here’s your driver, get in, you’ve had a hard day of work, we’ll drive you, with a full tank of gas...”
Bayley: Well, no. We do it five days a week, so they can’t do that for 30 Superstars five days a week.
Leahy: I don’t know, I think they make a lot of money off you guys.
Bayley: I think so too, but you know. They take care of us for most things...
Leahy: Do you want me to negotiate you guys’ new CBA [collective bargaining agreement]? Do you have a CBA?
Bayley: No, but...
Leahy: Let’s make one.
Bayley: You know what - things like this, they work around it. But it’s fun though...
Bayley: It does become fun because you get to connect with whoever you travel with, and there’s memories you won’t have with anybody else and it becomes like a real family sisterhood or brotherhood.
The host tweeted a clip* of the exchange, doubling down on the “y’all need a union” sentiment:
Shocked!! To hear this! Happy to help with the CBA negotiation anytime! pic.twitter.com/aCYJd10z6q— Kristine Leahy (@KristineLeahy) July 12, 2019
You have to wonder if Leahy knew about the WWE’s business relationship with its roster - via something like John Oliver’s pre-WrestleMania exposé on HBO’s Last Week Tonight - and steered Bayley into a bit of a “gotcha” moment*. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s pretty amazing to see a WWE partner even broach the subject with a talent, let alone promote an exchange which highlights wrestlers’ non-employee status. I imagine Fox will be better prepping future interviewers to not call attention to the thorny issue of their newest franchise’s approach to worker rights.
Or maybe not. Perhaps this is part of Fox wanting to present pro wrestling like a “real sport”, and WWE is okay with it. The storm which followed Oliver’s latest report was short-lived. Whatever flak they get from Leahy and Bayley’s exchange will probably capture even less attention.
It also shows how deeply ingrained the current promoter-wrestler model is in the culture of the business. Bayley, a lifelong fan, likely grew up on Wrestling Road Diaries-type stories, or at least heard them throughout her time at wrestling school and on the independent circuit. Performers see them as a rite of passage, and a badge of honor. They don’t seem to view it as exploitative, like mainstream entertainment industry types like Oliver and Leahy do.
Wrestlers accept their contractor status, fans get upset when they’re reminded of it but quickly return to tuning in and buying tickets (and even watching content that romanticizes some of the practices, like WWE Network’s Ride Along series), and business continues as usual.
Leahy’s shock is unlikely to break the cycle. But we’ll see.
How many viral moments does it take to create real change?
* UPDATE: The clip - posted by the show’s Twitter account and quote-Tweeted by Leahy - has been deleted. So, in the admittedly unlikely event this was a designed segment meant to trigger this discussion, the host’s bosses at Fox and their counterparts at WWE clearly didn’t know about or approve it in advance.
Here’s the original courtesy of journalist David Bixenspan:
Here’s the clip from Kristine Leahy’s interview with Bayley—tweeted Thursday by her FS1 show’s official account and then deleted within the last hour—where a relative softball question stumbled into Leahy being shocked by WWE talent driving themselves and not having a union. pic.twitter.com/w1t8j3SsG6— David Bixenspan (@davidbix) July 13, 2019