Today WrestleMania is a sprawling, all-encompassing celebration of wrestling that effectively takes over a city one weekend every year, but it hasn’t always been this way. WrestleMania used to just be a show. It was one single show in the spring thrown by one wrestling company to blow off a year’s worth of storylines while also hopefully pulling in some mainstream media attention. It wasn’t even always on Sundays. That’s what WrestleMania was for over twenty years, a full two-thirds of its life so far.
That started to change a little over a decade ago. WWE itself added a preshow fan fair at the end of the 1980s, but starting in 2004 its Hall of Fame induction ceremony became the company’s first stab at turning WrestleMania into a multi-night affair. It took promotions outside WWE to truly turn WrestleMania from one major show into the WrestleMania weekend we know today, though.
Gabe Sapolsky was one of the key people responsible for that change. Sapolsky, the co-founder of top indie promotion EVOLVE and Vice-President of Talent Relations for the World Wrestling Network umbrella of indies, has had a long career in independent wrestling. He worked for ECW back in the 1990s and co-created Ring of Honor in 2002. He was in charge of Ring of Honor when they booked their first WrestleMania weekend show in Chicago in 2006. When other promotions saw how successful ROH was that weekend, they started to plan their own WrestleMania adjacent shows, and within a few years the current status quo had been established. WrestleMania wasn’t just a so-called Super Bowl of wrestling where you could see the biggest stars in the industry in a massive football stadium; it became a chance for the most dedicated wrestling fans to see the future of the business, from the next top stars to the next hot promotions, distilled into a single three-day marathon of wrestling.
Paste recently spoke to Sapolsky about WrestleMania weekend, its impact on independent wrestling, and how it grew into the defining weekend of the year for not just WWE but basically ever other promotion, too.
Paste: I stopped watching wrestling regularly after the deaths of WCW and ECW. When I got back into it in 2009, one of the biggest changes was how WrestleMania went from just one company’s show to a pivotal weekend for the entire industry. As somebody who was a crucial part of it, how would you summarize that process for a lapsed fan?
Gabe Sapolsky: It was a slow process over the course of several years. It started when I was with Ring of Honor and we piggybacked off WrestleMania in Chicago in 2006. That’s when we brought Dragon Gate in for the first time, and they had the six-man match that just blew everybody away. It started a tradition of having these alternative shows. Then it grew slowly over the years.
I parted ways with ROH, and when that happened I formed Dragon Gate USA, and since we had run those matches with Dragon Gate on WrestleMania weekend, and since I had run shows with Ring of Honor, we started doing Dragon Gate USA on WrestleMania weekend, and Ring of Honor kept doing their own shows. So then it turned into two promotions doing this. At the same time WrestleMania just kept getting bigger and bigger every year. WrestleMania used to be in arenas. It grew into a stadium event, so that became more of a destination place for fans to go. And then it grew again with NXT. Other promotions and independents saw the success that we had and they started piggybacking off of it, so it’s just something that morphed through the years to become what it is right now.
A lot of it has to do with the growth of WrestleMania itself, becoming that stadium destination event. Most fans I believe probably buy tickets and plan their trips to WrestleMania every year before even knowing what the card is. It’s just the place to go.
It really is my favorite weekend of the year because normally us wrestling folks are in the background of society or shunned a little bit. We’re outcasts of society. And you go to one of these cities on WrestleMania weekend, and everywhere you go—restaurants, bars, just walking the streets—it’s just filled with people wearing wrestling shirts and going to wrestling events and there are wrestlers themselves all over the cities. I ran into my old friend Dean Ambrose at a restaurant last year. A city just becomes 100% all about professional wrestling for that week. It’s just awesome to be a part of it. It’s almost like wrestling people just take over the city.
Paste: For EVOLVE and WWN, how crucial is this weekend to your year, in terms of both the bottom line and growing fan awareness?
Sapolsky: It’s the same as Black Friday for retail. That’s the most effective analogy I can think to put it in mainstream views. It’s a weekend that will make or break our entire year. We’ve never had a bad weekend, it’s always been a positive, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger every year. I was actually a little bit concerned this year because there are a lot more events to spread the fans out, and in addition, last year in Dallas it was a bigger stadium, so just by the nature of things there will be less people in town this year because it’s a smaller stadium. However our numbers are ahead of where they were last year, so I’m really proud of that. It shows that we’ve built a strong brand and built loyalty from the fans and that’s something that we never take for granted.
Paste: WWN is going to be crowning its first champion at the WWN Supershow on Saturday. Why is this the right time to establish an overarching championship for the entire WWN family of promotions?
Sapolsky: We started our new streaming deal on FloSlam.tv in November, and that’s basically allowed us to produce a lot more content. Before EVOLVE was pretty much our central promotion, and it still is. But now with FloSlam.tv we have Style Battle, we have FIP, which has been around but I’m back in creative control of, we have ACW, WWN Supershow, Shine… basically we have several different promotions, or brands, under the WWN banner that are a lot more high profile because of the FloSlam.tv deal. We decided it’d be a cool idea to have one champion that could travel to the different promotions and defend the WWN title, kind of like the old NWA champion. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s each promotion would have its own champion, but the NWA champion would travel around and defend everywhere, so we thought that would be a cool thing to try with a new WWN title and an emphasis on all the WWN promotions.
Paste: Could we see that title defended on other promotions with FloSlam deals that aren’t necessarily an official part of WWN?
Sapolsky: Definitely. It’s also a way to spread the WWN name, and send the champion out to different promotions and create more awareness for FloSlam.tv and WWN.
Paste: Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a huge flourishing of indie wrestling, driven heavily by the internet and streaming services. At the same time, WWE’s been more interested in indie talent than ever before. How do you think WWE has impacted the indie scene over the last few years?
Sapolsky: [WWE]’s had a huge positive effect. It starts with NXT. We saw a direct correlation between the rise in popularity of NXT and interest in the independents. I was overwhelmed when I went to NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, and I walk into the Barclays Center that day and I did not see a WWE crowd. I saw a crowd that I had not seen at anything besides indie wrestling in a long time. Probably since ECW days. Younger people, people in their twenties, mostly male, people who want a harder edged style of wrestling, and instead of there being a couple hundred of them at an indie show, there were 15000 of them that day. The NXT exposure has brought that audience back out. That, correlating with Daniel Bryan and his success on the indies, and the other guys they’ve had there, might’ve gotten people interested in the indies, and then WWE itself started putting over the indies and mentioning they’ve us. They’ve done a great job with EVOLVE in the last 18 months or so, giving us a lot of publicity on WWE.com. They’ve done the same with Progress and other groups, as well. That’s created a lot of awareness. Couple that with, when you look at the WWE roster, there’s a lot of emphasis on guys who have come up through the indies, like Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn. The list goes on and on now. They’re not shy about mentioning the indies, either, so that shines a huge spotlight on it.
I believe that WWE’s played a huge role in this added exposure for the independents and this resurgence that we’ve seen. At the same time there’s a lot of just amazing talent out there right now. I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and booking wrestling for 15 years, and this is easily the deepest talent pool that there’s been. Now, a guy like Matt Riddle is as much of a star as CM Punk was, or Samoa Joe, or Bryan Danielson. Zack Sabre Jr is one of the best I’ve seen. But once you get past the main events, it’s just this amazing pool of talent right now that’s really the best I’ve ever seen. You have these indies all over the country now that are taking regional hold of their city and area and they’ve spent some time growing it but coupled with this talent they’re doing a tremendous job growing in these individual markets, which is also rising the indie scene as well.
Paste: Do you think this could be a new baseline for the indie wrestling business, or is it just a peak in the cycle?
Sapolsky: The numbers are still down compared to what the heyday was of wrestling. In ECW if we had less than 1000 people at a show in the ‘90s then it was a failure. Although you have a lot of regional promotions doing well, you’re still dealing with 3, 4, 500 people considered a good crowd. To me, that’s still not a lot of people. It’s better than it’s been in recent years, but even compared to the early 2000s, they’re not great numbers. While all these promotions are doing well with those numbers, and I’m satisfied with those numbers, it does leave a lot of room for growth. The bottom line is that as long as the talent keeps rising to the occasion and as long as the promotions keep doing something interesting I think this is the bottom number that we’ll do and things will only rise.
For more information on EVOLVE and World Wrestling Network’s WrestleMania weekend events, visit MoreThanMania.com.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.