by David Beard with John Heppen
Wrestling is an athletic performing art where the winners of the matches are prearranged. Wrestlers require athletic skill and physical training: be very careful in telling a pro wrestler that what he or she does is “fake.” It would be like telling Sir Ian McKellan that what he does is fake. Wrestling has been called a form of theatre (Rinehart, 1998; Craven and Moseley, 1972). While each match appears to be a competition, the goal is not to win, but to perform. Theatricality is visible when wrestlers adopt a gimmick or character, used to tell a story to build drama and interest. Matches are staged between the audience favorite, known as a “babyface” or “face,” and an antagonist (or “heel”). The rivalry is given an underlying plot: the wrestlers may be competing for love or avenging a wrong (or perceived wrong). Plots or storylines range from personal grudges to metaphorical conflicts (e.g. between anti-Americanism and patriotism). Longer story arcs result from multiple matches over time – long-standing feuds build interest in future matches. The goal is to create a reason for fans to come to the next show and see what happens next and become hooked.
Across sports and media, “fans follow their [sport] around the clock, eagerly scouring television, newspapers, radio, and online portals” (Bryant & Cummins, 2010, p. 218). Like fans of Twilight or Star Trek, they communicate on the internet through discussion boards, blogs, videos, social networking sites, and more. Fans buy merchandise; they write impassioned reviews, they produce ‘zines and comics about the object of their passion, they take photographs: they create! These creations are part of what sustains the community of of fans of local wrestling, a community that depends on a sense of intimate connection impossible for national promotions.
Local Pro Wrestling Depends on the Community of Fans
Local promotions are dependent on ticket revenues. Promoters cannot afford to rent large, stadium-style venues and would not be able to attract a large enough crowd to fill such a venue. Instead, they stage shows in armories, American Legion and VFW halls, commercial banquet halls, nightclubs and smaller music venues, community centers, or gymnasiums. During the warmer months rings may be set outside on bar parking lots or at county fairs and festivals. Promoters offer low wages; wrestlers struggle to pay their bills and risk living out of their car if they try to make a go of being entirely and only a working pro wrestler. During the intermission (and before and after the show), some wrestlers sell autographed photographs, pictures with fans and t-shirts to supplement income from designated areas referred to as “gimmick tables.”
It is working the gimmick tables that audience and wrestlers communicate, fostering the sense of community that turns a passive audience member into a fan. They communcate mostly in “kayfabe,” the term used for the fiction of pro wrestling. Within kayfabe, pros and fans talk about matches and where they are working next. The fan speaks to the wrestler in-character. A wrestler with strong fan connection can sometimes receive “loud pops” (cheers from the audience) that signals to the promoter the popularity of the wrestler.
Revised from an essay in Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization Exploring the Fandemonium, edited by Adam C. Earnheardt, Paul M. Haridakis, Barbara S. Hugenberg
Lexington Books, 2012