Wrestlers put their life on the line in the ring, day in, day out to make their audiences happy. They live larger-than-life lifestyles because they want to make captivating TV with their stunning wrestling moves. They’re experts at self-promotion because they want to make you buy into the kayfabe of modern wrestling.
In other words, wrestlers are really, really good marketers.
Move sets, public personas, promotions, and stories are the building blocks that wrestlers use to build their identity. It’s an exercise in branding, all in the hope to receive a shower of boos or cheers as they enter the ring so they can ultimately rise to the top of their profession.
Wrestlers turn themselves into products to meet the demands of their industry. Just like in every other industry, there is a process of research and development before products are ready to sell. Wrestlers know this about their profession, even if they don’t use words like “brand”, “product”, or “industry” to describe their lives.
But what if there was a manual that taught wrestlers how to market themselves? What would that look like?
How the modern wrestling industry works
Wrestling is an incredibly diverse industry. So much so that a more precise term to describe it would be sports entertainment. Wrestling isn’t just about pinning someone down in the ring. It’s about storytelling, heroes and villains, the past, the present, and the future. We see this in the bombastic story arcs of WWE and the unscripted rawness of AEW.
Just look at the current landscape of the wrestling industry and you will see over 100 promotions across the USA, Japan, Mexico, and the UK. You want over-the-top storytelling, there’s a company for it. You want something raw, bloody, and real, there’s a company for it. If you want masked wrestlers, you can find them. A wrestler must decide which market they fit in best, and find a way to position themselves to succeed in it.
Wrestlers who play by the unspoken norms of the industry usually do well. Wrestlers who don’t tend to have poor bookings and are sometimes released from their wrestling company of choice. So wrestlers must find the promotions (kind of like contracts) they’re a fit for – a concept that marketers would call product-market fit.
With the basics of modern wrestling established, let’s now talk about the steps you might find in a hypothetical How to Be a Wrestler textbook.
Step 1: Find a market (a wrestling company where you will fit in)
To clarify, I am not a wrestler, but I have been a fan of wrestling for over ten years. From my years of watching wrestling, this is my observation of how wrestlers begin their careers.
Wrestlers work as independent contractors instead of employees which is an important distinction that means the employer has limited control over the wrestler’s work. Each wrestling promotion will have different contracts and conditions for their wrestlers to agree to. Some wrestlers even sign onto contractors that pay on a per-appearance basis.
Wrestling in the squared circle is like being an actor on set. It’s a place for all wrestlers to make their names in the industry. But as we said earlier, there are a lot of rings to wrestle in. This is a double-edged sword because while there are a smorgasbord of places to work, a wrestler also has to choose where they will fit in.
Trying to decide where you will fit in takes patience and experimentation. In the world of wrestling, wrestlers do this by working in multiple promotions.
Learn how to wrestle
A person has to go to wrestling school to become a wrestler. Yes, wrestling school is a thing – and it needs to be! A lot of training happens before a wrestler gets their first match because sports entertainment is a physically tasking and dangerous job.
As independent contractors, injuries are especially dangerous. Not only do the injuries hurt and cost money to heal, but wrestlers also lose time, paychecks, and visibility in the industry as they lay in the hospital or at home. Therefore, a wrestler has to learn how to wrestle safely, or else they won’t be very successful in the long run.
That said, remember that the wrestling world has a lot of unspoken rules, but not necessarily formal ones. You can break them, and everything in this hypothetical wrestling textbook needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Case in point: Danhausen has a goofy gimmick that allowed him to perform and stay in the media even when injured.
Once a wrestler has trained enough to start getting booked, they will start at indie shows as a jobber. That means wrestling in gyms, concert halls, car parks, or any other place that gives them a chance. It’s all part of the slow process of building awareness and drawing attention, essentials in the marketing of any new product.
But like working for exposure, this will only get you so far. You have to differentiate yourself from the rest of the wrestlers to stand out. This requires time and patience as you hone your talent and find a gimmick that functions as your unique selling proposition and helps you find a niche.
Graduate and find a wrestling company
Sooner or later, a wrestler will refine their talent and gimmick well enough to get booked into higher profile matches in bigger and bigger companies. To non-wrestling fans reading, it may be a surprise that this would represent the height of wrestler’s career. But bear in mind that booking with a big wrestling company isn’t even necessary like it used to be. It’s just prestigious. The indie scene, by contrast, is better than ever, and wrestlers can make a living going from promotion to promotion, like a side hustle complete with Twitch streams and merchandising.
Even though the indies are great, many indie wrestlers are looking for that TV contract. They want to sign with a big name like WWE or AEW. This is where a wrestler would get the biggest spotlight, more money, and the power to achieve their dreams.
Step 2: Become a sellable product (by giving your company good reasons to promote you)
Let’s say you’ve signed on with a big company. Now it’s time to give them a reason to give you promotions.
I originally wrote about the two biggest names in the industry: AEW and WWE. AEW is a super indie company that appeals to fans of bloody, workrate wrestling. They serve an adult audience whereas WWE is focused more on entertainment, drama, PG-rated sports entertainment. What works for WWE won’t work for AEW and vice versa.
In America, Game Changer Wrestling (GCW), has gained incredible traction for its deathmatch, indie wrestling, and “shoot-style wrestling”. It’s a blend of unique and familiar wrestling that stokes wrestling fan interest by putting known names in new situations. That’s how GCW picks up customers.
Of course, there is wrestling outside of the US too, including New Japan Wrestling in Japan and Triple AAA in Mexico. Both have a target audience of their own, with unique fans who have certain interests.
The big point here: give your wrestling company exactly what they want. Know who their audience is, and work your way up the ranks by giving them a reason to give you promotions.
Customers have to pay subscription services and go through paywalls to watch shows by some of these wrestling companies. Some piracy aside, viewers of some of these companies are quite set on seeing a specific type of wrestling. So much so that they’re willing to pay extra for yet another streaming service to see it. Give them what they want!
Step 3: Build a brand (by gaining fans and giving them the kayfabe they want)
Remember: wrestlers are independent contractors. As much as they want to be on the good graces of the companies that hand out promotions, they are ultimately accountable to themselves. A wrestler is always in competition with other wrestlers not for company attention, but for fans. That means wrestlers need to build fanbases that boo and cheer for more than just one match.
Yes, working up the ranks of a company will get you the promotions you need to be successful. But that alone won’t put you in the history books. A wrestler’s product, after all, is every performance delivered in and out of the ring. It’s in every behavior, every moment in the ring and in the interviews afterward.
A wrestler will eventually need to craft a unique persona and develop their own kayfabe. They want people to think of them as a babyface (good guy) or bad guy (heel). Otherwise, you’re just “Nameless Wrestler #1,817” when the match is over.
Cody Rhodes is a good example of a wrestler with a brand. He is very strangely on the line of both good and bad guy who gets what can only be called a “cheeryboo.” His entrance is long and epic as he comes out of the floor to his music with a pyro show so intense that it would scare every dog in your neighborhood.
You would think from this entrance that he is a good guy. He’s got the epic music, the hot women at his side, and the coach cheering him on. And you would not be wrong in thinking he was good, but the glorious thing about wrestling is that you don’t know sometimes. Wrestlers can defy simple classification.
Cody Rhodes is very aware of his brand and his audience – smart and dedicated fans of the industry. He’s got the audience skewered, and is turning them on a hot campfire whenever he needs heat, and off the fire when he wants to be a good guy.
Be like Cody Rhodes in one respect: carve out an identity no one else has.
Learn to be telegenic
TV deals are very lucrative. Wrestling promotions with AEW can mean an eight-figure payday according to PWInsider. So if you want to make the big bucks, you need to be good enough to push up TV ratings.
A wrestling show is between 1-3 hours with wrestling matches normally going for 11-20 minutes, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. It all depends on the stipulation, the number of people in the match, and other factors. No matter how much time you have, this is your moment to shine. Answer the question of “why should I be invested in this wrestler on my TV screen?”
It starts with the promotion’s storyline, and it’s up to the wrestler to bring it to life.
What’s important to note is that if the domestic audience in the stadium is invested then the audience at home will echo the same feelings. Therefore, the good guy wrestlers, – whose job is to get the crowd to cheer, chant for them, and perform impressive flippy moves – must perform their job well and defeat the villain. As for a bad guy, they are going to poke the eyes, distract the referee, get angry, and do hateable things like stomping on the head of another wrestler. All to paint themselves as someone you want to hate.
Then beyond the square circle, the wrestlers retain the fan’s interest in the storyline by talking in the ring and backstage with other wrestlers to stoke the fires of the storyline. Wrestlers don’t break the kayfabe – the storyline continues in the ring, backstage, and in the press. It’s a way of ensuring customer retention because you want the audience to be hooked on your brand.
Use stipulation matches and blood to bring fandom to a fever pitch
Once a storyline has developed to a point that there has to be a definitive winner in the feud, then stipulations come into play. It’s the ultimate crowd-pleaser.
These matches can also make a wrestler without much interest into a star and stars into megastars. It can also subvert the fan’s expectations and entice new fans to watch. For example, stipulation matches are the only place you’ll see women in a lights-out deathmatch on TV.
Then there’s also the controversial practice of drawing blood in the ring. In wrestling, spilling actual blood is like the horror genre in the film industry. Some people love it, others hate it. Depends on what your audience likes and what the company you’re working for is willing to put up with.
But people who love blood, really love it. It’s the perfect tool to show how brutal the wrestlers are and it makes memorable television. And the wrestlers can use that blood, look dead into the camera, laugh, and position themselves as absolute badass.
At that moment the audience watching at home is now glued to the screen or cowering behind a cushion. Either way, they have accomplished an emotional connection with the audience and that’s a win.
Step 4: Find a life outside of the ring (because you can’t wrestle forever)
Wrestlers put their bodies on the line day in, day out but, a wrestler has a lifespan just like a product does on a shelf. And it’s a damn short one at that. Your career in this highly physical sport can end in a split second. Even if doesn’t, sometimes a wrestler gets to an age where they can’t compete or choose to leave it behind.
But wrestling doesn’t have to be the end of the line. To be a successful wrestler, you have to build an audience and a brand. That doesn’t just go away if you get injured or grow old. There are options outside of the ring. Three wrestlers that come to mind are The Rock, John Cena, and Kane.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson first appeared in the movie The Scorpion King in 2001 though he is more famously known for his popcorn movies and the Fast and Furious series. His acting career has brought in over $6 billion in worldwide box office sales through ten films with an eleventh coming out in 2023.
Another wrestler that is difficult to see is John Cena has been a bastion of charity who has granted over 650 wishes to kids. This is incredible as a lot of kids looked up to John Cena back when he was wrestling in WWE.
In an even weirder career pivot, Glenn Thomas Jacobs became the mayor of Knox County, Tennessee in 2018. He leveraged his fame to become mayor of the county that holds the 64th largest metro area in the US. He has said he feels that he’s making a positive impact in his community and has no interest in stepping up for a presidential role.
That’s just the wrestlers who decided to move away from the ring entirely too. There are many older wrestlers in the industry that still do occasional appearances in matches too. One example of this would be the Rock and Roll Express doing a farewell tour.
Wrestlers are talented marketers who turn themselves into living products. It takes time to learn the craft, find a niche, start working with a company, and build a brand. But the payoff can be enormous if it’s done well. Wrestlers can even build lasting careers from their work, branching into film, charity, politics, and other varied pursuits.
So next time you see two muscular people beating the hell out of each other on live TV, take a moment to stop and appreciate that they both may as well have MBAs in Marketing.