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By Mike Johnson on 2020-10-02 18:49:00

There is a moment in the classic Keanu Reeves film The Matrix, where Lawrence Fishburne’s character Morpheus offered Reeves’ character Neo the choice of a red pill or a blue pill.  If he takes the red pill, nothing will ever be the same.  If he takes the blue, everything will be as it was.

In many ways, that is the moment WWE talents are facing right now, except the only choice is the red pill and nothing will be the same.

In a situation that has grown increasingly frustrating for talents who have used Twitch as a way to build their personal brands (and been paid well to do so), WWE, in preparation for launching their own larger scale Twitch presence has all but told those talents that they will be handing the channels over to WWE or be in violation of their WWE contracts.

In the eyes of those talents, there is no blue pill.

In speaking to several talents today under the condition of anonymity, their frustrations were varied.  

For some, it was that they had been encouraged to build their own brand and now see them being absorbed into the WWE machine, losing some of the independence those accounts afforded them. 

For some, it’s that they were told a month ago that as long as they maintained their social media brands under their own real life names, it wouldn’t be an issue.  That sign of relief has disappeared after just four short weeks

For some, it’s losing the income that has helped support them, knowing full well that once WWE takes over, they will never make the same level of money again from their Twitch endeavors.   Even with the 50% Twitch would take from subscriptions and tips, for some, it was quite substantial.  Under WWE’s purview, they will receive whatever percentage the company pays out, and as some fear, that’s only if that money exceeds their downside guarantees, since Twitch would now fall under that umbrella.

However, the one connecting frustration across all talents who are upset is the realization that they will soon be required to stream and appear on Twitch as part of their WWE booking contracts.  All of the talents told a very similar story, which is that they have been informed that even if they now chose to shutter their personal accounts instead of letting WWE take them over, they will still be booked to appear and stream as part of WWE’s planned larger-scale Twitch presence going forward.  So, like a casino, either way, the house wins.

Once WWE’s new Twitch strategy manifests, talent appearances will be just another appearance by the company - no different from a match on a house show or an autograph signing in the pre-COVID days - and would not result in an extra payday.  Instead, those Twitch appearances will morph into another requirement of the talents’ booking contracts as part of their downside guarantee.  Instead of being the home they built for themselves, Twitch will instead be someone else’s property.

When you look on the other side of the coin, one can understand why WWE is making these moves.  After all, they themselves have lost sizable revenue from live events, VIP signings, etc.  Yes, they are making more revenue than ever before based on their TV deals, empowered even more by cutbacks they have made in the post-COVID world.  Still, there had to be new ways to make revenue as they try to navigate the new reality of producing content for a touring company that can no longer tour.

At the end of the day, WWE is a publicly traded company and like a vampire, there is an insatiable hunger.  Public companies don’t rest on their laurels if they want to be successful.  They have a never ending need to grow, to evolve and to quite frankly, squeeze more value out of themselves for their stockholders  - even in today's insane climate - and something has to give under that pressure.  For the talents we’ve spoken to, however, what is being crushed under that pressure is their money and their peace of mind.

Still, in the eyes of WWE, the moves are closing something of a loophole that has existed over the past 2-3 years.   WWE has decided to settle the Wild, Wild West of the online platforms in order to ensure that the flow of money and attention comes through their doors.   They will be the sheriff going forward.  One can understand why WWE wants that loophole closed from their perspective - because in their mind, they are the lifeblood for those talents - and without WWE’s platform to begin with, those talents don’t become stars.  

Of course, one can argue the exact opposite and in the end we’d be right back where we started.  There is always going to be a push and pull between promoter and talent.  Pro wrestlers always think they are worth more than they are being paid, they always want to be pushed harder and they want to be the star.  That is part of human nature, a push to be grander and greater, especially in the stranger than fiction world that is pro wrestling.  Meanwhile, promoters want to get the most they can out of their talents, because it’s their show and they want to make the most they can for their dollar.  In professional wrestling, this is the way.

However, for the talents we have spoken with, this time feels different.   Twitch was a platform where talents could carve out their own little corner of the world, have a direct one on one relationship with their fans and be paid for it.    One talent even joked that they realized on the outside looking in, they knew someone would say they are just mad about losing money when they are already making more than they ever could have hoped for when they broke into professional wrestling.  They admitted they could see why one would say that, but stated that losing that ability to cut back and have fun streaming was more than just losing extra money.  It was a place where they could be themselves and be proud of something they built, something that will now be replaced by a new version where they stream under WWE’s rules and parameters, spending the same time and making the same effort, but losing not just the same money but the same sense of satisfaction that came with the success of their Twitch accounts.     Watching that sense of satisfaction being “bulldozed over” as one talent described it, to them, it feels as if they are being punished for becoming successful beyond WWE.  

Whether that is the reality or not, for talents, some of whom stated that on good months, they could bring in revenue close to their regular WWE salaries, this pill is indeed becoming quite the bitter one to follow - and just like Neo, what happens once they do has yet to be explored.


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