Not the Only Show in Town: Why WWE May Find Themselves Headlocked into Exploring Talent Contract Restructuration or Unionization

Mar 1, 2019

By Nicholas Davidson
As WWE recently signed a five-year $2 billion television deal with FOX, the independent wrestling scene in North America and Japan outside of the publically traded sports entertainment giant has also been growing. Newly upstart All Elite Wrestling, comprised of many of the top Non-WWE signed wrestlers from both the North American and Japanese circuits, is a well-financed endeavor backed by prominent billionaire businessman, philanthropist, owner of the NFL franchise Jacksonville Jaguars, and English Premier League club Fulham FC Shahid “Shad” Khad. AEW is promising to provide talent with more favorable contractual terms in opposition to WWE such as health insurance and lessening the gender wage gap. In addition, the recent announcement of the multi-year contract signing of longtime WWE main event level performer and future Hall of Fame talent Chris Jericho, who has described the contract on his podcast Talk is Jericho as being the best of his career, has shown that AEW is willing to match or surpass what WWE is willing to bring to the table. With the formation of AEW currently well underway and perhaps a network television deal on the horizon, the question arises of if WWE will need to restructure their own contracts or perhaps explore the long-debated topic of endorsing the unionization of its talent in order to avoid talent defections to the start up.
Currently, professional wrestlers, particularly in this instance those who are employees of the WWE are considered by their employer to be filed under the title of independent contractors. Under such a title, WWE is not held under contractual obligation to offer its wrestlers (or “superstars” as they are more commonly referred to) traditional employment benefits such as health insurance, tax support, pension plans/contributions, etc. Also, under this distinction, wrestlers who are signed to WWE are held so under exclusivity rights that do not permit them to accept bookings for other wrestling promotions or appear in advertising that does not meet WWE approval. Such stipulations contradict the traditional assumptions of what being an independent contractor entails. At a minimum under those terms, one might expect that these wrestlers would be able to accept independent bookings to supplement their income further.
Beyond the lack of insurance and benefit offerings from WWE, there is no current talent advocacy organization. Whereas each of the four major sports leagues in North America (NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB) have union representation via players associations, the WWE possesses no such organization that acts as an advocate for talent interest. If AEW is willing to offer the benefits it is claiming it will to its talent, the formation of a talent union within the WWE that is endorsed by the company could be an explored option to keep talent on the fence from jumping over into Khan’s yard.
In order to form a union under the current situation in which WWE as an organization is not endorsing the practice, it would require an invested effort by wrestlers within the WWE to go about establishing one. This has long been a taboo topic dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the efforts of wrestlers such as Jesse “The Body” Ventura were reportedly ousted by peer talents within the company who were making enough money at the time that issues associated with being an independent contractor such as lack of company provided health insurance were not of concern. Similar stories have been whispered over the years in wrestler memoirs, highlighting the blackballed nature of proposing such an idea within the company. This example illustrates why the steps to establishing a union including convincing 30% of contracted talent to sign either cards or a petition advocating for such as recommended by the National Labor Relations Board may so difficult. Beyond even getting to the voting process, certification by the
NLRB may be even tougher as getting a majority vote would then be required. If the WWE as a company were to endorse its talent pursuing a union, and truly demonstrate that endorsement through collective efforts, could it result in talent formation of one?
An ongoing legal case in a realm similar to professional wrestling, that being the world of Mixed Martial Arts and industry giant Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), could set the precedent for the unionization of combat sports/sports entertainment organizations in North America. Former UFC fighter Leslie Smith after a fight cancellation developed Project Spearhead as a concentrated effort for the unionization of combat sports participants. However, this effort suffered a setback when the UFC responded by essentially buying out Smith’s contract following the development of the organization. Smith and her legal team have argued that the UFC implements fear tactics of blackballing from the organization with fighters that discourage them from pursuing unionization, such as has been discussed being the case within WWE. Within the courts, Smith and her efforts are currently in limbo as the national office of the NLRB rejected her claims of such violations by the UFC as of September 2018, which has resulted in her attorney requesting an appeal process to take place. If the appeal process is resolved in the near future, could it serve as catalyst for a WWE talent to pursue a similar argument and process?
With the ongoing development of AEW, How WWE will respond to their talent having an alternative option is what has yet to be seen.
Nicholas Davidson is a PhD student in the Sport Management program at Florida State University.


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