Vince McMahon and the WWE recently announced that the company would be banning their performers from using third-party accounts, such as YouTube and Twitch. While I don’t subscribe to wrestler channels on those platforms, they’re very popular with a growing percentage of the fanbase. Whether they’re gaming channels on Twitch or comedy channels on YouTube, they’ve provided a creative outlet for performers who aren’t otherwise given the opportunity to showcase their individuality, due to the WWE’s insistence that the fan perception of their characters be strictly controlled. Part of this is due to a very traditionalist view of kayfabe, but, more obviously, it’s about revenue streams and the problematic nature of the performer’s status as independent contractors.
In industry-speak, “kayfabe” is the practice of presenting staged performances as real or authentic. This used to be held up as an unbreakable rule, as if the industry would collapse with the curtain pulled back, but people aren’t stupid. It’s obvious to anyone that what they’re seeing isn’t “real”. Like watching a movie, what makes it real is the audience’s willingness to invest in the story being told and come along for the ride. While it’s important for performers to stick to the nuances of their characters as faces or heels in-ring, it’s ridiculous to demand strict adherence when outside of it. Actors don’t stay in character after the movie comes out. Since launching their own streaming service, the company itself has made a frequent habit of breaking the kayfabe rule for exclusive documentaries and reality shows. There’s no actual principle beyond monetization. From WWE:
Much like Disney and Warner Bros., WWE creates, promotes and invests in its intellectual property, i.e. the stage names of performers like The Fiend Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Big E and Braun Strowman. It is the control and exploitation of these characters that allows WWE to drive revenue, which in turn enables the company to compensate performers at the highest levels in the sports entertainment industry. Notwithstanding the contractual language, it is imperative for the success of our company to protect our greatest assets and establish partnerships with third parties on a companywide basis, rather than at the individual level, which as a result will provide more value for all involved.
Don’t be fooled, the actual rule the WWE lives by is their bottom line. They claim ownership of their performers very likenesses, so any money generated by an individual through a third-party is considered detrimental to that bottom line. In the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the WWE’s touring schedule has all but halted. Despite wrestlers putting their bodies and health at risk so the company can fulfill it’s television contracts, many of them have taken huge financial hits. The standard WWE contract pays talent for each event worked supplemented by royalties from direct merchandise sales and licensed products. No fans or touring means those sales have plummeted. In response, many wrestlers had seen Twitch streaming and other platforms as the perfect solution.
However, the WWE was further able to contractually pull the rug out from under their performers’ feet due to their classification as “independent contractors”. They’re not technically employed by WWE, but are completely blocked from wrestling for other promotions. This classification also means that WWE talent are not entitled to workers’ compensation if they are hurt during a match and the company has no legal obligation to pay it’s wrestlers benefits, taxes, or insurance. This exploitation has brought renewed calls for unionization within the industry. WWE has benefited from this exploitation for decades, but social media in the age of Covid-19 may just bring the change the industry desperately needs.