Rumors are swirling regarding the flight delay that the WWE wrestlers struggled through when attempting to leave Saudi Arabia. The plane’s maintenance issues came to light only after Vince McMahon had already jetted out of the Kingdom. Predictably, Brock Lesnar’s private charter wasn’t effected, either. Wrestlers tweeted their frustration and a narrative emerged alleging a dispute caused by Saudi payment delays. According to the rumor, Vince pulled the plug on the show’s broadcast out to Saudi Arabian audiences until a deal was struck. The Royal Family’s reaction led to delaying most of the roster from leaving the country until it ruined the WWE’s SmackDown broadcast plans of Friday night. Consider this action a Saudi warning shot across McMahon’s metaphorical bow.
Predictably, the WWE denied all rumors choosing instead to announce that their deal with Saudi Arabia would go until 2027. For those keeping track, the original announcement two years ago was of a ten year deal. It was a pointless announcement – why inform us that the deal is still a ten year agreement? That's what it was two years ago, no need for a "newsflash" - but I’m not a wrestling promoter. Soon after the denial of any issues emanated from the WWE, a full roster meeting was called – which is opposite response one would expect from a company having no issues. Why initiate such a meeting? After all these rumors and responses, we all need to remember that Vince McMahon lives in kayfabe, so any official WWE communication needs to be looked at with a circumspect eye.
At this meeting, Seth Rollins appears to have reframed the setting of his continuous audition for Vince McMahon’s approval to become The Official Leader of the WWE Locker Room. Instead of being the overly zealous WWE advocate/cheerleader-in-chief on Twitter, who is constantly attacking wrestlers from other promotions, Seth spoke to the entire roster. He reportedly attacked the practice of airing dirty laundry on social media. It doesn’t stretch credulity to assume that the irony of Seth’s content was lost on both Vince and Seth. One would love to have been a fly on the wall in that session though. The purpose of this transformation would not be to hear Seth’s words, but it would be to see the response of Seth’s fellow wrestlers in real time as they listened to Seth’s words.
Beyond their reaction to Seth, what was going through the minds of WWE wrestlers as they were held in Saudi Arabia? How did it affect them when they knew Vince had already high-tailed it back to the USA? Did they feel like they were less valuable than Brock Lesnar and others of the WWE Universe who were able to charter a plane and get out the country as well? What response did the wrestlers really have? What could they do if they were truly upset? I have one idea. It's an idea that comes with huge risks and huge rewards. I say unionize.
Years ago Jessie “the Body” Ventura allegedly tried to unionize the WWE wrestlers. The story goes that Hulk Hogan got word to Vince this was happening. Jessie was fired and Hulk cemented his relationship with Vince to levels greater than it had ever been. There is no doubt any wrestler(s) even floating the idea is at extreme risk of being fired, or being injured by another wrestler, or both. Why would I suggest this be the time to try to unionize?
For the first time in twenty years, Vince McMahon doesn’t hold all the cards. Unlike the past, there are leverage points that give the wrestlers an opening that they might be able to exploit:
AEW has burst into existence. Vince does not want to fire wrestlers that could jump ship directly into the arms of AEW. The presence of another wrestling federation is problematic for Vince. It provides a landing spot for wrestlers to make WWE level money (previously impossible). Even worse, AEW is fully supported and promoted by TNT on a variety of platforms and it is doing well in the ratings, despite being a total newcomer to the marketplace. While AEW doesn’t want to become the Island of Misfit WWE Wrestlers, a few key pickups would really help the roster. Vince’s hands are tied more than they have been since the WCW was in full swing in the late 1990s.
Other wrestling promotions are making televised inroads. Impact wrestling is on Tuesday nights on AXS. New Japan has it’s unique vision of wrestling is on Friday nights on AXS. Ring of Honor is shown on Sinclair stations nationwide. Heck, even Billy Corrigan’s relaunched NWA has its own YouTube show that earned 500,000 views on its initial program offering. These and other federations could use WWE level names to give them a boost in ratings and legitimacy.
The WWE has three shows on live television each week. The WWE needs to fill seven hours of programming. Vince needs wrestlers to perform in these three shows. There are now three WWE brands – RAW, SmackDown, and NXT on television – with all those hours to fill, Vince can’t afford to lose many established stars. McMahon may lament the lack of stars who are capable of crossing over to the mainstream. Wrestlers like the Rock, Cena, or even Stone Cold Steve Austin don't exist in this generation. The reality is Vince can’t afford to lose his current stars. Even if he considers today's stars to be a shadow of past greats, it’s all the WWE has.
Vince is still the master at negotiating contracts. Even with dropping ratings, the revenue streams coming in from RAW on USA, SmackDown on Fox, and NXT on USA are massive. The WWE touts these large revenue streams repeatedly. This public admission of huge amounts of cash flowing into WWE coffers means if there is ever a time wrestlers to say they’ve earned the right to healthcare, pension plans, getting travel costs paid, and other standard benefits, this would be time.
Realize the idea to unionize is part plain old crazy, but it also crazy like a fox. Fans would support the reforms that the wrestlers would be asking for. The top guys would still make more money than the typical, average wrestlers – just like the players do in the major sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. There are narratives that everyday Americans can easily buy into that would help the wrestlers build public support:
Fans recognize the wrestlers pay a considerable physical price for their wrestling careers.
WWE wrestlers have very little time off – especially considering the physical challenges this professional requires. Many folks forget the weekend house shows that add to this physical toll despite not being televised.
Vince McMahon is not a sympathetic opponent in the setting of a public labor negotiation. Arrogant billionaire personas are hard to escape.
As noted earlier, the huge WWE revenue stream is hard to ignore - especially without corresponding pay raises for the wrestlers.
The challenge would be finding wrestlers who would band together. What do they have to lose? If a wrestler were to be fired, he or she could be employed by the end of the day.
Sometimes, you just have to have a vision and the ability to sell it to your peers. If everyone were on board, it would work. Like the NBA and NFL, the stars don't have much to gain, but the rank and file would really benefit.
Sadly, it won’t happen, but there are a lot of legitimate reasons that it should. With the abuse these wrestlers are asked to take by WWE leadership, it’s only fair to get the wrestlers the healthcare needed to heal from the bumps they have to withstand.