Music, Marvel & Megalodons: Wrestling’s Crossover Audiences by Max Grieve

I finally got around to watching Sharknado 4 recently. Wait! Come back!

I finally got around to watching Sharknado 4 recently. I, along with a group of friends, have a soft spot for crap shark films. We record them off the telly when one gets broadcast and gather periodically to watch them together. If you’re thinking of starting, I’d recommend Ghost Shark as an excellent entry point; the likes of Jurassic Shark are really only suitable for advanced practitioners. If sharks aren’t your thing, Mega Python vs Gatoroid is appealingly bad. It’s got Tiffany and Micky Dolenz from The Monkees in it.

Anyway, as many of you will probably be aware, the Sharknado series is the acceptable cultural mainstream face of the crap shark film. The Syfy channel commission a new one from producers The Asylum every year and, every year, they somehow get progressively less subtle and more absurd. This year’s offering – as the name suggests, the fourth such one – features a small part for WWE’s standout performer of this latest generation, Seth Rollins.

The appearance of Rollins (as an engineer for Astro-X, a tech company who can diffuse a Sharknado by… actually, let’s not go down that hole) drew a cheer from the room. Afterwards, however, it was agreed that his cameo wasn’t as awesome as Chris Jericho’s Bruce the Ride Attendant in Sharknado 3.


At this point I realised this is the same group of friends I’ve watched the last couple of WrestleManias with. And that got me thinking about wrestling’s crossover audiences. In the big Venn diagram of life, what shared-interest audiences are the best-known wrestling promotions playing to? How are they currently exploiting these, and by extension are any of them missing a trick?

Oh, and just a quick caveat that I’m discounting fans of combat sports and sports in general; I’m working to the assumption that this is the extended audience pro wrestling is commonly perceived to be competing to attract, so it isn’t a crossover. Also, there will be no actual Venn diagrams. Sorry. What, you think I’d try to do this scientifically?

For me there are three particular demographics that stand out.

1. Rock music

If you grew up watching wrestling in the Attitude Era, you could be forgiven for thinking this was pretty much the default crossover audience pro wrestling had. The cues were everywhere; the amount of leather, the amount of hair, the music in most video packages, the theme songs for pretty much all WWE and WCW shows.

In 2016 there’s a more eclectic mix out there – you’re probably more likely to see a rapper or hip-hop artist guesting on WWE programming these days than somebody from a rock band, while TNA’s Nashville country roots have occasionally shown through. However, there are signs that, in North American promotions at least, rock music is still top dog.

Prime proof of this is every Monday Night Raw open, ever. When WWE’s flagship weekly show got a refresh this summer, the new theme from Shinedown was as far into the safe musical territory set by all the previous Raw themes as it was possible to be. Monday Night Raw is without question the bellweather for North American wrestling. The day the WWE commission Flo Rida, Wale or Florida Georgia Line to provide a new Raw theme is the day I’ll believe wrestling’s dominant music crossover audience has changed.

Not that the signs suggest this is likely to happen. WWE’s heralded developmental territory, NXT, a window on the future in more ways than one, set up a popular and successful three-day residency at England’s Download Festival this summer while its chief Triple H collected the Spirit Of Lemmy Award on a main stage shared by the likes of Slipknot, Muse and Kiss.

Individual crossover success stories, like Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan moving from his own Chicago-based promotion to become a major player in TNA and Chris Jericho’s ability to balance in-ring and on-stage careers without even remotely half-assing either of them, are probably oddities. But with Triple H looking likely to end up the most influential man in the industry one day, once Vince McMahon is finally decommissioned, the ties between wrestling and rock look like they will endure.


2. Comic books

Comic books have never been more mainstream, with Marvel and DC both turning out high-grossing movies every year and affixing their protagonists to the general cultural consciousness.

Beyond a simplistic historical characterization of wrestling and wrestlers as ‘larger than life, colourful characters’ (seriously, the number of times I’ve seen that written in po-faced TV listings supplements), there are signs of strengthening ties between the industry and the comic world, from a certain former WWE Champion and imminently-debuting UFC competitor with a burgeoning sideline in writing for Marvel to regular in-person appearances by stars of the squared circle at Comic Cons.

Influences and impacts are also becoming more noticeable within wrestling. WWE ventured further into comic book themes than it had since the days of Shane Helms’ Hurricane in the booking of the feud between Stardust and Stephen Amell last year. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I feel a tinge of regret about that; although it’s understandable that Cody Runnels didn’t see the Stardust character as his true calling, it felt like a story that had more to give. The presentation of Finn Balor in his Demon incarnation – and its consensual popularity as the coolest gimmick in wrestling, certainly for the first half of his NXT run beyond question – also owes a lot to comic book influences.

Currently leading the way tapping into this audience, however, is Lucha Underground which returned to the El Rey Network this week for its third season. Lucha libre has always been possessed of an element of fantasy, but El Rey’s promotion has hewn its identity and appeal from distinctly comic book territory. Backstage segments are lit and shot like graphic novels. The storylines would have homes in various genres of cult fiction.

Even if Matt Striker hadn’t come out and made the literal comparison this week, Lucha Underground is certainly the nearest thing you’ll get to wrestling in comic book form. They promoted their second season with a webcomic, telling numerous (fairly graphic) off-screen tales in the cause of getting all their playing pieces where they needed to be on the board. That format may especially suit a show that airs in seasons more than as a rolling serial, but this achieves much more than the comic strip of John Cena wrestling Randy Orton in your average hardback WWE annual. What other promotion is investing that level of time and thought into that kind of content?

3. Crap shark films

So, the realisation hit me this week that this totally goes deeper than a couple of cameos in the Sharknado series. Those are just the tip of the iceberg, the fin that indicates toothy death below the waterline. What’s more, the chief agent of movement into a crossover audience between pro wrestling and crap shark films is hiding in plain sight. And the pioneers of this are not Seth Rollins or Chris Jericho, oh no.

No, the pioneers are Total Nonstop Action Wrestling and Matthew Moore Hardy.

There are so many reasons The Final Deletion – and this week’s sequel, “Delete Or Decay” (in all likelihood; here in the UK, TNA airs on Sundays so I’m currently spoiler-free) – and crap shark films are obvious bedfellows. The framing is shonky and amateurish, the plot is utterly risible, the script is laughably dumb and the acting is more ham than a really, really big leg of ham. Let’s be honest here: By any objective measure, The Final Deletion was rubbish. Crucially though (and this is another similarity with the best crap shark films), it was evidently self-aware and above all entertaining.

Like many, I enjoyed The Final Deletion. After I watched it, I shared it with my friends (no prizes for guessing which ones). TNA hasn’t been appointment viewing in my house for a few years, but this week? Oh, I’m tuning in this week. A few other people I know probably will too. Corgan and the gang have created a hook and seem to have realized the value of it. They’re gonna need a bigger dilapidated boat.

It may hurt the purists to say this – if a friend of yours, who doesn’t watch wrestling, turned to you one day and said: “What’s it like nowadays? Go on, impress me,” you would not reach for The Final Deletion – but it’s fair to summarize this appeal as kitsch and note that kitsch can absolutely provide a doorway to pro wrestling for some audiences.

In the internet age, when it’s easier than ever to peek behind the curtain of pro wrestling, the “Reality Era” – or making things we can be confident are scripted look and feel more organic – is but one reaction. Another is to create a greater sense of escapism and embrace the ludicrous and trashy. The rise to notoriety (certainly the correct word) of Joey Ryan is another example. Throwing people around using only the strength of your genitals is not only the basest of base but also defies anybody’s ability to suspend disbelief, however that’s totally not the point of it. Ryan’s stock has risen as a result; whatever you or I may personally make of somebody being sponsored by a pornography website, it does at least show reach outside of the industry.

Funny nonsense is what often ends up going viral, which in turn often ends up with more eyes on the product. The more hilarious, terrible segments that TNA make with sentient flying robots and extraordinary xylophones, the more people who like that kind of ridiculousness will be drawn to it. And perhaps they’ll see some other things they like too.

tna final deletion matt hardy jeff hardy

This week’s tranche of questions that look like a desperate admission of insecurity in what I’ve written, but are actually a desperate effort to make you use the comment box, are as follows:

  • Would you describe yourself as a member of any of the above crossover audiences? If so, what and who do you feel appeals to you most in pro wrestling at the moment?
  • Have you identified any other wrestling crossover audiences that are at least as significant as these three?
  • What’s your favourite crap shark film?
  • Is there anything Chris Jericho can’t do?

Until next time, my name is Max Grieve and my wish list for Sharknado 5 is the return of Cassie Scerbo, further superpowers for Tara Reid and a cameo from Broken Matt Hardy.