Sports

Pro wrestling tackles a big new market in China

A WWE event in Shanghai in September. Looking for more eyeballs and new money sources, WWE has started a service live-streaming Chinese-language matches and commentary, and is combing the country’s provinces for potential talent. Photo: The New York Times
Chinese wrestler Wang Bin. Photo: The New York Times
WWE’s strategy to attract Chinese fans is to go local and digital
Published: 4:00 AM, December 27, 2016

SHANGHAI — Wang Bin looked down. A man wearing a blue skintight unitard writhed at his feet. Wang grinned. This was the moment he had been waiting for.

So, too, had Cheng Shi. When Wang lifted the writhing man and slammed him to the floor for a three-count, it completed Cheng’s dream of watching a professional wrestler — battling in that most American of fake spectacles — who hailed from China.

“I feel very proud and excited to see him onstage tonight, and so do all the fans,” Cheng, a 21-year-old student who makes fan videos for a Chinese audience, said before the match. He pointed at the screen of his smartphone to indicate the thousands of people watching him on his live broadcast. “We are very, very excited.”

Looking for eyeballs and new money sources, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) — the company that brought Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson into American living rooms — has grand ambitions for a bigger but much more difficult market. It has started a new service live-streaming Chinese-language matches and commentary. It is also combing China’s provinces for more beefy talent like Wang.

China presents formidable challenges. Entertainment names like Netflix and Rupert Murdoch have taken aim at China’s population of 1.4 billion only to run afoul of the country’s tight controls over media. Wrestling’s cartoon violence and sometimes salacious storylines could attract unwanted attention from the government. And while it has its fans, American-style wrestling-as-scripted-entertainment is largely unheard-of among mainland Chinese.

“There is no presence of product over here,” said John Cena, the square-jawed wrestler and action movie star who has learnt to speak some Chinese as part of the push. By tackling the language, he added, “I’m kind of a vehicle to leverage what we’ve done.”

Wrestling’s answer is to go local — and digital. Bypassing state-controlled broadcast television, it has teamed with a video-streaming company to reach fans though computers and mobile devices.

It has also geared up efforts to introduce a new audience to the suplex, the body slam and the drop-kick. WWE has hired four full-time social media directors in Shanghai to maintain local-language social media accounts for its wrestlers and executives. It is also hosting viewing parties, like one this month in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, in which locals devoured pizza and cream sodas while watching a pay-per-view wrestling match and playing the WWE’s latest Xbox video game.

Success requires exposing Chinese audiences to a new type of entertainment — a choreographed drama in which the outcome is known, though its dangers and injuries are sometimes shockingly real.

“They’ve never really seen anything like us,” said Paul Levesque, WWE’s executive in charge of talent and live events, who is also a semi-retired wrestler better known as Triple H. “The athleticism is very real. The storylines and the theatre part of it is where they had a hard time with the blurred line of that.”

To friends unfamiliar with wrestling, “I find that the shortest way to tell them is to say it’s an American version — a global version — of the kungfu novel,” said Jay Li, a longtime executive at multinational companies in China who in April joined WWE as its general manager for greater China. “They get it immediately, because they immediately have a cultural connection and a mental image of what this is about.”

While a lot of attention has been placed in recent years on the expansion into Hollywood of Chinese companies like Dalian Wanda, most foreign entertainment firms struggle to make comparable inroads in China. For some, like Disney, penetrating China has meant giving the Communist Party greater say over its business on the mainland.

Sports — or something that looks like a sport — might be different. Sports enjoys thematic support from the government, which is big on hosting international events like the Olympics and promoting sports like football. China’s push to get football into schools and make the country a power in the sport has led companies to pay big sums for broadcast rights.

“Sports has historically been underdeveloped in China and online, and a lot of players are looking for ways to monetise that,” said Vivek Couto, a founder and a director at Media Partners Asia, an industry research consultant.

Professional wrestling could use the eyeballs. Like other media companies, WWE is grappling with the new world of cord-cutting, in which viewers drop their cable subscriptions and order shows, a la carte, via the Internet. International viewers offer one potential growth area. They make up only about a quarter of the paid subscribers on WWE’s digital subscription service, which is one of the biggest contributors to the company’s bottom line.

As China shows, international growth is not always easy. In October, WWE told investors it was still waiting to offer subscriptions directly to Chinese viewers.

For now it works with a Chinese video company service called PPTV, which streams the company’s weekly flagship shows, called “SmackDown” and “RAW”, with real-time Mandarin commentary. PPTV subscriptions start at less than US$3 (S$4.30) per month, roughly a third of what WWE’s own subscription service costs outside China, and include movies and other shows.

Much rides on Wang, WWE’s first mainland wrestler. The company’s social media team works to make him a star — his verified account on the Weibo social media service recently featured videos of him training at WWE’s huge facility in Orlando, Florida. Seven other mainlanders, six men and one woman, will relocate to Orlando in January.

Wang, a 22-year-old native of eastern Anhui Province, was an athlete after middle school, a member of the provincial rowing team. He later moved to Shanghai and took up sparring, and caught the attention of representatives from Inoki Genome Federation, a big Japanese wrestling and mixed martial arts promotion.

Wang spent three years in Japan before he was noticed by WWE. He signed a three-year development deal with the American company and started training in Orlando over the summer in preparation for his China debut.

When the moment finally arrived in Shanghai in September, Wang entered the arena to modern Chinese music. He gave the crowd a traditional Chinese, kungfu-style greeting, pressing his right fist into his left palm. His opponent, a wrestler named Bo Dallas, was booed by the Shanghai crowd before Wang tossed him to the mat, pinning him in a three-count on the second try.

Wang does not yet have a defined act or character, or even a flashy name. One of the oldest such personas in WWE-style wrestling is the foreign heel, or bad guy; those include personas like Mr Fuji, a Japanese villain played by Harry Fujiwara.

In an interview, Wang said he was not a big believer in appealing to such nationalistic tropes.

“People shouldn’t see you for your nationality or ethnic group,” he said. “It’s less about that and more about what you can do, personally, as a warrior and a figure in the ring.”