SCOTT D’AMORE AND Don Callis know that if Impact Wrestling were a house on sale in the real estate market, it would be, to say the least, a “fixer-upper.”
Sixteen years after being co-founded by Jeff and Jerry Jarrett, the former Total Nonstop Action Wrestling has been rebooted more times than an old laptop. Along the way, the TNA initials were dragged through the mud like few other promotions in wrestling history.
Early last year, Canadian media company Anthem Sports and Entertainment became the latest gambler willing to bet that it could right the TNA ship. After a few of its own missteps, Anthem decided to put the newly branded Impact Wrestling in the hands of two fellow Canadians with extensive wrestling resumés that included past stints in TNA.
In D’Amore, Impact found a former wrestler, manager, agent, trainer, and promoter who was a key part of TNA during its most successful period about 10 years ago.
Similarly, Callis wore many hats during his wrestling career, which included stints in ECW, WWE, and TNA as a manager and announcer. After being away from the sport for more than a dozen years, he was lured back last year as the voice of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s American television series.
Anthem is counting on Impact’s co-executive vice presidents to be the dream team that transforms a badly damaged brand into a vibrant, relevant, and competitive wrestling force. But this house needs a lot of work, and in this interview with PWI Senior Writer Al Castle, Callis and D’Amore go over their blueprint for the ultimate wrestling company remodel.
Castle: I guess I'll start with Don. One of the reasons I was particularly interested in talking to you is that you've been involved with two organizations that have been in the news a lot as of late—Impact Wrestling and New Japan. Are there any lessons that you've learned from your affiliation with New Japan that you're looking to apply at Impact?
Callis: I think everyone could learn something from New Japan. If you look at what New Japan does, it's a fairly simple formula. You happen to have, on top, some of the best wrestlers in the world. And you put them in matches. And they have great matches. It's not exactly rocket science. But they run a very tight ship. And I think what there is to learn is, if you look at the progression of storylines, everything tends to make sense. I think they do a great job of making you forget about a guy who, maybe, you really want to see. And then when they slide that guy back into the title picture, I think it creates a lot of excitement. There's so much bad creative and bad booking out there that sometimes, if you just make things logical and not insult people's intelligence, you can solve half the problems. I also think, if you look at what New Japan does, it's very similar in one respect to what I learned from Paul Heyman in ECW: You put talent in the best situation for them to succeed. You don't put talent in a situation where they're not able to deliver, or it's out of character. That sounds like simple stuff, but in the ’90s, Paul was the only one doing it. And New Japan has done a good job of it. And that speaks to maximizing talent and getting the most out of them for the company and for themselves.
Castle: As I understand it, you were largely out of wrestling and were lured back to work for New Japan. And if you're going to work in wrestling, I imagine that's something of an easy decision to make because it's a super hot product with a lot of things clicking. Then you get the call about Impact Wrestling, in some ways the total opposite: a brand that's really struggled over a lot of years. Was that a harder decision to make?
Callis: I think it was a harder decision in the sense that coming to take the job in Impact and working with Scott and Ed [Nordholm, Executive Vice President of Anthem Sports and Entertainment] was going to mean changing my life. I had a full-time job. I had a very successful career in international trade. The New Japan job I was able to do using my holiday time. So it wasn't a radical change in my life. This job involves having to leave my job that I had left the wrestling business for 13 years ago, that I had earned an MBA for, and to relocate my family to Toronto. So this was a much harder decision in terms of it being a very uprooting kind of a move. But as far as them struggling, frankly, that appeals to me. I like the fact that Scott and I are in a position creatively where we can start to rebuild this thing. Anyone can come in and take over a red-hot company and just keep the lights on. I've seen what's gone on here in the past, and that we inherited that legacy—both good and bad—as a challenge and an opportunity.
Castle: Do you see it as an advantage that you had been out of the business for so long? Some people would look at that and say, "What can a guy who hasn't followed the business bring to the table?"
Callis: I'm not locked into any talent. I hadn't been around TNA since I retired from there in 2004. So I don't have any preconceived notions. I'm not bringing any particular booking style or loyalties to what I'm doing. I'm looking at it with completely fresh eyes. And I think that is an advantage both for me and for the company, optically, to be able to say, "We're bringing a guy in who hasn't been part of this." There are people who would suggest that there had been a lot of failed, false starts. So the fact that Scott had been gone from Impact, and I had really been gone, I think really helps us in terms of people looking from the outside and saying, "Okay. This is not just talk. This really is going to be different."
Castle: Scott, the one thing I think is really interesting about the contrast between the two of you is that, in Don, you've got a guy who, working in New Japan, brings the perspective of "what it could be," versus you, who can bring the perspective of "what it once was." How much do you think Impact could learn not only from what other companies are doing, but from what it did itself during better times?
D’Amore: There was a time when we were a product that was pretty highly praised and well thought of. We were doing things with a different approach and trying to showcase some things that weren't being done in other places. Then there came a time, I think, in this company's history when we started straying away from what we should have been and started trying to become what some people thought we should be in order to compete with WWE. I think the lesson to be learned is that we need to be our own entity. We need to be different. We need to be the best us that we can be, and that we can't take the same approach that others have taken. In 2018, we need to worry not about what's going on outside of our house, we need to worry about what's going on inside of our house and just making sure that we're putting out the best product we can. That means not worrying about others, other than, as you've seen, going out there and opening the borders and having more of an attitude of inclusion of other products and promotions. That's obviously not something that has been done a lot in the wrestling business.
Castle: What's kept that from happening so long? You can understand why WWE, as the juggernaut that they are, wouldn't be interested in working with other promotions. But I think people have wondered for years, if not decades, "Why aren't some of these smaller groups working together?"
D'Amore: I think a lot of it is an antiquated style of thinking. I think a lot of it is just sheer ego. Everyone wants to think that they're better than everybody else and that they don't need somebody else. But in today's environment there is, more so than ever, an opportunity for talented performers to go out and have a life outside of WWE that involves a creative freedom and a lifestyle that they could never enjoy there or, in the past, anywhere else—and also be able to earn a good living. The talent is more empowered and they are going to choose who they want to work with. They don't want to be beholden to just one master. So the idea of having groups that work collaboratively certainly is appealing to the talent.
Castle: I know it's not "TNA" anymore, but those letters, for so many fans, represent a lot of bad things. Is the reality that there is a lot of baggage there and a lot of damage that needs to be undone?
D'Amore: It was shocking to me to find out the amount of ill will that had developed with TNA. I mean, it was with other promotions, it was with talent, and it was with fans. And I think, on all sides, people felt that TNA had misled them, lied to them, and not delivered on their promises. So, certainly, if there's a situation where we could have started a new company and had the distribution and financing in place to do something that was maybe completely un-TNA related, there could be an argument made that it would be an easier path to hoe. But, the reality is that, despite everything else, as a company Impact Wrestling still has good viewership around the world and still has a revenue stream that's unmatched with the exception of a couple companies out there. It's going to be slow and it's going to take time, but if Impact Wrestling goes out there every week and tells a wrestling fan that it's going to deliver on something, and it does, and promises a performer something, and then follows up and delivers that, and has promotional partners that it treats with respect, then I think, over time, that attitude and perception of Impact Wrestling will shift.
Castle: What are some short-term, realistic milestones that you can accomplish in the next year or so?
Callis: I think there are two paths we're looking at. I think there's the incremental path—the small victories. Let's eliminate stupid stuff. Let's eliminate the stuff that was ticking people off. Let's inject some logic. Let's slowly build a talent roster. Where we have legacy talent that we've allowed to move on, let's introduce that new talent—the Brian Cages of the world, Austin Aries, wrestlers that people are excited about. Those are the incremental steps. The big picture is, look, you made the point, but you didn't put it like this: The brand has not been cool. And we all know that if we create a great product with compelling storylines and excellent talent, and we have an open environment, working collaboratively with talent and with other promotions, we all of a sudden are breaking paradigms of the wrestling business. That will then make us cool and give us a buzz. It may not happen that quickly, but by the fall, by the end of the year, we both want real buzz around Impact Wrestling. The way people talk about New Japan Pro Wrestling and get excited about it as a cool promotion, I want people to talk about us like that. And I think we are on that path.
D'Amore: One of the things that me and Don talk about is rebuilding a connection with fans. And part of that is getting back out there in front of wrestling fans. We had two events recently in Ontario, Canada, where both nights were turn-away crowds. We didn't run massive arenas. We ran small, intimate venues. But there were two buildings that were packed as much as they could be packed with wrestling fans who paid their hard-earned money to come support Impact Wrestling. They're investing their money by buying tickets, and there's going to be an emotional investment by having that interaction with the talent. That's something that WWE, because of their size, can never do. We can give them a more personal, interactive feel.
Castle: In the past, Impact has been criticized for relying too heavily on WWE talent. Scott, you've talked about the need to go back to the years when Impact was creating more stars or finding stars from different regional promotions. It looks like you guys are doing a mix of the two right now. You've got some guys who are recognizable from the past—guys like Alberto El Patron and Johnny Impact. But then you've also picked up guys like Brian Cage. Where is the sweet spot there? Is there room for both?
D'Amore: Yes, absolutely. I think the important thing is that we don't look to bring people in and do business with them because they're ex-WWE people. We bring them in because they fit the style and vision and culture that we're looking to develop. So, while we certainly are always going to look for the next AJ Styles or Samoa Joe or Bobby Roode or Eric Young—the list goes on and on of people who got their first real break and opportunity with TNA—there's always going to be a place for a Sting. There's always going to be a place for a guy like Christian, who walked away from WWE making a conscious decision to be part of something different. So if there are people who fit the style and the mindset of what we're looking for, we're going to welcome them and look to do business with them, regardless of their background.
Callis: We'd even open the door for a guy like Chris Jericho if he wanted to come to Impact.
Castle: I don't know that you could pay for a Chris Jericho. That dovetails with the next topic I wanted to discuss. Can you talk about the challenges of working with a much smaller budget than Impact had in 2010—when you were there, Scott—and you had the backing of a big oil conglomerate out of Texas? As I understand it, Anthem is doing its best to support Impact, but I imagine the well doesn't go as deep as it once went. Does it hamstring you at all? Or does it create a positive challenge?
D'Amore: If the approach to things from a financial perspective were the same here as they had been in the past, I don't think I would have been interested in coming on board. Because, despite what you said—pun intended or not—about the depth of the well with Panda, the fact was that this company was not financially successful at many points. Even during its most successful periods, when it came to top-line revenues, its bottom-line revenue was still not good. So, what we have here with Don and myself joining Anthem Sports and Entertainment is people who know how to operate a business as a business. We have people who are focusing on operating within the envelope that exists, while we look to grow and expand that envelope. That, to me, certainly is a challenge, but it's an exciting challenge. Having a blank checkbook, as people have had in the past, and not necessarily here, that doesn't necessarily lead to success. If a company went out of business with Ted Turner's checkbook, then what's to say that any checkbook is going to make it successful? It's not.
Castle: For fans that maybe once upon a time did check out TNA but have dropped off over the years—and there's evidence that there's a lot of those—what would you say to them, if you could speak directly to them, about why they should come back?
D'Amore: I think that if you're a wrestling fan out there and you stopped watching Impact, you made a conscious decision not to support a product. And I think that the company probably did some things to earn that distrust you have. So we're not asking you to give us your trust back. We're asking you for an opportunity to sample what we're doing and see if we can slowly, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, earn and build that trust. And we will get it, because we have a great team from the post-production team, production team, front office staff, and a great roster of talent that are all rolling up their sleeves to work very hard knowing that we have to go out every single night to overcome the obstacles that we have because of the history to earn people's trust.
Callis: I'll take a little more radical approach. I don't feel like we have to say anything to those fans. I think that, by the end of the year, we are going to be a product that people are going to be going out of their way to see. It's going to be destination programming. And we're not going to have to ask for it. I just think we're going to get it. And that may sound a bit brash, if I have my executive hat on. But if I and Scott and Ed and the team did not believe we could be the best, then we have no business in this position.