Ask any ring veteran about “The Territories”, and they will speak of its value to the business. The ability to develop and test talent on a small scale is something that seemingly disappeared during the 90s, when the business exploded and changed the very basics of Professional Wrestling storytelling. Ask an Independent wrestler, and they might say differently. They will tell you that the Independent scene is full of viable talent who have honed their craft over years of work. They might even tell you that the Independents are the successors to the territories. The truth is that both are right.
While the modern independent scene has brought many top talents to the WWE, most notably CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, the Territorial Era had opportunity forever lost to the business. Wrestlers like CM Punk debut with fan backing because of their success on the Independents. Some workers simply have that x-factor that cannot be denied on any stage, and with the advent of the internet, that type of talent can be easily recognized by a wider audience. What the modern era lacks is a viable stage for talents who do not have this innate charisma. The Territories provided multiple, legitimate opportunities to make money in front of a fresh audience. Have a gimmick that isn’t working in Chicago? Head down to Atlanta and try something new. Run out of opponents in Atlanta? Head to Texas and let the announcer herald your reputation. Wrestlers in the 80s (and earlier for that matter) were able to learn and grow in front of regional television audiences, allowing them to develop as complete packages. Not to be forgotten, 80s television wrestling was also heavy on the use of “enhancement talent”. Essentially, enhancement talent were less popular performers whom the big stars would wrestle on weekly television. The basic logic of this was to save the marquee matches for live shows and later, Pay Per View.
In the 90s, this logic changed and put the final nail in the coffin of the Territories. With direct competition between WWF and WCW, the two largest wrestling organizations that the country has ever seen, a greater focus was put on week to week television ratings. This all but killed the use of enhancement talent on television, as viewers tuned in to see what superstars and matches each company was providing that week. Some have claimed it was this focus on ratings and not live events/pay per views that eventually killed WCW, but at the time it was working. The immediate results of this conflict were “Main Event” matches every week, huge pay checks for the stars and significantly larger rosters for the companies. Sure the business changed, but the conflict brought more employment opportunity for prospects. Scouts in both organizations would scoop up talent if just to keep it away from the other. After the collapse of WCW in 2001, the standards for a television wrestler remained the same but the job market was essentially reduced to less than half of what it once was. Talent that may have gotten signed quickly a year before was now forced back on to the Independent scene.
While some Independent wrestlers are skilled enough to develop their persona and style without television exposure, they do not have the same audience to work with. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Independent era has been the Independent wrestling fan. The small venues of Independent wrestling are not filled with a sample of the WWE audience, but typically with devoted, adult fans. While this may encourage greater in-ring performance, as these “hardcore” fans tend to appreciate more technical or violent wrestling, it does little to help the performer understand how to play to a diverse television audience. Signs of this phenomenon can be found in Paul Heyman’s late 90s ECW. While Heyman was able to take talent and present them in near perfect fashion to his audience, many of his main event stars would move to WCW or WWF where they would be relegated to Mid-Card status. At the top echelon of wrestling, a wrestler is more than a person, more than a package, they are brand. These days, some wrestlers will not get the opportunity to bring their best brand to television because they never have the chance to find out what that is.
The good news in all of this is that the big companies are quite aware of this problem. The solution they have come up with something called a “Developmental Territory”. TNA Wrestling and WWE, the only 2 widely televised organizations in the U.S. , both run this type of organization. The idea behind it is to help bring new talent on to television, though not initially on a national scale.
The new model seems to be the following:
1. Find new talent with good internet and scouting buzz on the independent scene/professional level sports.
2. Bring them to developmental where they can work in front of a more diverse, if small, television audience.
3. Experiment with a persona. If successful, prepare them for the main roster. If not, re-package the wrestler or release them.
While this system appears harsh, and is certainly a quicker process than the older model, it has a distinctly positive feature. While making it onto a developmental roster is no guarantee of success, it is an affirmation of someone’s faith in that wrestler’s ability. While not the open system of 30 years ago, it at least provides a structure to move up in. Young talent has been making a huge impact in recent years, especially in the WWE. This lends itself to the affirmation that even in a more restrictive structure, the cream indeed rises to the top. Maybe its harder for a mediocre wrestler to become a great one these days, but it seems that the great wrestlers are getting their due shots. The Territories will not rise again, the business itself has moved too far away from them to return. The “Television Wrestler” is a different beast these days. In short, the new system simply has higher standards. The audience is no longer willing to watch anything less than world class talent. This new system may have “less” opportunity, but what opportunity exists may be greater for the wrestler and their fans.