When Jeff and Jerry Jarrett – longtime Tennessee wrestling fixtures – started their TNA promotion eight years ago, they were considered more than a little nutty.
A couple of years earlier, the behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment gobbled up its major competitor – World Championship Wrestling – essentially making itself the only national professional wrestling promotion, relegating smaller companies to regional promotions that were lucky if they got on cable-access television.
But the Jarretts were savvy – in the days before cable-wrestling and pay-per-views, father Jerry ran the major Tennessee promotion, which produced stars like Jerry Lawler – and Jeff was a successful wrestler in his own right.
They started small – shows at Nashville’s fairgrounds, broadcast pay-per-view only or on-demand over the Internet (now commonplace, but at that time eyebrow-raising). TNA built a small but loyal following, drawn by the novelty of a hexagonal ring and cult performers.
Eventually, TNA scored a weekly spot on the Spike network, and regularly toured the country – and overseas – with its performers.
The woman behind it all is CEO Dixie Carter. With a background that includes representing record labels, performers and athletes, Carter has been involved with TNA from the start. And when TNA ran short of money, she persuaded Panda Energy, started in 1982 by her parents, Robert and Janice Carter, to invest in the company and become the majority owner.
The challenge for TNA – one of the 2010 Nashville Post Fast50  – is that WWE is a known quantity, one people understand and enjoy. The McMahon clan has plenty of cash – see Linda McMahon’s largely self-funded run for Senate in Connecticut – and people keep clicking the turnstiles and their remotes to watch the big boys.
As has been the case from the beginning, TNA has to be nimble and creative.
The company has long touted its X Division – a collection of mostly lighter-weight wrestler performing high-flying, dangerous maneuvers – as opposed to the WWE’s emphasis on the classic, oversized titans. But there’s another difference for wrestling viewers – one that can be seen right at the beginning of the show in the upper-right-hand corner. WWE’s Smackdown and Raw programs carry a TV-PG rating. TNA is TV-14, the next level up, allowing for bluer trash talk and bloodier matches.
TNA officials say they recognize their core audience is an older, more mature fan base – also the reason the promotion was willing to spend the money to bring in legends like Hulk Hogan and, more recently, Rick Flair.
TNA is a privately held company and as such, does not disclose exact revenue figures, but the company does say its EBIDTA (earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes and amortization) grew 75 percent between 2008 and 2009. That may have inspired the company to take a bold step – going head-to-head on Monday nights against WWE’s Raw ratings giant.
It didn’t work – TNA’s share dipped below 1 for the first time in years, and Raw’s share stayed level.
TNA went back to Thursday nights for its weekly shows, and ratings have recovered. The company continues to expand its European presence – where it is wildly popular – with regular tours and two weekly television shows.
The company stays aggressive with its talent, too – scoring a spot on The Daily Show for hardcore legend, essayist and New York Times bestselling author Mick Foley, who appeared at Jon Stewart’s Washington, D.C., Rally for Sanity. The Cummins Station offices include what is Nashville’s highest-tech high-definition television studio, used for cutting interviews and other non-ring action, which are themselves produced in Florida for the most part.
Almost a decade in, TNA is no longer the plucky upstart trying to unseat the big dog. Recognizing it’s sometimes better to mine loyalty from a smaller but committed fan base instead of gnawing at the leg of a giant, Carter and company are fast on their way to staking a permanent claim in what might have been a homogenous wrestling landscape.