Wrestling exists in China, but it certainly isn’t as big as it should be. Whilst WWE has held shows in the country before, the company has not yet earmarked the Chinese mainland as a vital market; though that may be about to change. Gerrit Meier, president of WWE International, recently stated that China is “strategically important” for the WWE, and a recent flurry of wrestling-related activity could alter the scene in the East Asian wrestling region, where ultimately Japan rules the roost.
During the middle of May, a wrestling show took place at Shanghai Stadium under the Chinese Wrestling Federation (CWF) banner, an upstart promotion based out of Shanghai, sharing talent from other more established Chinese mainland and Hong Kong promotions, most notably the American-owned Middle Kingdom Wrestling (MKW), a promotion based out of Dongguan, featuring both Chinese and foreign wrestlers.
The names that featured on the recent Shanghai card may not be so well known outside of China, but for the country’s hardcore fanbase, they represent the best of the best. The Slam, Hong Wan – The Selfie King, Ash Silva, Dalton Bragg (USA), Big Sam (UK) and Ho Ho Lun, the lone Chinese name in the upcoming WWE Cruiserweight Classic all featured and put on a series of professional bouts, though the production elements of the show in general left a lot to be desired.
Eyes were certainly on WWE-bound Ho Ho Lun during his main event tag team match, and although he and the Slam put on admirable performances, the standout matches on the card belonged to the wrestlers from MKW, a promotion for which Ho Ho Lun has also wrestled. The fans in attendance were certainly smart to the business, and the MKW guys knew exactly how to work the crowd. With plans to tour Thailand in November and dates already in place for 2017, MKW is slowly becoming the top wrestling promotion within China.
Meanwhile, it seems that WWE may finally be thinking about having another go at cracking the Chinese market, with wrestler trials scheduled to take place in Shanghai from June 13-16. The prize on offer, a 40k starting salary and 3 years professional training in Florida. However, candidates must be taller than 190 cm; a tall order indeed for a population with an average male height of less than 175 cm. Nonetheless, finding a Chinese star is key element in helping a sport or league find success in China, as evidenced with Yao Ming in the NBA; and this is something that WWE seems to have grasped.
WWE has an extremely modest social media presence in the country, with a little less than 80,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. John Cena, the most popular star by far within the country, has a little over 61,000 followers. These modest numbers aren’t helped by the fact that WWE has only held two shows in China over the past four years; a Smackdown show in 2012 and a RAW in 2013. But despite an unwillingness of late to put on shows in China, the company does have a fairly sizeable following there, even if social media figures suggest otherwise.
However, it has been almost impossible for WWE to monetise this following thanks to the fact that Chinese fans gain free access to WWE content, via both legitimate and not-so-legitimate means as media deals with Sohu and Iqiyi give fans access to RAW, Smackdown, NXT and all WWE Network events for free. Furthermore, one need only look on the Chinese equivalent of eBay, known as TaoBao, to find knock-off WWE merchandise available for a fraction of the cost of that in the WWE shop. But with the possibility of massive advertising revenues, as seen with the English Premier League, and due to the way Chinese fans consume sports products online, one would imagine that WWE will be hoping to gain some of the Chinese pie.
In the context of the upcoming wrestler trials, sources in Shanghai have suggested that WWE is considering a Chinese production so as to maintain a permanent presence in the market. For organisations like MKW, which already has the infrastructure in place and a deep knowledge of the local market, this could be a golden opportunity. One would imagine that such a production might look similar to the relationship that WWE shares with EVOLVE, an organisation that also has some experience in the Chinese market.
In 2014, Gabe Sapolsky brought WWN to the country as part of a state funded tour, thanks to investment by CITIC Group, a state-owned investment company. The idea, supposedly, was to establish WWN as the leading foreign wrestling brand within China. The thinking behind this was that a fledgling promotion like WWN could be more easily managed content-wise, as opposed to WWE and more importantly Vince McMahon, who has a track record of portraying foreign characters in stereotypical roles. One can only imagine what he might come up with for a Chinese wrestler.
As part of the WWN tour, Chinese fans got to see Rich Swann, Biff Busick and Johnny Gargano amongst others, all of whom were explicitly instructed to be on their best behaviour. Fast forward a number of months, and WWE established its partnership with EVOLVE and the WWN China project fell by the wayside. Nonetheless, the contacts and network that Sapolsky managed to garner could come in handy for both EVOLVE and WWE if they decided to go that route.
At present, the situation remains unchanged, though WWE’s appointment of Jay Li as vice-president and general manager of WWE China, a role created specifically for Li, suggests that a lot more is on the horizon in the near future, starting with the June trials in Shanghai. It is also believed that MKW will be sending a representative to the trials, in order to observe. Furthermore, the recent creation of an official John Cena account on the massively popular WeChat messaging app, which is China’s version of WhatsApp on steroids, signals that WWE has already begun its renewed charm offensive. Every Chinese person with a smartphone uses the messaging software, and Cena is now posting videos of himself speaking Chinese whilst wearing his patented tailored suits.
The recent CWF event racked up almost 12,000 views in less than 24 hours. Paltry in terms of WWE viewing numbers, but this is a promotion that no-one had ever heard of prior to a few weeks ago in a country where people are not used to viewing wrestling as a form of entertainment. With higher production values, and with the right marketing, one would think that WWE could easily leave their mark on the mainland. Presumably it all starts with finding “the guy” for China. Ho Ho Lun may be that guy, or maybe he’ll emerge this June in Shanghai. Whatever the case, promotions like MKW and CWF will be looking on hoping that WWE will save themselves some of the legwork and decide to make use of their expertise on the ground in order to push their own product at a later date.