Arguably no professional sport allows for the extensive interaction between athletes and its fans than pro wrestling. Even more so in independent wrestling, where fan loyalty can be the singular determination between promotion survival and disappearance.
This becomes evident in the aforementioned merchandise table, where fans are encouraged to interact – via dollars, handshakes, and photographs – with athletes and talent. To this day, it remains – at least to me – an awkward anthropological experience, with athletes/talent forced to play a delicate balancing act between staying in character and being personally authentic. Even the most committed can’t perfectly pull off this feat. To fully engage with a fan, s/he has to break the wall to some extent.
Of course – and thanks to social media – interactions are almost 24/7. Even at only 1000 plus followers, it’s difficult to keep up with the firehose of information espoused by athletes, talent and promotions touting the next great PPV and/or feud. As we try to stay abreast of independent promotions worldwide, keeping up can be treading water in an information sea.
Using Twitter as an example, fans receive recognition of their loyalty through hero likes, retweets and the ever-elusive reply/conversation. For WWE followers, significant interaction with top stars is splashed across a profile page as if a badge of recognition. Call me a skeptic, but I’m near certain it is John Cena’s PR person/s reading and selectively responding to fan outreach.
For some odd reason – and perhaps it a byproduct of the sport’s theater aspect – pro wrestling fan podcasts number in the thousands. I’m unclear why this medium so popular among fans, as successful ones total but a few dozen, globally. (And I’m probably being generous with that estimate.) Few are what we call ‘broadcast trained.’ Athletes/talent will agree to interviews on select podcasts, re-affirming his/her connection to fans plus hopeful the podcast has sizable reach.
As I write this blog post – and not to be hypocritical – I’ve got no issue in fans declaring loyalty via an array of multimedia means. My criticism lies in the nature of such expressions, ones often disrespectful, combative, and occasionally even threatening. The keyboard warrior concept is not a new one, but the level of vitriol and seeming aloofness by many of pro wrestling’s fans is disturbing. Calling them ‘smarks’ is letting them off the hook.
Athletes/talent, per above, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even if they can turn the other cheek a few dozen times a day, they are seemingly at the mercy of unpredictable and imbalanced fans. These individuals believe it their right to do so, a reckless freedom of expression knowing athletes/talent must communicate, in some form, to survive.
Of course, some like Dean Ambrose can throw caution to the wind…and choose to remain completely in the social media shadows. Independent wrestlers and talent, however, serious about giving their dreams a solid go, don’t have that luxury. Moreover, the very reason most enter the business is for the fan interaction, ‘heat’ incentive to persist in a financially and physically punishing hobby.
What results is a logical see-saw of disclosure/interaction levels between athletes/talent toward their fans. An especially horrific encounter will send them off of social media or unwilling to engage with anyone but the locker room, family, and personal friends. In tandem, non-offending fans find themselves out in the cold by individuals they invested significant money and time to support.
To be honest, I don’t know where the solution lies.( I don’t think anyone’s figured out how NOT to hate Facebook norms.)
First off, part of me believes athletes/talent – when online – should maintain a professional and personal account. Keep them distinct at all times.
For the professional persona, stay in character…but via a new, ‘out of the ring’ version of their in-ring person. Think Batman shamelessly being Bruce Wayne when not crime fighting…but always staying in comic book pages. In both instances, neither Batman nor Bruce should be perceived as ‘real.’ Also, this casual, more accessible persona sets and maintains realistic interaction expectations for fans. Getting personal and/or offensive never escapes kayfabe. Those that do, well, I’ve got an Easter Bunny and Santa for you. Third, this proposed approach offers a long overdue freedom and safety (by athletes/talent/community) to push back offenders with limited reputation cost.
Regardless of solution, and from an appreciation perspective, it’s admittedly unfulfilling to be pushed and pulled when simply trying to support. Per above, it’s understandable that athletes/talent don’t have the time (most with day jobs outside of wrestling) to sift through the coal of negativity to find and sustain the fan diamonds within. If something doesn’t drastically change, the ‘good guys’ out there will ultimately be a casualty of the already increasing backlash against social media offenders.
While there’s a fair amount of research on athletes and social media, these have loose fit to a community whose rules empower fans to break through walls and norms.