WWE continues to raid pro wrestling’s independent scene.
According to the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer (h/t WrestlingNews.co), the company recently signed more than 20 talents, many of them high-profile indie stars, as part of a surprising “signing spree” on new stars: “They got Blake Christian signed, Taya Valkyrie, Harlem Bravado. They have like two dozen people signed. They’re on a signing spree.”
During the same week that WWE informed non-wrestling employees that they wouldn’t be receiving bonuses, raises, or promotions in the near future, the world’s premier pro wrestling promotion inked several independent wrestling stalwarts to NXT deals. Among the major names who are headed to WWE’s developmental/third brand are former Impact Wrestling stars Eli Drake (now known as LA Knight in NXT) and Taya Valkyrie, Christian Casanova and the aforementioned Christian and Bravado.
WWE’s sudden spending spree on superstars comes as a shock given that the company seemed to have cut back significantly on signing new talent over the course of the past year in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and had recently grown concerned about its stock price following the release of its 2020 earnings report and 2021 projections.
The financial impact of WWE signing so many indie talents is minimal, however, especially given that most of those talents are being paid in the $50,000-60,000 range, with many of the bigger names making far less than you’d expect as well. The long-term impact of WWE raiding the indies, though, is far greater.
WWE’s recent rash of signings, of course, is the latest dagger in the heart of the independent pro wrestling scene. With the growth of AEW, NXT’s overloaded roster and the presence of NXT UK, independent wrestling simply isn’t what is used to be—even in comparison to just a couple of years ago. Much of the world’s top indie talent is quickly being scooped up, typically by WWE, whether that be the likes of NXT UK’s Ben Carter or recent NXT signees MSK, and the ripple effects are starting to show.
As the wealth of top indie stars begins to thin out, WWE’s issues with an already overcrowded roster are bound to worsen.
If you look at Raw and SmackDown alone, you’ll see a plethora of former independent studs—ranging from Ricochet to Aleister Black to Cedric Alexander—who are either lost in the shuffle or have recently struggled to make headway on the main roster at some point. That trend has held true for former NXT standouts for several years, but now, we’re also seeing NXT reach a point where its roster is also jam-packed with more talent than the yellow brand could possibly use consistently on a weekly two-hour show.
As WWE continues to drive a nail in the coffin of the indies, it’s worth discussing not just what that strategy has done to pro wrestling as a whole but whether it’s truly paid off for WWE. After all, WWE has a who’s who of former top independent stars on the main roster, and hardly any of them have transcended the business the way you would expect. WWE’s incredibly disappointing TV viewership, especially for Raw, is just the latest proof that no matter how much talent WWE has under contract, its real issues with truly growing its audience ultimately stem from a creative problem—not a talent one.
Now, at a time when NXT is already chock full of talent while Raw and SmackDown have far more stars who are underutilized than used correctly, WWE is continuing to stuff as many stars onto its roster as it possibly can. They’re packed in like a can of sardines, and though WWE isn’t signing every major indie star who’s available, its vice grip on the world of pro wrestling continues even in the presence of AEW, Impact, New Japan Pro-Wrestling and other star-studded promotions across the world.
Signing more and more talent isn’t going to guarantee WWE future success. It will, however, make it harder for other non-WWE promotions to keep pace, which may ultimately be the goal.
So, even though it’s wise for WWE to sign potential game-changers in the hopes that they become top attractions for the company in the future, history suggests that won’t happen—and that this latest string of signings will pad its roster and make NXT even more crowded but do little else beyond that in the long run.