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I have to explain this map that I made, and to do so, I must introduce you to the concept of professional wrestling territories (and give away my age in the process). Now, professional wrestling on a (theoretically) high-brow geography blog? Surely the two cannot mix! But they do, or at least, they did. The history of North American professional wrestling is inextricably tied to geography. Just as various nobles controlled scattered pieces and chunks of medieval Europe loosely associated with one another, and with often blurry distinctions between what constituted an actual independent state versus a mere fiefdom or loose grouping of such territories and what rulers were subject to other rulers (the absurdly complex structure of the Holy Roman Empire being the prime example), much of the 20th century saw the culturally-maligned industry of professional wrestling being operated in the same manner. A vast network of promotions, booking offices, and show circuits, operated by a semi-formal, closed-shop cartel of businessmen and athletes who carved up the United States and Canada into their own territories and counter-territories that persisted from the 1930s well into the 1980s, ending with the emergence of cable television and the foresight of a handful of shrewd promoters to break the territorial system and take their promotions national (and soon, international).
First, some very brief background before we delve right into the territories for those unfamiliar with the origins of pro wrestling. Pro wrestling in North America was born of the 19th-century carnival circuit. From the beginning, the object was to make money, although unlike today, it was about gambling back then. A promoter would come into town with the carnival accompanied by a strongman (typically with a credible amateur wrestling background) and lay down an open challenge to the local tough guys. People would bet on matches, and money changed hands (the promoter taking a healthy cut, of course). Naturally, there would be fellow strongmen capable of beating the carnival workers who would follow the carnivals and step up to accept the open challenge and thus grab the reward for defeating the carnival worker (as well as take in more cash from all the side bets they would also make on the fight.Promoters very early on realised it would easier to work with the barnstorming strongmen rather than live in fear of running into them at every stop. Why not stage the match with a predetermined outcome in exchange for everyone taking a share of the cut behind the scenes?
As organised sport became mass entertainment at the end of the 19th century, boxing and pro wrestling began to pack arenas and sport halls. While boxing stayed (relatively) legitimate, pro wrestling walked a fine line. It is believed most fights at the turn of the century were still legitimately decided, but bigger fights were nudged toward the realm of predetermination in order to keep interest around fighters considered to be more marketable. Promoters only controlled small handfuls of wrestlers at this time, and all wanted to ensure that someone in their stable of grapplers would have the heavyweight champion in order to draw the biggest gate receipts to their shows. It was thus important to have men in their stable who could ‘hook’ (i.e. wrestle legitimately) in order to keep things in line. In matched where the outcome was indeed predetermined, a good ‘hooker’ would make sure the opponent would stick to the agreed-upon finish and not go into business for himself in order to take the title. A promoter could also use a hooker to legitimately rough up an opponent in the ring to make sure that the opponent would be ill-prepared for an upcoming against someone else in the promoter’s stable in order to ensure the title would be safe. Naturally, there were double-crosses, and titles changed hands when they weren’t supposed to.
By the 1920s, the transition to fully predetermined finishes was complete. Matches were ordered to be shorter in order to keep fights exciting, and non-traditional wrestling holds were added into wrestlers’ repertoires to wow the crowds (not that anyone publicly confessed to this – promoters and wrestlers had to adhere to ‘kayfabe’ to make sure everything was portrayed as legitimate). The next evolution came in the form of standardised fight cards – and that’s where this ties into geography, don’t worry. Promoters, most notably in the form of three former standout wrestlers in the northeastern US named Ed Lewis, Toots Mondt and Billy Sandow – the ‘Gold Dust Trio’ – realised that by signing large groups of top wrestlers to exclusive contracts, a travelling circuit of fighters could go from city to city, fighting variations on the exact same match night after night with few the wiser, improving the quality of match by the time the circuit made its way back home for a big ‘blow-off’ fight to end the feud. By controlling the wrestlers via contracts, the Trio could also control the wrestlers’ appearances outside the northeastern circuit, and thus limit their financial dealing to only the selected promoters and matchmakers that they wanted to do business with. The success of the Gold Dust Trio prompted other promoters and venue bookers to adopt this formula in their footsteps after personal issues broke up the promotion (and thus the trio’s grip on the industry), and by the 1930s, a network of promotions and booking offices had sprung up across the continent. Each promoter would establish their own regional circuit of cities in which they would promote wrestling cards and license their talent to local bookers. In 1948, the vast majority of the promotions had formed a sanctioning body known as the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).
Within the NWA (and even the handful of promotions that were not fully participating members), the arrangement was simple: the various promoters would agree on a ‘World Champion’ that would travel to the various promotions and defend against locally-renowned stars, raising the profile of the local stars (and thus the rest of the wrestlers in the promotion) by helping to make the local stars look good in competitive matches against the champion. Each NWA member promoter would be granted exclusive rights to the territory that contained their circuit, and no other NWA affiliates would be permitted to cross over and promote in that territory without permission (almost like organised crime in a way, isn’t it?). These resulted in little self-contained universes that formed right at the same as television began pouring its way into home across North America. Suddenly, every major city could boast locally-crafted wrestling programs that brought action into residents’ living room featuring flamboyant, larger-than-life characters playing out intricate storylines both in and out of the ring. The promoters now had the ultimate vehicle to promote upcoming arena shows across their territories. Should the unfortunate happen where a wrestler’s act became stale in the territory (say, Los Angeles), the local promoter or booker could just send the wrestler to another office elsewhere on the continent (in, let’s say, Pittsburgh), where the wrestler could start again fresh with a whole new audience.
This territorial system was the crux of the pro wrestling business for half-a-century. Certainly, there were promoters would fall out with the NWA brass over which wrestler to push as champion, usually favouring men from their own domain (as early as 1963, there were two major territories –Minneapolis (AWA) and New York (WWWF, later WWF and finally WWE) – who had already began promoting their own nationally-recognised ‘World Champions’ opposing the NWA, even though they mostly continued to cooperate with other promoters and respect their domains), but the territory concept remained remarkably intact. By creating a systems of dozens of little wrestling fiefdoms, each with full wrestler rosters, referees, ring crew, and office bookers, the territory system employed thousands of people across the US and Canada.
For most, it was a gruelling six-or-seven day per week job. Take the Calgary territory, for example, known the world over as Stampede Wrestling. Geographically, Stampede was a massive entity, taking in most of Prairie Canada and extending into Montana and eventually British Columbia. An average week for the crew might see them work Calgary on Friday, Edmonton on Saturday, a ‘spot show’ in a small town on Sunday (anything from a decent arena to a high school gymnasium), Saskatoon on Monday, Regina on Tuesday, Red Deer on Wednesday, and another spot show on Thursday before heading back to Calgary for Friday to start the circuit all over again. That’s 2 000-to-3 000 km each week. And unless you were at or near the top of the card, or took some of the booking duties into your own hands, the pay was minimal. Keeping in mind than wrestlers were (and still are) generally responsible for their own hotels, own food, and own transportation, and one wonders how any money was made at all. Even working in a geographically-small territory like Memphis would leave the preliminary wrestlers with barely enough money for fuel to the next show, let alone rent for the end of the month. Contrast that with the guys on top, especially the territory-hopping world champions, who would take home large percentages of the gate for drawing fans into the arenas based on name recognition.
Territories weren’t necessarily written in stone; the map is a helpful guide, but lines could certainly be blurry. Bad promoters and bookers who relied on stale characters and storylines eventually found themselves out of business, leaving neighbouring promoters and/or young upstarts to move in and take over the territory. On the flip side, a fellow promoter could buy his way into a hot territory by taking over shares in the office until he had the leverage to push his fellow promoter out. And then there were the ‘outlaw’ promoters, unaffiliated to any promotional arrangement, who would try and muscle their way into a territory by promoting against the incumbent.
The end of territories came with cable television’s entry into North American households. The savvier, younger promoters realised that getting their show on fledgling cable channels with national clearance eager for pre-packaged content would be a gateway to expanding income stream outside of their local territory. Older promoters were too set in their ways to see the sea change, and had little response for the outsiders who came prepared with slick, glossy, television-friendly programming. Having a product that looked good on television was key, as viewers with more viewing options than ever could now compare the programs of promotions from across the continent; invariably, they chose to watch the well-produced, high-gloss, arena-based, storyline-driven programming of promotions such as the World Wrestling Federation (New York), Jim Crockett Promotions (Mid-Atlantic), or World Class Championship Wrestling (Dallas) over the cheap-looking, single-camera, archaic-looking, often TV studio-based programming coming out of promotions like All-Star Wrestling (Vancouver) or the World Wrestling Association (Indianapolis). The WWF in particular (fully divorcing itself from the territory system in 1983) was eager to buy up programming time in other territories and have local stations air the pre-produced shows, featuring talent poached from the same territories they were looking to put out of business. Having reached their apex just ten years before, the territories were dead by the end of the 1980s; the WWF and Crockett having purchased or driven out nearly everyone else (the WWF had essentially taken just three years from 1982 to 1985 to spread from coast-to-coast and turn its top stars into national celebrities). While the WWF became nearly synonymous with pro wrestling in the United States thanks to its early mastery of pay-per-view, video sales, cartoonish storylines and merchandising geared directly at children (as well as the final abandonment of any pretension of sporting legitimacy in order to avoid the sanctioning fees and legal jurisdictions of state athletic commissions), the Crockett-led NWA (essentially, Crockett was the NWA by 1987 or so) went broke attempting to keep up, and was sold to the Ted Turner-owned TBS superstation in 1988. The WWF (soon to lose its name in a legal battle with Worldwide Fund for Nature) finally outlasted its rival, now renamed World Championship Wrestling, purchasing it in 2001. By then, the territory system seemed as archaic as, well, life before cable television. For anyone over 35, however, it’s rather surprising (or is it) how well the local celebrities created in each territory stand out in their childhood memories. Professional wrestling, for better or for worse, holds a large place in North American culture over the past century, and those Holy Roman fiefdoms spread across the continent helped entrench it.
D’Auria, G. (2008). A World of Hurt. The Tyee, 4 January 2008.Available at http://thetyee.ca/Books/2008/01/04/BretHart/. Accessed 6 March 2011.
Kayfabe Memories (2005). Regional Territories. Available at http://www.kayfabememories.com/Regions/index.htm. Accessed 6 March 2011.
McCoy, H. (2007). Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling. Toronto: ECW Press.
Wrestling Perspective (1997) .The Founding Father. Wrestling Perspective 68: 9-11. Available at http://www.wrestlingperspective.com/foundingfather.html. Accessed 4 March 2011.