The second-largest professional wrestling promotion in the United States runs out of a 400,000-square-foot glowing red-brick building in Nashville’s SoBro neighborhood, not far from the Country Music Hall of Fame. With rented space in the basement and on the third floor, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling is one of more than 140 businesses based in Cummins Station, and when I meet Dixie Carter, the embattled 49-year-old president, she receives me in a corner office covered wall to wall with mementos and tchotchkes. “If you hear me holler, come running,” she tells the TNA rep exiting the room. Carter made the same crack when I interviewed her in New York City.
“This is one of my favorite things,” she says, walking toward a psychedelic painting. “When we had our first issues with Jeff Hardy,” the TNA daredevil who has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse throughout his career, “he did this painting called The Charismatic Apology.” She shows off autographed baseballs from TNA fans David Eckstein and David Dellucci, an Ole Miss alum like Carter. There’s also a life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne, a gift from her dad, and a Frank Wycheck bobblehead. “He’s a buddy of mine,” Carter beams. “Remember the Music City Miracle?”
Dixie Carter is charming — a neighborly kind of person — and nearly 5-foot-9 in her chunky Michael Kors heels. Bracelet upon jangling bracelet circle her wrist, and she has maybe the largest diamond ring I’ve ever seen up close. “That is a Texas thing,” she says of her bangles. Her voice, a soft Dallas lilt, has its own smile even when touching on layoffs that TNA doled out just one week before my visit. “We were overstaffed in certain cases,” Carter says. “Certain times you have to take a step back to take a massive step forward.”
The recent downsizing was the latest step back for TNA, the well-funded, talent-stacked wrestling promotion whose goal since its inception in 2002 was to be the alternative to and perhaps even competition for Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment. But while Carter claims the company is profitable,1 she acknowledges TNA’s annus horribilis. Live events are down. Ratings have eroded — 2013 was the first year since 2006 that Impact Wrestling, TNA’s two-hour flagship program on Spike TV, averaged below a 1.0 rating, less than one-third of what WWE’s Raw pulls in on Monday nights. Main-event talent such as Sting and AJ Styles are gone, as are respected stalwarts Chris Sabin, Christopher Daniels, and Kazarian. Even the creative team has thinned: In the past 14 months, Bruce Prichard, Eric Bischoff, Hulk Hogan, and Vince Russo — men with historically successful track records who were responsible for the majority of the promotion’s story lines — have exited.
The most alarming departure was the December 2013 resignation of TNA cofounder, minority owner, and part-time wrestler Jeff Jarrett. “The time was right,” he tells me about ending his sometimes fraught, decadelong association with Carter. “I wanted to move on to another chapter of my life.” And once he left TNA, Jeff Jarrett, third-generation wrestling promoter, did the one thing Jeff Jarrett knows how to do: He started another wrestling promotion.
News of TNA’s troubles, already well known within the Internet wrestling community, went public on July 27 when TMZ reported that Spike TV would not renew Impact; the current deal, which ran to October, was recently extended through the end of the year. “TMZ asked me, ‘Hey, is this story real, should we run with it?” Carter says as she settles into a couch. “I was watching a movie and didn’t see it until some little wrestling site ran it. Then I gave TMZ a quote, which said we’re still negotiating. That never made it to print.”
Despite being the network’s highest-rated program, Impact Wrestling reportedly was too expensive for Spike to offset the minimal advertising revenue. Spike is also rumored to be expanding its target demo beyond males ages 18 to 34. A network rep wouldn’t comment, citing ongoing negotiations, but added, “The relationship has always been tremendous and collaborative with Dixie and her team.”
TNA losing its television deal is the latest harsh reality the professional wrestling industry is facing. Even WWE, which dominates the marketplace, is struggling. In 2000, Raw averaged a 5.88 rating and the company’s pay-per-view buy rate hovered around 517,000. Last year, Raw scored a 3.01 and, despite more than a million buys for WrestleMania, pay-per-views were down to 330,000. And the WWE Network’s low subscriber number spooked Wall Street in May, sending the company’s stock tumbling to $11.27 a share from a March high of $31.98. (At press time, the stock sits at $15.01.) The numbers don’t lie: Professional wrestling went into a deep recession following its late-’90s boom and has now settled into a decadelong malaise. The battle between WWE and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling drove the business to its zenith. Now there might not even be room for a no. 2.
Still, Carter sees this moment — a time when her company is losing its television deal and her entire industry is slumping — as an opportunity. At least that’s the spin. Since debuting on Spike, Impact Wrestling has occupied four time slots over four different evenings, including last month’s eleventh hour move to Wednesday — there wasn’t even time to change the “tune in next Thursday” sign-off. She craves stability in addition to more hours and more programming. “We will die a slow death on the vine if we just stay as one two-hour show in the U.S.,” she says. “I have big decisions to make. I want this to be a big play. I don’t want this to be a status quo play.”
Soon after the TMZ story broke, executive VP of talent relations and creative John Gaburick sent TNA talent a two-paragraph email updating them on the television situation. Morale in the locker room was surprisingly strong, although by now the wrestlers have developed a thick skin. “I’ve [worked] 95 percent of the shows this company has run, and from day one the Internet, the public, has tried to bash TNA,” says the wrestler Bobby Roode. “We’ve been here for 12 years and after all the negativity and all the bullshit — ‘They’re going down, they’re going under, they’re done’ — we’re still here.”
Carter delivered a similar pep talk before an early-August TV taping at the Manhattan Center. “I may have let a cuss word or two slip,” she says, sounding like a teetotaler who’s just snuck a taste of rum raisin ice cream. “A couple of guys came up to me afterward and said, ‘We believe in you. We believe in this company.’”
TNA suffers from the curse of being no. 2. It is little brother, forever obscured by the Master of the Universe. It is the Jets, the Mets, the Clippers. And bad things happen to TNA. The company has been victimized by rotten luck. But by and large, poor decision-making and mismanagement are at the heart of TNA’s woes.
The latest TNA scandal, which might be the most TNA scandal yet, was seeded last October when Carter rehired Russo, a writer who worked with the company from 2002 to 2004 and then 2006 to 2012, to consult on the creative team. There was a hitch: Russo had to keep his new job a secret. A former video store owner from Long Island, Russo is one of the most controversial men in wrestling history. He’s abrasive, a disruptor with a reputation for not playing well with others, and is partly responsible for removing the “wrestling” from professional wrestling, much to the dismay of traditionalists.
“The Internet wrestling community thinks in-ring wrestling action should take up every minute of every show,” Russo says, practically shouting. “That’s what they believe the business is. That’s what they are fans of. I mean, they rate fake wrestling matches on a star system. The matches are fake! They are not real!”
As a writer, Russo places an emphasis on soap-opera story lines, long promos, backstage vignettes, and TV-14 edginess over in-ring action. Russo has his vocal detractors. “He’s a cancer,” says Jim Cornette, the longtime wrestling manager, promoter, and writer who worked alongside him in WWE and TNA. But Russo also presided over the early days of WWE’s Attitude Era, the biggest growth period in the billion-dollar company’s history.2 He failed miserably when he tried duplicating the formula in the now defunct WCW.
But why the secrecy? A July report stating that Russo’s hiring was clandestine because Spike TV did not want to work with him has been debunked. “Vince Russo never meant anything to Spike TV,” said David Schwarz, senior VP of communications with Spike, in a recent statement. “He had nothing to do with negotiations. Nobody cares about Vince Russo at Spike TV.” Russo, who says that Spike knew of his employment since January, has a different theory. “It’s because Dixie was afraid of what the Internet was going to say,” he says. “She puts heavy stock into the Internet wrestling community and all of the dirt sheets from day one. She’s obsessed with reading them, reading what they say about the show and what they say about her. She didn’t want the backlash of hiring Vince Russo, who the Internet hates.”
Carter admits that Russo’s reputation factored into the bumbling covert operation. “He’s a lightning rod,” Carter says. “People hate him, but sometimes people love what he does but they don’t realize he does it. He’s a really talented guy.” Russo worked from afar for months, publicly denying he was under contract with any wrestling promotion. Then he mistakenly cc’d Mike Johnson, a writer for the online wrestling dirt sheet Pro Wrestling Insider, on an email attached with production notes meant for the TNA announce team, Mike Tenay and Taz. He clicked on the wrong Mike. Johnson, of course, broke the news on his site. Shortly thereafter Russo and TNA parted ways.
Russo says he’s writing a book about his time with TNA. It’s titled Total Nonstop Agony.
From its first event on June 19, 2002, there was something ominous about TNA.
During an untelevised match, a 450-pound wrestler named Cheex snapped one of the ring ropes minutes before the show went on air. The show ultimately featured a mix of new and familiar faces, old-school Southern wrasslin’, high-flying spots, Attitude Era high jinks3 (including a catfight between two female wrestlers), a battle royal to determine the first world heavyweight champion, and a performance by Toby Keith, who was then at the height of his “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” fame.4 At the end of the night, after former UFC star Ken Shamrock raised the championship belt, the crowd chanted “TNA! TNA! TNA!” Even though he lost the battle royal, Jeff Jarrett, along with his father and business partner Jerry, was pleased. Their joy was short-lived.
TNA’s initial business plan was unconventional and rife with risk. Instead of banking on cable rights fees, the largest revenue stream for most national wrestling promotions then and now, TNA sidestepped a television deal in favor of weekly pay-per-view events priced at $9.95. Some major cable distributors did not offer the event, and, according to Carter and Jarrett, the buy rates were terrible. Later that summer, HealthSouth Corporation, the Jarretts’ main financial backer, pulled out. One rumor had it that HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy hadn’t received his board’s approval for investing in TNA; Scrushy was soon indicted on a $2.7 billion conspiracy and fraud charge.
Jarrett was transparent after the news broke. TNA badly needed new investors. He solicited everyone on staff for contacts. He even asked the woman whose firm handled TNA’s PR. Within a week, Jeff and Jerry Jarrett were in Texas meeting Dixie’s dad, a rich oil and gas wildcatter named Bob Carter, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Panda Energy International. Dixie pushed the deal to her parents, “selling her booty off,” she says, and by October 2002, Panda purchased a majority stake, rumored to be 72 percent, of TNA.
Dixie Carter didn’t want just a job in professional wrestling. “I wanted to run a wrestling company when I grew up,” she says in a hushed, condescending tone. “Gosh, can you imagine?” She worked at a Dallas-based marketing firm where on one of her first days she had dinner with Tom Hanks on the set of Nothing in Common. Carter quickly ascended to vice-president. She dated Serg Salinas, a singing cowboy and occasional Wrangler model, whom she eventually married and has two children with.5 And at 30, Carter founded Trifecta Entertainment, a Nashville-based PR firm whose clients included former Tennessee Titan Kyle Vanden Bosch, superstar country singer Tanya Tucker, and eventually a little start-up wrestling promotion called TNA.
Within two years of Panda’s investment, Carter became TNA’s president, just as the company was gaining momentum: The weekly pay-per-view format was abandoned. A national television deal was struck with Fox Sports Net. And the product was improving. The TNA roster hosted an eclectic collection of homegrown talent (AJ Styles, Bobby Roode, James Storm), former indie stars (Samoa Joe, Low Ki), and veterans (Sting, Jarrett). But because this is professional wrestling, backstage tension threatened it all. Having grown disgusted with TNA’s slow lurch from traditionalism toward the “Crash TV” format favored by Russo, Jerry Jarrett left the company; Jerry and his son Jeff have been estranged for nearly a decade. Dixie Carter and Jeff Jarrett’s relationship was also doomed from the start.
Their partnership was a clash between the provincial world of professional wrestling and the hubris of the business class: Maybe Carter looked down at a guy who’d spent his life in the wrestling industry and maybe Jarrett didn’t treat Carter as the person who saved his flailing company. Their power structure was confusing. Carter was president and her family held a majority stake in the company, yet Jarrett controlled creative and production, which is all that matters to many in the locker room. “I’m sure the office employees and the younger wrestlers looked at Dixie as the boss,” Cornette says. “But most of the experienced veterans looked at Dixie as the money mark and Jeff as the boss because he was the wrestling guy and had started the company.”
Carter heard the whispers. “Did I hear, ‘Well, you don’t know wrestling’?” she says, trailing off. “I just wanted to say, ‘I understand, you don’t know business.’ I chose not to be bitter about it and just do my job. I don’t need people to tell me what I know and don’t know. At some point I said, ‘If I hear that again, you may not have a job.’”
When asked to describe her working relationship with Jarrett, Carter sidesteps, instead praising his entrepreneurial bent. “I will always give props to Jeff,” she says. “Out of the thousands of wrestlers out there he’s the only one who decided to create something with his own money. I have mad respect for that, always have and always will. I love Jeff as a person. I wish him and his precious family nothing but success.”
Jarrett echoes Carter. “To this day we are fine,” he says. “It’s professional. I’m a strong-willed, wrestling-minded person.”
Maybe it wasn’t personal, but Carter and Jarrett’s clash came to a head in July 2009 when Carter discovered that Jarrett, recently widowed, had been dating Karen Angle, the estranged wife of TNA’s biggest star, Kurt Angle. Jarrett was immediately taken off television and removed from his position as leader of the creative team, “sent home” in wrestling parlance. “It was blown way out of proportion,” Jarrett says of Carter’s decision. “Way out of proportion.”
Carter won’t comment on the situation today, but in 2011 said, “I tried to bear the burden of that and not have it be a TNA issue until it absolutely had to. It was a very difficult and uncomfortable time.”
With Jarrett gone from TNA for six months, Carter consolidated her power.6 Upon returning, Jarrett, now stripped of nearly all backstage authority, wrestled sporadically and helped get Ring Ka King, TNA’s India-based promotion, off the ground. His exit was imminent.
As he settles into a corner booth at the trendy Nashville restaurant Pinewood Social, Jeff Jarrett looks like he just walked off the golf course. Wearing a kelly green polo, pronounced laugh lines stringing across his burnt-red forehead, the 47-year-old Jarrett has just returned from Japan, where he made an appearance for New Japan Pro Wrestling, an international partner of Jarrett’s new promotion, Global Force Wrestling. Jarrett, who still holds a minority stake in TNA, does not have to divest, even after GFW launches. Sweet deal. “No comment,” he cackles.
Since resigning from TNA last December, Jarrett has hustled to get his start-up running. He has signed talent exchanges with more than 13 promotions on five continents including New Japan and AAA, scouted wrestlers, hired Dave Broome from The Biggest Loser fame as an executive producer, and will spend this month scouting potential venues in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas. A conglomerate including Toby Keith7 is backing GFW.
Jarrett speaks confidently, but he hesitates at times — he’s especially wary of revealing anything regarding GFW’s creative direction or TV plans. “We are in the midst of negotiations on every level with networks, with sponsorships, with venues — everything that goes into launching a wrestling organization,” is about all he’ll say about that. He looks at brands like Nike, Under Armour, and, of course, WWE as inspirations, and is unfazed by both the depressed professional wrestling landscape and TNA’s television situation. So what makes him think a new promotion will land a good TV deal when TNA, a company that has been around for 12 years, may be unable to do the same?
“Wrestling is Shakespeare for the masses — storytelling, good vs. evil — and that has always worked on television and will always work on television,” he says. “I think there is room for three or four wrestling shows on television. I think it’s narrow-minded to say there is only room for one. Competition breeds success, and the only winners will be the fans.” After our lunch, I can’t decide if Jarrett is the friendliest man in the South or a source working a reporter; there’s a reason why old-school wrestlers, especially promoters, have been compared to carnival barkers.
Global Force Wrestling’s focus on international partnerships might affect TNA’s share in foreign markets, but Carter says she isn’t preoccupied with Jarrett’s new venture. “Not at all,” she says. “Not even a bit. Don’t know what it is, don’t understand it, and don’t need to.”
When Carter sent Jarrett home in the summer of 2009, she handed the creative reins of the company to Russo. His plan was for a youth movement. Carter had different ideas. From the moment Russo took over creative, Carter set upon a mutual courtship with Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff, the creative visionary behind WCW’s greatest success, the nWo. Hogan and Bischoff were hired in October 2009. Change happened fast, which was Carter’s intention; the most significant included swapping TNA’s six-sided ring for a traditional squared circle and moving Impact Wrestling to Monday night in an ill-fated attempt at challenging WWE.
Hogan and Bischoff debuted on Monday, January 4, 2010, along with a parade of former WWE wrestlers (Ric Flair, Scott Hall, Sean Waltman, Rob Van Dam, Jeff Hardy, Val Venis, Orlando Jordan, Shannon Moore) and Hogan cronies (the Nasty Boys, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge). Ratings popped to a 1.45 for the January 4 show, but WWE pulled its trump card as a response: Bret Hart confronting Shawn Michaels for the first time since the 1997 Montreal Screwjob. Raw drew a 3.6. Ratings for TNA’s Monday shows then slid below a 1.0. In May 2010, two months after moving permanently to Monday night, TNA retreated to Thursday.
The regime was tone-deaf to TNA’s core fans, leaning on nostalgia instead of fashioning new stars. It failed because it didn’t trust the talent that had made small, incremental gains. “I don’t think Eric and Hogan knew the roster at all. In fact, I don’t even know if they watched the show before they came in, and if they did it had to be very little,” says AJ Styles. “No one knew who I was. No one knew who [Samoa] Joe was. We added Rob Van Dam because everyone knows him.” Bischoff declined an interview request. “I can’t comment on TNA — no comments at all,” he told me over the phone; BHE TV, Bischoff and Jason Hervey’s8 production company, still produces Impact.
The shows from that era, full of illogical swerves, confusing alliances, and chaotic storytelling, mirrored the balkanized creative room, which, by this point, included Russo, Bischoff, and Hogan. “I never really knew who my boss was,” says former TNA wrestler Joey Ryan. “I wasn’t sure if I should listen to Eric Bischoff or Bruce Prichard or Dixie Carter. They were all giving me advice and telling me different things. Then the agents at the matches are telling me different things.”
“Eric and myself would butt heads because we have two totally different philosophies and at the end of the day Dixie was supposed to make the final call,” says Russo, who quit in early 2012. “Well, she couldn’t make that final call. She didn’t want to make that final call. Then she brought in Bruce Prichard [as senior vice-president of programming and talent relations] so Bruce could make the final call between me and Eric.” After a brief uptick in 2011, ratings began to tumble in 2012.
Then, in perhaps the costliest move of the Hogan-Bischoff era, TNA left the cheap confines of the Impact Zone, the Universal Studios Florida set where Impact Wrestling once taped. In a bold, high-risk/high-reward gamble, TNA took its show on the road in March 2013 at a reported cost of about $600,000 for each set of television tapings. It didn’t work out. By July, the company began making severe budget cuts, releasing eight wrestlers, Prichard, and a road agent, D’Lo Brown. The expenditures also led to the eventual departure of AJ Styles, the face of the promotion.
“It was insulting,” Styles says of TNA’s final contract offer, which he says would’ve constituted about a 40 percent pay cut.
“I hate that we lost AJ. Are you listening?” Carter says, speaking directly into my recording device. “I hate it. I felt like we gave him a great offer. I really did. I felt like we gave him a great offer and I think he made a mistake.”
Styles now wrestles for New Japan, Ring of Honor, and other independents. “For a guy who’d been a staple of that company for 11 years, who busted his tail, never got in trouble, never did anything to embarrass your company, and what [Carter] offered me was enough for me to go, ‘I’m not working here.’ I loved that company. I did. I put everything I had into it.”
Bischoff was sent home in October. Hogan’s contract expired around the same time, and soon he was drinking a beer alongside Stone Cold and the Rock at WrestleMania XXX. Contrary to his reputation, Hogan was a team player in TNA even if he did occasionally neglect to mention the company during media appearances. He attended tapings regardless of whether he was booked or not, he sat in agents’ meetings, and he was accessible to young talent like Joey Ryan.
“Hogan would seek me out to say hi to me and talk to me,” Ryan says. “He didn’t have to. He would see how I was doing and if I needed anything, which was really cool and a dream come true. Obviously I grew up with him as my favorite [wrestler]. By the end of my TNA run I looked at him as more of my friend.”
But the spectacle of Hulk Hogan in TNA — rocking the red and yellow, flexing the 24-inch pythons, even wrestling the occasional match — wore off quickly.
Carter admits that Hogan should’ve been used more sparingly on television (perhaps his reported $35,000 appearance fee still resonates), but she defends the hiring. “I think having Hulk Hogan as part of your company can never be a bad thing,” she says. “To me, it was a great investment.”
Dixie Carter refuses to conduct a postmortem on her company. “Looking back, I would have done a ton of things differently,” she says. “But I can’t Monday-morning quarterback. I won’t do that.”
Backstage at the Manhattan Center, where TNA is wrapping up its second sold-out, three-night run of the summer, Carter sits in a small office recounting her recent injuries. Back in June, Carter, who has played an evil authority figure on television for the past year, was powerbombed through a table by fan favorite Bully Ray. Though she suffered fractures to her L2 and L3 transverse processes in her spine and broke a rib, Carter says the injuries were worth it considering the pop of the crowd. “This place was rocking. You could probably hear it up to Times Square.”
But for TNA, what was meant to be a crowd-pleasing moment turned awkward and unsettling.9 It even jarred some of the talent in the locker room. “Seeing your boss go through a table, a female at that,” says Bobby Roode, “it kind of sets you back a little bit.”
Despite the controversy — and poor taste10 — the August 7 episode of Impact ticked upward ever so slightly. The company’s overall product has shown improvement in recent months. The six-sided ring is back. The incredible Gail Kim has the Knockouts Division on fire. United Talent Agency has been hired in a McKinsey-like role. There’s a renewed spotlight on the high-flying X-Division and tag-team wrestling. And the mass exodus of wrestlers has left room for young talent, particularly the former WWE developmental casualty Ethan Carter III, now a budding main-event star in TNA. “It’s the exact opportunity I was ready for a long time ago that I never got over there,” Carter III says. “I have a chip on my shoulder to shove it up their ass. Every second I’m out there, every chance I get, I’m motivated to make this company succeed.”
More than anything, TNA has benefited from a creative change.11
“I think the audience was challenging us to give them something a little more straightforward — good old-fashioned wrestling instead of laborious talk or long, drawn-out stories,” says executive VP John Gaburick. “The long-form story lines that take forever to play out were not that effective.”
But can all this revive TNA? Bully Ray is reportedly leaving the promotion. And Bound for Glory, effectively TNA’s WrestleMania, will not be shown live on pay-per-view in October as it’s taping in Japan, and they still haven’t found their Rock or Stone Cold. And most troubling of all, TNA does not have any live events booked in the United States past its September 19 date in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Still, Carter is confident she can turn this thing around. There are jobs at stake. Livelihoods. She hopes all wrestling fans are rooting for her and for her company. Even if she knows that’s not the case.
“All these people say, ‘I hope you go out of business’ — why would you ever want that? You don’t think we make wrestling better just by exposing more people and giving people more options? It’s the most ludicrous, shortsighted thing — the sheer absurdity and stupidity of it blows my mind,” she says. “I feel sorry for the wrestling business if we’re not around.”
Illustration by Elias Stein