March 14, 2013, Hoffman Estates, Ill.—Freezing fans clamor at the gates of the Sears Centre. The last time TNA Wrestling broadcast from here was the “Bound for Glory” pay-per-view in 2008, setting the promotion's attendance record to that date.
Tonight marks another milestone for the Nashville-based brand. After eight years of broadcasting the weekly “Impact Wrestling” almost exclusively from Universal Studios Orlando, TNA President Dixie Carter and her team pulled the trigger to take the show on the road.
Professional wrestling arose from carnival roots, and traveling from town-to-town is the last remaining vestige of that tradition. Because it affords fans the chance to see their television heroes live only once or twice a year, touring is a vital component of connecting with the fanbase, as well as keeping the broadcasts fresh.
That TNA is now at a point where touring is feasible says much for the past 10 years Carter has invested in and grown the company.
Most of the wrestlers have gone backstage by the time the call, “Twenty minutes!” echoes in the near-empty arena. Seated a few rows behind the ringside announce table are Carter and Smashing Pumpkins musician Billy Corgan, the Chicago native who, alongside promoters Jacques and Gabriel Baron, transformed their love for the sport into Resistance Pro Wrestling, one of the most respected regional federations in the industry.
“Lonesome” Jay Bradley, a standout at Resistance Pro, is now finding success in TNA.
The two talk passionately about wrestlers, and it is difficult not to overhear Corgan's awed, “That's just talent.”
Corgan exits. Carter and I talk for a spell. By the end of the interview, I'll come to realize that her Southern charm and graciousness is as genuine as her drive to succeed.
For the time being, though, I mention “it was something of a coup” to sign the legendary Hulk Hogan, whose insane level of stardom beginning in the 1980s, collaborated with Vince McMahon's strategy to build WWE from a regional promotion to a billion-dollar global business.
DIXIE CARTER: [I contacted Hulk Hogan] very early on, when we desperately needed him, and we just didn't work a deal out. [Sometime later,] I heard an interview with him, and he just sounded really different to me. So I reached out to him and—I'll never forget—I was in Los Angeles, 7 in the morning, I'd been at the Guy's Choice Awards the night before, you know, tired, went to bed probably too late. I just happened to pick up my phone, and it started ringing in my hand, “Hogan.” [W]e talked for an hour and a half, and it was like talking to a different guy. I guess everything he had gone through, and where he was at in his life.
[Y]ou know, I think a lot of people look at things without the full knowledge of what really happens here, and, “Oh, why do you have Hogan,” and, “He's so old.” First of all, Hulk Hogan is one of the most recognizable people on this planet. I mean, I would love—this is the game I play with people: name me people who would be as recognizable, living, today. And then, just synonymous with wrestling, no matter what corner of the world you're in.
But, it's all been about growing this company, and, in my mind, it's really about his legacy; what's he going to leave behind? And, the way he works with talent. I mean, they come to his house, he's constantly on the phone with them.
He shows up at every agents meeting, whether he's on TV or not. And then, to send him into a meeting, forget about it! There's no better ambassador to make executives on any level just become a little kid. But, I can't say enough good things about him and what he's done for us.
STEPHEN SONNEVELD: Have you seen growth of the company since that acquisition?
DC: Oh, absolutely. I think, from international growth, sponsor growth, advertising growth, just across the board. I really feel like we've worked very hard from little means whatsoever. I mean, we started in a giant hole, and with a broken format of the weekly pay-per-views, crawled our way out of that and have turned this into quite a competitive company. Worldwide success. And some places around the world where we're having better success than our competitor.
[I]t's hard when you have a competitor who's got 25 years on you, and they have all of the resources in the world, and such a dominating hold on things. I just believe that competition is so great. It's great for the fans, it's great for these guys. [I]f it was just one [company], I mean, how boring, how lazy could you really be and get by? I think we make them better.
Not just the stuff they take from our shows and repeat (smiles), you can quote me. But I think there's a reason there's a Lowe's across the street from every Home Depot, and CVS and Walgreen's. I think it's made wrestling more fun. And now that we're truly a much more dominant force and starting to have some real success, it's getting interesting. It's fun.
SS: Now, be honest, when you were growing—
DC: No, I didn't. I never thought about it! (laughs)
SS: (laughs) Never? What was your opinion of pro wrestling growing up?
DC: I grew up in Dallas, and so my brother and I—the Von Erichs were huge—
DC: So, we would watch Saturday morning wrestling together. But then I got away from it, for a long time. Loved Hulk. He doesn't like when I say, “When I was little.” (laughs) But I did, you know? I was a fan. He's just this larger-than-life character, and I had my favorites, but I really did not watch for a while, and I really didn't like what it had become.
SS: What didn't you like about it?
DC: I just thought it was, and I'm not saying that we haven't bordered on that, certain things, at times— not the sexual gratuitousness—but, you know, just other things, language, or blood, or whatever. But wrestling, when I got involved, was an ugly word. And it had a bad reputation.
SS: When did you get involved?
DC: I started [working with] TNA about three or four months before their first show ever. But, every time I'd mention wrestling, it's be like...
SS: How did that come about? How did you go from being a casual fan to—
DC: Well, I moved to Nashville and I started my own company when I was 26.
SS: Which is what?
DC: It was called Trifecta Entertainment, and I represented a lot of artists, musical artists and athletes and some television properties, Women's Professional Billiards Tour on ESPN, just different things like that, and I just took this on as one client of many that I had.
SS: So they came to you?
DC: They came to me, and [it] wasn't what I was expecting. And, my dad, who's a really great businessman, I'll never forget saying, “You know, I've got this opportunity to meet with this company,” and he's like, “You know what? It's big business, and you should always take a meeting.”
[S]o I took it, and I was so surprised from the very first time I met with them, and then the first show, I was hooked again. There's been a lot of obstacles, a lot of challenges, like I said, without the funding, the broken model, getting out of bad contracts—you know, when you're starting out, you'll sign anything, and then you're like, “I can't live with this contract.” So, it's taken a while, but we're really poised for some great things that I'm really excited about.
SS: [“Impact” airs on Spike TV, a Viacom network.] Is there any chance to get on other Viacom networks?
DC: Well, in the past, I was exclusive to Spike as it related to wrestling in the United States. But I really have been hounding them pretty hard because in other countries where we have multiple programs, we're having tremendous success.
Arguably, the second largest television country in the world would be the United Kingdom, and we're having so much success over there. “Impact” on any given night could have the same rating as “Raw” and “Smackdown” combined, so it's something that we're really, really proud of.
But I think [Viacom] recognizes we need to be out there more, and so we're talking right now, and we'll see if there's some good stuff in our future; different networks, maybe not even Viacom.
SS: Okay. We're hours away from showtime—
DC: Twenty minutes, I just heard the call.
SS: Twenty minutes?
DC: (laughs) Open doors, yeah.
SS: So what's going through your mind?
DC: You know, I'm just, I feel... I'm just so at peace today.
DC: Yeah. I just feel great. We have a great team.
(laughs) The second match at “Lockdown,” I was up in the suite, and I never watch from a suite. I asked the guy who was calling the show, “You know, I want to go watch it like a fan.” And twenty minutes later, I look up, our executive producer, and [the guy calling the show] was up there, and I'm like, “We have the top three people up here, who's running this show?”
DC: But it just shows you, I think, where we're at, and the quality of people. I know that this is the right decision, and I know that if we continue to have crowds and to do shows like we did at “Lockdown” in San Antonio and give the fans a great experience, they'll come, and they'll support this, and we'll continue to grow.
SS: So, [touring “Impact”] was a stepping stone.
SS: You wanted to get to this point. What's the next stepping stone for you?
DC: Well, I think, from a touring standpoint, to be able to go live every single week, versus a live/tape, more programming in the United States, growth internationally, growth in our licensing—all revenue can always grow—but I think this is the right next step.
We've cut back to four pay-per-views. That really hurts us from both a top line revenue standpoint, as well as a bottom line revenue standpoint, because they were successful but I just felt like—
SS: But were you making enough to justify having  a year, though?
DC: Yeah! Absolutely, we were. So it's hard to walk away from millions of dollars in profit, but I just felt like... it's just so hard to do one every month that makes sense. What if we, and maybe it won't happen overnight, but what if we really let television breathe, and had four really big pay-per-views a year and really built them into something special, what could happen? So we'll see. May not have been the right decision, but, I think there's a good chance it might be.
SS: [A]s a businessperson, where do you see this company going? What are your milestones that you want to achieve?
DC: I think you shouldn't be in business if you don't want to become the biggest, most successful in your industry in the world. [S]o that's our goal, and I think we're capable of getting there. I think we need to grow our product beyond our core business now, and become a bigger entertainment company that might have a lot of interesting outside businesses, but they could all be fed by the core of TNA Wrestling, no matter what program that is underneath there, “Xplosion” or “Impact,” or whatever. But, yeah, I'm proud of that. I want to be number one.
SS: What's your vision for the company: when someone changes the channel and they see your show, what do you want them to see?
DC: I think, if you tune in tonight, what you're going to see is arguably the best wrestling roster in the business today. I think they work very hard, they don't rest on their laurels, they're very motivated to succeed and to take this company to another level, and I'm very grateful that I get to lead a group of men and women who feel that way.
But also, we have a lot of fun at our shows. I think you will see tonight, we encourage people to stand up and be rowdy and just have fun. So, when you tune in, that's what I want. Yeah, the storylines, I think we're doing some of the most unique and interesting television production aspects of how wrestling's being presented—that's another thing you'll see.
But as far as what you and I are looking at right here, which is the arena, great action in the ring, but I think you're going to see a very passionate crowd having a good time.
SS: And your fan experiences are pretty—
DC: Love that!
DC: Love that. I mean, that's my favorite thing, honestly. From the very beginning, I would walk around the floors from day one and just look people in the eye and shake their hand and thank 'em for their business. You know, and they're like, “Who is that crazy woman?” (laughs) “I don't know, she must be somebody!”
DC: It's just like, that's who I am, and I was brought up to be grateful, and we have built this company one fan at a time. And if people think that sounds cliché, so be it, because it's the truth. There's no other way. We didn't have a hundred million dollar company behind us, we didn't have a major network vested in us, just pouring in all of their resources. I mean, literally, we built it one fan at a time, and I think we're doing pretty good.
SS: Now, day-to-day, when you're not at a TV taping, can you just walk us through what it is that you do?
DC: No two days are ever alike. Which I love, and that fits my personality. But I'm literally involved in everything, but I've got a really, really great team.
...a typical day? Talk about changes to the X-Division we're going to do, or trying to figure out where we're taking the tour, and how we can make the pre-show to these television shows almost as much fun as the wrestling. International, what are we doing with our Indian partner, [a new deal with] iTunes—I mean, it could be anything.
And I think that's the beauty of this business; there's so many revenue streams and so many [revenue] pockets, but at the same time, it's a lot of plates in the air to manage and juggle. But that's what keeps it fun and interesting.
SS: Are you involved with the storylines, as well?
DC: I sit in on the big creative arc meetings, and I'm given the formats. I try and let people do their jobs.
SS: Is that how you'd describe your management style?
DC: I think so. Respectful, but at the same time, if I see something that's not being done right, or there's a hole in something, or a question that needs to be asked, I'm certainly going to do it. It's in my personality to be too involved, quite honestly.
And I think it's something I work on, because when you're that way with people, they have a tendency to start sitting back at some point and start waiting for you to come in and give that input and make that change, and I don't think you'll get the best from people, so, I had to learn that. (laughs) And now that I have, I sit back and wait, “Okay, that's enough waiting!” (laughs) “Let's do this!”
SS: Can you briefly explain how television works for those who don't know?
DC: Spike pays us a license fee for the show that we produce, then they put it on the air, and then we own that show. [W]e have the international rights to it, so we sell it to other countries around the world.
SS: What would you say is your strongest revenue stream?
DC: I think it used to be television licensing, because that was the main thing we had. But if you look at a pie chart where that used to be the majority of the pie, the pie has become proportionately more balanced with different revenue streams, which is the sign of a healthy company.
So, right now, it's contributions from everything. Some that are still new, like digital, would be smaller. Some, like pay-per-view, it's not as big as it used to be, but it's still proportionately, [and is even] growing in a declining market in that world, so we'll see what the four do this year.
SS: Do you view this version of TNA as a North American brand, or as a global brand...
DC: No, it's definitely a global brand, there's no doubt. We had success with a very Indian-specific wrestling show that we developed over there, and we're currently looking at doing another one. But, no, it needs to be looked at as global, and that's the great thing about wrestling, you can have characters from all over.
DC: We just did a reality show that was tremendously successful in the United Kingdom called “British Boot Camp,” where we were looking for the next new star and found a great X-Division guy and twin girls that were fantastic.
So, not only did we get paid to do that, and get tons of exposure, it helped drive our live-event sales, and we culminated the finale right as we were touring over there—all of the marketing for everything all at once, record attendance, record merch, record ratings. [T]he plan worked.
SS: What are you most proud of with this organization?
DC: I'm most proud of the environment. I've always heard, and I don't know, because I've never lived in that existence, but how uptight or stressful or—just different wrestling environments can be.
I don't think these guys knew what to make of me for the first couple of years, like, “She can't really be like this. She's, she's workin' us.” I had to learn that whole carny language.
DC: Took me longer than makin' money. (laughs) But no, I'm proud that people's wives and husbands are welcome here, and their children, and their parents. When I get to a show, the first—(smiles) I only saw 'em seven days ago, but to get from point A to point B can take me, you know, 45 minutes to stop and hug everybody—
DC: —(laughs) and say hello.
It's hard, because on any given Sunday, half of the people here lose, you know? And it's hard because it can't necessarily be an individual sport here. This is definitely a team sport because it's all about if the company doesn't succeed, it doesn't matter what happens to anybody individually.
So, I've just tried to create a really positive environment, and I care about these people tremendously—they know that—and I think that's why they try so hard back, and why being successful here means so much to them. They're not just collecting a paycheck and it shows.
SS: Why did you pick Chicago [for the first touring “Impact”]?
DC: We looked at buildings that were available for this date. We kind of earmarked, let's pull the trigger, okay where are we gonna jump off that cliff?
SS: So you chose the date first?
DC: Chose the date, and then we just looked at different avails for different buildings, and how long it had been since we'd been there, how are your ratings there, and all this kind of stuff. And there's some markets, like Phoenix, our ratings are not very good, but we sold a ton of tickets. We sold out in Phoenix—that just shows you the Nielsen system is not a correct system.
We looked at it and [I wanted the first show to] make a big statement. [W]e hadn't really been here in any major capacity [outside of non-televised house shows], since I think it was 2009, so it had been a while. I thought, let's go back and try it. We should be close to a sellout tonight, if not sold out.
[W]e didn't open the upper bowl, but the screen was moved a lot closer and then everything sold out. So, then we moved the seat back, then you add the floor, you add all of those, then we opened the bleachers, so it's changed, but we've been reacting and moving, and moving the jib there and creating more—none of these seats were here two hours ago because we had that big jib [here, and] they sold in 20 minutes.
SS: No kidding.
DC: Yeah, so it should be a really good crowd.
SS: Is the Impact Zone closed for good then?
DC: I would love to do another show there, and let [the touring “Impact Wrestling”] be our primary brand. I would love to look into something like that. They were really good to us. Universal was a great partner. Great partner. You have 30 million people a year going through those turnstiles for both those parks, our exposures were everywhere, our logo was everywhere, we're in maps, we're in hotel guides, it was great. They were fabulous.
I have nothing but amazing things to say about them. And people traveled a long way to come see us, but it was just time for us to make that big move and come see them.
SS: Are you committed to the name TNA, or would you like to see it changed?
DC: I think at some point—but, you know, there was a lot vested, unfortunately, after a certain period of time, you have brand equity into something.
But the show, we did change it to “Impact Wrestling,” and now we'll have “Xplosion” and we'll have different things under that umbrella.
SS: Has TNA lived up to its potential?
DC: Not yet.
SS: Is this where you wanted to be at this point in time?
DC: I always want more. I don't get satisfied very easy. You always want more. We're getting there. I feel the momentum, and I'm very happy with that.
SS: Were there any moments where you said, “You know what? This isn't what I signed up for, maybe I should just...” Did you ever have a crisis of faith?
DC: There were some real hard moments. Really tough moments.
SS: Early on?
DC: Mostly early on. There's nothing in recent years, no more than any business would have a challenge. Your DVD partner goes out of business, this international television company folds, your video-game company, which is top three when you sign with them, launches your game a week into the recession, pushes it out too early and then goes bankrupt two months later. You know, those are challenges, but they're not defining moments.
There were some tough times. [You] had to really fight to look for that right television partner, and change things, and know things weren't moving in the right direction and you don't necessarily have the money to fix it, and you just have to find a way to make it work.
SS: Do you enjoy being on camera?
SS: Well how did that start, anyway?
DC: I never wanted to do it. I got pushed, kind of, into doing it. I always said I wouldn't. Now I just... I tolerate it. It's not something, “Oh! I want to be on camera.” That's not me at all.
Now what I do love doing is, I love coming out on the floor tonight, before we go live, I love getting in that ring and thanking everybody. So I'll sign autographs and just thank people for the first hour that we're here, take pictures, hug and kiss babies, and do all that other kind of stuff.
No, the other is just—but, I just said, as long as you don't make me play something I'm not. If I can just be myself, I can do reality TV, just don't let me see you, don't get in my face, (laughs) don't tell me what to do or say. With the other, it just had to be, had to keep it real.
SS: What did you want to be when you grew up?
DC: Wow. Successful.
DC: Yeah. I just, I don't know. I didn't know what I wanted to do, per se.
SS: How did you—
DC: I think entertainment, early.
DC: Yeah, because I've had a job since I was 14, and lied and said I was 15, when they really wanted me to be 16. I've worked every day of my life. I think I took a few hours after [having] two babies. But, every spring break, every summer, every Christmas break, I worked, and I think it's just in my DNA.
Most 26-year-olds don't just pack up a U-Haul and move to Nashville and start their own entertainment company, but it was like a bad country song, I always say. I think I got to experience, during internships, some stuff I loved, and I'm like, “I want to do more of that.”
SS: Where did you intern?
DC: I interned at a place called Levenson & Hill in Dallas, it was the largest independent ad agency, and I worked. So, my first day on the job was with Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks.
SS: No kidding. Oh, for “Nothing in Common”?
DC: Yeah—very good memory. And I was, I don't know, 18 years old, at the most. Maybe 17, because I graduated really young.
SS: [joking] Overachiever.
DC: [I]f I've told you some of the stories, I've had the most blessed life of just different things that I've gotten to do, and experience and see. But, you'd have [an experience such as working on “Nothing in Common”], and I'm like, “I really like that.” Then I'd get a client that had some music.
[W]e would do corporate stuff, and I was like... I can do it, but it didn't excite me, like the other stuff. And [corporate clientele] excites some people, thank God, because they need people to do those kinds of things, but I just loved [entertainment], and I loved the music.
I had to go to Nashville for business, and I'd take my little rental car and drive up and down Music Row, looking at those houses, going, “One day, I'm going to have my own office here.” Sure enough, I did, and now we've got 30,000 square feet, tons of employees.
So, very blessed, that's all I can say.