Over the last few decades, numerous events have sparked talk that pro wrestlers in the United States might finally unionize. In 1986, Jesse “The Body” Ventura tried and failed to start a wrestlers’ union before WrestleMania 2. More recently, the financial hit wrestlers took from the 2014 launch of the WWE Network streaming service got people buzzing about workers’ rights. So did last year’s grounding of a charter plane in Saudi Arabia due to what some wrestlers feared was a hostage situation stemming from a spat between WWE and the royal family. But, of all things, what might now get the ball rolling is WWE’s strange new policy about Twitch and an ill-timed crackdown on its wrestlers’ efforts to make some outside money during a pandemic.
Early in September, WrestlingInc reported that WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon had sent a letter to all talent outlining how “some of you are engaged with outside third parties using your name and likeness in ways that are detrimental to our company.” Adding that “it is imperative that these activities be terminated within the next 30 days (by Friday October 2),” he warned everyone that “continued violations will result in fines, suspension, or termination at WWE’s discretion.” While vague, the letter was understood to be referring to, at a minimum, having monetized Twitch accounts and selling video greetings on Cameo. Both services had gained popularity among the WWE roster during the covid-19 pandemic out of both boredom and possibly a need to replace the missing income from WWE not touring. A.J. Styles, Cesaro, Mia Yim, Paige, Adam Cole, and married couple Aleister Black and Zelina Vega were among the more successful wrestlers turned streamers as it became an increasingly common side gig.
A statement issued by WWE the day after the story broke didn’t clear much about about what the company was and wasn’t going to permit:
Much like Disney and Warner Bros., WWE creates, promotes and invests in its intellectual property, i.e. the stage names of performers like The Fiend Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Big E and Braun Strowman. It is the control and exploitation of these characters that allows WWE to drive revenue, which in turn enables the company to compensate performers at the highest levels in the sports entertainment industry. Notwithstanding the contractual language, it is imperative for the success of our company to protect our greatest assets and establish partnerships with third parties on a companywide basis, rather than at the individual level, which as a result will provide more value for all involved.
The statement’s reference to “stage names” led to a belief, both publicly and privately, that using WWE-owned character names was the issue, so talent that weren’t already using their legal names (or gimmick names that they owned themselves, like A.J. Styles) rebranded accounts accordingly. Paige, for example, renamed her channel “”SarayaOfficial,” playing off of her legal name, Saraya-Jade Bevis.
It didn’t work, and WWE kept pushing. On streams, the wrestlers expressed uncertainty about the situation going forward, with most eventually shutting down.
The situation really heated up on Friday the 13th of this month, when WWE fired Zelina Vega, real name Thea Trinidad Budgen. She had been streaming on Twitch with her husband, WWE wrestler Tom “Aleister Black” Budgen, though he had stopped appearing on the streams. According to Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer, Trinidad Budgen was fired because she refused to give up her monetized Twitch account and other monetized content creator accounts in accordance with a new WWE policy. Meltzer reported that Trinidad Budgen had been making more money outside of WWE. There was another possible wrinkle, as Sports Illustrated reported that it was Trinidad Budgen’s creation of her non-nude OnlyFans account that got her fired. WWE did not respond to an email requesting clarification for this article about why she was fired.
Whatever the reason for Trinidad Budgen’s dismissal, she did not go quietly. Minutes before her firing was announced publicly by WWE, Trinidad Budgen tweeted “I support unionization.”
This is something wrestlers usually don’t say. Though Mexico once had legitimate wrestlers’ unions that even went on successful strikes, it’s long been a no-go zone in the United States. Though Jesse Ventura’s attempt to unionize the WWE (then WWF) roster shortly before WrestleMania 2 in 1986—thwarted by Hulk Hogan, according to Ventura—is the most famous effort, the most enduring came from former NFL player Jim Wilson and sometimes running buddy Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson. Wilson, coming from a unionized sport, was just not built for wrestling, and when he ended up on the outs of the mainstream promotions, he did a lot of legwork to try to find some way, any way to get wrestlers unionized, including reaching out to unions that he thought could be good fits, like the NFL Players Association and the Screen Actors Guild, now SAG-AFTRA. (It’s documented extensively in his book, Chokehold, which relies heavily on his huge cache of documents from his correspondence, lawsuits, and Freedom of Information Act requests.)
Trinidad Budgen’s Tweet two Fridays ago got attention. The Twitter accounts for the SAG-AFTRA union and its president, Gabrielle Carteris, quote-tweeted her while expressing solidarity. Three days later, Jon Alba of Florida’s Spectrum Sports 360 reached out to the union for comment and got the following statement, credited to Carteris, in response:
Wrestling is as much about media as it is sports, and we are going to directly engage with members of this profession to help find ways for them to protect themselves. As more people reinvest in unions, and as more working people are harassed by employers who don’t want to protect them, SAG-AFTRA is committed to doing what we can to help professional wrestlers secure the protections they deserve.
(Reached by Kotaku, SAG-AFTRA reiterated the statement and said that they could not comment further at this time, but would provide further updates when available.)
Why is this all happening because of Twitch? Why did this become a red line for both WWE and, to an extent, talent?
It comes back to the strange way pro wrestlers are paid. WWE wrestlers, who appear on TV shows that are viewed by millions of people each week and who are not allowed to wrestle for competing promotions, are not technically employed by WWE. They’re classified as “independent contractors,” though their independence is very limited.
It also comes back to the covid-19 pandemic. While WWE never stopped running shows to fulfill its television obligations, the way that WWE contracts are structured means that much of the company’s talent roster, even those not laid off, have still seen negative financial repercussions from the pandemic. WWE isn’t running any of its standard non-TV tours, and even its TV shows are done in empty arenas, meaning there are no fans to buy merchandise. That hurts, because WWE contracts pay via a system commonly referred to as “downside guarantees,” where every contract year has a minimum that WWE must pay the talent and is dependent on other revenue streams that aren’t flowing well this year. If you’re a wrestler an do the default version of the deal, you get paid for each event you work as it happens, supplemented by royalties from direct merchandise sales and licensed products which ideally get you over that downside guarantee.
But with WWE not running its usual touring schedule, talent on lower-tiered contracts are making a lot less money than before. Between the financial issues and the major lifestyle change of now being home most of the week, streaming on Twitch became the perfect solution for a number of WWE wrestlers. Wrestling fans are loyal and willing to pay for content, plus it helped scratch the itch to perform and interact with fans. For now-retired wrestler Paige (real name Saraya-Jade Bevis), it was more the latter, as she was forcibly retired due to neck injuries, kept under contract, and slotted in something of a goodwill ambassador role. But with no touring shows, the public relations obligations she was used for before have dried up, so she’d be sitting at home with nothing to do without things like Twitch.
“We build a community and family where this is an escape for a lot of people, including myself,” Bevis said on a recent stream. “I can’t wrestle anymore. I was worked so hard in WWE that I can’t wrestle anymore, because my neck is fucked. My whole dream got taken away. I had to have something that fulfilled that huge fucking void that I lost with wrestling. I couldn’t wrestle anymore, something I lived and breathed since I was a fetus, and it got ripped away from me. I had to find something that I could fill a little bit of that [with], and Twitch was a wonderful thing for me. It’s such a wonderful place for me.”
You might wonder how WWE can even do this. Reports about this ongoing story have been unclear about whether WWE is rewriting its contracts to cover talent having monetized accounts on Twitch, YouTube, Cameo, OnlyFans, and the like, or if they’re just citing existing provisions in the standard contract. The most recent available WWE talent contract in SEC filings, that of executive and occasional performer Stephanie McMahon, is from October 2013, but its terms were left largely unchanged in amendments from 2016 and 2019. It does appear to have a clause that could be cited to keep talent from setting up monetized content creation channels online. According to section 1.1(a), WWE is granted “the exclusive worldwide rights to WRESTLER’s services, appearances, and/or performances in the entertainment industry” during the term of the contract.
So, why now? The prevailing belief, per PWInsider’s Mike Johnson, is that it’s a result of the hiring of Nick Khan as WWE’s president and chief revenue officer, stemming from his history as a talent agent and “media adviser” at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). The timing makes sense, too, as word of the “Twitch ban” came down about a month into his tenure. OK, but still, more broadly: Why? It’s not like so many wrestlers are streaming that WWE is missing out on something that would boost revenue a lot. The functional difference is that taking away sources of substantial ancillary income for the wrestlers limits the wrestlers’ options. Hell, look at how WWE responded to the covid-19 pandemic early on: This past spring, after over a year of warehousing wrestlers and giving substantial raises up and down the roster to stave off new competitor All Elite Wrestling, and despite record profits, WWE cut numerous wrestlers, wrestling producers, and members of its support staff. Throw in that Thea Trinidad Budgen, who was on an older contract and was, according to Meltzer, making more money from Twitch and other outside content creation than she was in WWE, and you can see why she may have put her foot down knowing that it would get her fired from her dream job.
There are still some unknowns here. Wrestlers assigned to WWE’s NXT brand, like Adam Cole, have continued to stream on Twitch without issue. According to Fightful.com’s Sean Ross Sapp, there’s a formal exemption, but the reason for it is not yet known publicly, nor are any specifics. (As of this writing, an email sent to WWE spokespeople asking for clarification has not been answered.) In NXT’s original/intended form as WWE’s in-house farm system, as well as in the past when WWE contracted with third party wrestling schools and independent promotions for the same purpose, there were distinct “developmental” contracts, but it’s also unclear if such a distinction exists anymore. Regardless, the only publicly available example of one, from 2011, contains the same language about exclusivity “in the entertainment industry” that Stephanie McMahon’s 2013 contract features.
For years, occasional moments of unrest among the wrestlers who work for Vince McMahon have quieted down. Any crackdown on Twitch, Cameo or OnlyFans could become another flashpoint of the past, one that wrestlers learn to deal with and that fans become content to ignore. Except there’s something a little different this time. When word first broke in early September that WWE was trying to limit the rights of its so-called “independent contractors” from the aforementioned services, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang started Tweeting.
“If I’m not the Secretary of Labor I’m pretty confident I’ll have his or her number to talk about the ridiculous classification of WWE wrestlers as independent contractors while controlling their name and likeness for years, even for something as benign as Cameo,” he wrote. “For all the wrestlers who know that you’re being misclassified but are reliant on staying on Vince’s good side - even because WWE might hire you - I get it. Our job is to make it easier for you to get what you deserve without risking your career.” Yang would do the rounds on various wrestling podcasts, as well, discussing his longtime fandom and hopes to help carve out a better workplace for wrestlers if he ends up in a position that would allow him to exact such change.
But that was before the election, before it was certain that Democrats would have more power in 2021.
Then came Joe Biden’s win and Trinidad Budgen’s firing. On the evening of Friday the 13th, Yang noticed what happened to Trinidad Budgen and got back to tweeting about wrestling again. He kept it short this time. Quote-tweeting a tweet about the newly-fired wrestler’s push for unionization, he wrote: “I haven’t forgotten about Vince McMahon.”
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix.