There was once a time when it seemed like NASCAR was the biggest thing in the world. Around the mid to late 2000’s, NASCAR was steadily growing out of a regional sport and into national prominence. But it was also during this time that NASCAR was implementing changes that many who belonged to its “hardcore” fan base took issue with. As sponsorship money grew, attendance soared, television ratings reached new peaks; the seeds of alienation were planted as well.
NASCAR would move many of its races out of the south and into the Midwest, change the design of their cars, and also change the format of their championship cup; all moves that proved to be unpopular among the sports more traditional fans. Currently, NASCAR finds itself at a crossroads. Admissions, television ratings, and sponsorships are all down. In 2004, 8 million people watched NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. Last year, ratings were half that number. The casual fans have left NASCAR, and the company finds themselves struggling to regain a foothold among the fans it may have left behind.
New Japan Pro Wrestling is currently in a position that is similar, if on a much smaller scale, to NASCAR in the 2000’s. Since being purchased by trading card company, Bushiroad, in 2012, annual revenue for the company has increased from 1.2 billion yen in 2012, to 3.2 billion yen in 2016. In 2017, New Japan Pro Wrestling is forecasted to surpass 4 billion yen, placing revenue at the same level they were in the mid to late 90’s, which is considered one of the promotions most popular times. http://www.fightful.com/new-japan-s-revenue-level-1990s . But much like NASCAR in the 2000’s, New Japan is looking to expand business beyond the region where they enjoy the majority of their popularity. With the recent advent of New Japan’s online streaming service, New Japan World, and the last few years of interpromotional shows with Ring of Honor, New Japan has developed a decent sized fan base among the more “hardcore” pro wrestling fans in the United States. This past weekend New Japan took its biggest step into the U.S. market in recent history, by running back to back shows shows in Long Beach, California.
New Japan is walking an interesting tight rope right now. The United States isn’t their main source of business revenue. The company is based in Japan, and that is the fan base that New Japan needs to focus on satisfying. But at the same time New Japan is looking to find a stronger foothold in the U.S. market as well, and with WWE being the dominant brand in the country, the style of wrestling that has garnered the most popularity in America is something that’s a bit different than what New Japan has been known to present. The New Japan Pro Wrestling presentation is more sports-like in its nature. It’s a company that holds regular tournaments, both single elimination and round robin, and the emphasis is placed more on championships and wins and losses than the more storyline driven WWE. To find a way into the United States market, New Japan is going to have to find a way to appeal to both their core fan base in Japan, as well as appeal to what they hope is a growing fan base in the United States. On Saturday and Sunday their plan was to do so by being true to who they are as a company and a promotion; For the most part.
The G1 show on Saturday started the same way that most New Japan shows start; with a big multi-person tag match full of dives and fast paced action. It wasn’t an all-timer, but it set the tone for the rest of the weekend. This is how New Japan does things, and they’re not going to change that just because they find themselves in front of a new audience. The rest of the first half of the show was solid, if unspectacular, with the first couple of matches of the United States Title Tournament, as well as a couple multi-person tag matches before the planned intermission. But there was one aspect of the first half of Saturday that stood out, because it’s the one area that felt like New Japan pandering to the U.S. crowd: Billy Gunn.
To be fair to Gunn, his match on Sunday night with Tanahashi ended up being passable, and at times, pretty fun, but Saturday night was not encouraging. He looked off in the ring, consistently behind the younger and quicker talent, and even towering over one of the company’s main stars, Tanahashi, in camera shots of the two standing toe to toe. The crowd wasn’t buying Gunn either. While the reaction wasn’t on a Roman Reigns the night after Wrestlemania level of viciousness, the people in attendance consistently reacted negatively to Gunn in the ring. This was a pretty laid back crowd too. They were there to see the New Japan stars in action, so their negative reaction to Gunn stood out from the rest of the more respectful reactions to the other wrestlers. Booking Gunn in such a prominent position up against the company’s major stars was the one misstep that stood out during a pretty solid start for the company’s live events in America.
The rest of Saturday night was classic New Japan. The Kenny Omega/ Michael Elgin and Naito/Ishii U.S. Tournament bouts were both rough, hard-hitting, affairs, setting a up a strong final four of Omega, Jay Lethal, Ishii, and Zack Sabre Jr. for the next night. The main event of IWGP champion, Okada, and Ring of Honor Champion, Cody Rhodes, delivered for the most part as well. There was a lot of reticence among the New Japan faithful regarding this match, with many believing that the part-time performer Cody would walk away with the title in an attempt to pander to the American fans that New Japan is looking to attract. That didn’t happen. Instead the two performers delivered a strong story, featuring increasing tension among fellow Bullet Club members Omega and Rhodes, with Okada retaining the belt in a match strong enough to help the credibility of Rhodes and the Ring of Honor promotion. Cody’s recent run on the independent circuit has been solid, but this was a match where he needed to deliver a strong performance, and he did. It wasn’t a classic, but it did exactly what it needed to do and furthered what is turning out to be a pretty compelling story between Cody Rhodes and Kenny Omega.
Night two was broadcast live on New Japan World, and was solid as well. The format was pretty much the same with a mix of multi-person tag matches and featured title matches. The show revolved around the finals of the United States Title tournament, and on that front it delivered. Both semi-finals matches were very good, highlighted by a fun clash of styles between the rough and tumble, Ishii, and the technically sound, Zack Sabre Jr., but it was the final match of the show that will be talked about moving forward. The tournament finals match between Omega and Ishii was very good, going for a strong 40 minutes, and ending with Omega hitting his finisher for the victory. But it’s the aftermath of the match that will be most important for New Japan moving forward.
Following the match, Kenny Omega grabbed the microphone and talked about the future of New Japan in the United States, stating that when New Japan returns to America in 2018 he wants to see 20,000 people in the crowd for that show(s). The promo was interesting not only because it may have given a look into New Japan’s future plans in the United States, but also because it was a strong indication that Omega would be working those shows for the company in 2018. For New Japan moving forward in the United States, Omega is integral to their success. He is currently one of the best, if not the best, professional wrestlers in the world, and he is incredibly popular among the type of fan they are looking to attract in America. His involvement in the promotion moving forward is a big deal for New Japan, and everything Omega said following the match seemed to indicate that he was on board for the foreseeable future.
Overall the weekend was a success for New Japan. They sold out both shows. The wrestling was solid, and at times spectacular, and they showcased their product to a new audience on live television in the United States. There is a reason business has tripled for the company in the past few years, and at least for this weekend, New Japan saw no reason to change the way they do it. If that will translate to a new audience in the United States remains to be seen, but from most indications this weekend, New Japan look to be staying true to who they are as a promotion. They know who they are, and they are comfortable with who they are, and that’s a good thing for pro wrestling fans in the United States and Japan.