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WWE’s Slow Boat to China

Can American pro wrestling make it big in the Middle Kingdom?

WWE/Ringer illustration
WWE/Ringer illustration

By Joshua Bateman

Like so many young fans, Bin Wang first learned about the WWE online. He was in junior high school when he began watching videos featuring his favorite wrestler, the Rock — or “Strong Boulder Forest” (“Jùshí Qiáng Sēn”), as he’s known in Mandarin. “At that time, I thought it was a pretty good sporting competition,” Wang said from the executive lounge in the Shanghai Marriott, “and if I could become a wrestler, that would be an honorable thing.” Just 48 hours away from realizing his dream, Wang, clean-cut and wearing black athletic shorts and a T-shirt, seemed even-keeled and reserved.

Wang spent most of the last four years wrestling on the Japanese circuit, but this year, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound, Anhui province native relocated to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando after signing a developmental contract. In Japan, where the pro wrestling industry is much stronger, the media referred to him as “China’s first talent in 4,000 years.”

In China, in less than three months, Wang already has WWE’s second-highest social media following, according to WWE, trailing only John Cena. Nevertheless, Wang’s instantaneous place in the WWE hierarchy in China makes it clear: Just as Hollywood has learned in recent years, there is vast untapped business potential in China. For Bin Wang, becoming the symbol of international expansion is an ongoing process.

“The weather is good. The lifestyle is not bad and the training methods are good,” Wang said of his time so far in Orlando. “The training in America is very vigorous. And it has a good environment.”

Although becoming a WWE superstar can bring fame and wealth, moving to the U.S. to pursue professional wrestling has its struggles. “At first, [my parents] did not support me that much,” Wang said. “But after they watched me and saw my success, they gradually approved what I was doing.”

The language barrier is troublesome for Wang, who doesn’t have a full-time interpreter and is studying English, though he finds it difficult. “I feel I am still adjusting, still in a slow stage,” he remarked. And although he appreciates the availability of hamburgers, steaks, and chicken breasts — relatively scarce menu options in China — food has still been his biggest adjustment. “I want to eat Chinese herbs. I miss Chinese food the most.”

“The Chinese audience love a local hero,” said Jay Li, who is dressed neatly in cuff links, a suit, and a tie. Li is WWE’s first general manager and vice president of Greater China, and while Bin Wang was the first Chinese citizen to sign a developmental deal, seven more have subsequently done so, six men and one woman, a medley of multi-athletes, CrossFit stars, and Mongolian wrestlers. Signing prospects is one thing, developing them into the next Cena is another. This hasn’t always been so easy with previous Asian WWE signees such as the Great Khali, Último Dragón, and Taka Michinoku.

A Middlebury College graduate born in China, Li spent years working in management consulting and the sporting goods industry. He joined the WWE in April because “it’s the perfect blend of sports and entertainment,” Li said. “And it’s also one of the few remaining global sports entertainment franchises that have not completely attracted the Chinese audience yet. So the potential of developing this brand here in China is tremendous.

“For the fans who already follow us and like us, we have an incredible amount of loyalty,” Li continued. He acknowledged, however, that WWE “also struggle[s] with being relatively new with the general audience.”

The WWE, which opened a Shanghai office in 2007, is now in more than 180 countries. When I spoke with him recently, George Barrios, WWE chief strategy and financial officer, said doing business in China is “a little more complicated in a lot of ways.” In speaking of the country’s scale, he added, “Complexity doesn’t come from entertaining the fans. It’s the operational complexity.”

One of the biggest challenges in penetrating the Chinese market is the generational divide. In the U.S., pro wrestling has roots going back a century. “If you think about how people become wrestling fans, it’s generation passed down to generation,” Li explained. “It’s American kids growing up watching wrestling with their parents. … We do not have that benefit here in China.”

Ho Ho Lun, a 29-year-old Hong Kong native, experienced this. He has wrestled professionally for nine years and was a WWE Cruiserweight Classic participant. “My parents don’t know WWE,” Lun said.

To overcome this, the WWE values storytelling. “If you look across the globe, every culture has the same story archetype,” Barrios said, citing mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell. “A hero emerges. A hero is challenged. A hero finds a mentor. A hero finally overcomes. … We see the same thing in China.”

“Everybody loves a good story,” Li agreed. Growing up in China, his biggest escape was reading kung-fu novels. “You pick up the books, you forget about your homework because you just got drawn into the story line. And WWE is no different. I think the Chinese fans respond to this: good versus evil, the turncoats, the betrayals, the loyalties, and the underdog stories.” He also compared the WWE’s training, athleticism, skill, and scripted entertainment appeal to that of movie stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, who have widespread followings in China.

“Whether it’s Star Wars, Hunger Games, kung fu, or WWE, that story resonates,” Barrios said. “Our fans get it.”

To spread awareness, WWE focuses on social media. According to Barrios, WWE is the largest sports network on YouTube and the largest sports brand on Facebook. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, however, are blocked by the Great Firewall of China. In hindsight, Barrios regrets not focusing on China-specific platforms sooner, such as Sina Weibo, a microblogging website with more than 220 million monthly users; Youku Tudou, a video platform with roughly 600 million users; and WeChat, an instant messaging platform with more than 800 million users.

To remedy this, WWE China has increased its local social media efforts. And owing to a recently signed agreement, China is the first market where Raw and SmackDown are distributed by a digital company — PPTV, a sports content platform with more than 400 million users. “Our strategy in China, even more than in any other market, is digital first,” Barrios said. This deal also brings content to Chinese audiences in real time, something that historically required days or weeks.

They’re also producing more programs and short-form content with subtitles and voice-overs for Chinese audiences. Speaking Mandarin at a Shanghai news conference to announce the deal, Cena said, Raw and SmackDown “will speak Chinese, not use English. Therefore, Chinese people can understand even more. This is a first-rate opportunity for the WWE.”

With the successes of American exports like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, and the Marvel movies, it’s part of a broader trend: “American pop culture in general is gaining a huge amount of influence amongst Chinese fans. The younger generation is hungry for Western content,” Li said. “WWE is such a classic piece of Americana.”

Perhaps the most noticeable modification in adapting WWE to the Chinese market is the vernacular, incorporating both English and Mandarin. Randy Orton’s nickname, for example, is translated locally to Dúshé (“The Viper”), but his move is not — the RKO is still the RKO. Triple H is known as Wáng Dà Chuí — “Big Hammer King.” Cena, who has impressed Chinese audiences with his Mandarin-speaking ability, is called Xǐ Nà, using Xǐ, the word for happy. “[It’s] a very feminine Chinese nickname and Chinese fans loved it,” Li said. He said it’s important to understand “knowing when to be tongue-in-cheek and comical, and when to be literal.”

Barrios explained why he’s optimistic. “The biggest opportunity is just the growing middle class in China. … And the growing amount of disposable income. And if you’re an entertainment company, you need significant disposable income to be successful.” Overlooking the Huangpu River, the Park Hyatt Shanghai hotel, unimaginable a couple of decades ago, exemplifies how quickly China’s economy expanded. The hotel is located in Shanghai’s Pudong district, which today has modern, heaven-touching skyscrapers, but in the late 1980s was occupied by paddy fields, residential homes, and small commercial buildings.

WWE representatives see today as an inflection point for future growth in the Middle Kingdom. With the organization’s international capabilities evolving, its brand growing, Chinese consumers open to Western content, and the government backing the sporting industry, Barrios said, “All that comes together and 2016 is the start of the kind of next era for us.”

“We’re not going to stop here,” Li said. “We’re going to bring more live events here in the future. Multiple live events per year, and we’d like to get to a point where we start to have a regular tour in China.”

Signing Bin Wang was a start. The other Chinese wrestlers they’ve signed since are a measure of their plans. “Gradually, more people will think this is a good sporting event,” Wang said. “And many people will watch it and like it and become fans.”

In 2010, the WWE had to paper the Shanghai arena to find an audience for the debut of this alien entertainment option. This year, though, on a Saturday night in September, there were 8,000 fans in attendance, a small illustration of the potential of the 1.36 billion–person market.

It was Jie Wang’s first live event. Wang, an auto-parts worker who made the 120-mile trip from Hangzhou City to Shanghai, said in Mandarin that he likes the WWE because “their performances are very strong. Additionally, they are good friends off stage, but competitors on it. I think their spirit is very good, and they look very good.”

Clad in all-black shoes, pants, and T-shirts, the 23-year-old is particularly fond of Roman Reigns, who’s known in China as “Roman Dàdì,” or “Roman the Great.” As another fan walked by with a replica championship belt, Jie Wang said, “Very beautiful.”

During the third match of the evening, Bin Wang — performing as Tian Bin — was introduced to huge cheers — a big pop, as it’s known in the business. And the cheers continued as he power-slammed Bo Dallas to get the three count. Fans chanted, “Jia you! Jia you!” It’s a popular Chinese chant roughly meaning “you can do it!” The literal translation is “add oil,” making it perfectly apt for the world of wrestling.

Chinese fans are absorbing the vernacular of the American fan, too. During a triple-threat match in which Kevin Owens defended the Universal Championship against Sami Zayn and Seth Rollins, numerous times the crowd chanted in English, “This is awesome! This is awesome! This is awesome!”

During one match, a father in the stands asked his son, “Shì zhēnde háishì jiǎde?” (Translation: “Is it real or fake?”)

“Fake,” the boy of about 12 years responded, smiling, as if in the know.

During the ensuing match, the father-son debate continued.

“This is real,” the father said.

“It is real,” the boy responded, convinced.

In a later match, the son’s belief was affirmed when spit was voluminously discharged from Braun Strowman’s mouth. The boy turned to his father and said, “It is real.”

Joshua Bateman is based in Greater China. He can be reached @joshdbateman.