Last month, pro wrestling juggernaut World Wrestling Entertainment held events at Freedom Hall in Louisville and Rupp Arena in Lexington, drawing almost 5,000 people for each non-televised event — commonly referred to as a “house show.”
But according to the general managers of Rupp Arena and the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville, Kentucky is losing out on millions of dollars worth of potential economic impact in those cities due to state regulations on pro wrestling that are causing WWE’s much larger live television events to bypass the commonwealth and instead go to neighboring states.
While pro wrestling organizations such as WWE have long conceded that their choreographed matches are merely scripted and pre-determined entertainment, Kentucky is among the roughly half of states that still regulate matches through an athletics commission. Of the states where such wrestling is regulated, WWE has argued that Kentucky’s Boxing and Wrestling Authority has perhaps the most strict regulations on the industry in the country, particularly when it comes to the presence of blood in the ring.
According to state regulations under the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Authority, if any performer accidentally bleeds during a match, it must be immediately stopped until they receive medical attention and stop the bleeding — a rule that does not apply to the non-scripted and more dangerous boxing and mixed martial arts bouts. While this hasn’t stopped WWE from having smaller house shows in Kentucky, arena general managers tell Insider Louisville this rule has caused them to stop holding their nationally televised WWE Raw and pay-per-view events in the state.
Dennis Petrullo, general manager for the Yum! Center, says while WWE used to hold multiple live TV events in Kentucky every year, that changed after the first event held in the new arena in 2010. The authority sent a letter saying that due to blood in one of the matches, WWE would only be allowed to come back if their officials were present and had the right to stop a match.
“The live TV events with WWE are very large and they draw a lot of people and viewers, so there’s too much money involved to allow someone to stop one of the bouts,” says Petrullo. “It’s insane. I mean, look at Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, or mixed martial arts, there’s blood all over the place. And for some reason they have stopped them from coming into Kentucky because of blood in the ring.”
Petrullo says that he and officials from Rupp Arena and WWE have pleaded with authority officials over the past few years to relax the regulations to no avail, calling their refusal to budge a “ridiculous” move that is costing the state millions.
“People travel for these shows, and we draw 35 percent of our audiences from outside the Louisville/Indiana area,” says Petrullo. “We draw it from Cincinnati, Indianapolis. I’m sure there would be a lot of people staying in hotel rooms, going to restaurants. So the economic impact to the community could be a couple million dollars in a year. And somebody who has a position in that department is just arbitrarily making that decision.”
Angela Robinson, the board administrator for the Boxing and Wrestling Authority, tells IL their regulations of pro wrestling are not too strict or preventing WWE from having their live TV shows here, adding that pro wrestling is as real and dangerous as boxing and mixed martial arts.
“Well, wrestling is a real sport,” says Robinson. “Even though the outcome might be choreographed, it’s still a real sport. People still do get injured.”
The authority is under the Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet, and its board members are appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear. Cabinet spokesman Dick Brown tells IL that while “professional wrestling participants might not be striving to win the match,” “stopping a match due to bleeding is a health and safety issue, as it is in college basketball.”
“This matter has been discussed with WWE, and there are ways for them to work within the regulations and still have their events,” says Brown. “It’s their choice not to hold pay-per-view shows here. There are about 20 pro wrestling promoters in Kentucky that follow these regulations weekly with no issues running shows under the regulations.”
Metro Councilman David James says he and local WWE star Damien Sandow (whose real name is Aaron Haddad) have tried to reason with local and state officials to change the rule, but “I think it’s just a matter of stubbornness and not understanding. In boxing and MMA, there’s blood and bones and everything. But in an entertainment situation, it just doesn’t make sense.”
James notes that not only is Louisville missing out on a positive economic impact from larger events, but also the significant charity work with children that is common when WWE comes to town for large events.
“All of the states around us have an opportunity that we’re missing out on, because we are stuck in the dark ages for some reason,” says James. “I don’t know why we can’t seem to get past this point and bring more entertainment to our citizens and help the economy at the same time. It seems like a naturally easy fit, especially for a city that’s trying to pay off the bonds for the Yum! Center and fill dates. It would seem to be a no-brainer.”
Though James said that Tommy Clark — an official in the city’s economic development department — has tried to convince authority members, Chris Poynter, the spokesman for Mayor Greg Fischer, told IL that “this hasn’t really been on our radar.”
Carl Hall, the general manager for Rupp Arena in Lexington, says he has also tried to appeal to authority members, saying the live televised events of WWE Raw and pay-per-view draw two to three times the crowd as house shows, which could easily translate to over $1 million more in economic impact. While those live TV events used to be common, he says a wave of fines levied on WWE leading up to 2011 has caused them to bypass Kentucky and given the state a reputation that wards off other business.
“I will not say that they were after WWE, but I do think they were extremely literal in their adherence to the rule books, thus making it more and more complicated, and that’s why they pulled out of television,” says Hall.
Hall adds that both the WWE and authority members need to sit down and hash out their issues to end the impasse.
“We’ve come to this spot where neither side will step back and look at the other person’s side,” says Hall. “We’re both stuck. I think if both sides could come back to the table and meet, we’d have an actual chance to come up with a solution that works. I’ve tried, WWE people have reached out. I don’t want to say that the people in Frankfort are being obnoxious, they’re just being exactly literal, and there isn’t any bend on either side.”
Other sources familiar with the negotiations between WWE and the authority say the issues with regulations go beyond just blood, as WWE finds it challenging to produce their live events in Kentucky in the manner that they prefer, including the wrestlers’ entrances and match choreography.
WWE’s spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.