Almost two years ago, Major League Wrestling founder Court Bauer had quite literally buried his face in the sand after learning that Tubi had walked away from their deal to broadcast his sporting events.
“I was on vacation and I was just shell shocked,” Bauer recalls to Deadline. “We took the family to the beach and I just face-planted into the sand. For two solid days, I was like a computer rebooting. You go through the dance of media rights deals. There are a lot of wrinkles along the way and bumps on the road. So to go through that and then say, ‘we got to start all over again?’ It’s like you’re almost to the top of the summit and then you fall down.”
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But Bauer got back up and is now ready to start the biggest chapter yet in his pro wrestling career: starting tonight, the MLW will make its debut on Reelz, its biggest platform yet since forming in 2002. But he’s not about to forgive and forget about what happened with Tubi: the discovery period is expected to begin soon in MLW’s anti-trust lawsuit against WWE. Filed in January of 2022, the lawsuit alleges WWE pressured third parties to abandon contracts and prospective relationships with MLW.
Tubi is owned by Fox, which is one of WWE’s television partners. MLW was reportedly scheduled to kick off on the streamer on Sept. 11, 2021.
The deal with Tubi “would have had a profound impact on MLW’s business by giving it exposure to Fox’s broad television and NFL football audience, further positioning MLW for future media deals,” according to the lawsuit. “WWE found out about the agreement, WWE contacted a Tubi executive located in Tubi’s headquarters in San Francisco and threatened that if Tubi did not terminate the MLW contract, WWE would cease doing business with Fox and would pull important WWE programs from Fox platforms. Soon thereafter, and just days before MLW content was to begin airing on Tubi, the MLW contract was terminated, resulting in substantial losses to MLW and harm to consumers, including in California.”
At the time, WWE responded by saying “WWE believes these claims have no merit and intends to vigorously defend itself against them.” Reps for the organization could not be reached by Deadline.
Here, Bauer talks about his journey to Reelz and tonight’s launch of MLW Underground, a new flagship series that will air weekly on the channel.
DEADLINE Let’s talk about your journey up until this point.
COURT BAUER I keep reminding myself the key to success is perseverance. It sounds idealistic, but it’s really about the grit and having to keep going out there. We had a pretty good idea what transpired [with Tubi]. Sometimes, it’s a ruthless business. It as the most gutting experience of my professional career.
DEADLINE Why did you sue WWE?
BAUER There are several things that have come up that have disrupted our business in terms of talent and tampering with contracts. Overall it’s just the suppression of the growth of our business that we looked at. So, this wasn’t just tampering with one deal, one piece of talent. It’s the totality. If you look at the 40-year history and the practices of WWE going back to the eighties … the problems start to emerge. They have an immense market share. They will do what they do to make sure that that’s not softened.
DEADLINE What happened to the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats?
BAUER Vince McMahon wants to own all the boats. That’s how you build an empire.
DEADLINE How long after the Tubi deal went south did you start to talk to Reelz?
BAUER We had been talking to them for over a year. They had some success doing documentaries on wrestlers, Hulk Hogan, autopsies on certain wrestlers and so on. They had a shifting program policy, certain staples of the kind of populous programming like Cops and On Patrol: Live. Wrestling falls right into that same fabric of programming.
DEADLINE Why do you call it underground wrestling?
BAUER Unlike our competitors, we don’t have a production set that looks like something in Times Square, nor would we want one. We instead have a product that’s a bit more raw and immersive that has grit to it. We don’t try to cast our roles and give them heavy scripts. Now more than ever, fans are gravitating toward more authentic programming. Whenever we have new talent, we say we’re going to be co-collaborators. We’re co-authors on this. I wouldn’t want to be a puppeteer, trying to put words in their mouths and micromanage them. You’ll get a stilted performance and the audience will think the fight is pretty contrived.
DEADLINE Are you going to go year-round with Underground Wrestling?
BAUER Right now, we’re trying to find the right formula for the episodes. I like the idea of one hour a week for wrestling. Some of our competitors go three or more hours for one show, then another two hours of another show. That’s asking the viewers to put in a lot of time. We’ll be shooting them around the country. This is a new frontier for Reelz. They’re so enthusiastic. We’ve got incredible promotion already. And they said, ‘look, we don’t just want Underground Wrestling. Give us some of your library.’
DEADLINE Why does it remain so popular?
BAUER It’s great comfort TV. It’s also a reflection of society, when done right. Unlike the UFC, you can give fans the happy endings. You can give them the cliffhangers, you can give them the mystery, you can give them the intrigue. It’s fun. And it’s an escape, too.
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