Even if you aren’t a fan, you’ve seen it: bulked-up superheroes, devious villains, amazing athleticism and boisterous, sell-out crowds. For decades, pro wrestling has always been the ultimate combination of sport and soap opera, fueled by testosterone both in the ring and behind the scenes. From the bellowing Hulk Hogan to the beer-swigging “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to World Wrestling Entertainment’s head honcho Vince McMahon, pro wrestling’s image has always been alpha-male dominated … until now.
Twelve years ago, a shoestring upstart known as TNA Impact Wrestling quietly emerged out of Nashville, Tenn. After an early period of financial instability, few could have predicted that a company so far in the WWE’s shadow could survive, score a long-term TV deal with Spike TV and evolve into an international success story … but it did, thanks to (gasp!) a woman … albeit one who happens to be an incredibly savvy business executive who has aggressively partnered with everyone from the Jersey Shore crew to Hulk Hogan himself. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the president of Impact Wrestling, Ms. Dixie Carter …
Were you a pro wrestling fan growing up?
Dixie Carter: I grew up in Dallas, so on Saturday mornings my brother and I would watch some wrestling. I was a big Hulk Hogan fan when I was much younger, too, but I got out of it for a while. I booked wrestling when I was running promotions in college. Taking on TNA later was … it was a lot of fun to get back to that. It brought back good memories.
Before you took the reins at Impact Wrestling, you worked in PR, correct?
Yes, I had a company called Trifecta Entertainment and we did management and marketing and marketing promotions and publicity. We represented a lot of professional athletes, and I handled a lot of music clients.
So you leave a relatively stable, mainstream industry to take a huge role in the unorthodox, wacky world of pro wrestling. What was your motivation for making that move?
In some ways I find pro wrestling to be less wacky than the music world, to be honest. I think there is a certain perception of wrestling out there. Sure it’s crazy, but at the same time, the wrestlers and the people that we work with are truly fabulous. They are the hardest-working people I’ve ever worked with in sports or entertainment. They’ve got the best work ethic. They really impressed me from the very, very beginning. I knew it was something I wanted to get involved with on a much greater level.
Still, you were in a position where you were representing artists, representing talent, and looking out for their best interests. Now it’s the flipside where you’re in charge of a roster of talent, having them answer to you. Was it tough to go from being in that position of support to being in a role of maintaining control and, maybe in some cases, discipline, while you try to run the ship?
It wasn’t that big of a leap for me, it really wasn’t. It’s always been about business and running a business. Yeah, it’s a little strange to have 50 gorgeous guys in their little wrestling gear walk around and call me boss. I don’t know if I’ll ever quite get over that part of it. The business side of it was a real easy transition for me.
Now of course you are at the helm of Impact Wrestling, a well-established ratings success in professional wrestling here and internationally. Who is your primary audience?
I’ve heard this saying, “It’s a rope opera for the masses.” I think that that’s a really interesting way of describing it, because although it may predominately draw male viewership, you have children to grandparents … sometimes you’ll have three, or even four, generations of a family watching a show. A great-grandfather who I’ve met who introduced it to the grandfather and introduced it to the father and to the great-grandson — those are really great, exciting groups of people to meet and hear their story. It’s very varied. It’s a lot like a NASCAR, in a broader sense.
What is a demographic or type of audience that you’d like to most immediately grow? How do you, as a television program, try to appeal to them to convert them into Impact Wrestling viewers?
Well, I think in the past it’s really a network-mandated situation: What audience does the network want you to go after? In the beginning, it was a very solid male 18 to 49 audience, and we have had outstanding ratings in that category for nine years on Spike TV. We’ve continued to grow them but the network is changing a little bit to target more female viewers … a new direction for them.
So, we’re shifting our focus a little bit. Our storylines are becoming a little bit broader, appealing to more of a female demographic and a family demographic than they may have before. We just started that probably three, four months ago and the numbers are already rising. I think our storylines are trying to appeal to that new group and I’m really excited that it’s working.
On that topic, let’s talk about Impact Wrestling’s roster of female wrestlers — another area that consistently draws great ratings during your broadcasts — the “Knockouts.” What’s unique about your interpretation of women’s wrestling compared to other wrestling shows?
I think the fact that I’m a female head of a wrestling company gives me an extraordinary obligation to the women’s division. In the beginning, it was something I was hesitant about. My only introduction to women wrestling was something that I wouldn’t want to be a part of. I’m not saying we’ve done it right the entire time, but we have treated them with such tremendous respect.
They’re a very, very important part of this company. I think they’re superior athletes just like the guys are. What we’ve done is try to let their athleticism shine. Instead of putting them out there for two minutes in a ridiculous match as eye candy, we have given them main events, putting them in a prominent place on the show, giving them a lot of time on the show, building their characters, and letting them be shown as the amazing, strong women that they are. I think that’s the difference.
Over the last several months, you’ve become a part of the TV program itself after many years of staying behind the scenes. Was there hesitance from you to do that?
From the beginning, I think people just assumed I would step in and become a character, and I did resist it for a long period of time. This year they came to me and said, “We feel if we could tie some of our younger, newer talent to you [on the show] that it would really, really help them.” It was something that I didn’t jump at. I really was a little concerned about being able to pull it off, honestly. I’m becoming more and more comfortable with it as time goes by.
Beyond your show’s success in the U.S. on Spike TV, it’s huge in a lot of different international markets where it’s actually the highest-rated wrestling product in those areas. It’s almost like a David Hasselhoff vibe where it’s a big deal here, but it’s also a uniquely major deal in places that most Americans wouldn’t even think of. What do you think sparks that success overseas?
That’s a funny analogy … I never thought of it like that. You’re exactly right.
We don’t have a staff of hundreds of people and unlimited production budgets and everything else. We’ve built the company on every dollar that we’ve made. I think there’s a quality of the product itself —the wrestling, the stories. People give it a chance and say, “You know what? I think that this is good.” That’s how we’ve made our mark, both here and abroad.
Looking ahead 10 years from now, how do you think professional wrestling television will change and evolve?
I think it will become more reality. People want to see behind the curtains; people want to know about these guys in real life. I think you’re going to see what traditional wrestling has been morphed into … something that is a blend between real life and fantasy. Even recently, we’ve been playing out real-life storylines in front of the camera — real-life contract disputes, real-life issues with talent. I think you’ll continue to see more of that. That’s what people want.
Impact Wrestling airs Thursdays on Spike TV, live at 9pm ET.
Dixie Carter photo: Credit TNA Entertainment