Lucha Underground: Whatever Happened to the Promotion of Tomorrow?
It feels like a lifetime ago that Lucha Underground was gearing up for season two with all the hype in the world. As it turns out it was just under a year ago. How time flies. Back then, fresh off a white hot season one and the uncertainty of whether season two would even happen, LU was riding a wave of momentum Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada is riding right now. It was the darling of hardcore wrestling fans, the unique new entity that pushed boundaries, told stories and had spectacular matches all at the same time. Throw in the chance that LU might’ve become a “gone too soon” show in the same vein as Firefly or My So Called Life and there couldn’t have been any more buzz going into season two. I’ve been thinking about that premiere a lot recently and everything it brought with it; the new fans, the SportsCenter appearance, the comic book, the thousands upon thousands of article written about LU. It almost seems like a dream, which of course featured the greatest ending ever with a premiere that was as amazing as everyone hoped it would be. It really is quite amazing. A little less than a year ago it looked like Lucha Underground had endless possibilities. And now, just like that, those possibilities seem to be gone.
Let me preface what I’m about to say with the following; I still love Lucha Underground. It’s still easily my favorite promotion of all the wrestling out there today and the only one that satisfies my need for great wrestling, great storytelling and great world building. Nothing on that front has changed. But even as an LU fan I cannot deny the inevitable anymore; that the buzz for the show that once seemed like it could never end is gone. It ended over the past year as season two continued on and season three came to be. But even as my enjoyment for the show remained and the ratings for the show went higher than the highly acclaimed season one ever did it became clear that something just wasn’t right. And as I sit here before you today, faced with the knowledge that LU is now starting a long hiatus midway through season three with no clear return date announced beyond “Summer of 2017”, I can’t help but feel it’s time to admit what no one wants to admit. This isn’t a good situation for Lucha Underground at all. In the span of one year it’s gone from something that looked special to (and I’m going to get flack for this description) a niche product with a passionate, smart and loyal fan base that sadly isn’t getting any bigger. Maybe I’ve known this for awhile or maybe it’s just dawning on me now. But I’m well aware and I couldn’t be less happy about it sports fans. And all I want to do now is figure out why.
As JFK taught me, that’s the most important question; why? Why did LU go from white hot to freezing cold in less than a year? A lot of fans and pundits are going to point to the fact that the on air product isn’t as good as before, that there’s too much intergender wrestling, that guys like Pentagon and King Cuerno aren’t getting the push they deserve, that luchadoras like Sexy Star are getting a push they don’t deserve, this and that and this and that. And look, wrestling is subjective and not everyone is going to love the same thing. But overall those reasons (for the most part) are bullshit. I’ve watched every LU episode there is and I’d like to believe I’ve proven, through nearly two years of covering LU and almost a decade of covering wrestling as a whole between my own site and LordsofPain, that I know what I’m talking about. I can tell you right now the things that made LU’s first season great are still there. The storytelling, be it for the most normal or most out there storyline, still has a beginning, middle and end with progression that makes sense. Contrary to what Konnan and co. argued in Keepin It 100 last week the stories also still take risks; I don’t see anyone else introducing medieval power gloves, acid tripping bunnies or a tribe with a lizard, snake queen and dinosaur in wrestling right now. Meanwhile every member of the roster, from the lower card to the main event, has a character beat/identity fans can easily recognize. Match quality, at worst, hardly ever falls below okay and more often than not remains great. Take out all the bullshit about who’s getting pushed and how hard (a subjective matter), the intergender and sci-fi aspects (two things that aren’t more prevalent now than they were in season one and what many people criticizing LU now once praised for making LU different) and everything that made LU the small phenomenon it was still exists tenfold. This is an objectively very good wrestling show with a good to great on air product; maybe not quite season one level, but not far behind either.
So who’s to blame if not the on air product? Is the talent not doing enough? Far from it; aside from a few annoyances the Lucha Underground roster loves working for the company and almost always gives an A effort. Are the immediate behind the scenes LU crew failing? I’d say no. Chris DeJoseph’s writing remains as strong as ever, the production of the show hasn’t lost a step at all (arguably the one thing everyone can agree on) and Eric Van Wagenen, the show’s top dog, seems to be heavily involved. All things considered it appears the immediate talent base, both on and off screen, remains as tight knit and productive as ever. Once you make that conclusion the biggest problems LU is facing can only come from one place; even higher up the food chain. This brings us to the real culprit behind LU’s fall from grace, or should I say culprits; Dorian Roldan and AAA, Mark Burnett and Robert Rodriguez/El Rey Network.
Now in the case of Roldan and AAA this doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s been obvious since LU began that Dorian (and by extension his company) have been as useful a snow blower in July. Their main contributions to LU have basically been to supply a lot of the lucha talent (a story even of itself), perhaps supply some cash here and there, an appearance at an episode screening and little else. I do believe Dorian and co. want the promotion to succeed, but their efforts to help it have been lacking and everyone (rightfully) has called them on it. What you’ll be surprised to know is that Burnett and Rodriguez, two men generally beloved by the LU universe, have been just as lacking in their support. Let’s start with Rodriguez and El Rey. Like Dorian and AAA, El Rey by all accounts wants the show to succeed and considers it one of their flagship shows. This simply makes their treatment of it all the more curious. Ask yourself folks; how much advertising for LU have you really seen outside of the El Rey Network? Can you think of a commercial or a major press release besides the occasional advertisement for a show during RAW or Smackdown? You can’t, can’t you? Some would argue that the production side of things should be doing more promotion but more often than not the job to get the show out there is the Network; after all it’s their show on their station, shouldn’t they want you tuning in to see it? And yet outside of El Rey show there’s been little to no effort to promote upcoming episodes and even less effort to promote house show events like LU’s Cricket Wireless tour or Austin Warfare. You could argue El Rey is a new Network and that they’re still learning how to do things, but that doesn’t change the fact that a) Robert Rodriguez has had no problems promoting other stuff in the past and b) there was no issue getting LU all that pub last year with the SportsCenter appearance and so forth. The bottom line is that El Rey and Rodriguez, despite noble intentions, should be doing more. Why aren’t they?
Even murkier is Burnett’s role. From everything I know Mark Burnett’s involvement with Lucha Underground, despite what some may believe, is pretty nonexistent. He’s a name on the credits whose production company gets about 10% of the budget and little else; the likelihood is that Burnett pays no attention to LU and has, at best, attended one episode during its three season run. Furthermore if LU’s budget (between $200 to $400K per episode from what I’m told) were to get slashed in order to make season four happened it’s likely Burnett would be out the door faster than shit through the goose, meaning LU would have to find someone else to fund the show. All of this is fascinating, especially when you consider that Burnett could be making sure none of this even came to pass. After learning of LU’s budget per episode yesterday I did a little research, research anyone can do with a calculator, a quick internet search and common sense. Considering LU’s episodes cost $200 to $400K to make and there were 40 episodes in season three that would mean an entire LU season cost between $8 to $16 million. That’s not chump change…except if you’re Mark Burnett, who is worth around $450 million right now. Worse yet, if you were to combine his and Rodriguez’ net worth, that number balloons to $489 million. These two are worth that much and yet Lucha Underground cannot find the budget for a season four? This is the crux of why LU’s third season is on hold sports fans. They need time to work out what the budget is going to be and this and that, when in reality the two men with their names behind the show, who already aren’t doing enough to begin with, could’ve come in, put in the $8 to $16 million between them and prevented this midseason finale and delay in season four tapings from even happening.
And there sports fans is the biggest reason Lucha Underground’s buzz has faded off into the distance. Even as the on air product has remained good overall the people behind the scenes have done nothing to capitalize on it. El Rey never advertised Austin Warfare from a year ago and only started advertising LU’s Cricket Wireless tour a week after it had already started. The appearances on SportsCenter stopped. The interviews with respectable publications stopped. The push to do outside media like the season two comic books stopped. The push to get on a streaming service has seemingly stalled. The creation of merchandise has been slower than a Zack Snyder slow motion scene. And worse yet to the idea to do more non TV tapings, like a big Wrestlemania weekend show or other stuff like Austin Warfare, has either not been discussed or never materialized because the people in charge of that, quite frankly, could not get their shit together. We cannot bury our heads in the sand when it comes to this. Even a promotion like WWE, who hasn’t been truly strong in quite some time, had retained a lot of buzz on account of all the promoting and schilling of the show they do. LU has proven it can’t do the same. Some of that is because the people working behind the scenes aren’t all wrestling people (something I don’t consider to be all bad, but still) and because in many ways this is all still a very new thing (we forget that LU has only been around for two and a half years). But that excuse can only take you so far; there should be more movement on all of this by now and there just isn’t. And even if you could excuse that, it doesn’t excuse that the season three could be continuing next week, with season four scheduled to start filming in a few months, if the really, REALLY rich dudes behind the show forked over their pocket change. I’m sure someone will tell me that it’s not that simple but guess what; it is. This could all be solved by Mark Burnett and Robert Rodriguez investing a little more than they already would and they won’t do it. And because they won’t I can’t help but fear the show may be in big trouble.
This kills me; not since WCW have I loved a wrestling product like Lucha Underground, nor have I seen one that spoke to me as a wrestling fan the way it does. It would be one thing if the show was a shell of itself much like latter day ECW but that’s not the case. The talent roster is still great. They’re still telling stories, even if some of them aren’t 100% well received. The matches still rule. Maybe it’s not perfect but what is in wrestling? The point is that all the pieces for a great, well functioning wrestling product on and off screen is right there waiting to be had and yet the talent, the creative team and the production people’s hard work are being failed by dudes who should be doing everything to keep this going. As many issues as I have with Vince McMahon, that’s what he’d be doing. It’s what Ted Turner would be doing. It’s one any number of others would be doing. Why can’t it be the same for Lucha Underground? Regardless of whether what I’ve told you today is old news or something you’re just learning, it must be clear by now that things could be and should be better than they are. Maybe one day they will. Maybe by the time season three ends these issues will have been resolved, the on air product will still be going strong and I’ll have the same feeling I had when season two premiered and it felt like LU and us fans had accomplished something so great. But I can’t help but worry that we’re reaching a point of no return where cement must be poured in and LU is what it is. I just know that Lucha Underground and its roster deserve better than being a small, niche promotion. It’s better than that. And it’s time we fans, writers, pundits and even talent let the nonchalant head honchos know before it’s too late.
[note: this column erroniously stated LU's budget per season was $100K per episode. That statistic has since been corrected. All apologies!]