‘Suplex’ in Chinese? Professional Wrestling Tries a Big New Market
SHANGHAI — Wang Bin looked down. A man wearing a blue skintight unitard writhed at his feet. Mr. Wang grinned. This was the moment he had been waiting for.
So, too, had Cheng Shi. When Mr. Wang lifted the writhing man and slammed him to the floor for a three-count, it completed Mr. Cheng’s dream of watching a professional wrestler — battling in that most American of fake spectacles — who hailed from China.
“I feel very proud and excited to see him onstage tonight, and so do all the fans,” Mr. Cheng, a 21-year-old student who makes fan videos for a Chinese audience, said before the match. He pointed at the screen of his smartphone to indicate the thousands of people watching him on his live broadcast. “We are very, very excited.”
Looking for eyeballs and new money sources, World Wrestling Entertainment — the company that brought Hulk Hogan and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson into American living rooms — has grand ambitions for a bigger but much more difficult market. It has started a new service live-streaming Chinese-language matches and commentary. It is also combing China’s provinces for more beefy talent like Mr. Wang.
为了寻找眼球和新的金钱来源，曾把霍克·霍肯(Hulk Hogan)和绰号“岩石”的德威恩·约翰逊[Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson]带入美国客厅的世界摔角娱乐公司（World Wrestling Entertainment，简称WWE），对一个更大但更困难的市场野心勃勃。公司已开始了一项配有中文评论的赛事播放实时流媒体的新服务，也正在中国各省寻找像王彬这样的健壮人才。
China presents formidable challenges. Entertainment names like Netflix and Rupert Murdoch have taken aim at China’s population of 1.4 billion. Wrestling’s cartoon violence and sometimes salacious story lines could attract unwanted attention from the government. And while it has its fans, American-style wrestling-as-scripted-entertainment is largely unheard-of among mainland Chinese.
“There is no presence of product over here,” said John Cena, the square-jawed wrestler and action movie star who has learned to speak some Chinese as part of the push. By tackling the language, he added, “I’m kind of a vehicle to leverage what we’ve done.”
Wrestling’s answer is to go local — and digital. It has teamed with a video-streaming company to reach fans though computers and mobile devices.
It has also geared up efforts to introduce a new audience to the suplex, the body slam and the drop-kick. W.W.E. has hired four full-time social media directors in Shanghai to maintain local-language social media accounts for its wrestlers and executives. It is also hosting viewing parties, like one this month in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, in which locals devoured pizza and cream sodas while watching a pay-per-view wrestling match and playing the W.W.E.’s latest Xbox video game.
Success requires exposing Chinese audiences to a new type of entertainment — a choreographed drama in which the outcome is known, though its dangers and injuries are sometimes shockingly real.
“They’ve never really seen anything like us,” said Paul Levesque, W.W.E.’s executive in charge of talent and live events, who is also a partly retired wrestler better known as Triple H. “The athleticism is very real. The story lines and the theater part of it is where they had a hard time with the blurred line of that.”
“他们从未看到过像我们这样的东西，”WWE负责人才和直播节目的执行官保罗·莱维斯克(Paul Levesque)说，他也是以Triple H而闻名、半退休的摔角手。“这里面的运动能力是非常真实的。他们对其中的故事情节和戏剧部分有些困难，那是让表演和比赛的界限模糊的地方。”
To friends unfamiliar with wrestling, “I find that the shortest way to tell them is to say it’s an American version — a global version — of the kung fu novel,” said Jay Li, a longtime executive at multinational companies in China who in April joined W.W.E. as its general manager for greater China. “They get it immediately, because they immediately have a cultural connection and a mental image of what this is about.”
Sports — or something that looks like a sport — might be different. Sports enjoys thematic support from the government, which is big on hosting international events like the Olympics and promoting sports like soccer. China’s push to get soccer into schools and make the country a power in the sport has led companies to pay big sums for broadcast rights.
“Sports has historically been underdeveloped in China and online, and a lot of players are looking for ways to monetize that,” said Vivek Couto, a founder and a director at Media Partners Asia, an industry research consultant.
“体育运动在中国历史上一直不发达，在网络史上也一样，很多人都在寻找在这方面赚钱的方法，”维韦克·库托(Vivek Couto)说，他是行业研究机构“亚洲传媒合伙人”(Media Partners Asia)的创始人和董事。
Professional wrestling could use the eyeballs. Like other media companies, W.W.E. is grappling with the new world of cord-cutting, in which viewers drop their cable subscriptions and order shows, à la carte, via the internet.
International viewers offer one potential growth area. They make up only about a quarter of the paid subscribers on W.W.E.’s digital subscription service, which is one of the biggest contributors to the company’s bottom line.
As China shows, international growth isn’t always easy. In October, W.W.E. told investors it was still waiting to offer subscriptions directly to Chinese viewers.
For now it works with a Chinese video company service called PPTV, which streams the company’s weekly flagship shows, called “SmackDown” and “RAW,” with real-time Mandarin commentary. (Suplex, in case you were wondering, translates as deshi beishuai, or “German-style back throw.”) PPTV subscriptions start at less than $3 per month, roughly a third of what W.W.E.’s own subscription service costs outside China, and include movies and other shows.
Much rides on Mr. Wang, W.W.E.’s first mainland wrestler. The company’s social media team works to make him a star — his verified account on the Weibo social media service recently featured videos of him training at W.W.E.’s huge facility in Orlando, Fla. Seven other mainlanders, six men and one woman, will relocate to Orlando in January.
Mr. Wang, a 22-year-old native of eastern Anhui Province, was an athlete after middle school, a member of the provincial rowing team. He later moved to Shanghai and took up sparring, and caught the attention of representatives from Inoki Genome Federation, a big Japanese wrestling and mixed martial arts promotion.
22岁的王彬来自东部的安徽省，中学毕业后当了运动员，曾是省赛艇队队员。他后来到上海去练散打搏击，引起了Inoki Genome Federation代表的注意，那是推广摔角和混合式武术的一家日本大型团体。
Mr. Wang spent three years in Japan before he was noticed by W.W.E. He signed a three-year development deal with the American company and started training in Orlando over the summer in preparation for his China debut.
When the moment finally arrived in Shanghai in September, Mr. Wang entered the arena to modern Chinese music. He gave the crowd a traditional Chinese, kung fu-style greeting, pressing his right fist into his left palm.
His opponent, a wrestler named Bo Dallas, was booed by the Shanghai crowd before Mr. Wang tossed him to the mat, pinning him in a three-count on the second try.
Mr. Wang doesn’t yet have a defined act or character, or even a flashy name. One of the oldest such personas in W.W.E.-style wrestling is the foreign heel, or bad guy; those include personas like Mr. Fuji, a Japanese villain played by Harry Fujiwara.
In an interview, Mr. Wang said he wasn’t a big believer in appealing to such nationalistic tropes.
“People shouldn’t see you for your nationality or ethnic group,” he said. “It’s less about that and more about what you can do, personally, as a warrior and a figure in the ring.”