In the digital economy, YouTube has long been the most effective way for anyone with a camera and an internet connection to share videos with a wide audience, while making a little money along the way. Videogame streams, makeup tutorials, personal vlogs—YouTube, thanks to monetization, is a vehicle for people to turn their skills and hobbies into a career. Professional wrestling is just one beneficiary of this platform, as companies like WWE churn out hours of footage, clip upon clip of potentially viral content, drawing millions of views per month. Taking into account the number of views WWE gets on YouTube a year, the platform accounts to millions of dollars of easy revenue.
While that figure is much lower for an independent promotion, companies like Beyond Wrestling or Absolute Intense Wrestling pull thousands of dollars from YouTube advertising revenue, no modest number when one considers these companies’ smaller budgets, and what a few extra thousand dollars makes possible.
But that money seems to have disappeared overnight. Independent promotions discovered this week that their YouTube revenue has now inexplicably dried up, an apparent victim of YouTube’s continued refinement of its controversial Restricted Mode. Restricted Mode, for the uninitiated, is an optional filter created by YouTube to “help screen out potentially mature content that you may prefer not to see or don’t want others in your family to see.” YouTube has been less than forthcoming about how videos fall on the wrong side of Restricted Mode, or about how many users have enabled the filter, other than to say it includes “video title, description, metadata, Community Guidelines reviews, and age-restrictions,” a seemingly infinite combination of factors that once allowed wrestling promotions to reach a readily available audience.
This new means of creating a filtered version of YouTube previously came under fire when YouTube personalities in the queer community noticed that their videos were disproportionately affected, particularly in comparison to YouTube gaming channels. Now professional wrestling seems to have found itself on the wrong side of that curtain, frozen out from a vital source of revenue and growth in an industry where both are notoriously hard to come by.
The impact this policy shift has on a company in terms of promotion is obvious, but more importantly, especially for smaller promotions scraping by on word-of-mouth and tickets sold at the gate, is how much this cuts into a ready source of income. John Thorne, one of the co-owners of Cleveland’s Absolute Intense Wrestling, was among the first to notice. AIW’s YouTube channel was a source of consistent income for the company, stemming from the popularity of intergender wrestling footage and clips of indie wrestling talent who’ve gone on to successful careers in WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling and elsewhere. From March 1 to March 11 of this year, AIW drew more than 500,000 views on YouTube, accounting for upwards of 800,000 minutes of screen time, earning $141.12 in the process. From April 1 to April 11, those numbers are down drastically: 137,000 views, 172,000 minutes, $11.23 in revenue. YouTube’s algorithm diverts those views away from the page and into the ether.
WWE’s own official YouTube channel provides a stark look into the way wrestling content is now carved up for the benefit of a vague ideation of decency: As of Friday afternoon, an unrestricted WWE page shows nine playlists, a selection of videos, and the company’s current promotional video. Switch to restricted, and you get just one video and one playlist. Searching for WWE on Restricted Mode doesn’t even bring up a link to the channel—that library of 28,423 videos, which might be relevant to any user typing “WWE” into a search bar, only appears when YouTube is used unfiltered.
While it’s possible—even likely—that a content provider as large and globally recognized as WWE might be able to work out a deal with YouTube, where does Restricted Mode leave independent promotions? Beyond Wrestling, the promotion that entered the YouTube market earliest and has, since opening its channel, continued to be the best indie organization utilizing it, tweeted that it would take 250 DVD sales a month through distributor Smart Mark Video to make up for the projected revenue loss. AIW promoter Thorne noted that the income received from his company’s YouTube channel allowed the company to keep ticket prices down while talent budgets went up, as month-to-month they could rely on an infusion of hundreds of dollars, if not thousands.
“We absolutely put that money into the company,” Thorne said. “At this level, we use every cent, mainly towards paying the wrestlers themselves and booking their travel expenses.”
How companies like Beyond or AIW can recoup that money is unknown. In a marketplace where streaming services exist in direct competition with physical media, 250 DVD sales a month seems unlikely at best. And migrating users from a platform as ubiquitous as YouTube to a new platform like Vimeo or Dailymotion is a herculean task, impossible without a staff dedicated to social media and re-building a channel from the ground up. For an independent wrestling promoter, there is neither enough time in the day, nor reward for the labor.
If YouTube continues to restrict wrestling footage, that will essentially kill an entire genre of content on the platform and one of the easiest legal ways to access a diverse array of wrestling around the world. Pro wrestling will only become more homogenous as those who stick with YouTube will be the ones who can afford to, and a more homogenous professional wrestling is an art that’s easier to ignore.
YouTube did not respond to Paste’s requests for comment.
Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia, where she runs Fear of A Ghost Planet, a zine press. She is the author of Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon, a poetry collection about love and pro wrestling.