Major Baisden sold his tech company for $134 million and started a pro wrestling league — and he means business
It’s Saturday night, an hour ahead of showtime for the National Wrasslin’ League, and inside the Kansas City Scottish Rite Temple’s courtly green room — modestly perched podium on one end, a massive etching of a Masonic double-headed eagle on the other, blood-red carpet and white walls in the hundred or so feet between — the vibe is cheerful but focused. Being here is like being backstage at a play that happens to star an all-jocks cast. Two dozen well-built men in colorful tights are chatting, laughing, taping up, rehearsing moves, sitting on folding chairs, drinking from gallon jugs of water. Half-open suitcases overflowing with wrestler-friendly beauty products (hair gel, baby oil, Gold Bond, cocoa butter) litter the floor. In a corner, a 25-year-old wrestler known in the ring as Jax Royal — he’s in a tag team with his identical twin brother, Jet Royal; they’re called Royal Blood — sits blank-faced as his blond mane is straightened and refashioned into braided cornrows. Up by the podium, a villainous wine connoisseur called Niles Plonk paces back and forth, mouthing lines, clutching a chalice.
One of the more noticeable specimens in the room is a tall and exceptionally athletic 31-year-old African-American man who goes by the name Blaine Meeks. Six months ago, Meeks was bouncing and bartending in Austin, Texas, and touring low-level wrestling circuits in what spare time he could muster. He usually performed as Bolt Brady, a hyperactive comic-book enthusiast.
“Most wrestlers at that level, you’ve got a full-time job during the week, you try to drive to work the indie shows on the weekend, and then you gotta hurry up to get off the road and back to town again to show up at your job,” Meeks says. “It’s a real grind.”
Meeks would occasionally make the trip up to Kansas City for monthly events staged by Metro Pro Wrestling, a local indie outfit that started in 2010. He got to know Metro Pro’s founder, Chris Gough, a little bit. Then one day last year, Gough called Meeks and told him he was recruiting wrestlers for a new league, based in Kansas City, to be launched at the beginning of 2017. The league, Gough said, would treat wrestlers as salaried employees, with benefits and 401(k)s — an unprecedented approach in the world of professional wrestling.
“He said, “How’d you like to wrestle full-time?’” Meeks recalls. “I mean, that’s been my dream since I was 13. I said, ‘Sure, of course.’ I moved up to Kansas City pretty soon after that.”
Originally, Major Baisden wanted to buy a baseball team.
This was in 2015, after he’d sold his company, Iris Data Services, for $134 million. Baisden has always been something of an overachiever. Born in Sacramento, California, he graduated from the University of California-Davis at age 19. He worked as a manager in the legal tech support unit of the California Department of Justice, then found his way into a company that specialized in organizing and photocopying legal documents. Baisden helped shepherd that company into the digital age and ended up with some equity in the business. Then, in 2007, he started his own, Kansas City-based company, Iris, which provided electronic discovery services for law firms and corporate legal departments.
“Basically, we had technology that could comb through massive quantities of data — billions of documents — and pare all that down to just the documents likely to be relevant for a lawsuit,” Baisden told me in March, in a glass-walled conference room at the NWL offices in the Town Pavilion building downtown. “The thing we did different than our competitors is that we packaged the product in a way where the law firm didn’t have to rely on a service provider to use the tech — the firm could use it themselves.”
By the time Epiq Systems, a legal-tech heavyweight, bought Iris, Baisden had built it into a $50 million company that had contracts with 50 of the 200 largest law firms on the planet. As co-founder and president, Baisden walked away with, he said, “a good chunk” of the $134 million sale. He was 34 years old and a multimillionaire. What to do?
Baisden had always been a baseball fan. Now that he had big-league dough, he wondered if it might be possible to put together an ownership group to buy a Major League Baseball team.
“I explored it pretty seriously,” Baisden said. “But what I found is that it’s very hard to cobble together enough money to have a significant say in the operations of a professional baseball team.”
He considered a Major League Soccer team. “But I have no passion for soccer,” Baisden admitted.
Wrestling was not on his radar. Baisden had enjoyed what was then called the World Wrestling Federation on television when he was a kid, but as a business venture, professional wrestling seemed like a loser.
“The WWE totally has the market cornered, right?” he said, referring to what the WWF eventually became. “And everybody I’ve seen try to challenge the WWE has failed miserably. But then I heard about this thing called indie wrestling.”
A few brief words here on the history of professional wrestling: In the old days — the 1960s and 1970s — pro wrestling was a decentralized and largely regional phenomenon. As Vince McMahon, the chairman and CEO of WWE, told Sports Illustrated in 1991: “There were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge. Each little lord respected the rights of his neighboring little lord … There were maybe 30 of these tiny kingdoms in the U.S.”
That all changed in the early 1980s, when McMahon bought the WWF from his father and set about consolidating the industry under its aegis. The regional leagues died off. Bolstered by cable-TV contracts and pay-per-view specials such as Wrestlemania, McMahon’s enterprise emerged as the pre-eminent talent showcase for pro wrestling in America. These days, there are arguably three serious national wrestling leagues — WWE, TNA Impact and Ring of Honor — but WWE remains the industry juggernaut.
What is generally referred to as the indie wrestling circuit is a sort of minor-league patchwork of wrestling events that sprouted up across the United States following the decline of the regional leagues. Have you seen Darren Aronofsky’s unrelentingly grim 2008 film, The Wrestler? That depicts one corner of the world we are talking about (though it’s not necessarily representative of the lives of indie-circuit wrestlers).
“There’s a whole spectrum of indie wrestling,” Baisden said. “Literally, there’s thousands of these events a year that draw anywhere between 15 and 500 people to a show. So I started researching it and learned that there’s basically three types of guys in indie wrestling. At the top is a guy who is good enough to be in the WWE but they’ve already got a guy like him. That’d be like trying to get on a baseball roster and you play first base and they’ve already got Eric Hosmer signed to a 10-year deal. There’s no room for you.”
Baisden went on: “The second type of guy is a weekend warrior — a guy with a job and maybe a wife and kids, and he’s good, but maybe he just doesn’t have the time to chase the dream anymore. Third type is a guy who has no business wrestling — he’s out of shape or old, maybe — but for whatever reason is extremely entertaining. He’s a character.”
Character-driven storytelling is something of a lost art in pro wrestling these days, in Baisden’s view. His favorite wrestlers were big personalities such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and he is fond of old-school characters who tapped into the cultural zeitgeist; he cites anti-American heels the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff and Colonel DeBeers. Baisden also believed that there was untapped value in the idea behind the regional wrestling leagues that had been snuffed out in the 1980s. What if intercity rivalries could be resuscitated in the context of wrestling, in the same way they help fuel the NFL and the NBA?
The more research he did, the more Baisden saw a business opportunity in a middle zone between the WWE and the indie circuit. But he was still a novice. So he tracked down the most experienced pro wrestling expert in Kansas City: Chris Gough.
Prior to founding Metro Pro Wrestling, in 2010, Gough worked for the WWE. He interned for the organization during summers in college, and then moved to work in its Connecticut offices following graduation. He stayed from 1999 to 2003, serving as a video editor and a writer on Raw, the league’s Monday-night cable staple.
When Baisden called, Gough was at a crossroads with Metro Pro Wrestling. He was putting on the events by himself — booking talent, setting matches, organizing pre- and post-production, editing for TV broadcasts — and just barely breaking even. It was a love-of the-game type of hobby. But Gough has a family. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep it all up.
“Major had a lot of enthusiasm, and he had a lot of good questions about how promotions and marketing work in independent wrestling,” Gough says. “And the way it works is that indies don’t generally have money for promotions and marketing. But Major does. So that was intriguing.”
They hammered out a deal, the upshot of which was that Gough shuttered Metro Pro and came on as director of operations for the wrestling startup Baisden had begun assembling. Baisden subsequently acquired a similar indie organization, St. Louis Anarchy, on the other side of the state, paving the way for the kind of city-versus-city warfare that Baisden envisioned as the backbone of the NWL.
The peculiar American phenomenon of professional wrestling requires — of its leading practitioners, at least — a combination of skills rare in most humans. Agility and a high threshold for pain are essential. A six-pack and tennis-ball biceps will get you further. Handsomeness helps. But you must also be a charismatic performer. Can you command a crowd’s attention while on the mic? Are you funny? Can you improvise?
Those blessed with this freakish mixture are usually scouted and signed quickly by the WWE. But the WWE doesn’t always maximize its wrestlers’ strengths, or promote the best ones.
“It can be weird and political with them,” Gough says. “Plus, for the last decade or so, Vince [McMahon] has been copying the UFC playbook, in my opinion. It’s a lot of tough, athletic, padded-up guys, and not much in the way of personalities.”
In other words, the kind of wrestlers Baisden wanted for his league — fun, original characters — were out there. From his experience booking Metro Pro, Gough even knew who some of them were. The question was how to attract them to the NWL.
The answer was easy: money. Most wrestlers don’t have much of it. Baisden had a lot of it.
And he was willing to spend it. Over the next several months — this all happened in the second half of 2016 — the NWL offered deals to eight wrestlers from across the country. Under the agreements, the wrestlers get a salary (“comparable to average household income,” Baisden told me), a corporate apartment in Briarcliff, and access to the half-million-dollar, 10,000-square-foot training facility that Baisden has built in North Kansas City specifically for the NWL. (The majority of the wrestlers who appear on NWL cards are still part-time, though they, too, are reportedly well-compensated compared with athletes in other leagues.)
In exchange, these eight wrestlers moved to Kansas City and work like full-time wrestlers: strength and conditioning several times a week, regular lessons in mic skills, maintaining social media accounts, shooting promos, a live show every weekend.
“The WWE doesn’t even pay health benefits,” Gough says. “Major is the first guy ever to do that. And nobody besides the WWE has a training facility as nice as the one north of the river. Those are huge incentives.”
That’s why Meeks came up from Austin, and it’s why Dak Draper — a former college wrestler, once signed to the WWE, who ended up working as a personal trainer and hitting the indie circuit on weekends — drove east from Denver. Jax and Jet, the Royal Blood tag team, were already living in Lee’s Summit; they used to work at Mosaic, in the Power & Light District, but no need for that gig anymore. The other four full-time wrestlers signed by the NWL came from St. Louis.
NWL events alternate weekends between Kansas City and St. Louis, and one of the fights on each card has bragging-rights implications. For now, the NWL is just those two cities. But Baisden told me he sees the current arrangement as a model the NWL will replicate elsewhere.
“The long-term goal is to have 15 of these city pairs,” Baisden said. “We’re still figuring out what we want the next one to be. I think it will either be Austin and San Antonio, or Seattle and Portland. We’ve talked, in California, about L.A. County and the Inland Empire, or a ‘Battle of the Boroughs’ type of thing in New York.”
Ultimately, Baisden’s plan is to be in 30 markets over the course of the next decade. He believes the NWL has the potential to grow into a $250 million company. The league will hit profitability, Baisden said, when it’s drawing 900 people per show, something he expects to take two years. Two months in, both NWL cities are drawing between 200 and 250 people a show. That number may increase after April 1, when the NWL’s Saturday matches begin airing on Channel 38 the Spot in Kansas City, at 11 p.m.
“Really, Kansas City is not an ideal town for what we’re trying to do,” Baisden said. “It’s an oversaturated sports town. If you look at St. Louis, though, they just lost the Rams. People in St. Louis have expendable income for sports. So in terms of a business model, St. Louis is really more of a test market for us than Kansas City is.”
Baisden added that the fans in St. Louis are different from Kansas City’s — more dialed in to the humorous and ironic qualities that underpin the culture.
“In Kansas City, the crowds are a little more family-oriented,” Baisden said. “So, like, in Kansas City, the crowds tend to cheer or boo based on whether it’s a good guy or a bad guy. In St. Louis, it’s more like they’re evaluating the show based on their wrestling knowledge. They cheer or boo based on the level of creativity of what the wrestlers are saying and doing. It feels kinda like you’re at a house party where a wrestling show broke out.”
Like Vince McMahon, Baisden plays a version of himself in the NWL. After the first match at the Scottish Rite Temple, he makes his entrance: pinstripe suit, big, Obama-like smile, a round of bro hugs for the front row. Baisden ducks into the ring and grabs the microphone and bangs out the necessary housekeeping: merch for sale in the lobby, NWL membership packages, a special NWL appearance at Planet Comicon (April 28, $10). He’s even working on a catchphrase — “Next slide, Rupert!” — a nod to his Powerpoint prowess.
A jolt of loud, symphonic violin music interrupts Baisden’s sales pitch for a new wine available at concessions. Plonk, the wine-snob wrestler, is on the scene. (Usually, he is trailed by his personal porter, Belvedere, but Belvedere apparently has the night off.) Outfitted in a skimpy robe and shiny, shin-high red boots, Plonk grabs hold of the mic and scolds Baisden for promoting such unsophisticated swill. (As it happens, both men really do know a fair amount about wine: Baisden is one of the owners of Tannin, the Crossroads wine bar, and Plonk owns the Windy Wine Winery, in Osborn.)
Before long, Meeks (nerdy glasses, comic-book-style “BM” on his mustard-gold tights) and Draper (aviators, brown-suede fringe jacket, no shirt, bright-white tights), and Lakota Red Cloud — a portly, bearded, vaguely Native American character with a red mohawk and Southwestern attire — have joined the ruckus.
Draper calls Meeks “a loser, a geek, a nerd,” and dismisses Plonk’s lofty airs: “I didn’t like class when I was in school, Plonk, and I don’t like it now,” he booms. The crowd boos Draper. He points at some children in the front row and yells at them to shut up. More boos.
Later, Baisden re-emerges to call security on the NWL’s most menacing villains, a greasy tag team called the Howletts, after they’ve put Red Cloud through a table and shaved off his beard while he was unconscious. Ten security guards in bright-orange NWL shirt storm the ring and escort the Howletts out.
“Get them out of here,” Baisden says. “I want them out of this building. It’s not funny.”
But most everyone in the crowd is smiling.