“It’s going to be an exciting ride”: IMPACT Wrestling’s senior executives talk arrivals, departures and their vision for the future [EXCLUSIVE]
RealSport sat down exclusively with Scott D’Amore, Don Callis and Ed Nordholm to learn why the new era of IMPACT will win back old fans and win over new ones.
2017 was a year of transition for IMPACT, as new owners Anthem began the process of restoring the former-TNA to former glories. Perhaps the most significant change in that year came in December, when Scott D’Amore and Don Callis were announced as the new members of the promotion’s senior executive, alongside Ed Nordholm.
RealSport sat down with the three members of IMPACT’s executive in London to hear all about their vision for a new era of IMPACT.
RealSport: Ed, what made you confident that Scott and Don were the right guys to lead IMPACT moving forward?
Ed Nordholm: Well it’s been a year learning about the business, and the company, and the personalities within it. Scott had joined on a consulting basis with Jeff [Jarrett], and Sonjay [Dutt] came along as well as part of the group of guys Jeff brought in with him in February-March, so I’d been working with Scott throughout the year on a fairly loose basis. When it got into the fall, we clearly had to make some decisions about how to move forward, and with who.
We spoke to Scott, asked what his appetite was to become more heavily involved in the business, and actually spoke with a number of people outside of IMPACT. I’d been on what I’d call a “journey of discoveries” since October-November  when we got more active in recognizing that we were going to be taking a more active role in the company, so I’d been talking to anybody and everybody that knew about the business, about IMPACT in particular.
I went back to those people and canvassed for candidates to work with us on a longer-term basis. Funny enough, Scott passed all the references. We also got conversations with some other references he gave us that we didn’t know. He had plan, he had an idea of what he thought he would do with the company if given the latitude and interest from us to support him, and it resonated with Len Asper and myself. He introduced us to Don. He came down, made a pitch, we spent hours hearing them out and took that away. It took a couple of months really to think it through and work it through, and by the end of the year we were comfortable that we were all sort of aligned in our expectations and interests, and it was good.
RS: Scott, we spoke just before Christmas, and you talked about how one of the first things you wanted to do was to make sure it wasn’t just a short-term fix, but a 6-, 12-, 18-month plan. Now that you and Don have been in for two months, do you think you’ve established those long-term goals and moved all the pieces in the right place?
Scott D’Amore: I think we’d be remarkable geniuses if we’d sorted out everything by this point. We came together on an understanding. It was announced in December but it didn’t really take effect until the first of January, so we’re basically coming up on one month, and I think we’ve made some amazing strides.
I think we have a direction set that we want to go in, I still think that the minutiae of how we’re going to get there still needs to be worked out, a lot of the details-wise, but I think we had a great first set of tapings. You talk about trial by fire, basically January 1st, here we are, “hey, this is a lot of fun, oh by the way guys, January 10th, go down and make sure you get twelve pretty darn good episodes of television filmed.” So we went down there and did that. It was a pretty positive environment, and we think we put out some good TV, and we’re excited to keep moving forward. But I think, to answer your question, I think there’s a course that we’re on and set, we know some ideas of where we want to be, and we’re right now still continuing to finalise those 6-month, 12-month, 18-month, two-year, three-year goals, but I think it’s been a great first month.
RS: Don, you’ve returned to IMPACT after 12 years away, how hard was it to go from being outside the industry, to returning as a commentator (in NJPW), to running a promotion?
Don Callis: The overall thing’s been a bit surreal, because I wasn’t looking to getting back into the business. I started doing a podcast with Lance Storm for the Jericho Network, just as, “ah this sounds like fun, I can do it from home, maybe monetise some of my knowledge and have a few laughs.” Then Kenny Omega got me booked in New Japan, I just thought “ah I’ll go to Japan, see if I like it.” And then as things evolved here, I was watching with interest and talking to Scott. Getting back into the business, being back in the business, actually hasn’t been hard, it’s been fun, especially being around the boys because frankly that was the part I missed, working with a talent, working on the creative.
When I look at what’s gone on the last year of my life, I kind of say, well, I turned 50, I’d left a job that I’d been in for 12 years, to do something I said I would never do, which is to go back into the wrestling business full-time. But I really just saw that there’s so much great potential with this company, and with the team that we’ve assembled, and with the talent roster we’ve assembled, that I just think the sky’s the limit. We all have the opportunity to do something really special, really memorable, to move the needle, and to take the company to new heights. I thought, “I’m not getting any younger, when are we all going to have an opportunity to do this?” And it’s great, we’re all fun guys, we like hanging out together and getting stuff done and working hard, so it’s been real cool.
RS: So you’ve just had your first set of tapings, the first episode of which airs this week. Did you feel that importance of being able to mark out that this is the new era of IMPACT, of getting the new tone “right”?
DC: I mean, from my perspective at least as the ‘new guy’, we had agreed that there were some changes that kind of had to be made. But also that, recognizing that all of the changes to IMPACT would not happen in the course of one week in Orlando. So yeah, we made some cool changes people seemed to like, kind of did something different with the Grand Championship, brought the four-sided ring back, but there’ll be other changes that will come, and there are changes on the talent side.
A lot of people have talked about, “oh, EC3 left” – he’s a great a guy, a great talent – “oh, this person left”. What they always fail to say is, “well, who came in?”. Yeah, EC3 left, but Brian Cage came in. So-and-so left, but Su Yung came in. So, it’s like a sports team. You’re going to get new players cycling in, you’re going to pick up draft picks, that sort of thing. So I think that, from our perspective as a team, that maybe six months, a year from now, IMPACT will look different than it looked in Orlando two weeks ago, and I think that’s going to be an exciting thing for the fans, as they go on the journey with us as we build the trust back with them.
SD: I guess just to follow up, [Don] hit it on the head. We had a good set of tapings, lots of changes were made, lots more coming, and we just have a good group that’s got the process started. This company’s going to look very different at the end of ’18 than it does right now, and we think that those are going to be exciting times to get there, and I think we’ll look back in a year’s time and say “man, look at how far we’ve came.” But it’s going to be a lot of hard work, it’s not going to be any quick fixes, it’s not going to be that epiphany, “bang, there it is”, that one moment. It’s going to be rolling up sleeves, hard work, everyone working together to get the job done.
RS: One new policy you introduced that got a lot of media attention, was that you would let talent retain their gimmicks even after they’ve left IMPACT. Last weekend, EC3 was shown at NXT Takeover, using the EC3 name. Why did you decide to let talent keep their gimmicks after leaving the company, and did you have any mixed feeling seeing EC3 on WWE television?
SD: I’ll answer the last part first. At least for myself, I didn’t have any feelings of conflict, I was kind of proud. I thought it was kind of cool. I didn’t get to watch it live, I was actually out, but I had people who were texting me stuff, and saying “hey, they just showed EC3 on NXT Takeover, and they ID’d him as EC3.” And they even said something like “trouble’s on the way” or something. I said “that’s cool”, I flipped a quick text to EC3, we exchanged some texts. I went back, I’ve watched it, and it’s something that I think I at least am very proud of, and we as a group are very proud of.
It really is a game-changing approach to things. Our thing is, and I really think Ed spearheaded some of the thoughts of this, was the idea is that, Ed comes in and says, “So-and-so, even though they wrestle for us under this name, their twitter handle still says this name, and they’re advertised on this show as this name, they’re not fully embracing the characters that they’re doing for IMPACT.” And it’s like, y’know, they’re kind of hedging their bets, right? Coz they know if they leave IMPACT, they want to have a brand that they’ve got some equity in, that they get to continue to use. So the concept came of being the first company that I’m aware of in the wrestling business in the modern era that says, when you leave, you still have the rights to continue using that IP. We can, for our rights, and everything you’ve done with us, but you’re going to be able to [as well]. The idea is, now that talent has the comfort while they’re with us of knowing that as they build and develop this character and this brand, in conjunction with us, they get to carry that benefits with them afterwards.
It’s really something that I think benefits everyone; it benefits the talent certainly, it benefits us because we have a library of that talent under that moniker, that brand, and it certainly benefits the wrestling fans, because now they don’t have to deal with these stupid name changes. And the idea of owning IP, I mean, tell me one time in history in anything other than say Mexico where you can, because the character is in a suit from head to toe and you can swap the performer out, but you tell me one time where a company owning the IP, they’ve successfully handed that character to someone else and continued to make money with it. The idea of owning IP is so that you can have control over the talent. And part of giving freedom to talent, which is what we want, we want a collaborative effort, giving that freedom, now they know they can invest in the brand if they move on. We’re not lording that over them, “if you leave us, you can go somewhere but you can’t use that name, and you can’t say that phrase, and you can’t flick that toothpick or you can’t use that accent.” We’re not going to lord that fear over them, because we don’t want to rule with fear. We want to put together a team that wants to work hard and do good business together. So I certainly had no conflicting feelings with it, and I think that I’m proud to be part of a team that’s incorporating that concept of, like I said, that’s revolutionary on how to handle IP and how to empower talent, instead of trying to hold them down.
RS: There were several wrestlers who have had large roles in IMPACT who reportedly left after the most recent tapings. One issue a lot of fans bring up is that it can be hard to invest in storylines when you know that wrestlers in those storylines have already parted ways with the company. Is that something you’ve looked at arrangements to counter, or something you have just had to accept as part of the business?
DC: We know that in wrestling, and in pro sports, and in entertainment, people leave. I used to watch Dallas, and Patrick Duffy left Dallas, Bobby Ewing. And I was heartbroken at the time. And then they cast Dak Rambo as Jack Ewing, and I got invested in that character. It took me some time, but I think the same thing is going to happen with our characters. EC3, Bobby Lashley, they were great characters, and they’re great wrestlers. But I would say to our fans, give Brian Cage a try, gave Austin Aries a try, give Su Yung a try. Give the Desi Hit Squad a try, and some of the other names we’re going to be debuting. So, it’s a process. Characters don’t stay the same on shows all the time, and they evolve, they change.
I would suspect that if we had come on and retained all the people that people talk about that left, we would have been heavily criticized for, “well, what’s this, we were expecting change, where’s the change, you guys were supposed to be shaking things up, you’ve got all the same people.” So you’re not going to make everyone happy, but at the end of the day, I say don’t judge us on the first moves we make, don’t judge us based on our first television show, or our tenth show. Talk to us six months or a year from now, and just give us a chance.
RS: You mentioned the Desi Hit Squad. Last year, IMPACT held a set of tapings in India. How important is to be showcasing wrestling from other parts of the world, and in other parts of the world?
DC: I think one of our differentiators vis-a-vis other companies is that we are better-positioned to be a true global brand than some of our competition or our partners. I think that’s really going to be exciting, and as someone who was an independent wrestler before going to WWF, wrestled all over the world, I think those international experiences and the international flavors and different styles of wrestling that you can pick up, are really important to building a rich brand and a very rich tapestry for people to embrace the talent.
You look at India, which is economically has got all of the great growth numbers, they’ve got a very young population, very well-educated, everyone’s trying to tap into India, whether it’s in wrestling, or in business. Maybe not everyone’s figured out how to monetize their business in India, whether it’s wrestling or other industries, but everyone’s very excited about it, and I think that when we look at all the great rich history of Indian wrestling, from the original Great Gama, who retired undefeated still beating people at over 50 years old, to the competitive amateur-style wrestling in India, it’s got a great history. I think we want to tap into that, we’re fortunate in IMPACT in that we have Gama Singh, who was one of the great international stars in wrestling from the 80s right through to the 2000s, so I think we’re going to be able to tap into some of that great Indian talent. But then we can also do it in countries and areas like the UK, North America, South America, I think the sky’s the limit. I think just as in regular business with globalisation, we have blinders on if we don’t think globally, I think it’s the very same thing in wrestling.
RS: Speaking of the UK, one thing that a lot of both British wrestling fans and IMPACT fans had a lot of affection for was British Boot Camp. Has there been any thought as to a reboot, or working with UK talent in some other fashion?
SD: Well, certainly one of the reasons that all three of us are sitting here in London, England is because we thought it was important to come over here as a group and to re-emerge ourselves in the market place, because somehow in the time from when I left TNA Wrestling to when I returned, there became this disconnect. Because the UK has always been such a key market for us, and it’s something that our talent always looked forward to coming over here and being part of the live events in the UK. And with a strong broadcast partner like 5Spike, and with the digital delivery systems we have in place, the UK is certainly a market that’s going to be at the forefront for us.
So, we definitely want to have UK representation, we definitely to have a presence in the marketplace over here, and that’s why we’re over here submerging ourselves in it so we’re getting to meet people face-to-face, we’re getting to see people perform in person, we’re getting to meet with our partners on the ground. British Boot Camp was a fantastic concept. Now we just need to find a partner in that if we’re going to relaunch something like that, it’s certainly something we’d be happy to consider, and whether it’s incorporated into our mainline IMPACT content, or whether it’s UK-exclusive content, we think it’s important that we have a focus on the UK and that we acknowledge of the UK as part of our company and part of our brand.
RS: Are you potentially looking at running live shows in the UK this year or in the near future?
SD: Well certainly one of the reasons we’re over here is, like I said, to see the market, so we definitely look to see a return to live events over here. Like we’re over here meeting with promoters and production companies, we’re over here to meet many talents that we’ve only had an opportunity to watch online, getting a chance to meet them, talk to them, have conversations with them. Also importantly, we’ve got a pretty tough schedule over here where we’re trying to take in hopefully 4-5 events in a short period of time that we’re here, so we can see as many talents as possible. Watching them on your laptop or your smartphone or everything else, even on your TV is one thing, but getting in that building and seeing them in that environment, and seeing them perform live, and getting a chance to talk to them, is a very important part of evaluating that. And the UK has a very rich scene right now that is amongst the very best in the world, and I for one, and all of us I think, are excited to see here and roll our sleeves up and dive into that, because touring the UK was always one of the highlights of the IMPACT calendar every year, and it should be again.
RS: Talking about live shows, IMPACT ran their first house shows last year for the first time in a while. Scott, you had previously said that you were looking at running 10-20 house shows in 2018, but you’ve been promoting co-branded events with companies such as WrestlePro and Destiny Wrestling. Is that a route you see of getting the IMPACT name out there on the road?
SD: Yeah, and I think one of the things conceptually with the Global Wrestling Network and the type of system that we’re looking to put into place is that we want to be inclusive. So much in wrestling is about exclusion, and it only exists in our universe if it’s “ours”. And we’ve gone out there on our product and we’ve acknowledged AAA, we’ve acknowledged The Crash, we’ve acknowledged Pro Wrestling NOAH, we’ve acknowledged Border City Wrestling and Destiny and Defy and WrestleCade and all of these companies. They’re part of the wrestling universe, many of these companies are becoming part of the Global Wrestling Network, and their content’s starting to become available on that.
As we go out there and look to do these events, we’re going to need help on the ground. So you look at it this coming weekend, we’re in Rahway, New Jersey with WrestlePro. What a great company to be associated with, to go out there to have our first Twitch exclusive and associate with WrestlePro. We’re doing that. And then in March we have four live events. We’re doing two in Canada, one with Border City Wrestling, one with Destiny, and then we’re going out to California with Big Time Wrestling and doing two events out there. And then we’re going to be a part of WrestleCon in New Orleans. So we’re going out there, yes. Will there be some shows like in New Orleans at WrestleCon that are just IMPACT events? Absolutely. But are we looking to have partners on the ground? Of course we are.
We’re looking to build bridges, and we’re looking to have partners, and the fact is, in 2018, everybody shouldn’t be fighting with each other. We don’t all have to be the best of friends, we don’t have to do invasion angles, and hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”. But there’s no reason for us to go out our way to try and harm each other. If there’s ways we can help each other and work together on any level, we should be exploring that. And having these types of grass-root promotions that are in that market are going to help us get out to the fans. Because the key thing about getting out and doing live events is getting with the fans and having that personal interaction with the fans. So you’ll see some IMPACT live events that are just IMPACT live events, and you’ll see a lot of them that are “co-branded”, we’ll say, with other promotions.
RS: Speaking of the Global Wrestling Network, how important is it that you have the ability to reach wrestling fans all over the world, and does the fact that you’re playing to a global audience have any effect on your decisions?
EN: It’s the reason we set that out. I do think we can make a portal that can share the distribution leverage that we have through the IMPACT brand and the digital and social presence that IMPACT wrestling has, and lend that as a lever for other independent wrestling promotions and other providers of content to get out further and be more broadly distributed. It is the idea behind the Global Wrestling app, we intentionally didn’t call it the IMPACT Wrestling app, it’s obviously anchored by that 3000 hours of content we have in the IMPACT Wrestling library, but it is branded in a way that is open and inclusive.
RS: Was that part of the reason why so soon after launching the GWN, you started a Twitch channel, something that is IMPACT-branded, and is accessible to everyone?
EN: For sure, the Twitch platform is an awesome platform to be able to distribute content through. The demographic that’s sitting on that platform on other content is exactly the demographic we’re trying to find, and it’s where they consume their content. So POP TV is obviously very important as one source of distribution for our content, but that global reach and that younger audience reach that you get through the Twitch platform is just key.
RS: IMPACT’s first pay-per-view of the year is coming up in April. A lot of wrestling promotions have moved away from the traditional pay-per-view model, whether it’s the WWE Network or NJPW World, where it’s included in the service. Is that something that’s been considered, or do you still believe the traditional PPV model is important to wrestling?
EN: I think the PPV model for our live events is something that’s very important to us. We do believe that in the PPV universe, there actually still is place for reliable content in a live event. We will see that, our tentpole events, being distributed through the conventional PPV market. Following on, it’ll be on the GWN app. What we were doing for our taped events, those we’ll put shows as premium content in the Global Wrestling app.
RS: Reports emerged earlier this week that Jeremy Borash had parted ways with the company. Was that something that was expected?
DC: We certainly knew in advance of it becoming public. I think people have made a lot of it in the sense of, Jeremy’s a talented guy, and we all wish him the best. We all think of him as a friend, and when something like that happens, you’re happy that that’s happened to a colleague and a friend. But like with anything, what it does is creates opportunity for other people. Jeremy’s a great producer, [but] he’s not the only producer in this company, and I think that we’ve got a lot of talented folk who maybe are going to stretch themselves a little bit more creatively now, and see what happens. You can make an argument back in the 90s that if Hulk Hogan and Hall and Nash didn’t go to WCW, maybe there wasn’t a Rock and a Steve Austin.
It creates new opportunities. We’ve all had them. Scott had them here many years ago, I got my opportunity in ECW. Unless someone gives you that spot and says “OK, go ahead and succeed or fail on your own merits”, then you never know. And I think that we look at someone leaving as an opportunity for someone else. As they say in football, “next man up, next woman up”, and I think it just creates a great opportunity. We get asked a lot about talent, the wrestlers or the Knockouts. But it also applies to people in the office, to people involved in the creative process and the production process. It really is about people getting opportunities to be creative, to be part of a team that builds a brand that people get invested in.
RS: And it leaves an empty seat at the commentary table. Don, have you given any thoughts to filling that yourself?
DC: Well, I keep trying to get Scott to do it as a one-man booth, coz I figure I listen to him talk enough that he could probably do it by himself. I think that, I mentioned earlier, don’t expect to see all of the changes in IMPACT the first week in Orlando. And so there was always a long-term plan for commentary, and that long-term plan is still in place, and I just ask, people have a lot of opinions on twitter, be patient, I think they’ll like what they end up with, but we can’t give everything away first week.
RS: You’ve mentioned how the recent tapings had a lot of new people coming in. Austin Aries, a lot of people are familiar with from his first run with IMPACT, Brain Cage from his work in other wrestling promotions. Who are some of the others wrestlers you’ve brought in that people might not know about, to keep an eye out for?
DC: Well, we can’t reveal any that aren’t on TV yet! I think that the Desi Hit Squad that we talked about earlier is going to be something new and fresh, it’s a faction which is something we haven’t had for a little bit, and I think there’s going to be some new talent debuting in that faction that people are going to be very excited about. And again it’s an organic, ever-green process. There’s always going to be our vision as a group is there’s always going to be new talent that cycles in. If someone is compelling and exciting, then we’d be pretty foolish not to give them a platform.
So I don’t think any of us want us to be a static thing, that is just like, “these are our six people and this is all you’re going to see, because this is what we believe”. I think we all have to be open creatively to debuting new people, and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we tell people about it. People love the surprise. They love seeing Austin Aries come out of nowhere. To the extent where we can do things like that with the internet, with twitter, with social media. I think we need to continue to do that, because surprises are generally good surprises.
RS: And is that sometimes a challenge, the fact that you’re going to have people in the audience that might be tweeting out things which you don’t necessarily want them know. Is that one of the challenges you face now? I know one thing which surprised me last year was when Eli Drake won the title in the Gauntlet for Gold, that was actually revealed through IMPACT’s official social media channels before it was on TV. Is that something you have to do, to control the way that’s presented?
SD: Yeah, it’s hard in 2018 to pretend something doesn’t happen til it airs. We’re still toying around with the best possible way to handle that. We want to be honest, we want to try and respect people that do enjoy watching the show as just a show, but the fact is, there’s a very large population out there, a very large group of fans that are out there, that want to know stuff as it happens, as soon as it happens. Sometimes it can create more interest, to know that something is coming up and going to happen. And some of these key major moments, it’s really hard to pretend it didn’t happen for four, six, eight, ten weeks. So it’s an interesting world we live in, with instant gratification, and with how quick communication happens. We’re a part of that change. We’ll keep experimenting with it as we go, and going out there and trying to deliver content and news to our fanbase in the most effective way possible.
RS: With the year of transition that 2017 was for IMPACT, and some fans maybe having stopped following the product as a result, what would you say to them to try and win the back?
SD: My thing is, I think there’s a group in place that’s passionate and cares about this business, this company and this industry. I never envisioned myself getting back in to the wrestling business at this level, and I did it because of the circumstances of it all. And I certainly said this to Jeff, and I’ve probably said it to Ed, I’ve said it to lots of people: I never would work for anybody else again, and I don’t feel like I do, because I don’t feel I work for Ed and Len, I feel I work with Ed and Len. He’s a hell of a worker to make me think that, maybe, but we have a collaborative process amongst ourselves as the management team running it, and the people behind the scenes, and the talent. So it’s an exciting time, and watch the ride, because it’s going to be pretty cool.
If you look at it just in the last handful of months, I mean, Sami Callihan, and Su Yung, and Austin Aries, and Brian Cage. You look at Kiera Hogan. You look at the amount of talent that’s coming in. It’s a fresh new chance. And we’re going to present you with the modern versions, this era’s Bobby Roodes and Eric Youngs and Awesome Kongs and everybody else. I was part of that ride twelve years ago, thirteen years ago, as we did all that and built this and launched on Spike in the US, and built around the world, and I see a lot of similarities, and it’s going to be an exciting ride for 2018 as we build and grow from here.
The first episode of the D’Amore-Callis era of IMPACT airs on POP TV in the US tonight at 8pm ET, and in the UK on 5Spike tomorrow at 10pm GMT.