Court Bauer, MLW Return With New Aesthetic And Mission, Didn’t Embrace ‘The Show Must Go On’ Approach

Major League Wrestling did a lot of things right in 2020 by not doing anything at all. It’s an odd remark in an ordinary year, but it makes more sense when you look at the major effect COVID-19 had on the entire world.

COVID-19 affected the entire world—individuals, countries, industries—and it certainly took its toll on the professional wrestling world. All of the attention and buzz the independent scene created was gone, and many major promotions elected to halt tapings altogether as a precaution. This isn’t about pointing the finger and criticizing those companies that did continue to host events, as it is their profession and the way they provide for themselves or their families. Rather, this should serve to praise MLW for doing the “right thing” despite the potentially crippling effects it would have on their promotion by choosing to stay dormant for so long.

Speaking with WrestleZone for the 2020 “Best For The Business” series, owner Court Bauer says they were aware of the potential impact COVID-19 could have in February, and started making immediate changes that probably seemed odd at first. In hindsight, social distancing has become the new normal and as Bauer explained, no one truly had enough information to definitively decide that early if they would be OK to host shows as a long-term plan and the decision was made easier once the NBA shut down as a precaution.

“So by our Philadelphia show, February 1st earlier this year, we were kind of like, ‘This thing’s gonna hit us.’ Even in February, we had protocols in place. We eliminated hand-shaking, we had Purell stations, we had signs in English and Spanish that said ‘Please do not hug, shake hands, et cetera’ and we tried to have a little bit of distance. Again, we had no idea what was on the horizon. I think we were probably labeled as germaphobes at that time,” Bauer explained, “but our photographer, Harry Aaron, actually took a photo of some of the stuff backstage, and months later posted it and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know anyone had shot anything.’ It probably came across as fairly unusual at that time and it probably was.”

“Our next show was March 13 in Mexico and things were getting pretty dicey over the last 24 hours going into it and that morning the NBA hit the pause button, effectively freezing the league. At least here in the States, society wise, this had a domino effect where once the NBA did that, that was like the cue for everyone within 12 to 24 hours to go into hibernation indefinitely, and we knew by the end of that night we were going into hibernation. It was kind of touch and go. We thought we were closing down for at least 60 days. Little did we know it would be 90, then 120, then it just [kept] rolling for us, but we knew realistically we didn’t have enough information to proceed even with an abundance of caution. What do you do? You kind of just hit the pause button,” Bauer explained, “because treatment, even testing, it was all so gray at that point in time. No league, no one had even the concept of what they were going to do for a while, least outside of wrestling. Wrestling I think kind of often embraces ‘the show must go on’ approach which it’s been controversial and I get some of the merits of it, but with something like this it was just a whole new ballgame.”

Bauer said the decision to shut down wasn’t too difficult to make, citing how the world really had incomplete information at the start of the year. Noting how a huge league like the NBA didn’t get going until July, Bauer said MLW took a risk and gave up the momentum they’d built the year prior, but they had to make the right decision, even if it was the unpopular one.

“Bigger companies I think just by nature of being bigger, they lean into these things a little bit easier. They have the wherewithal that they have to get into a legal situation to settle a little bit easier. You can throw money at a problem if you’re a billionaire. For us, I knew that when I made this decision, I wasn’t going to regret it and I slept great at night and it wasn’t an ideal situation. We had a lot of momentum going into that forced hibernation. It wasn’t great because your talent wants to go out there and work. Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions,” Bauer said. “For us, our goals are we want to put on great shows. We want to be able to have nice beefy revenue lines and we also want our fans to be serviced. We weren’t able to do those things. Making this decision, your revenue line plummets. Your talent can’t get out there, your fans, you lose that connection to someone, but I knew we had to do it. There just wasn’t another option for me. This was it. It was an easy decision to make. A lot of leagues did it. Wresting for some reason, for a lot of reasons, sometimes veers off the mainstream sports path and it certainly did in this case. And a lot of Hollywood shut down. That’s why didn’t see a lot of movies in production, TV shows in production. Just the way the world just kind of froze for a bit.”

MLW shut all live events and television tapings down at the start of the pandemic and continued to keep a presence online, finally returning in November with “The Restart”, their first show with new content in nearly nine months. The tagline about the world of MLW never stopping rings true, continuing to air content while they added new broadcast homes, and added some fresh faces that will bolster an impressively diverse lineup.

Lio Rush, ACH and Calvin Tankman join mainstays Tom Lawlor, Alex Hammerstone and World Champion Jacob Fatu on the roster, and MLW Fusion is making a big splash in the OTT and digital market, thanks to several distribution agreements made Bauer. Now airing on YouTube, DAZN, beIN, Fubo and Roku, in addition to apps around the world, MLW is ensuring there’s no shortage of ways fans can get their eyes on their show in the new year.

One other notable change that wrestling fans have grown accustomed to is the emphasis on in-ring action. The lack of fans at tapings caused every television-based wrestling promotion to re-think their presentation, with WWE’s ThunderDome on one end of the spectrum, while others opted for a “less is more” approach. Bauer noted that more attention is put on the wrestlers themselves with good camera work, but they’ve also made it a point to simplify the match graphics as well. Bauer pointed to his background in other combat sports as an influence for the latter, noting that MLW’s goal is to create an engaging product without the presentation being too much of a distraction.

“Yeah I think for us, I did some working in MMA and some of our team has a background in some of the production in boxing and MMA so from my time doing exec producing for Combates Americas or UFC Fight Pass, you see this very clean presentation and graphically it’s not the busiest, but it has like a very nice flat yet powerful presentation and I wanted to incorporate that when we brought back MLW and kind of were able to give it an overhaul and how we did the graphics and all these things. Look at everything top to bottom because we had enough time to do it and incorporate some of that,” Bauer said. “The fight clock we felt was important since we try to lean into being a combat sport and just having something aesthetically doesn’t feel over the top. When you have the wherewithal to do all these things, you can get tempted and say, ‘Let’s do all of them,’ but then it just takes it and creates all this noise and you lose kind of focus in what’s the [goal] of what we’re trying to accomplish here. Is it telling the story in this match, in this rivalry or is it about being loud and noisy and overdosing on aesthetic?”

Check out the full interview with Bauer where he also discusses roster changes as a result of the pandemic, what to look forward to in 2021 and much more.

Related: Best For The Business 2020: Wrestling’s Most Influential People, Promotions and Brands