Business of Wrestling (BOW) is a series dedicated to exploring the business behind what is likely the oddest billion dollar industry in the world. Wrestling may be fake, but the money certainly is not. Today we look at WWE’s cease and desist letter to the Bullet Club and why now is exactly the time to crack down on the Too Sweet.
The Too Sweet is probably the most recognizable symbol of wrestling, one that spans generations and promotions. It’s transcended WWE and become an important part of wrestling itself, but that didn’t stop WWE from sending the Young Bucks, two Bullet Club mainstays, a cease and desist letter. It was a strange action seeing as this is hardly the first time the Too Sweet was used without WWE’s permission. The Bullet Club, led by Prince Devitt, recycled the symbol in 2013 and they’ve continued to use it for half a decade now. Devitt, now known as Finn Balor, throws it up on WWE TV, as do Karl Anderson, Luke Gallows, and AJ Styles, all Bullet Club Alums. Triple H, one of the originators of the symbol in wrestling, takes pictures with guys like Balor and Kevin Owens throwing it up. They’ve never, in two decades, been precious about the use of Too Sweet. The Young Bucks are the first to receive any legal action over the hand sign. It makes us wonder, why now, why this Too Sweet?
It’s worth acknowledging that indie wrestling is as much of a threat to WWE as WWE allows it to be. For years and years they didn’t have to do much of anything except exist to maintain their choke hold on the industry. Things are different now. While no one has yet to come close in terms of revenue or reach, when it comes to brand and popularity, WWE is slipping. The developmental brand, NXT is the apparent answer to this problem, the roster practically looks like an indie promotion these days and it attracts the smarky (particularly savvy and proud of it) fans. Even so, it’s not enough because those fans are exactly the ones comparing WWE to its indie competitors.
Whether thrown up on the corners of the ring in Madison Square Garden, after the NWO spray painted an opponent, or mid-match in New Japan Pro Wrestling, this symbol has always had a very specific meaning. It represents a rejection of the way wrestling is “just done”. So it’s no surprise that the Bullet Club, a team of foreigners coming into a very strict promotion and throwing the rulebook out the window, would embrace that symbol. Sure, they probably all wanted to be the NWO, who doesn’t, but the Too Sweet is more than just cool, it’s powerful. It says “we’re not going to listen to you or follow your rules.” That was exactly the attitude of founding front man, Prince Devitt.
So why did WWE not have a problem with it when Prince Devitt threw up Too Sweets and riffed off of the bad boy persona of the NWO? It probably has to do with the fact that in 2013, WWE was barely paying any mind to the Bullet Club except to scout a few of their future champions. Since WCW crumbled, WWE has had no serious competitor. At best, they’ve had distant number twos in TNA and Ring of Honor. Ric Flair once was asked what it would take to compete with WWE, 10–15 years ago that figure was at $450 million. They are completely untouchable. Or at least, they were.
WWE may always be the biggest dog in the yard, but if they had it their way, they’d be the only dog in the yard.
Here’s the issue, the Young Bucks and Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega are just cool. So cool that they’ve started to encroach on WWE’s territory, at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn this year, there were far more Bullet Club shirts than any current NXT Superstar. WWE cannot have that. The Too Sweet used to just be a symbol of rebellion against the rules of wrestling. Now it’s become a symbol of rebellion against WWE. It represents fans who have chosen not to stay in the WWE bubble. That wasn’t such an issue back when Prince Devitt was paying homage to his favorite Attitude Era wrestlers. Now that there’s more access to the non-WWE promotions, the American market is paying attention to the Global industry. More than that, they’re deciding they prefer it. WWE may always be the biggest dog in the yard, but if they had it their way, they’d be the only dog in the yard.
Streaming changed everything. The WWE Network was an important step towards the future for the company, but it also opened them up to competition on a global scale. As the technology becomes more and more advanced and fans can realistically watch New Japan Pro Wrestling or Progress or AAA. Indie wrestling is spreading, Fite TV, the streaming service that provides access to Ring of Honor shows, gained 400,000 subscribers in its first year. Of those subscribers who watch both the indies and WWE, they’re faced with the choice of if it’s worth it to pay for both or not. It’s simple dollars and cents.
It’s no surprise that the Too Sweet has come to represent that shift in the wrestling industry. In 1996, The Outsiders, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, walked into WCW and changed professional wrestling forever. The NWO, alongside fellow ex-WWF star Hulk Hogan, quickly became the biggest, and the coolest thing to happen to the sport. The NWO did more than saunter down to the ring to really cool music in all black, although that certainly helped. They made people question what they thought they knew about wrestling. At this point, pro wrestling was already outed as predetermined by Vince McMahon. This was different, this got people to suspend their disbelief as they spray painted belts and threw Rey Mysterio like a lawn dart. It forced people to wonder if this was really fake. It was almost hard to believe that WCW sanctioned what the NWO did on screen.
Unsanctioned was exactly what the NWO was all about, they broke every rule that wrestling held dear. That habit started before the Outsiders even arrived, it began at Madison Square Garden. Regardless of the intentions of the Kliq as they took their now infamous curtain call, it made them into the biggest badasses, or the most disrespectful jerks, depending on who you ask. It made the Too Sweet into a symbol of rebellion. Now, that symbol is being used against WWE.
Despite half a decade of not caring that the Bullet Club commandeered the Too Sweet, WWE realizes that they now have the power to cut into their margins. That’s way too much power. This move also comes after the Bullet Club recreated the invasion of WWF to WCW, sans tank. It seemed silly in the moment, the invasion worked because the two promotions were equals, this was a smaller dog trying to get the biggest one to notice that it is even there. But, it worked. WWE noticed. They finally opened their eyes to the impact all these other promotions have and made moves to shut it down. In a way, the Bullet Club did this to themselves.
This was a smaller dog trying to get the biggest one to notice that it is even there.
Granted, the censored Too Sweets went viral immediately and their cease and desists shirts are doing great. Maybe WWE’s efforts to hold indie wrestling down are destined to fail. This whole thing has the Bullet Club arguably more popular than ever, and they get to show that they’re wittier and cooler than WWE has ever been. It’s so effective some are even speculating it’s a work that the Bullet Club made up the letter. It’s unlikely but the sentiment is there, this helped the Bullet Club. So what’s the lesson here for WWE? Maybe we’re past the days of deciding how much of a threat indie promotions get to be. The tide is changing, it might just be time to adapt or perish.