‘Wrestlenomics’ Chris Harrington On A Project That All Wrestling Fans Should Take An Interest In

Remember in late 2015 when Hulk Hogan’s late 1990s WCW contract leaked online? If so, Chris Harrington is to thank for that one. Harrington has been the source of most of the wrestling-lawsuit-related documents you have read online in recent times. How does he get these sorts of documents, you ask? It’s simply a matter of Harrington requesting them online from public databases, something that you or I also could have done.

The problem with the work that Harrington has been doing for a few years is that there are costs involved. Certain databases charge $1 per page downloaded, and legal documents tend not to be concise. In turn, Harrington and David Bixenspan are raising funds for a group that they call “the Professional Wrestling Legal Research & Preservation Group.” For $30, users will not only know that they have helped preserve the history of professional wrestling, but will have access to all of these documents uncovered by Harrington and Bixenspan as well.

To learn more about the case, I spoke with Harrington — also a contributor to Indeed Wrestling and the co-host of a biweekly podcast called Wrestlenomics Radio — who can be followed on Twitter via @MookieGhana.

“Do you work in the legal field to earn a living? Where does your legal interest come from?”

Chris Harrington: “I don’t work in the legal field. I think that’s partially why I’m so interested in legal documents in wrestling — it’s not my day-job. Thus, the notion of searching through PACER filings looking for juicy tidbits has some exotic appeal.

“However, I do have two connections to the legal field. I used to work for a law firm but as a business analyst. I was essentially in the Finance department and I worked on various projects related around reports on billable hours, researching alternative fee structures and harmonizing rate schedules for attorneys during a large merger. Also, my wife recently finished her Juris Doctor degree. She even wrote a paper for the school’s intellectual property journal called What’s In A Name, Brother – Profit Or Publicity: An Analysis Of Trademarking Ring Names in Professional Wrestling.

“There are several reasons that researching pro-wrestling legal documents interests me. First of all, they’re primary sources. Organizations are trying to represent themselves both truthfully and in the best possible light. In many cases, internal documents are revealed. I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of what is being said externally and how the same topics are being portrayed internally. Second of all, it’s an underreported area of wrestling journalism. Maybe it’s because the wheels of justice can grind slowly. Maybe it’s because not all the information is free. Maybe it’s because the language of legal filings can seem opaque and confusing. However, there’s real, solid, and interesting information that is being posted out there, and I haven’t seen a lot of people spending their time, resources, and energy in understanding the situation. Lastly, some pro-wrestling cases that have become major areas of case law and are often cited in other lawsuits. Those key cases range from Jesse Ventura’s lawsuit for videotape royalties, to the WWF/WCW lawsuits over Hall & Nash’s character portrayals, to WWF’s website squatting fights, to a debate over whether Mark Madden was acting as a “journalist” when he was working on the WCW hotline. Some of the issues that the lawsuits dive into cut far beyond the kayfabe world of professional wrestling.”

“What was the first wrestling-related legal case you took an interest in?”

Chris Harrington: “The first big case that I remember covering seriously would be the lawsuit against WWE and WWE management after the May 2014 domestic WWE television deal with NBCU was not as huge as investors expected it would be. I had spent the last year prior to that closely covering the launch of the WWE Network and all of the investor conferences that WWE’s CFO George Barrios was giving. There were questions about whether Vince McMahon was being misleading when he promised that an analyst could put him in a hammerlock if he didn’t at least double the TV rights; they came in in about 1.5x the old deal. The case dragged on for a long time and had all sorts of twists of turns: Which group of investors would lead the class action? Was there a confidential informant who knew that management was inflating their social media numbers? When did WWE know they weren’t getting the big deal? And so forth. In the end, WWE prevailed but it was a long slog.”

“Do you have a favorite case to read up on?”

Chris Harrington: “I think the case that has generated the most substantial material would the WCW discrimination lawsuits. It’s really a huge set of lawsuits because there were more than a dozen people who sued. It involves some wrestlers you might know (Sonny Onoo, Stevie Ray, Bobby Walker, Thunderbolt Patterson, Hardbody Harris) and some names probably you’ve never heard of (Marcial Davis, William Worthen, Bouthan Saengisphan). The exhibits that were uncovered during discovery were pretty extensive. There were payroll records from 1996 to 2000 for the wrestlers. There were talent contract databases, familiarity studies, PowerPlant evaluations, spending memos, and lots of depositions. Because so many people filed suit and each lawsuit was processed individually, there are different files available when you’re poking around in each file. That’s how I found a copy of Hulk Hogan’s 1998 WCW contract. The case itself is very interesting because you see from the depositions some real disturbing patterns in how many wrestlers talked and thought about the developmental talent. It’s also clear how tough it is to prove widespread discrimination where earnings are driven so much on an individual basis based on your push and your success in a worked sport.”

“When someone contributes to your cause, where do the funds actually go?”

Chris Harrington:David Bixenspan (@davidbix) and I (@mookieghana) are raising funds for a group that I’ve called the Professional Wrestling Legal Research & Preservation Group. We’re working on getting copies of lawsuits from around the country that involved professional wrestling companies and professional wrestlers. In particular, we’re focused on the cases that have never been digitized. Many of the records from 30 years ago are lost, damaged and being destroyed as we’ve pasted required record retention periods. Our goal is to reach out to these individual courts and get copies of these records scanned and digitized so those records are preserved for historians, archivists, journalists and fans.

“Unfortunately, this is not a cheap endeavor. It’s not uncommon for a single case file to cost over a hundred dollars as you’ve got $1/page fees combined with research, labor and scanning costs. This is about 10 times what those same records might cost if they were available through PACER.

“My hope is that there are many people out there who are interested in continuing the primary research and preserving these records. I’m looking for donors that want to contribute $30 so that we can continue reaching out and getting copies of interesting professional wrestling-related lawsuits. To start, we’re focusing on cases from the 1980s and 1990s. Already, we’ve got copies of a terrific 1986 World Class Championship Wrestling (Southwest Sports Inc) vs. MidSouth Wrestling over the raid of several key wrestlers. The lawsuit includes financial statements from the promoter, contracts from the wrestlers and other fascinating tidbits.

“For $30, donors to the project get access to a Google Drive folder for six months. I’ve been organizing all of the interesting pro-wrestling legal documents that we’re gathered in the past few years. (As of this morning, it was about 800 files.) This includes the new documents that we’re obtaining using the donations and other lawsuits that we’ve investigated in depth such as Ultimate Warrior vs. Titan Sports/McMahon and the aforementioned WCW discrimination lawsuits. I want to believe that most people will want to donate in order to help us continue this work, but I also want people to have something tangible that they can look at so they can enjoy the material and continue the research themselves. People interested in learning more should email me at chris.harrington@gmail.com or contact me on twitter @mookieghana.”

“Is there a specific number of donors you need?”

Chris Harrington: “Obviously, the number of people who are interested in professional wrestling lawsuits and willing to donate their own money to the cause is limited. With two dozen people, I am confident that we’d be able to get a hold of a lot of really intriguing material.”

“Are there still a lot of cases and legal documents to uncover?”

Chris Harrington: “A few years ago, I created a laundry list of pro-wrestling cases. What Bix and I have found is that when you start digging into one case, another one often pops up. You’re looking at Martha Hart suing WWE over royalties and suddenly there’s a Ricky Steamboat vs. Coliseum Video lawsuit. You never know what you’re going to get. Certainly, with limited resources, we’re being very judicious about what cases we go after. I don’t believe we’ll run out of good candidates before we run out of funding.”

“Has there ever been any blowback for you posting legal documents?”

Chris Harrington: “There’s been surprisingly little. Most people don’t understand or don’t care. Anything that I’ve published or posted is supposed to be in the public domain. The biggest challenge that I’ve had is trying to scrub documents of private information like social security numbers or phone numbers, which is something that was supposed to be done before they’re published. Probably the most interesting ramification has been cataloging all of the professional wrestling contracts that have been revealed in SEC filings, trademark applications, lawsuits and government documents. I believe the lawyers who have been working on the Buff Bagwell/Raven WWE royalties lawsuit looked through these documents quite extensively.”

“In your opinion, do you foresee the possibility of WWE ever losing a lawsuit related to concussion or royalties owed for the WWE Network?”

Chris Harrington: “Obviously, it’s impossible to know the future. And it’s impossible to know if WWE will find themselves in a situation where someone is rightfully denied something that they are contractually obligated. I think if WWE ever loses the ability to assert that wrestlers are independent contractors, that will put them in a very different situation when it comes to other benefits that wrestlers are entitled to. I do believe that if WWE were on the verge of losing a major case, they would be very likely to settle rather than actually go through to a judgment or jury trial. That’s been the pattern we’ve seen historically. WWE hates setting a precedent. However, I always think of Jerry McDevitt — WWE’s chief lawyer in these cases — who loves to say, ‘We might have deep pockets, but we have very short arms.'”

“Aside from your workload, what are some of the recent developments in wrestling that have you most excited?”

Chris Harrington: “I’m excited that New Japan Pro Wrestling, a company that has developed a substantial over-the-top streaming service, is making in-roads for marketing their product to the North American marketplace. I’m excited that World Wrestling Entertainment issued $200 million in convertible senior notes in December 2016 and I’m dying to know what they business development activities they’re going to use the money for. I’m excited that I’m continuing to hear from interesting and innovative people (lawyers, analysts, writers, fans) as my Wrestlenomics Radio podcast continues to grow.”

“What was the last live wrestling event you attended?”

Chris Harrington: “Unfortunately, it’s been almost ten months. The last event I went to was at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in Saint Paul, Minnesota, for a NXT Live show, which was headlined by [Shinsuke] Nakamura and No Way Jose vs. Samoa Joe and [former Viking] Riddick Moss. Hideo Itami vs. Austin Aries was particularly entertaining as Wisconsin native Aries knew exactly how to work the crowd through heel Packers-related antics.”

Finally, who’s the best law-related character of all time in wrestling?

Chris Harrington: “On one hand, I’d like to say Paul Heyman’s dad, who, according to Mr. Dangerously, was the main reason that ECW didn’t collapse from a thousand lawsuits. However, my vote goes to the terrible actor who played Rusev’s lawyer in the contract-signing segment on Raw. As an improviser, I’ve done my fair share of terrible accents but that was the best worst thing I’ve seen in a long time.”

[Featured Image by Alissa M. Harrington]