Editor’s note: The following piece is via Mike Johnson of PWInsider.com.
World Wrestling Entertainment has officially acquired ownership of the Gabe Sapolsky-Sal Hamaoui EVOLVE promotion, PWInsider.com has confirmed. EVOLVE has long been the flagship promotion of Hamaoui’s company, World Wrestling Network (WWN). The deal was closed after several months of negotiations. While there were rumors making the rounds that EVOLVE had been sold to WWE, nothing had been finalized until just recently.
WWE broadcast EVOLVE’s 10th Anniversary event live on the WWE Network (the first and to date, only non-WWE promotion to stream on that platform) in July of last year. They will have the complete rights to use the EVOLVE brand name and produce EVOLVE events going forward, whether as live events or WWE Network programming. There is no word whether we’ll ever see an EVOLVE event again, but certainly there will be EVOLVE/WWN content added to the WWE Network in some form down the line.
EVOLVE was created as Dragon Gate USA off-shoot in January 2010 as a way to run without the DG talents coming in from Japan. While DGUSA was a satellite promotion for CIMA and other Japanese stars here in the States, EVOLVE was based on different fighting styles and win/loss records. That was a concept Sapolsky and WWE star Daniel Bryan had come up with leading into the first event under the EVOLVE banner in Rahway, NJ, but as it turned out, Bryan ended up signing with WWE and he was gone by the time the EVOLVE debuted.
EVOLVE ran 146 events over its lifetime, with its final event taking place on 3/1 in Melrose, MA, headlined by AR Fox defeating Josh Briggs. It is believed that nearly half the talents that were signed by WWN/EVOLVE over the life of the comoany ended up signing deals with World Wrestling Entertainment. The list of former contracted EVOLVE who used the promotion as their conduit into WWE is a literal who’s who: Tony Nese, Apollo Crews, Austin Theory, Brodie Lee, Jon Moxley, Drew Gulak, Keith Lee, Biff Busick (Oney Lordan), Johnny Gargano, Malcolm Bivens (Stokely Hathaway), Matt Riddle, Ricochet, Rich Swann, Kalisto, Shotzi Blackheart, Sami Callihan, Timothy Thatcher and TJ Perkins. Darby Allin was signed by All Elite Wrestling after his run with EVOLVE, but that was a different situation that saw Allin buy himself out of his EVOLVE contract in order to be free and clear to sign with AEW.
Beyond the aforementioned, the EVOLVE video library acquisition gives WWE fresh content featuring Daniel Bryan, Sabu, The Young Bucks, Mia Yim, AR Fox, Eddie Kingston, Bobby Fish, Kyle O’Reilly, Austin Aries, WALTER, Zack Sabre Jr., Cedric Alexander, Ethan Page, Trent Baretta and countless matches that have never been seen on the WWE Network and can be utilized for future documentaries and other original programming.
The demise of EVOLVE was brought about by the reality of a world dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down live entertainment events on all levels. In recent years, EVOLVE had slid into a role where it existed mostly to help groom WWE talents, brought about by the promotion’s track record at developing future WWE talents. Eventually, the working relationship grew into a signed, contractual agreement between the two sides. That agreement included a clause that would allow WWE to purchase the promotion if it so desired. WWE similar agreements with other promotions in Europe.
Over the last several years, EVOLVE’s business plan had been centered around running a weekend of events in major markets, utilizing NXT talents provided by WWE in order to give those talents additional seasoning and exposure as part of EVOLVE’s contracted relationship with WWE. The shows were streamed online as iPPVs, but a major portion of live revenue from the events in recent years were coming from meet and greet sessions featuring WWE talents signing and taking photos with fans before and after the shows.
The reality was that EVOLVE, even with the WWE relationship and plugs for their events on WWE’s website, was rarely drawing at the level that it truly needed to be in the black and likely would have shut down several years ago had WWE not gotten more involved.
Like every other independent promotion, EVOLVE was chasing a Holy Grail, seeking the next big thing that would finally make it solvent and successful. Until that was found, they, like every promotion, were fighting for the next dollar to keep them moving.
At first it was DVD sales, until that dried up thanks to shifts in technology. Then it was live streaming, which also allowed for almost immediate piracy and while no one ever wants to admit this, streaming in many cases also cannibalizes live ticket sales, which when you are drawing a few hundred to begin with, is a significant number.
The Holy Grail then morphed into what every content provider seeks today, a streaming or broadcast outlet willing to pay to license their content. It appeared EVOLVE had indeed discovered that source of income when Flosports launched their pro wrestling platform. They immediately signed WWN as their first brand for that project and threw a ton of money at the promotion. The money was ridiculously great for WWN, but ended within a year when Flo, unable to land New Japan and ROH (who they expected to be the other cornerstones of their platform) instead came to the realization that they had locked themselves into paying out far more than they were bringing in via subscriptions. Flosports broke with EVOLVE before shutting down their pro wrestling platform.
It was a bad break, right down to Flo making all the WWN content free to stream. Lawsuits were filed and blame was placed back and forth when the reality was Flo had made a deal that was ridiculously beneficial for WWN but not for themselves, so they tried to get out of it. In the end, there was a confidential settlement that came out of the lawsuit, but even then, a large amount of money had been spent by WWN, somewhere in the six figure range and at the end of all that fighting, EVOLVE and WWN weren’t exactly left with a huge financial warchest.
In the wake of the Flosports lawsuit being settled, WWE and EVOLVE built a relationship championed by Paul “Triple H” Levesque and Gabe Sapolsky. There had been discussions going back years about working together (even before Flosports came into the picture) but in the world of WWE, things move at a slow, glacial pace until suddenly they are at breakneck speed and suddenly there is a massive rush to get things done. The initial working relationship started, a handshake deal that eventually morphed into an official, contracted relationship that saw WWE send talent and assist EVOLVE in many other ways. In return, EVOLVE prepared current and future NXT talents for their future and at times, sent WWN talent to WWE TV tapings and even had EVOLVE matches featured on Wrestlemania AXXESS events.
Had it not been for the WWE relationship, EVOLVE likely would have ceased to exist in 2016 coming out of the Flosports debacle. WWE tossed the company a lifeline when they were certain to drown. While WWE helped support the bottom line of the promotion, the reality is that like Ring of Honor before Sinclair purchased ROH, EVOLVE was now stuck in a position where it ran in circles, creating content for a slowly dwindling group of fans with a small staff that was killing itself to travel, produce, promote their events before moving on to the next event, next week or next month. That was fine when there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and traditionally that light was Wrestlemania week, where a big payday for the promotion was all but guaranteed to be the cash cow that would empower EVOLVE going forward for the next year.
Wrestlemania weekend, for WWN, always meant their most attended events of their year as well as their highest grossing events. This year was going to be even more important as there were plans locked in but not announced for the WWE Network to air 5-7 WWNLive events on the WWE Network as part of WWE’s slate of Wrestlemania weekend programming. It would have certainly been the most profitable and most high profile weekend in EVOLVE history.
Except, Wrestlemania week never happened.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, WWE made the decision to pull up stakes from Tampa and hold Wrestlemania 36 on a closed set from their Performance Center. That meant Wrestlemania week and all the money that usually flowed to independent promotions and companies, including WWN/EVOLVE, had now disappeared.
The pandemic made it impossible to run Wrestlemania week and once March 2020 came, instead of gearing up for the biggest week of the promotion’s existence, everything shut down and it wasn’t wasn’t safe to run, period, as public gatherings weren’t allowed. Every single promotion, many now accustomed to running Wrestlemania week in order to refuel financially for the next year, instead now found themselves in a scenario worse than they could have ever envisioned/ They had no shows, no money coming in, nothing to provide a foundation for the future and even worse, were now left holding the bag after untold thousands of dollars in expenditures on promotion, venue rents (that for many, if not all of these promotions, have still yet to be refunded as of this writing in July, months later), tickets, lighting, etc. For the fly by night, cash in hand style business that most independent promotions are, it was and remains a near-impossible task to navigate an escape from.
EVOLVE was not immune and was hit even harder. As the pandemic raged on, the reality set in that there was no way to move forward with the promotion’s business plan of running 1-2 major events a month to generate revenue, much less provide WWE with a destination for their NXT talents to continue being prepared for the future. Financially, EVOLVE was trapped having to refund ticket sales for their biggest weekend of the year while also stuck with expenditures they could never, ever recoup….and with contracted talents they were obligated to pay going forward.
In just a few months’ time, EVOLVE went from being prepared for its most high-profile events of the year to standing in a massive financial hole with no way out. They had literally built a foundation for a house that could no longer be built. Even worse, they were trapped waist-deep in the cement they had laid for that foundation. Much like Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s, the world had turned sideways financially and like Crockett Promotions before them, there was no way for EVOLVE to survive.
This led to discussions with WWE that resulted in WWE acquiring the promotion and the EVOLVE tape library. We are told there was at least one other party interested in buying EVOLVE outright but they could not do so because EVOLVE’s contractual agreement with WWE gave WWE the rights to execute their purchase clause or provide EVOLVE with WWE’s blessing to sell elsewhere. After going back and forth, WWE chose to make the purchase.
When WWE and EVOLVE officially signed a deal together, EVOLVE created a new LLC, which is the company WWE has acquired. They are not acquiring WWNLive, which will live on. The sale of EVOLVE does, however, mean the end (at least for now) of the professional relationship between Sal Hamaoui and Gabe Sapolsky, which we are told is an amicable parting.
This sale also quietly officially marks the end of Sapolsky working in independent wrestling, something that dates back to the early 1990s with the original ECW as the publisher of their official program and running the Sabu Fan Club before going on to book Ring of Honor, FIP, Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE. Sapolsky ended up booking his last independent show without even knowing it.
WWN is not getting out of the pro wrestling business, however. Going forward, Hamaoui will be focusing on the remaining promotions under the WWN banner, streaming several weekly live events at http://www.ClubWWN.com from Florida as soon as legally allowed, including Full Impact Pro, SHINE and ACW. There are also plans to do live, interactive interviews with talents and new brands that will fall under the WWNLive banner. Sapolsky will not be involved in those promotions, PWInsider.com has been told. The door also remains theoretically open for WWE to work with Hamaoui and WWN down the line, obviously, as well, if the two sides wish to do something.
We are told that Hamaoui’s priority following the sale of EVOLVE is for WWN to immediately make good on any remaining fans who still have yet to receive refunds on Wrestlemania weekend (something that has weighed heavily upon all involved) and to make sure that all business relationships the promotion has built over the last decade are taken care of ASAP. The sale of EVOLVE is not a case of taking the money and running as much as using the money to extricate themselves out of the vortex the pandemic trapped the company trapped in.
The belief among those we have spoken to is that several contracted EVOLVE talents will be signed and enter the WWE NXT system as well. How many signings there will be has not been confirmed, but the expectation is that it will be at least four talents, possibly more. PWInsider.com has not confirmed any talents have signed as of this writing and we have been given no indication that the existing EVOLVE/WWN talent contracts are part of the sale.
The sale is believed to give WWE the entire EVOLVE and Dragon Gate USA video library. It is also believed some other content would have been sold to WWE as well, including the earliest era of Full Impact Pro, but how much of other material has not yet been confirmed as of this writing. We are told that material will be removed from WWNLive.com in about a month, so any material that disappears would likely have been sold to WWE. So, if you are a WWNLive subscriber, you have a chance to watch the material one last time before it goes into the WWE vault.
The legacy of EVOLVE will be that it was the bridge that saw many find their way in professional wrestling as talents, the nexus that provided the experience needed to be ready for larger-scale, higher paying runs elsewhere. There were 100 talents signed to EVOLVE/WWN deals over the last decade and just about half of them ended up being signed by WWE. That’s a pretty good average. Without EVOLVE, some but certainly not all would have had that chance.
Matt Riddle, who just moved over to the Smackdown brand a few weeks ago, may never have landed with WWE had it not been for EVOLVE. In 2015, Gabe Sapolsky was tasked by Paul Levesque to help Riddle continue to develop as a performer as there was interest after Riddle had a tryout but the timing just wasn’t there yet for numerous reasons to sign Riddle. In EVOLVE, Riddle continued to develop before everyone’s eyes with WWE keeping tabs on him. It finally got to a point where New Japan Pro Wrestling showed interest and offered Riddle a nice deal. EVOLVE, having Riddle under contract, contacted WWE to give them the heads up. Riddle was quickly signed and locked into a WWE deal, heading off to NXT until finishing up in the recent NXT Fight Pit bout against Timothy Thatcher. Had it not been for EVOLVE, would Riddle, at least his incarnation of Riddle, even be on Smackdown?
One can also make a hell of an argument that the current WWE Champion Drew “McIntyre” Galloway greatly utilized his EVOLVE run to help rehabilitate and energize his career after his June 2014 WWE release. The promotion was McIntyre’s first destination after that release, immediately defeating Chris Hero for the EVOLVE title in his debut. At that point, McIntyre took the belt and defended it all around the world, his take-off of the old traveling NWA World Champion, starting to build the foundation that led McIntyre back to WWE and a far greater role. While he worked for lots of other promotions, EVOLVE was the nucleus of the run that helped him get back to catching the attention of WWE officials. Without EVOLVE as the center of Galloway’s efforts, would Drew McIntyre be the WWE Champion right now?
The sad reality is this. EVOLVE’s accomplishments remain something to be proud of, even in the face of the final chapter (at least for now) being written in the experiment that was EVOLVE, but none of them were enough – not even with the WWE connection – to make and keep EVOLVE financially solvent.
That of course, begs the following question to be asked: if EVOLVE, an independent promotion that had all the connections and support of WWE wasn’t able to safely find their way out of the post-pandemic world, what does that mean for the future of other independent promotions also still trying to bail themselves out of their own catastrophes that came out of the canceled Wrestlemania 36 week in Tampa?
How can promotions on a miniscule budget attempt to strategize moving forward in a world that has completely changed over the last several months?
If EVOLVE couldn’t evolve, how does anyone…and does that mean they are just the first to fall in the wake of the disastrous turn of events everyone in pro wrestling has dealt with over the last several months…especially as COVID-19 numbers are once again spiking across the United States?
EVOLVE: 2010 – 2020.