By Mike Mooneyham

April 3, 2007

A bill approved Wednesday by a state Senate subcommittee just might open up the state of South Carolina to a flurry of pro wrestling activity.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and given the green light by the Senate Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry, would recognize pro wrestling as entertainment rather than pure sport. More importantly, the legislation would allow independent wrestling promotions in the state to move outside the purview of the S.C. State Athletic Commission, which regulates “combative” sports, including pro wrestling.

South Carolina has been one of very few states requiring this form of entertainment to be sanctioned by an athletic commission.

Average ticket prices for independent shows in the state range from $8 to $15. At these events, the average number of spectators is between 100 and 200, making it very hard for many promoters to break even.

The athletic commission currently requires promoters to pay $100 for a promoter’s license and an additional $100 for a permit (a new permit has to be purchased for every show promoted). Promoters also are required to give the commission five percent of the total gate for shows. All participants, including wrestlers, referees, announcers and timekeepers, must maintain a current yearly license.

Many promoters, who no longer wanted pro wrestling classified as a bona fide sport in order to avoid the taxes and regulations, hailed Wednesday’s action.

Tony Early, who has promoted wrestling shows in Columbia and other parts of the state for the past 12 years, said promoters could save several hundred dollars a show under the bill.

“That’s a lot of money when you’re an independent. You can use that extra money toward advertising to help build your promotion.”

South Carolina promotions have been among the hardest hit, having to compete with similar groups in surrounding states such as Georgia and North Carolina, where pro wrestling is not regulated by a state athletic commission and where independent mat companies face no such restrictions and taxes. The arrangement results in a number of promoters staying out of South Carolina to avoid the fees and restrictions, which include a ban on blood and fighting outside the ring, two staples of the industry.

Early, who attended the hearing, argued that professional wrestling was sports entertainment and no different than the circus coming into town.

“When 15 clowns pile out of the Volkswagen and start to stumble and bump, they know that is what they were supposed to do,” Early told the panel. “When the trapeze artist jumps from one rope to another, he knows what he’s doing. That’s just like when we throw each other into the ropes and come off for a clothesline or an elbow. When we get body slammed, we know we’re getting body slammed. We know what we’re doing.”

“Does the state regulate performances of a traveling Broadway show, the Harlem Globetrotters or Ringling Brothers? Pro wrestling is a performing art, not a sport,” said former Thomas Simpson. “The competition that deregulation will foster should yield a better quality product for fans, particularly on the indy scene. We are all winners this time.”

Ford said passage of the bill would allow the smaller groups in the state to make a go of it.

“I hope this will help the mom-and-pop operations. This hopefully will allow promoters in South Carolina to play on a more level playing field, since promotions in North Carolina and Georgia are not regulated like we are. I don’t think the Senate is in the business of hurting the mom-and-pop groups. You don’t find wrestling in South Carolina like you used to, and I’m sure the athletic commission is not making the revenue it used to off of wrestling.”

Jerry Bragg, who competes as Jay Eagle and promotes weekly Saturday night shows in Spartanburg, visited Ford at his Columbia office more than a year ago to push the measure. He fully supports the bill, but hopes the relaxed restrictions don’t open up the state to a slew of fly-by-night operations.

“I guess they do what they have to do to govern something that’s hard to govern to begin with,” said Bragg. “But it’s going to open up the territory for every Tom, Dick and Harry who can run a show. If they can get a ring and a building, then they’ll be in the wrestling business. It’ll open up my competition, but I still think it’s worth it. The people are going to go the shows where they feel comfortable.”

Ford said he expected full approval of the bill in the House.

“It’s not going to be opposed on the floor,” said Ford. “It should be in the House by early next month. Once it gets to the House there shouldn’t be any problem.”

The S.C. State Athletic Commission also backed the committee’s decision to discontinue the agency’s regulatory power.

According to commission spokesman Jim Knight, the decision to get out of the wrestling business was twofold.

“First, the time and cost associated with staff attending and licensing the event, and secondly, the fact that wrestling is not a sport like boxing, which they regulate, but is choreographed entertainment as outlined in the S.C. Code of Laws 40-81-20. Also, unlike boxing, there are no federal laws governing wrestling.”

Ford said he is looking forward to the day when fans can enjoy more shows in the state.

“Back in the day, I used to look forward to going to the wrestling matches, back when I was in high school and in my freshman and sophomore years in college,” he said. “People really had a good time at those events. And then I noticed over the last few years, we don’t have that anymore.”