Creating the future: Inside Triple H’s vision for WWE talent development
Forty-eight hours before entering Florida’s Orlando Citrus Bowl to battle Seth Rollins in a Non-Sanctioned Match at WrestleMania, Triple H put on a different hat entirely as the WWE Performance Center hosted media outlets from around the globe Friday.
Speaking to WWE.com, The Game shifted into “The Creator” — Paul Levesque, WWE Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative — to assess the Performance Center’s massive growth since its opening in July 2013, address WWE’s working relationships with outside wrestling organizations and its effect on talent development, and explain why diversity is key to ensuring the future of sports-entertainment.
WWE.COM: When you embark on a project the scale of the WWE Performance Center, you set your benchmarks and goals and five-year plans. As the Performance Center nears its four-year anniversary, how has the experience compared to your expectations for it at the outset?
TRIPLE H: It has by far surpassed them. The difficult part about doing something like the Performance Center and the changes we made recruiting is that you’re breaking into uncharted waters and not knowing what exactly to expect. As we opened up the Performance Center, I knew it would be big, but it’s funny. Vince [McMahon] said to me at the time that he believed it was the biggest thing we did since the company went public. It stuck with me when he said that, because I hadn’t realized the magnitude of it. It made me start seeing it differently.
I envisioned us being where we’re at, but I think I envisioned it after the five- or six-year mark. Two years into this, I feel like we had completely transformed what we were prior in terms of recruiting and training, and at the four-year mark we have outgrown the entire system. It’s beyond what I expected.
WWE.COM: The Performance Center is more diverse than ever. You see a huge variety of athletic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds and body types. Why is diversity such a crucial ingredient in maintaining a healthy developmental system, and how has that driven recruiting efforts?
TRIPLE H: First of all, the diversity and the mix of what’s here in the PC is very deliberate. We look for gaps in our diversity, for places we need to improve it. I want to have the right mix. WWE wants there to be the talent that resonates with the kid in China or the kid in India, and to me, I break it down very simply: There’s a desire from the standpoint of those fans, but to me, talent is talent. I don’t care where they come from in the world. It’s one big planet and it’s one big, giant group of people who are potential talent to us, so why would I limit it some area of the world? I want to find the best talent there is –the best athletes, the most professional, that have massive amounts of charisma – and I want to teach them how to become global stars.
Once you recruit [talent] from everywhere, it just increases your viewership everywhere. It makes us more and more of a global brand, which we are, but when you take into consideration now not only television, but digital, social media, WWE Network … the world is becoming a much smaller place. The entire world this Sunday will watch WrestleMania live. There are very few pockets in the world where you can’t watch WrestleMania live. We live in an amazing time.
WWE.COM: Before the Performance Center, NXT was purely a developmental system. Now it’s a touring brand with a passionate fan base. How does the Performance Center allow you to strike that balance between nurturing young talent and presenting a polished TV product?
TRIPLE H: That’s what’s difficult – when it comes to NXT and the platform on which you’re exposing them to the world in a larger way, [it’s] finding the mix between what you can build and what you can move up, but what works at this time. I want NXT to be the best product it can be. I want it to sell out arenas, to do well on WWE Network, to be everything it can be. But, at the same time, I want each individual talent to be all that they can be and get to WrestleMania. I want them to be on Raw and SmackDown LIVE, and to have the most successful career they can.
Not that NXT isn’t a success. Even if you wanted to look at it and say it’s not on the level of Raw and SmackDown, it is, by far, the next biggest thing in the entire industry. It is a goal. There’s a lot of talent out there saying, “I just want to get to NXT and nothing more.” But the goal is to do both, and that’s a fine line, constantly having something in the pipeline. I know, for the most part, when I have talent in NXT, some might be there for a long time, but some of them are hopefully going to set NXT on fire with what they do and then move on to something else. As the brand evolves, I think you’ll see guys come back into NXT as well, to refresh themselves.
WWE.COM: To that point, WWE has working relationships with organizations, such as EVOLVE Wrestling, and we’re seeing PROGRESS and Insane Championship Wrestling talent at Axxess this weekend, for the first time ever. You’ve spoken in the past about the concept of opening Performance Centers around the world, in different markets. Are we moving toward an ecosystem that maybe resembles the territories, but under the umbrella of WWE?
TRIPLE H: I think so. It’s hard to say territories, because it’s different no matter how you look at it. I think now you’ll always have the one global brand. When I look at the U.K., we did the [United Kingdom Championship Tournament] because there’s a substantial talent base in the U.K. that we knew of. We were hoping to bring guys into the system, but there’s only so much bandwidth to bring them in. To work with PROGRESS and ICW in the U.K., to create our own localized content within the U.K. and have that pathway lead to NXT and the main roster, is something that never existed before. You can go and ask a guy like Finn Bálor from Ireland. He never thought WWE was a play for him, ever. Even when he was in Japan as a big star there, when we first had the conversation with him, he thought it was a pipe dream and that it was never going to happen. He didn’t know if it was the right fit for him, and he thought that he might get gobbled up.
I want to change that. If you’re in the U.K. and you’re a great performer, why is the pathway not there as it should be every place else? I want to create that pathway. The deeper the talent pool, the better it is for everybody. By going and looking at these guys at PROGRESS and ICW and then giving them something to shoot for, and then something bigger — which is hopefully going to be this U.K. show — that gives them a clear path. If you’re an 18-year-old kid — I shouldn’t say that, because Tyler Bate is 19 and already the U.K. Champion — but if you’re the kid who wants to be a WWE Superstar, what do you do? You get trained. Well, we’ll work on that. You start at a PROGRESS or an ICW, start to hone your career and succeed in those places that put eyeballs on us and bring you into the U.K. show. And that U.K. show allows you to be seen on a much more global basis, to get to NXT, to get to WrestleMania.
Fans that are local to those areas that have an affinity for those talent, they see the guy from down the road who came from nothing, and they watch him grow from working in front of 20 people to suddenly making it to TV and WWE Network, and become something more. There’s an investment in that talent that you can’t put a value on. That’s where a lot of the success in those individual markets comes. But what if you start to replicate that in different places around the world?
You look at China and say Yao Ming lit the NBA up for them. I have 10 Chinese talent right now that we’re trying to cultivate to be a Yao Ming for us. That makes people in that country go, “Wow, one of us is there, let’s see what he can do.” Tian Bing is going to compete this Sunday in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, so for China that’s a massive step. I can tell you that the talent we have from there are phenomenal. It’s just time. All of this stuff takes time, and it’s a cultivation, a grassroots way of making people see the product, enjoy the product, get invested in their localized talent, and then going to that global level.
WWE.COM: When new recruits enter the Performance Center, whether they’re someone with wrestling experience or a high-level beginner, they have access to unlimited resources. How has the advent of the Performance Center affected the timelines of new signees, as well as the quality of performers once they graduate from the system?
TRIPLE H: For timeline, it just really depends on the person. Sometimes you get a person who’s in the business for 12 years and then they come here, where we’re trying to teach them how to make television, and there’s a large learning curve with that. Maybe they have bad habits from 10 years of learning in an environment. The indies are great, because they give talent the experience, but you don’t have anyone coaching you, teaching you. At a certain point in time, you get to be the best guy in the indies, and then you’re just the best guy in the indies and you’re not learning anymore.
I want to work with promotions that cultivate talent, not use talent.
When I say I want to work with these other promotions, I want to work with the ones that cultivate talent, not use talent. To me, some promotions just book a show, you come in, you do the show, they pay you if you’re lucky and then you leave. I want to work with the guys who are cultivating talent, that are bringing them in there, helping them work with promos, helping them work on matches, their style, their characters. Right or wrong, they’re helping them develop and become something more. Those are places I want to work with because I can help them teach these talent in a better way. It’s all just spreading it out and making it a bigger environment for everyone to grow in.
When you look at talent like Braun Strowman, who just a few years ago was competing in strongman events and loved the business, but had never stepped through the ropes before. What he’s doing right now is night and day. I think it helps immensely. All you can do is give people the tools. When we designed the PC, I went back in my career and, knowing what I know right now about all aspects of the business, I thought, ”If I was 20 years old today and trying to break in, what would I give myself to succeed?”
WWE.COM: That was the guiding force of the design.
TRIPLE H: Yeah, and then we built it. And now three, four years later, we look at it and say, “I wish I would have done this or that differently, because this didn’t work the way I wanted it to.” As we grow and learn what talent need in today’s environment, we’ll constantly change that. We learn about it every day.
But all the tools are there. Knowing and using it are two different things. You can be educated, but it doesn’t mean you have the intelligence to use it, right? We’ll give them all the tools. What they choose to do with it is on them. If they use the tools wisely, they will progress much faster than anybody has in the history of this business and they’ll succeed. If they don’t, they won’t be here long. It all comes down to that. But the one thing that has made a huge difference is that when they do make that move, whether it’s to NXT or Raw or SmackDown, they’re ready. They understand television production. They understand what we’re talking about, because the Performance Center is just a smaller version of exactly what those bigger environments are.
WrestleMania is going to be in front of 75,000 people, but everything is the same as what you’ll see at Full Sail [University]; it’s just a much smaller environment. It’s 1,000 people as opposed to 75,000, but the cameras are in the same position — maybe not as many of them, but they’re in the same position. The cues are the same, the entrances are the same, everything is the same. You’re just learning and putting talent in an environment with more people. But they have the tools.