Welcome to Dixieland: A look at pro wrestling's female boss
The boos get louder each time Dixie Carter steps out onto the stage, but in pro wrestling, that's never a bad thing. After a decade of running Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), the No. 2 pro wrestling company in the world, Carter has learned that any reaction is a good reaction.
Carter also knows that the same fans jeering her will be the first ones to race up to her for her autograph when the moment presents itself. You're either with Team Dixie or you aren't, darlin'. Such is the world of pro wrestling, a communal experience where good and bad is presented in clear fashion and the fun of it all is getting to react accordingly in unison.
Pro wrestling isn't real in terms of other sporting events, as its outcomes are predetermined. But the business of pro wrestling is as real as the business of the NFL, NBA or MLB. There can be big money involved -- it's said that World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), far and away the juggernaut of the industry, has a billion dollar profit cap between its multiple television shows, pay-per-view events, merchandise sales and other revenue streams.
TNA has its eye on a piece of that lucrative pie, though it has some obstacles to contend with to get there. It already has wrestled a few and is preparing for more to come. And at TNA's helm, might be the unlikeliest of leaders: a beautifully dynamic, 49-year-old Southern belle named Dixie Carter.
There is a general perception in pro wrestling circles that Dixie Carter's father bought TNA Wrestling for her the way a doting daddy of means would buy his little princess a pony.
There are some half-truths in that cliché: Carter's parents, at her behest, became the majority owners of TNA Wrestling only a few months after it launched, after a major investor withdrew from the infant company. Dixie wouldn't become the company's president until two years later.
Another misconception is that Dixie grew up wealthy, though her parents, Bob and Janice, didn't come into money until later in life. Her parents and younger brother Todd started in a small, modest house in their native Dallas.
"We had money to eat and a roof over our heads and a loving family, so I felt blessed," Dixie recalls.
Bob was an inspiring entrepreneur who jumped from one opportunity to another in search of the big one that would bring him his fortune. Inevitably, there were ups and downs.
"I remember he'd be in the firewood business one year and it would be the warmest winter in Texas," said Dixie. "Then he was in the mesquite business and there was some kind of cattle sickness outbreak that year."
There was the time when the family car got repossessed and a younger Dixie waved fondly to it from the living room window as it was dragged away.
"I remember him pulling me out of school at [age] 13 when he was going to be in the Army surplus business, driving to Kansas with him to pick up the supplies, and him having me drive home while he sat in the backseat with his calculator, figuring out how much money we were going to make," said Carter. "This is what we did and we were going to make it."
It was always on to to the next thing. When something failed, Bob, an orphan who'd never forgotten the pangs of poverty from his own childhood, wasn't afraid to try something new.
"I didn't know anything different.," said Dixie. "We grew up in a small house, watching him fail and fail again, but he never had a bad attitude about it. It was always moving right on to the next thing. He wasn't going to stop until he had tremendous success, and that's exactly what he did."
In the early 1980s, Bob found his way into the booming energy and power businesses. Panda Energy International was formed in 1982 as a provider of environmentally friendly power plants.
"He didn't know how to do those things, but he had a great mind and was a great visionary.," she said. "He knew how to bring in great people around him."
Janice worked underneath her husband in administrative and financial capacities, while Todd would later join as a division president of what would become a multi-million dollar company.
Dixie chose a different path. Her maternal grandfather sent Dixie to Dallas' Hockaday School, a prestigious private boarding facility for high school girls. Dixie was popular, sang in the choir and tried her hand at a little drama. She didn't play sports because she had asthma and what she describes as a lack of athletic aptitude. "I played soccer once and scored for the other team," she said.
However, she loved to watch sports of all kinds. When she attended the University of Mississippi, she was a passionate supporter of Ole Miss football, and has remained a Rebels fan to this day, skipping her own TNA events for games here and there.
Like her parents, Dixie worked as soon as she was old enough to (even earlier). At 14, she lied about her age to get a job at a gift store and has held a job ever since. Out of college, she was hired by Levenson and Hill, the largest independent marketing and advertising firm in Dallas at the time. The company had a film department catering to Paramount, Warner Brothers and TriStar, among others.
"My first day on the job was with Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason with a film called Nothing in Common," said Carter. "At 26, I became the youngest vice president there by 15 years."
One of Dixie's first assignments took her to the Alamo, where client IMAX was shooting its first docudrama. Dixie met Serg Salinas, a singing cowboy who worked on the ranch that held shows three times a day to commemorate the venue's history. She was 20; he 19. They dated off and on and were married a few years later.
Working with Levenson and Hill took Dixie through Nashville often, and she was drawn to the city's magnetic Southern charm. When she decided to branch off and start her own company, she and Serg moved there. Dixie's PR company worked with professional athletes, including NFL players such as Kevin Carter, Kyle Vanden Bosch, but it mostly focused on the town's rich music clientele. Tanya Tucker, the twangy eight-time Grammy-nominated country singer, was one of Dixie's clients.
"At the time, she was one of the hottest female acts. I was doing the Super Bowl halftime show within a year," said Carter, referring to Tucker's performance at Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta in 1994. "It was unbelievable. At five years old, I could name every Dallas Cowboy, their number and position. People still come to me trying to stump me on it."
When TNA was recommended to her as a client, her father encouraged her to take on the fledgling wrestling company. "Wrestling is big business," Bob told his daughter. A few months later, with the company floundering and weeks away from shuttering its doors, Dixie would use her father's own words to get him to invest in TNA.
"I remember calling my dad," she said. "They'd never invested in anything that was non-strategic, much less this non-strategic, but I definitely had inherited my dad's sale skills. I knew there was a reason there's a Lowes across the street from every Home Depot or a McDonalds and a Burger King or an Avis and a Hertz. I saw how passionate this fanbase was. You had this one monster with over a billion-dollar cap and worldwide appeal with tons of potential revenue streams. Even if you just pick up 10 percent, you become a 100 million dollar company. From a business perspective, I just saw the potential."
The Carter family put together a strategic plan and pitched it to TNA's original owners, father and son wrestlers Jerry and Jeff Jarrett. (Reports say the Carters paid $250,000 for majority ownership of TNA, and though she won't confirm actual numbers, Dixie hints the deal was much higher, into the seven-figure range.) It would become an unlikely union in pro wrestling, but it's what most certainly saved the company from bankruptcy.
Carter continued working behind the scenes with TNA, handling its marketing and promotion and gradually became involved with other aspects of the business. TNA had launched with a framework of weekly $9.95 pay-per-views, but with no free television show to introduce the product and drive consumers to the pay-per-views, the model crumbled quickly. When the company got the opportunity to pitch a TV show to the Fox Sports Network, TNA sent in its two best salesmen, Jeff Jarrett and Dixie.
The only woman standing in a room full of men, Carter popped in a tape and posed one thought to those in the boardroom as they watched wrestlers flipping and diving off the top ropes in dizzying fashion onto the canvas, the concrete and each other.
"If you don't think that's sports and fits in with your network, then we'll thank you for your time and walk away," said Carter.
Carter and TNA were offered a 5 p.m. slot on Fridays across all of FSN's geographical platforms -- a horrible time for any product trying to find an audience, but it was a small foot in the door. TNA paid handsomely for the slot (more common than you'd think with niche sports properties trying to break into television), but couldn't sell the commercial inventory it had to recoup some revenue.
At the Carter home, TNA became a contentious topic at the dinner table. Dixie would often get up and storm away to avoid the onslaught.
"My parents were frustrated because they had a certain investment that we sold them," she recalls. "They spent a lot more money in the first couple of years than they intended to. Things were not going the way that they wanted and I knew that they weren't."
Two years into the company's tenure, it was decided that a shake-up would be needed at the top, which led to a rift with minority owners, Jerry and Jeff Jarrett. "We had some different philosophies on things," said Carter. She said Jerry exited, selling his portion of the company to the Carters, and Jeff remained on in a more executive role. Dixie was appointed President of TNA.
The wrestlers who Dixie had come to adore and admire for their strong work ethic and love of their craft started calling her boss.
Reese Carter sits backstage in a San Diego side room, attentively watching two of TNA's female stars, Brooke and Gail Kim, getting their makeup applied. A precocious 8-year-old with saucer eyes, Dixie's daughter is less concerned with the small talk about her schooling in Nashville. She wants to talk character development and how the matches will play out that night at Bound for Glory, TNA's biggest pay-per-view event of the year.
When asked if she'd like to become a TNA pro wrestler someday, Reese easily shakes her head 'no.'
"I want to run TNA," she says without hesitation. Brooke gives the ambitious young lady a high-five, while Gail nods with a "Right on."
"I think she's really proud and she gets that it's a business," said Dixie of her replacement-in-the-making. "She'll watch the show and take some notes and she's actually come up with some good ideas. It's fun to share that with her. I think recently they've come to realize that this is something different, something special that we don't take for granted."
TNA wrestling is truly a family affair. When Reese and her seven-year-old brother Tanner aren't in school, they get to accompany their parents to TNA events, but in this case, mommy's the ringmaster. Reese doesn't remember it, but she sat in on some of the biggest meetings that shaped TNA's future. Nine months pregnant, Dixie was still taking meetings with networks, trying to land the promotion a TV deal that would generate revenue and introduce them to a larger audience.
Lying at home after the birth of her daughter -- one of Dixie's few reprieves from countless pitch meetings -- she remembers the desperateness she and the company were feeling.
"We were really faced with: we have to get a TV deal or this isn't going to work," said Dixie. "Panda needs to see something happen, but I kept telling them we would make it somehow."
Persistence, timing and luck are often the ingredients that come together to make big opportunities happen. And so it happens, the WWE completed its broadcast deal with Spike TV in 2005 and moved to another cable network.
According to Carter, Spike -- the male-centric cable network that helped launch the mixed martial arts craze in America with The Ultimate Fighter -- wasn't interested in staying in the pro wrestling game. But like her father, Dixie couldn't take no for an answer.
"Dixie's a big reason why we made the deal with TNA, and her business acumen and tenacity makes her an exceptional leader. We were immediately impressed by Dixie and her team," wrote Spike TV President Kevin Kay via email. "Their roster featured some of the best athletes in the wrestling business and here we had a woman in charge of a testosterone-charged staff full of men. To see her take charge -- whether it's in a production meeting or a client dinner -- is incredibly impressive.
TNA Impact shows began airing in October 2005 -- the true game changer for the company. It quickly found a loyal audience between one and two million viewers a week. (TNA ratings have become so steady and reliable on Spike over its eight years, that executives like to joke that they can set their watches to them.)
"Once we got on Spike, we changed a lot of things and our revenues grew," Carter said. "We've been cash flow positive for the last four or five years. After that point, Panda stopped putting money in the company. We've funded it with every dollar we've made and maybe that's kept us from growing quite as fast."
Getting onto a visible cable platform allowed Dixie and TNA to lure away some of their competitor's bigger stars. Jeff Hardy, a wildly popular WWE wrestler in the late 90s and early 2000s with his brother Matt, under the moniker "The Hardy Boyz," joined TNA in 2004. Two-time Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kurt Angle joined the company in 2006. Steve Borden, a.k.a. Sting, signed with TNA in 2003 and is widely considered the most popular pro wrestler ever to never work for the WWE.
But the most high profile signing came in 2009 with Hulk Hogan, a household name among even the staunchest non-wrestling followers. Hogan was billed as a partner to Carter, who also took on a larger role in front of the camera after years of lurking mostly behind it.
"I'd said in interviews forever that I was a behind-the-scenes person and I meant it sincerely," recalls Carter, " but [creative] would keep coming up and saying, 'Oh, it would be great if you, in your position, for the reality of it, could do blank, and I'd always find that one person that made more sense to have do it. It was one of those things I said no to for so long."
Dixie, a natural on-camera with her inviting Southern charm, finally stopped fighting the requests, thinking it would be the best move for the company.
"I found it to be easy," she said. "It's not a character for me, so it might be more boring for fans."
As the owner behind the scenes, it has been a learning process for Dixie. One of the continuous hurdles she's had to overcome is the perception that one has to grow up in the wrestling business to be good at it. It's believed that Dixie is the first and only female pro wrestling owner to not have any familial ties to wrestlers.
"It's ridiculous, because there were a lot of men who are involved in this from the very beginning that said, 'You just don't understand this because you don't understand wrestling,'" said Carter, who counts the Von Erich family as one of her favorite wrestling dynasties to watch growing up in Dallas.
When Dixie's reminded of her pro wrestling naiveté (and she's reminded often by fans and rival colleagues), she thinks of her father, a former mesquite chip-Army surplus salesman who dove into the power industry with hardly a clue but enough insight to surround himself with those that did.
"That's all any business is," said Dixie. "You don't have to know wrestling. You'll know wrestling eventually, but business is about making good decisions, putting good people around you and managing them."
As a manager of the TNA clan, Carter, so it seems, is somewhat of a motherly figure to some of her wrestlers.
"TNA's her baby," said the 36-year-old Hardy, the tortured artist of the group who paints his face before matches like Picasso would have done with one of his prized canvas. Hardy was a big star in the WWE and his past struggles with drug abuse are well-documented. Hardy's erratic behavior is what led him to TNA, and it was Dixie who gave him a second (and third) chance to clean himself up and resume his career. In San Diego before the event, Hardy wheels his three-year-old daughter's stroller into the arena to a chorus of welcomes.
"In the WWE, you're on the road every night and it's a busy, hard life," said Hardy. "Here it's a lot more laid back because I have a three-year-old daughter and family time is more important to me. That's probably the biggest thing with Dixie. She's always flexible."
What Hardy also likes about Dixie is the support she gives him in his other artistic endeavors. Besides selling his artwork on T-shirts, the singing Hardy is allowed to create his own entrance music and TNA promoted the release of his first album earlier this month.
But what might excite the enigmatic, brooding Hardy -- whose nimble, high-flying wrestling moves are yet another form of expression through his eyes -- the most is the feeling of belonging he shares in creating something new and alternative.
"What I like most is the opportunity to get as big as we can and it might take ten or fifteen years. That's most exciting to me is how good can we get? In WWE, I've been on top. I've done it all. I'm not in reverse, but it's just cool to be a part of something that's going to grow."
Allowing the wrestlers the ability to provide input into the development of their characters, is another factor that drew former women's champion Jesie Kresa, who goes by the name "One Dirty B---ch" or "ODB" for short, to TNA. A 13-year wrestling veteran, Kresa got her chops training with greats like Mr. Perfect and Rick Rude in garage gyms. She joined TNA in 2007, when Dixie launched the popular women's division of the promotion called "Knockouts."
A former college hockey player, Kresa is not your typical, cookie-cutter, Barbie-shaped female wrestler. She has curves and muscles, and stomps to the ring swigging from a flask, cursing all the way.
"I appreciate that TNA thinks outside the box with its women wrestlers and allows us to fashion our own looks and personalities," said Kresa, who'll go on to lose her title to Kim that night during the pay-per-view.
While it's obvious that some of the talent enjoys a profoundly personal relationship with Carter, Joel Seanoa, better known as "Samoa Joe" to his fans, prefers to keep the business of wrestling as unemotionally involved as he can. "It's the wrestling biz," he says, "not wrestling buddies."
Joe, a much more nuanced and versatile wrestler than his hulking 6-foot-2, 300-pound body would suggest, has a very pragmatic view of pro wrestling and Dixie's performance, thus far, in it. When asked if she might be too nice for what has been categorized as a cutthroat industry, he thoughtfully pauses before responding.
"In some aspects, yeah, I think she might be," he answers. "In other aspects, I think it's refreshing. I don't think she's too nice in that she's not aggressive and won't do the things that need to be done. She sticks by people, maybe to a fault sometimes. I'll give her that. What some people say is a character weakness, others will say it's a strength. It just depends on how you perceive her."
Perception is a word that pops up often in pro wrestling. At its essence, pro wrestling is about bending one's perception of something and blurring the lines between what's real and what's not to the point that the audience accepts it as truth. Perception can also weigh heavy on a company struggling to break out of being the No. 2 in a market when the No. 1 is a two-ton elephant ready to squash anyone that gets in its path. Dixie Carter knows plenty about this.
Dixie Carter sits halfway up the San Diego Sports Arena among a sea of empty seats, a black shawl draped dramatically over her right shoulder to keep the venue's chill away. Wrestlers warm up their bodies in the ring below, bouncing against the ropes and taking physics measurements in their minds. Dixie is relaxed, smiling, reminiscing over what has been an eventful, sometimes trying year. In an hour, the doors will open, and around 3,000 fans will shuffle in to experience this interactive, ritualistic display of heroes and villians together.
There were a few reasons Dixie, formerly viewed as the sweet, maternal TNA owner, turned heel a few weeks earlier. She and TNA's creative team thought it would be best to let a little more of the company's reality bleed into the show.
In truth, Dixie has taken a lot of heat this year for business decisions made, she said, to clean up the company and get it ready for its next chapter.
At the top of that list for disgruntled TNA viewers was the decision to "turn" or let go of about ⅓ of TNA's talent roster over the last year.
"Some people were let go," said Carter, with pain in her voice. "They didn't resonate. They didn't move the needle or the contract they wanted wasn't something that was good for this company. Sorry, but this company has to be in business 10, 20 years from now. I have to run a company and grow it. I'm to the point right now where things have to be a certain way for us."
Carter understands that not everyone can be made happy, though the rise of social media has made it easier for the minorities to make more noise.
In recent weeks, Carter's purging of talent led to the rumor that her family was looking to sell the company. Dixie's mother, Janice, who recently became TNA's Chairwoman of the Board and works closely with her daughter, circulated an internal memo on Oct. 31 stating the family was anything but interested in dumping its 12-year investment.
"This type of reporting is totally unsubstantiated. The truth is this is not the first time [it's been reported]." said Dixie. "This is about the tenth, eleventh or twelfth time over 11 or 12 years that this has been said or that we're going out of business. I've been hearing this rumor since we were four weeks into this company. It's disappointing when a person makes a sweeping statement as fact.
"In addition, some have viewed the Hulk Hogan acquisition, seen as a strategic coup in 2009, as something that drained TNA's coffers and led to the cutting of other talent this past year. Due to contractual and moral obligations, Carter won't discuss what Hogan made with TNA (his contract expired in October), though she suspects critics' guesstimates might be overblown dramatically.
"Yes, I think Hulk has been worth it," she said of the deal. "He's opened a lot of doors for us. When you're about to lose a deal in an international territory and one phone call from Hulk Hogan makes a man who doesn't even speak your language melt and you get your deal back, that carries a lot of weight. There's not another guy out there who could do that."
She admits that if there was one thing she could have done differently with Hogan, it would have been the frequency in which TNA used him.
"If we did anything wrong with him, we used him too much on television," Carter said. "If he stayed with us, you'd probably see less of him."
Carter is in renegotiations with Hogan and another TNA star, A.J. Styles, who has become the focal point of "bad" Dixie's attentions on TNA of late. The "angle" or storyline between them is that TNA world champion Styles' (real name Allen Jones) contract has expired and the two can't come to terms on a new deal. At least one part of that storyline is true.
"If we're gonna have contract issues, let's play it out on TV," said Carter. "That's drama. Is he going to sign? Is he not going to? That's drama and it's real. I don't have a contract with AJ and I don't have one with Hulk and others are coming up."
Changing the roster has been a thorn in fans' sides, but it's not the only decision they've second-guessed. In 2013, TNA made the bold decision to leave its comfortable studio nest at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and take the weekly show on the road. Carter said the show fared fantastically overseas, where TNA demand is much greater and the promotion has multiple TV vehicles, but the thinner U.S. attendance numbers caused massive speculation among the pro wrestling press that the promotion wouldn't last after such a disastrous misstep. It's another instance, Carter said, where misinformation leads to unnecessary pessicism.
"We went on the road thinking if we could sell 1,500-2,000 tickets, we'd be good," said Carter. "We went in with a very conservative budget. We didn't come out here thinking we'd sell out arenas. The truth is we exceeded those budget numbers. We hit our revenue numbers, but we overspent when it came to loading out of the Universal studio. There was a two-month overlap that cost us."
Though Carter said that TNA could still afford to tour nationally if it wanted (and it will do so internationally again in 2014), the move didn't get the results she'd hoped for.
"We have to try different things," she said. "Going on the road to see if this is the thing that changes the whole feel and vibe of the show, if it works, you stick with it. I think we've learned a lot from this. We learned that the show has to be shaken up, not the venue."
If it's not firewood or mesquite chips, it's on to energy and power.
In late October, TNA introduced "IMPACT365," a campaign where TNA produces added, bonus footage of its stars across multiple media platforms. The talent is followed by camera crews outside the show. Sometimes they're given their own cameras to take home with them.
Some of the 30-60 second videos read like comedic skits. Others, like Dixie chewing out Spike TV employees for allowing Styles' some advertising play on the show without her permission, read more dramatically. They're all designed to develop characters, push the storylines and attract new viewers who might have never seen the show before.
"Where our competitor has five shows [on air], we only have 82 minutes a week," said Carter. "That's not enough time to get all of that great talent over and we have the greatest talent in the world.
When we go off the air, things are constantly happening for our company in real life. We have untelevised live events. We'll continue storylines when we're not on the air and get the content out onto as many platforms as we can."
The new content can currently be found on TNA's website and other online platforms. Carter hopes to expand to a variety of other aggregators from Hulu to Comcast to Xbox.
Most of all, Carter said that she wants to pull back the curtain in pro wrestling even more than it has in the past. "Fans want to see things they think they aren't supposed to be seeing," she said.
Utilizing social media and other online platforms is a way of turning an enemy into an ally. And it allows Carter to try something new, something that she and her staff have talked about over the last two years as the way in which viewers consume their sports entertainment has drastically evolved. On this point, Carter and her rogue world champion, Styles, are on the same page.
"I think we have to think outside the wrestling box.," said Styles. "That's the most important thing we need to do. Wrestling's been done a certain way for so long and I think if we can go outside that thinking and change the way we do things, storylines and what not, that will separate us from the WWE. We can't be like them -- we have to be the alternative. We need to be something different."
So, as TNA enters its 12th year and its 10th with Carter at the helm, she's actively looking for that idea that will give the promotion the shot in the arm it needs and wants to rise above the comfortable plateau it's settled on.
Dixie still gets tweets daily from disenchanted fans who write, "Thanks for running TNA into the ground," but she can read them with a smile and a chuckle and think, "Thanks, darlin," in her sweet Southern twang.
"I want them to say those things," said Carter, with a wink. "That means I'm doing my job -- without really running the company into the ground, of course."