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Volume 22 No. 35

Leagues and Governing Bodies

The NFL is seeking more than $1 billion from its insurers to cover the cost of the class-action concussion settlement, the insurance firms disclosed in recent court documents. That would cover much of the estimated $1.4 billion settlement that was struck in 2013 and has survived a series of legal challenges, most recently in 2016.

The insurers and the league are embroiled in a legal struggle as the insurance companies seek to avoid covering the settlement. They contend the NFL knew about the risks of head trauma and so that negates the policies. Neither the league nor the insurers had publicized how much the NFL wants from its carriers until the recent disclosures. In two separate legal filings earlier this month, the companies unveiled the amount.

The NFL reached a provisional settlement for its class-action concussion lawsuit in 2013, with the latest estimates pegging the payouts at $1.4 billion over 65 years.
Photo: getty images

“In this litigation, where the NFL Parties are seeking what has been estimated at over $1 billion in insurance coverage, the Insurers are entitled to make sure all pertinent issues are fully discovered,” 25 insurers represented by the law firm Troutman Sanders wrote.

And another group of insurers wrote: “The NFL Parties also seek a declaration requiring the Insurers to reimburse what is predicted to be more than a billion dollars in underlying settlement payment.” Some of these 27 insurers, represented by the law firm Kennedys CMK, overlap with the ones represented by Troutman.

The filings were made as part of the insurance companies’ efforts to conduct discovery on what the NFL knew in past years about the risks of playing football. The insurers are seeking a court order to require the league to hand over more documents than they already have. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for Tuesday in New York State Supreme Court.

“It bears further noting that the majority of third parties subpoenaed by the Insurers (including the MTBI Committee doctors and each of the Member Clubs) have asserted that the Insurers should obtain the relevant documents from the NFL Parties in the first instance,” the insurers represented by Kennedys wrote. The NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee disbanded in 2009 after 15 years following accusations that the group served to whitewash the dangers of concussions. “Many of these third parties also advised that the NFL may claim privilege over responsive documents in their possession and that a privilege review by the NFL would be necessary. Thus, the NFL Parties have stymied the Insurers’ discovery efforts both directly and indirectly.”

The NFL declined to comment. Attorneys for Troutman and Kennedys did not respond to queries about where the $1 billion figure came from.

The settlement has been reported as costing $1 billion. In July 2018 the plaintiffs’ counsel filed with the court an expert opinion that — based on payouts that were higher than anticipated — the cost would top at least $1.4 billion. No new estimate has been filed since.

A few months after joining the NHL as its chief marketing officer in October 2016, Heidi Browning spoke to the Wall Street Journal about some of the league’s plans to attract younger fans to the game.

Browning, who came to the NHL from music streaming service Pandora, received several notes from fans and industry members about her comments, but one in particular stood out — a letter from 11-year-old New York City resident Sabrina Solomon, who outlined several things she thought the league could do better to reach fans like her. Browning invited Solomon to the NHL’s Manhattan headquarters in September 2017, and Solomon, joined by her mother, brought a detailed PowerPoint presentation that she went over with various NHL executives, including Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“She had some great ideas, but one of the things that really struck me was that there were more than a few that we were actually already doing,” Browning said. “This is an avid fan that actually knows rules just based by the number, but she wasn’t aware of some of the marketing that we were doing, so we knew we needed to do something.”

That moment was the impetus for the league to create the NHL Power Players, a youth advisory board it launched last week that will be filled with Gen Z hockey fans. The league will look to mine that board for advice on hockey-related topics that are important to kids ages 13 to 17.

In the past, the NHL has held focus groups with both millennial and Gen Z fans to better understand their mindset and attitudes about hockey. However, Browning noted, most of that research was done looking at casual hockey fans, not avid fans like Solomon.

“Our goal is to have this advisory board inform our strategy, from marketing to the fan experience to the game itself,” Browning said. “We also think there is the added benefit of letting these young fans educate others their age, and parents, about why they like hockey and the NHL.”

Sabrina Solomon wrote to NHL CMO Heidi Browning in 2017 about ways the league could better reach avid fans like her, the impetus for the creation of NHL Power Players.
Photo: getty images

The NHL currently is accepting applications from fans in the U.S. and Canada in that age range. Bettman and Browning, among others, will interview and select the 10 who will join the inaugural board next month, which will convene for the first time in June. Browning said the league will select 10 new members each season.

Browning said she expects the group to meet via video chat at least quarterly, with additional meetings and discussions on different topics spread across the season. Browning also will travel across North America and meet with the board members, as well as host them at NHL games and facilitate meetings with the teams in their respective markets.

“I truly believe that the Gen Z generation will be the most diverse and most influential generation of our lifetime,” Browning said. “We need to make it a priority to do our best to understand the attitudes and perceptions and desires of this extremely interesting age group when it comes to media, technology and sports.”

Asked if Solomon will be on the board, Browning said with a knowing laugh, “She’ll have to apply just like everyone else, but I’d say she has a pretty good shot.”

Jeffrey Kessler, the famed athletes attorney and litigator, has sat opposite sports legal powerhouse Proskauer, which typically represents management, many times. Whether it’s Kessler for the NFLPA or NBPA and Proskauer aligned with the NFL or NBA, Kessler advocates for players and Proskauer for the owners. 

Once again the two parties find themselves opposite each other, but this time their roles are reversed: Kessler is advocating for an owner, Proskauer for the players.

The case in question is the WTA’s lawsuit against Madrid tournament owner Ion Tiriac, who recently hired Kessler and his firm, Winston & Strawn, to replace his previous counsel.

The WTA, which is a 50-50 partnership between tournaments and players (meaning Proskauer is also representing the other WTA tournaments in this case), filed the lawsuit in New York federal court last June to force Tiriac into arbitration.

The roots of the legal battle date to April 2017, when Romania Fed Cup captain Ilie Nastase was suspended by the International Tennis Federation for allegedly making racist and sexist comments during that year’s event. The WTA banned Nastase from its tournaments, but Tiriac ignored that prohibition, even allowing him on court for the WTA trophy presentation in May 2017, after which the WTA fined and criticized Tiriac for his embrace of Nastase. Within a year Tiriac had sued the WTA for defamation in Spain, Romania and Cyprus. He also argued against the WTA’s requirement that he pay equal prize money at Madrid, which stages concurrent ATP and WTA events.

The federal case had actually closed in January, with Tiriac agreeing to withdraw the Spanish lawsuit. But on March 1 Tiriac refiled the Spanish lawsuit, and on March 22 the WTA reopened the case in New York federal court. Three days later Winston & Strawn filed to notify the court that it represented Tiriac.

Kessler did not reply for comment, and his colleague, David Feher, declined to comment, as did Proskauer attorney Brad Ruskin.

A source close to the case said that until the next court filing it is difficult to say what Kessler’s strategy will be, but it is hard not to connect Tiriac’s move to refile the Spanish case with the hiring of Kessler.

The WTA’s main argument is that Tiriac is bound by his membership agreement with the WTA, which requires arbitration in disputes, not lawsuits.

Tiriac’s previous counsel was Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which unsuccessfully argued before the court in December to have the WTA’s case dismissed.

International Swimming League founder Konstantin Grigorishin says he’s willing to spend more than $25 million from his own pocket annually to launch the league, but experts said the ISL faces a challenging road to sustainability based off its own commercial revenue.

The eight-team, two-continent ISL will launch Oct. 4-5, and will culminate with a world championship at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in December. With a $5 million prize budget and a promise to share league revenue 50/50 with athletes, pro swimmers and their advocates are welcoming the ISL with open arms — not only for new revenue, but for its potential of upending the International Aquatics Federation’s monopoly of the sport.

But at least in the U.S., experts said, the commercial and fan demand for a pro league in a niche sport is questionable.

“If you look at the hard-core swim audience, yeah, they’re going to tune in,” said Michael Lynch of 3 Emerald Marketing, Visa’s former sponsorship chief. “But how do you get everybody else, which is what the likes of the EPL and NFL and others have been able to do?”

Grigorishin, a Ukrainian energy and metals tycoon, is worth more than $1 billion and has a passion for swimming and helping athletes earn more money. He believes the league can break even by next year, but his willingness to spend his own money is not unlimited. For now, he is the sole source of the ISL’s $25 million launch-year budget.

Grigorishin would not say exactly what it would take for him to continue spending beyond the initial three-year plan but acknowledged that downsizing or even closure would be necessary without meaningful revenue.

Swimming is one of the linchpins of the entire Olympics, he said, and if properly marketed, he thinks he can translate that into support for the league. The ISL will form teams and emphasize short, exciting race and meet formats, appealing to fans in ways FINA competitions do not.

“Even if we get 10 percent of the Olympic swimming audience, it’s a huge number, more than enough,” Grigorishin said.

That bet has been made before in Olympic sports by others, who saw opportunity in the gap between the massive viewership of the Games and the near-total lack of visibility in between. But few of those efforts have gotten past initial startup years. That’s partly because the Olympic mystique lends importance to even the most obscure sports, but also because NBC and other rights holders spend a ransom on promotion.

Media and sponsorship deals are yet to be announced for the ISL.

The most important element in the ISL’s success will be talent, Grigorishin said. The ISL has enlisted U.S. Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy as ambassadors for the league. Ambassadors are expected to participate as well, Grigorishin said, but the athletes’ agents did not return calls seeking clarification about their competitive plans. ISL officials said full rosters will be released within weeks.

Even assuming there is a market for swimming, all startups face challenges in the age of vast entertainment options and tightening corporate marketing budgets, said veteran Olympic sports marketer Bob Heussner, CEO and founder of StrongBridge Sponsorship. “When something new comes along, boy, it had better be damn good, and it had better be compellingly different, if you’re going to get my attention if I’m a consumer and my budget if I’m a sponsor,” Heussner said.

The Performance Center features seven rings in which talent is divided based on their experience. A ramp similar to the one used for NXT show tapings gives the talent an opportunity to practice their entrances.
Photo: courtesy of WWE

Charlotte Flair was riding to Boston’s TD Garden late last month to tape an episode of WWE’s “Raw” when she got the word.

She would be part of the main event at WrestleMania 35.

“I think I cried for an hour on my drive,” Flair said. “I don’t know how to put it in words.”

The WWE’s biggest event. MetLife Stadium. The New York City metropolitan area. More than 80,000 fans. WrestleMania’s first all-woman main event.

It was a crowning moment that was years in the making. And it all started more than a thousand miles to the south.

There, in a nondescript industrial park east of downtown Orlando, a neighbor to storage units, a lighting firm and a food services company, sits the future of the WWE. Walk through the doors of the WWE Performance Center and you’ll hear the satisfying crash of bodies hitting canvas. It’s the proving ground for those who want to reach the top of the WWE.

It’s where Flair’s path to WrestleMania started in 2012. And it’s where nearly 100 people signed to development contracts now learn the ins and outs of the theater of professional wrestling. Former football players, CrossFit competitors, martial artists, basketball players, gymnasts, track stars, rugby players, weightlifters — elite athletes from some 20 countries.

Want to become a part of the WWE’s sports entertainment empire?

It starts here.

■  ■  ■  ■ 

Talent and storylines are why WWE’s “Raw” and “SmackDown” are consistently among the most-watched shows on cable each week.

It’s why USA (NBCUniversal) and Fox Sports agreed to pay the WWE a staggering $2.35 billion over five years, a media deal that will bring the company nearly four times more than it was previously getting.

It’s also why WWE Network, launched in 2014, now boasts more than 1.65 million subscribers to the streaming service.

Overall, WWE produces more than 1,500 hours of content each year. You’ve got to feed that content, and the way to do it is with compelling talent.

Building that roster falls on the battle-tested shoulders of Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events and creative.

“If all other sports are just point and shoot, follow the ball, or follow the action or follow the fight, we are making a television show,” Levesque said. “We’re making a movie. So ours is about the story in the ring. How are we going to tell the story and then how are we going to connect fans to it?”

The studio to develop that story is the Performance Center, which opened in 2013, replacing a facility in Tampa that the WWE had used for a regional promotion. The move also came as the WWE was refreshing the NXT brand into a regular television show and touring production that would highlight up-and-coming talent.

The building is a labyrinth of spaces: A room for weightlifting; a green room for talent to master their camera presence; conference rooms for skull sessions to break down film; a medical and rehab facility; and areas to build social media content.

The centerpiece is a 12,000-square-foot space that contains seven rings, where talent is divided based on experience level. A ramp mirrors the one used at NXT tapings and is used to practice entrances.

Imagining Performance Center 2.0

Paul “Triple H” Levesque toured NFL training facilities to get ideas for the original WWE Performance Center. Now that the center is bursting at the seams, he’s again looking to the NFL, thinking big and thinking global.

“I think about this all the time,” he said. “What is 2.0 of this and how do we make this bigger? This has become so much more than just a place where we train talent.”

He looks to The Star, the grandiose development of the Dallas Cowboys. He envisions not only room to train, but room to host shows and other events, such as the “Halftime Heat” show produced at the Performance Center during this year’s Super Bowl. For now it’s just a vision; no time frame has been set on a potential larger center.

Meanwhile, the WWE is scouting locations overseas to open a second international Performance Center. The money’s there: WWE international revenue rose 58 percent last year alone, passing $300 million and accounting for a third of the company’s overall revenue.

The WWE wants to foster that growth by developing hometown talent and content for overseas fans to pull for. That was the motivation behind the Performance Center that opened in London in January, which followed last year’s launch of “NXT UK” on WWE Network. The WWE did not disclose the cost of the U.K. center.

Where to next? Asia, India, the Middle East and South America are on the radar. — D.B.

Above it all sits two webcams. One provides Levesque a remote view of the action when he’s off site. Another does the same for Vince McMahon, WWE’s chairman and CEO, who ultimately will give a Caesar-esque thumbs up or down to who makes it through to the next level. 

Typically, NXT shows are taped one day a month. Levesque will fly to a “Raw” taping on Monday, then to a “SmackDown” show on Tuesday, and then to Orlando on Wednesday to check in at the Performance Center and oversee the NXT taping.

For the athletes under contract, this is their home for a journey that likely will take years, not months. It’s a reality that either motivates them, or stops them in their tracks.

“I think they underestimate the time it’s going to take to get good at this,” said Matt Bloom, head coach and vice president of talent development. “Because a good number of our talent cross over from other sports, whether that be amateur wrestling, whether that be football, basketball. For them to be as successful as they were in that sport, they had to put in long hours and work hard. So now they come here and do something all over again, and they have to remember what it took to get to that level. And I think some of them think, I’ll get there in two years or three years. And it takes a lifetime to master.”

Bianca Blair, who enters the ring as Bianca Belair, excelled in track and CrossFit. She remembers arriving at the Performance Center in 2016 and being in the unfamiliar position of starting from scratch.

“You really have to humble yourself here,” Blair said. “You really have to get used to not being able to pick up on things very quickly.”

That applies even if you have the wrestling pedigree of Flair. She’s the daughter of Ric Flair, the “styling and profiling, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing son of a gun” who is ranked by some as the greatest professional wrestler of all time. Charlotte Flair has plenty of athletic ability (she played volleyball at Appalachian State before graduating from N.C. State), but admits that when it came to wrestling, “I didn’t know anything.”

“I always went to the shows, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of the sport entertainment world,” Flair said. “I just knew I was athletic and I was going to do this.”

■  ■  ■  ■ 

So how do they get here?

The simplest path is to fill out an application on the Performance Center website and then hope to get called for a tryout. WWE looks at all of the applications, but the reality is that tens of thousands have been filed since the center opened.

The gatekeeper is Canyon Ceman, senior director of talent development. Getting in front of him is professional wrestling’s equivalent to landing an audience with the pope. If you want to get a tryout, it starts with Ceman.

Ceman and his team pore through the applications, but perhaps more importantly maintain a network of contacts throughout various sports to flag athletes who might be worth a look. And then there are the independent wrestling circuits, a frequent pipeline to the Performance Center.

The scouting goes on globally, mainly in areas that have a wrestling culture: the U.K., India, Asia. About 40 percent of the talent now at the Performance Center hail from other countries.

Ceman checks off the attributes he’s looking for: Elite athleticism, physical toughness, charisma, size, work ethic, professionalism, education, coachability. Sometimes talent turns up in nontraditional places. Such was the case when Ceman spotted Kacy Catanzaro, a former gymnast, making waves on the obstacle courses of “American Ninja Warrior.” She joined the Performance Center in 2018.

The fortunate few are invited to one of four tryouts each year at the Performance Center, or one of four held each year overseas. In March, for example, the WWE held a tryout in India.

Each tryout has about 40 prospects, meaning 300 to 400 people get a tryout each year. Of those, Ceman said, the WWE will hire 30 to 40. The next Performance Center tryout is set for April 25-27. The next international tryout will be held in Shanghai July 15-18.

The tryouts last three days. The first two are brutal by design, testing the prospects’ conditioning and watching to see what they retain from coaches.

By the end of day one, WWE coaches have generally eliminated the bottom half. By the end of the second day, the favorites start to emerge. It’s a combination of how they handle the physical duress and how they come across in promos they tape to describe their journey and why they want to build a career with the WWE.

The WWE could one day move into a larger Performance Center that would have enough space to host events.
Photo: courtesy of WWE

“What we’re really looking for, though, when they start to break down is, ‘how do you really act?’” Levesque said. “Are you the type of person that when you’re tired and exhausted puts the other person down to get in front of them, or are you the type of person that looks to the person next to you and picks them up and says, ‘Come on, let’s go, we’re going to finish this.’ Because you can’t do it by yourself in this business. So you have to be that emergent leader.”

And then, of course, there’s charisma.

“Charisma is king, or queen,” Levesque said. “That X factor that as you walk into the room makes people turn their heads and ask, ‘Who’s that?’”

With elite athletes, egos are plentiful, and usually welcome. “I like an ego,” Bloom said. “I like an ego that is confident, who is going to push the boundaries a little bit, but I also want to have an ego that is going to abide by team rules like being on time, holding yourself accountable for your actions. Competing with your teammates here with respect.”

First Look podcast, with WWE discussion at the 20:09 mark:

There are misses. The WWE took a pass on Kevin Owens during his first tryout. Owens would go on to build a name for himself on the independent circuits before landing another WWE tryout.

This time, he crushed his promo. And when he was done, he ran through it again, in French. It was an exclamation point that earned a contract in 2014. Owens is now a WWE headliner.

Those signed to developmental contracts are paid on average $50,000 to $150,000 a year. The overall average for those in development is about $80,000. If they reach the top of the WWE, salaries can climb into the seven figures.

Once in the program, the talent is taught technique, timing, camera awareness and presence, and how to avoid injury.

“It’s the emotional storytelling,” Levesque said. “We are way more akin to ‘Rocky’ the movie than boxing, from the shooting and production of it.”

Guest instructors have included improv groups and even Cirque du Soleil. Talent takes acting classes and learns about managing their finances. Foreign talent must take English classes.

Of those at the Performance Center, about one-third have roles on the NXT television show, a third are on NXT live events staged throughout Florida and the rest are not yet ready to perform in front of audiences. Each year, about 10 to 15 are promoted to WWE’s main roster of “Raw” and “SmackDown.”

■  ■  ■  ■ 

Hanson and his partner Rowe, the tag team known as The War Raiders, had just stomped their way to the ring when Hanson grabbed the mic and sneered toward the camera.

“I forgot my line!” he growled.

It was rehearsal time at the March 13 taping, and the slip drew howls from the other talent sitting ringside.

NXT tapings take place about three miles north of the Performance Center at Full Sail University. The partnership gives the WWE production space and provides Full Sail students with opportunities to work alongside the crews and earn scholarships.

All of the talent from the Performance Center was on hand. They had arrived around noon to help get the venue ready for that evening’s show. “They have to go to all these live events to set up the ring and take it down,” Ceman said. “You have to pay your dues. Everyone’s done it.”

Those on the card that night practiced their entrances and walked through their matches. Some held printouts of their lines for the evening. Levesque stood ringside, along with Bloom and other coaches, including former WWE great Shawn Michaels. They dissected the plans and offered the talent ways to improve their performance. To sell it. It might be something as simple as telling The War Raiders to raise a clinched fist one less time walking down the ramp and instead build crowd anticipation for when they make that move in the ring.

Outside, Johnny Gargano walked on the sidewalk behind the performance building, holding an imaginary mic and practicing his lines as he prepped for his time inside the ring. Someone heard that Steve Cutler, one of The Forgotten Ones, had thrown up so they asked if he was OK. “No worries,” Cutler said, just nerves. “I’ve done it since playing sports in high school. I’m fine afterward.”

Vanessa Borne, Candice LeRae and Aliyah filmed a spot that could be used during the show’s airing. They exchanged insults and retaped the spot several times. If not because of a tweak to their lines, it was the interruption of a crash from the production crew moving equipment, or a plane flying overhead.

Crews attached wheels to a couch that would be used by the Velveteen Dream during one of the three shows that would be taped during the night. They spray painted goblets in the Dream’s trademark purple.

The tapings quickly sell out the 500 available seats that go for $20 each. These folks also will play a key role in who makes it to the next level based on how they react.

“If you grew up watching a band that played in a club down the street, when they make it big, you’re connected,” Levesque said as a comparison.

Paul "Triple H" Levesque (right) shares a laugh with Johnny Gargano prior to the March 13 NXT taping. They hold their scripts for the evening.
Photo: courtesy of WWE

Levesque watched the night unfold from The Gorilla Room — a small production room affectionately named after Gorilla Monsoon, a legendary wrestler, announcer and booker — but not before he made a rare appearance in the NXT ring for the show’s taping. That was necessary because the NXT champion, Tommaso Ciampa, had suffered a neck injury that required surgery. Levesque, as Triple H, needed to go on camera to set up the evening’s main event, a five-way match to decide who would fight for that title against Gargano in NXT TakeOver New York prior to WrestleMania. Aleister Black, Ricochet, Velveteen Dream, Matt Riddle and Adam Cole would do battle that night.

Despite all of the training, with the level of stunts and the stress on the body, injuries are inevitable. On this evening, Chelsea Green would break her wrist in an opening match against Jessie Elaban. She would still finish.

“There’s a fine line between it looking real and it being real,” Levesque said. “This is the edge that we walk.”

In between several matches, Levesque walked outside and provided instant feedback to the talent. After Jaxson Ryker’s match, he huddled with Ryker and told him to let his opponent take him down more often. It’s his ability to keep getting up and keep charging that gets the crowd going.

“You can go down all you want, if it’s something big,” Levesque said. “You’ve just got to be getting up and fighting. You’re constantly coming forward, or at least coming up. It’s the Terminator. Even the Terminator goes down for a second, then when you think you’ve killed him, nope, here he comes. Give them that moment when they say, yeah, and then take it away from them.”

The five-way headline match for the first show taped that evening set the standard for the rest of the night. The flips, slams and acrobatics kept the live audience roaring.

“This is awesome!” the crowd chanted. “This is awesome!”

In The Gorilla Room, the team knew it was going to be a good night.

■  ■  ■  ■ 

At the end of the final taping that evening, Ricochet and Aleister Black told the crowd that this was their last NXT show at Full Sail. The pair had been mixing in performances on the WWE’s top shows. Now they’ll do it full time.

They’ve made it.

After winning a tag-team match, the pair was showered with a confetti cannon. Then they thanked the crowd and stopped by The Gorilla Room to thank the production team and the coaches before leaving the building.

Two departures, two opportunities for others to step up.

For Bloom, the other coaches and Levesque, these are the most satisfying moments.

“This is the guts of what we do and it’s invigorating being around all of these young people who are just waiting for someone to unhook the leash and let them out so they can go crazy and be the biggest star in the world. It’s inspiring,” Levesque said.

Those moments aren’t lost on Flair. WrestleMania was the payoff for all the training, for going from someone who felt like fainting from nerves at early practices, to someone carrying on the family tradition. Or as someone recently told her:

“Your dad didn’t pass the torch. You took it.” 

Charlotte Flair
Photo: courtesy of WWE

Women continue to get a bigger stage with the WWE.

When the company holds tryouts at the Performance Center, the ratio is about 2-to-1, men to women. Compare that to about 4- or 5-to-1 when the center opened in 2013. The talent pool has grown so strong that in October 2018 the WWE held its first all-women pay-per-view event, called “Evolution,” that showcased the athleticism and quality that now define women’s matches.

Paul Levesque points to a photo at the Performance Center showing his entrance as Triple H at WrestleMania 30 in 2014. Sasha Banks, Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair, then all training at the center, were used as masked extras.

Flash forward to this year’s WrestleMania 35 at MetLife Stadium, where all three had major roles, including Flair competing in a three-way match for the women’s championship against Ronda Rousey and Becky Lynch. It was the first time a women’s match had served as the main event of WrestleMania.

“We’ve watched them go from ‘the divas don’t wrestle like the guys’ to ‘you are going to be the first group that we train in a different manner and we’re going to give you a different opportunity,’” Levesque said. “And then we watched them kill it over and over to where it created such a buzz that all of a sudden there’s this pressure on ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’ and [fans] start this hashtag GiveDivasAChance.”

Every NXT taping at Full Sail University is a 500-person focus group on how well a character is resonating with fans. Social media chatter is the exclamation point.

“When you get that spotlight and you have six or 10 minutes to showcase yourself, they won’t take long to tell you what they think,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque.

The talent and the WWE’s creative team develop ideas for characters and those gradually evolve over time. There’s no set timetable.

Sometimes the ideas involve just turning up the volume on who the person really is. Such was the case with Luis Martinez, a veteran in the ring who has long performed as Punishment Martinez. He’s now being rebranded as Damien Priest, an even darker character. That means new outfits, new entrance music and a new persona. Martinez thinks it’s a perfect fit.

“I’ve always been into the weird, the odd, the dark, so that’s the character I’ve always represented,” Martinez said.

There are plenty of misses. Bray Wyatt, for example, didn’t work as Husky Harris.

Then there are ideas snuffed out early.

Levesque chuckled as he recalled a talent from France who arrived one day wearing torn jeans, boots and cutoff sleeves. He told Levesque in his French accent, “That’s my new character, a bad ass.”

“He saw himself as ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. ‘I am kicking ass and taking names,’” Levesque said. “And everyone else was like, ‘No, you’re the guy wearing the sequin jacket and running away from people, not looking to get into a fight.’”

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Kacy Catanzaro

Age: 29

After Catanzaro failed to reach the end of the obstacle course in her first attempt on “American Ninja Warrior” in 2013, someone came up to her and said, “You did really good, for a girl.”

Her response? “Oh, hell no.”

The backhanded compliment motivated Catanzaro to go on and become the first woman to complete the show’s Warped Wall and to hit the buzzer on a City Finals course. All 5 feet, 100 pounds of her.

The inspiring, spunky performance caused a spike in applications from other women to the TV show. It also caught the attention of the WWE, which welcomed Catanzaro into its Performance Center in 2018. Drawing upon her experience as a college gymnast, Catanzaro provides a wow factor with her acrobatics, including a handstand headscissors move off the top rope.

The WWE provides an even greater spotlight for Catanzaro to continue to inspire. When her size comes up, it fuels the drive. “I realize that I am not going to do things the same as some people, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to find my own way to do it.”

Finishing move: She’s toying with a traditional leaping “splash” off the top rope onto her opponent, but with an added gymnastic twist. Maybe call it the Warped Splash.

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Velveteen Dream

(Patrick Clark Jr.)
Age: 23

The line quickly blurs between Clark and his Prince-inspired character. He’s selling it, whether he’s in the ring or sitting across a table fielding questions from a reporter.

“I stay on,” he says.

Clark was an amateur wrestler in high school and aspired to one day do it professionally, “more along the lines of being an entertainer.”

He wrestled on independent circuits before having a breakout moment in 2015 as a contestant on the WWE reality series “Tough Enough.” Clark was eliminated for a perceived lack of humility, but he was still signed by the WWE later that year. When charisma is king, it’s no surprise why.

“In order to thrive socially, you need to have a certain level of humility,” Clark says. “But I don’t think humility drives much outside of that.”

As for the evolution of the purple-drenched Velveteen Dream?

“Velveteen Dream is very much an extension of not really who I am as a person, but really how I’m feeling at the moment,” Clark says. “It really evolves based on where I am in my human experience.”

Finishing move: The Purple Rainmaker. The flying elbow drop off the top rope pays tribute to the move made famous by the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage. And standing on the top rope, Clark says, “screams ‘look at me.’”

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Bianca Belair

(Bianca Blair)
Age: 29

Bianca Belair picked up her opponent, pressed her above her head, and then promptly heaved her over the top rope and out of the ring.

Yes, life is good in the WWE.

The path to NXT started in college, where Blair excelled running hurdles. Afterward, she fed her competitive spirit with CrossFit competition, standing out for her athleticism, outsized personality and flashy homemade outfits.

Retired WWE great Mark Henry saw Blair in a CrossFit video and messaged her on Instagram. “I thought it was fake and kind of ignored it at first,” Blair recalls.

Then Henry messaged a second time and arranged a tryout with the WWE. “I figured this was either too good to be true, or all of the pieces are falling in place for me,” she said.

Blair came up short in her first tryout, a nerve-wracking process that took place in front of an audience on hand for an NXT taping. But the second one landed her a contract and she joined the Performance Center in 2016, later making a slight tweak to her real last name to give it more flair for her in-ring persona.

Strength is her defining trait in the ring, not to mention her long, braided hair that she uses to whip opponents.

“The thing about this business is that we all do it to entertain the fans. That’s the main goal here. You’re here to put on a great show.”

Finishing move:  KOD (Kiss Of Death). She bends opponents over like a torture rack, then flips them over into a face buster.

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Damien Priest

(Luis Martinez)
Age: 36

The native of Puerto Rico fought in mixed martial arts before the sport really took off in popularity. When a buddy suggested he try pro wrestling, Martinez paid his tuition and trained at The Monster Factory in New Jersey. Then it was off to compete on the independent wrestling circuits.

“The biggest thing for me was going from actual fighting to this world where it’s more entertainment,” he says.

The 6-foot-6 Martinez caught the eye of the WWE and signed a developmental contract in October 2018.

At age 36, Martinez often finds himself competing with younger talent, but he doesn’t see age as a handicap. “If I can go at the same level, then age doesn’t matter. As long as I’m doing a little bit more than you, you will never be on my level.”

That age difference, however, can make patience more of a challenge, so Martinez pushes himself to move the needle.

“I’m not a patient person, but I’m a positive impatient,” he says. “I’m not willing to just stand by. I’m going to keep pushing until something sticks.”

Finishing move: South of Heaven Choke Slam, a nod to thrash metal band Slayer and WWE great The Undertaker.

Photo: courtesy of WWE

Xia Li

(Xia Zhao)
Age: 33

When Xia reported to the Performance Center in January 2017, she became the first Chinese woman to compete in a WWE ring.

As you can imagine, it was an unlikely path. Xia competed in martial arts and owned a fitness studio in her native country. When a friend told her the WWE was going to hold tryouts in China in 2016, Xia gave it a shot. She landed a contract and headed to Orlando in January 2017.

“I’m very proud to represent China,” Xia says in her improving English. “I’m so happy to be here. It’s my dream come true. I never thought that this would happen. My life changed.”

She recalls the nerves of her first match.

“I didn’t want to make a mistake because this was the first big opportunity of my life. I worried about that. I just wanted to do my best in the moment.”

For Xia, the challenges reach beyond the physical tests of the Performance Center. She’s a long way from home and must overcome the language barrier. She takes English classes twice a week at the center and once a week at Full Sail University. She dreams of one day being able to perform in front of her family at a WWE match in China.

“That would be awesome. I hope that is going to happen soon.”

Finishing move: Still in development.