The biggest wrestling news site in the world turns 10, and the newsletter that started it all is 20—Sheet Sandwich helps celebrate the F4W Anniversary milestones with a look back on how it all began…
If any wrestling news site has ever stressed entertainment as much as, if not more than, the actual wrestling news they purport to report it has been Bryan Alvarez’s Figure Four Weekly~! and his site, F4Wonline.com—at least in the early years of the site, prior to its 2008 merger with WrestlingObserver.com.
Bryan Alvarez has spent half his life on F4W.
He started his print newsletter, Figure Four Weekly, in 1995, just shy of his 20th birthday. After graduating high school he enrolled at a community college near his hometown, but quickly found that he wasn’t learning anything to further his goals.
One thing Alvarez knew right away was that he wanted to own his own business, like his father, who owns a fence company.
He was reading a lot of business books at the time, and has frequently cited that it was the advice he read in them of doing what you love to do, and following your passion when starting business in order to increase your possibilities of success.
“The only things that I’ve ever cared about–a lot–were wrestling and radio… and I also loved to write,” Alvarez told Josh Armour last year. “I wanted to find things that I loved that I could turn into a business, and I managed to tie all those things together.”
With his mind made up, Alvarez made a decision about his future.
“When I said that I was going to forgo the rest of Shoreline Community College and start a newsletter and write about wrestling, everyone I knew said, ‘OK, cool.’”
The newsletter was doing pretty well, bolstered somewhat by wrestling soon entering a white hot phase that peaked its popularity in the mid- to late-90s. But also, at this time, there was another service wrestling newsletter writers were offering for their subscribers: 900 number Hotlines. They had quickly become, at the time, the best source of timely pro wrestling updates.
“Everyone who had a newsletter had a had one,” said Alvarez. So he needed one, too.
“After I had built up a bit of a readership I launched one and had some success for awhile… In order to get information out quickly, I’d record a message like three times a week and charge 99¢ per minute.”
But it was a struggle.
“Unfortunately [other newsletters] had a good go of it, and I had a rough go of it, because I had a limited number of subscribers.”
This, among other things, made the overhead very high. One thing that stood in the way was that the content creators in the deal (in this case Alvarez) only got about 40% of any money generated from the call. And that would come back to haunt him…
Porn lines, ubiquitous among 900 lines in the 90s, would soon ruin Alvarez’s new Hotline enterprise altogether
Due to FCC regulations permitting charge backs for people who claimed to not have granted permission for the calls to take place on their lines. It was a hit with just this sort of scenario that caused the demise of the F4W Hotline.
Alvarez has told the tale many times over the years of being hit with a $4000 charge back. The deal was, back in the day, that while the content creator only got a 40% cut of money based on phone calls, they were 100% responsible for any charge backs… meaning, essentially, the 900-line provider charged Alvarez for a massive bill after some kid’s parents requested a charge back to their account.
Details are sketchy as to whether or not Alvarez actually had to pay this back. He has in the past told the story of how Gladys “Granny” Gibson was able to make some well placed calls to bail her grandson out.
In any case, though, Alvarez did not have the money to pay, and shut the line down.
But, as luck would have it, when one door closes another opens.
Alvarez faxed Dave Meltzer and asked if he wanted someone to work on his hotline. Meltzer responded quickly, telling Alvarez he could take option 3 as someone was departing the Observer hotline.
It was this burgeoning relationship with Meltzer that would soon lead Alvarez to get a taste of his other great passion—radio!
Dave Meltzer had been recruited by eYada – at one time touted heavily as the “next big thing” in talk radio.
Taking its name from a combination of e (universal label for all things Internet at the time – think eMail or eCommerce) and “yada” (you know, like “yada, yada, yada”), eYada debuted in August 1999 with an initial slate of just under a dozen new talk shows—and Wrestling Observer Live was one of them.
Airing live every weekday from 3 to 5pm eastern, Dave Meltzer needed some help filling time when no guest was on.
Meltzer called Alvarez.
“He had me come on at the start of the show to run down news with him, doing the first 20 minutes of the show,” Alvarez recalled. “Ultimately that led to a permanent co-host spot.”
Everything seemed to be coming up roses. In fact, in March 2000, eYada secured $25 million in capital from investment partners that included Time-Warner among others.
Alvarez had been doing the show with Meltzer for free for just over a year, when finally he asked to be paid. He began making $200 a week on the show, moved out of his parents’ house into his own apartment, and prepared to make a career of it… but then eYada was promptly shut down.
In some interviews Alvarez has said this took place in late 2000, but as eYada didn’t close until July of 2001, and Wrestling Observer Live was the very last show broadcast on the digital audio network prior to it going dark, either his time line is off, or he’s exaggerated how quickly he lost the paycheck.
In any case, the fact of the matter was, eYada was no more, and Alvarez had to hustle to make ends meet.
He continued doing the newsletter, and co-hosting a new version of Wrestling Observer Live with Meltzer on the Sports Byline Radio Network out of San Francisco.
But, by the time 2005 was rolling around, some serious decisions would have to be made.
“The newsletter was doing alright, but was not making a lot of money,” Alvarez said. “When the wrestling war was hot, there were a lot of people reading it. And then when WCW died and a lot of people lost interest in wrestling, it was having a rough go, and so i was looking for a way to keep the thing alive alive… it was getting difficult to keep the thing going…”
Alvarez was at a crossroad.
“I was turning 30, and I was like… this is no more 19 year old doing a newsletter for fun. You’re 30 years old. You’ve got to do something with you life!”
With postage and printing costs continuing to rise, Alvarez was looking for new ideas on how to distribute his newsletter. Initially he thought of sending it out as an email newsletter for subscribers—that way he could offer them a price break to receive it that way, and he would save on costs of printing and sending the newsletter by mail.
“My idea was let’s do an email version of the newsletter, where everyone can sign up and save a bit of money, and i don’t have to print and mail the things out out.”
According to Alvarez, the idea for a subscription-based website actually came from his brother-in-law, Tony Leder, who worked in “website stuff” and from whom Alvarez was attempting to learn the logistics of how to send these email newsletters out only to subscribers, for pay, and also ensure they wouldn’t end up caught in spam filters.
Leder was “ahead of the curve” on this sort of thing because, as Alvarez has said, he was a porn enthusiast to adapted the idea from the successful subscription model from the most successful porn sites at the time.
Leder put together the first website for the newsletter and, in early June of 2005, Alvarez launched the new site; Figure Four Weekly was available digitally to subscribers for the first time.
But he wasn’t done there.
Within a month of launching the site, the feature that would come to be Alvarez’s main passion in very short order, made its debut. No… I’m not talking about whale watching or jiu-jitsu, I’m talking about audio shows distributed digitally over the internet. Something that, back in 2005, was starting to be referred to as “pod casting.”
The landscape of the time was quite different than it is today, where podcasts have become ubiquitous on the internet, particularly in wrestling circles. But in 2005 there were very few being produced, which set Alvarez apart from many of the other sites around.
Just as Meltzer was a pioneer of the wrestling newsletter business, Alvarez was an early pioneer of the wrestling podcast trade—among the very first to record and distribute original audio content from his website strictly for the purposes of downloading or streaming via the internet.
Alvarez parlayed his past experiences with those 900 Hotlines and quickly had this “whacky idea” to do short audio updates, and post them to the site, where subscribers to the website would be able to get these audio updates as part of their paid subscription to the site.
Alvarez and Vinny got a mini voice recorder, and together set out to do their updates.
The first ones were short – about 10 minutes or so in length, but right away were a hit with members of the site, which led the updates to be more and more frequent.
2005 was a seminal year for podcasting… and Alvarez was at the forefront in many ways.
In June 2005, Apple added podcasting to iTunes, and began adding a directory of podcasts allowing users to easily seek out, subscribe to and download shows to either their computer or iPods.
Alvarez attributes much of his early success in those days, with a growing membership base, to putting his audio updates on iTunes.
“Once it was on iTunes, we’d do a free show once a week, and the rest of the shows would be subscription only,” Alvarez told Andrew Zarian in a 2013 interview. “The majority of our subscribers were people who heard about us on iTunes, they wanted to hear more, and so they signed up.
The audio rapidly became the main draw of the site, with Alvarez tapping into his network of quirky friends and acquaintances to fill out the time. The early tone of the site and audio made it clear early on that Alvarez was as much in the comedy and entertainment business as he was in the wrestling news business. His audio shows with his buddy Vincent Verhei were often irreverent and lacked the stoic seriousness of most wrestling radio shows or “hotlines” of the day.
Alvarez also filled out the time with bi-weekly appearances by his wrestling mentor, and frequent partner/opponent Buddy Wayne—a mainstay of the Pacific Northwest and Maritimes regional wrestling promotions, who had also seen action as enhancement talent for both WWF and WCW.
On alternating weeks, Alvarez would also have wrestling newsletter pioneer and SportsByline co-host Dave Meltzer on, too.
“The next thing you know, we have these audio shows on there and the thing picked up…” Alvarez told Josh Armour.
Within three years, By june of 2008, when the site merged with Observer, Alvarez notes that he had a “really, really successful site” based almost exclusively on what he would term “the radio shows.”
The value proposition was set:
“Our subscribers get the newsletter, an archive of newsletters, daily radio shows, archives of radio shows, the board, and tons of other stuff…” Alvarez told Armpit-Wrestling in 2007.
Over the years the site has added other podcasts from various hosts besides himself and Meltzer.
It plays host to Karl Stern’s Classic Wrestling Audio Show, as well as Doc Young’s Wrestling Weekly with Vic Sosa and Les Thatcher.
Over the years, the BOARD~! has also played a key role in the success of the site—from the countless user-generated “drops” created from podcast soundbites, to full-length songs created to send up funny, embarrassing, or key moments from shows of the past. It is the sense of community and irreverence among many of the site’s members that has helped create a unique flavor of F4W~!, and one that continues to thrive to this day.
What other pay wrestling site out there has what amount to two annual get-togethers per year?
Whether it’s a group coordinated trip to WrestleMania each year, or the Las Vegas “Convention” each July to watch UFC, no other wrestling site has brought so many together.
Cheers, Mr. Alvarez. Here’s to the next 10 years.