For Bruce Prichard, redemption began with a casual conversation on Conrad Thompson’s couch in Huntsville, Alabama, last July, not redemption in the eyes of Prichard’s family or friends, but in the eyes of the professional wrestling industry, which had seemingly slammed the door on him several years prior.
Casual wrestling fans best know Prichard from his time on screen in WWE (then called the WWF) back in the late ’80s and early ’90s as the nefarious Brother Love, an over-the-top, red-faced televangelist who routinely sided with the heels (wrestle-speak for “villains”) and infuriated the babyfaces (or “good guys”) in his weekly interview segment on WWF television. The more embedded wrestling fans know Prichard as the behind-the-scenes right-hand man of WWE majority owner and CEO Vince McMahon for the better part of 22 years, from 1987 until late 2008.
In his time working for McMahon, Prichard saw up close every historically significant wrestling moment, from the Montreal Screwjob to WWE’s going public. He was also fired twice. The first time came in 1991. Prichard was young (28 years old) and single and spent most of his newfound free time hanging out at Heartbreaker’s in Dickinson before returning to the company in 1992. The second time Prichard was let go cut deeper, because Prichard wasn’t a kid anymore. By 2008 he was married to his wife, Stephanie, they had moved back to Houston from Connecticut so she could get the best care in her battle with cancer, and they had twins in grade school. In 2008 there were obligations; there were bills to pay.
For the next few years, Prichard was presented with constant reminders that life is hard. He tried and failed at various business ventures. In 2010 he went to work for WWE’s main competition, TNA Wrestling, a stint that largely served as a three-year reminder of why WWE was destroying its competition. He suffered two heart attacks in 2012. Finally, after being let go by TNA in 2013, Prichard was at the last stop on wrestling’s road to invisibility, doing occasional paid appearances for hardcore wrestling fans.
It was at one of these paid appearances that Prichard met Conrad Thompson, the 36-year-old owner of Huntsville-based First Family Mortgage and a lifelong wrestling fan. Through wrestling legend Ric Flair’s mutual friendship with Thompson and Prichard, Thompson arranged a paid appearance for Prichard to come to Alabama and hang out with him and a handful of his friends. It was there that Prichard suggested he could help Thompson grow his mortgage business into Prichard’s backyard in Houston.
So Thompson and Prichard began a business relationship in which the eventual goal was for Prichard to open a First Family Mortgage branch office in Houston. It was on a subsequent business trip back to Alabama, where he hung out on Thompson’s couch, during some free time between business conversations that the seeds of Prichard’s revival in the wrestling business were unknowingly planted.
“Bruce and I were just chatting and we hit a lull in the conversation, so I filled it with a wrestling question,” recalls Thompson. “I asked him, ‘Hey, Bruce, what happened when the Radicalz (a group of four wrestlers working for WWE’s competition) jumped from WCW to WWE in 2000?’ That question turned into an hourlong back-and-forth between me and Bruce.
“When we were done, I looked at him and said: ‘You know, that conversation could be a podcast.’”
Prichard shook his head at the notion, laughed and thought, “Who would want to listen to me tell stories of my time in WWE?” As it turns out, hundreds of thousands of wrestling fans would want to, every single week.
To fully understand Prichard’s redemption story, you need to know the degree to which wrestling was woven into the tapestry of his existence. Prichard fell in love with it at five years old, sitting at the kitchen table eating spaghetti, watching the weekly wrestling program in El Paso on a black-and-white television, and seeing the legendary Terry Funk getting bloodied by the diabolical Von Brauners and their manager, the ironically nicknamed “Gentleman” Saul Weingeroff. Funk was bleeding so badly from the attack that the announcers screamed, “We need to get help for Terry Funk!”
“So I went to my mom screaming, ‘Mom, we need to get help for Terry Funk!’” recalls Prichard. “That was my first wrestling angle.”
The family would move from El Paso to Houston, and Bruce and his older brother, Tom, who would go on to become an accomplished wrestler in WWE and other wrestling organizations, would embed themselves in Paul Boesch’s local Houston Wrestling promotion. By the age of ten, Prichard was selling posters at Boesch’s shows at the Sam Houston Coliseum for a commission of a quarter per poster (until he sold too many and they cut his commission to a dime — welcome to the wrestling business, kid!). By 12 years old, Prichard was Boesch’s ring announcer, and by 16 years old, he had gone from summoning help for a bleeding Terry Funk at age five to splitting a twelve-pack with Funk after driving him to his hotel when he came to town. By age 18, Prichard was essentially running the Houston Wrestling promotion, learning about all of wrestling’s “kayfabe” magic at the feet of Boesch and iconic performers like Dusty Rhodes and Ted DiBiase.
By 1987 it was becoming evident that Vince McMahon and his Northeast-based WWF were going to swallow up all the small local wrestling promoters around the country or die trying. Prichard knew which side of the wrestling war he needed to be on, and with McMahon noticing the work Prichard had done in Houston, he was hired at age 24 by the WWF. He had no job description when he was hired, so Prichard immersed himself in the television production side. He was responsible for several of the company’s weekly television properties, but Prichard would gain his greatest notoriety when he created the Brother Love character and convinced McMahon to let him play the character on television by storming into an actual business meeting in McMahon’s office in character and delivering his rendition of the evil televangelist.
As Brother Love, Prichard would go on to be a conduit to some of the most famous story lines in wrestling history, including, in 1990, when he became the first manager of the legendary Undertaker (portrayed by fellow Houstonian Mark Calloway). As mentioned earlier, Prichard was fired by McMahon in 1991 for clashing with other folks in television production, but he was brought back a year later.
“I deserved to be fired in 1991,” admits Prichard, who concedes that his first termination by WWE was based entirely on his inability to work with others, specifically those above him in television production.
“I was a kid, I was 28 years old at the time and I had the world by the balls,” Prichard continues. “I thought I could do no wrong and there was no way they could fire me. I made myself very difficult to deal with; I didn’t want to work with the people they put over me. I essentially said ‘Fuck you’ because I was a spoiled brat, and I lost my dream because of it.
“I showed up at the meeting where Vince fired me wearing pink shorts and flip-flops, which gives you an idea of how full of myself I was at that time.”
When he returned in 1992, aside from occasional special appearances, Prichard’s on-screen career in WWE was over, but his career behind the scenes was just beginning. McMahon had Prichard working closely alongside him writing television, and he did his best to insulate Prichard from the people with whom he’d previously clashed in his first stint with the company. Prichard’s influence grew heavily throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, when he spent various amounts of time doing everything from creating story lines to producing television to working in the “gorilla” position (wrestle-speak for organizing and cueing all the talent at live events).
By 2008 Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie had taken over the creative side of the business, creating an awkward dynamic in which there was massive overlap between her job and Prichard’s. Every conversation Prichard now had with Vince made it feel as if he was circumventing Stephanie. Work became stressful and miserable for Prichard. The writing on the wall became clearer and clearer, and in November 2008 Prichard was fired again.
“At the time I was kind of relieved,” Prichard says. “However, I was also angry. I didn’t talk to Vince for two years after I was fired. Then you begin to realize how big a part of your identity is wrapped up in being part of WWE. All I ever knew in my life was wrestling. It’s not like a regular job. You don’t just walk away from 35 years in the wrestling business and go do something else.”
Prichard sought out production work in other genres of television, but his background in wrestling was like a scarlet letter to Hollywood types. He would do his stint with the TNA promotion for a few years, try and fail at a few other things, but filling a void carved out by 22 years working in the nerve center of your life’s dream is almost impossible.
However, Bruce Prichard did have 35 years’ worth of stories, and he would soon find out how many thousands of people would want to hear them.
When Conrad Thompson suggested the idea of a podcast to Bruce Prichard, Prichard initially refused. The wrestling landscape is littered with podcasts by former personalities in the wrestling business, and Prichard had listened to a few of them. Some he liked, some he turned off after five minutes. Eventually Thompson convinced Prichard to give it a go, and Prichard agreed somewhat conditionally. With that, “Something To Wrestle With Bruce Prichard” was born.
“We agreed that we would do the podcast weekly, and that the format would basically be me cross-examining Bruce on a different topic each week from his time working with Vince McMahon — we’d delve into a specific character, story line or show,” explains Thompson, who estimates he does eight hours of research to prepare for each episode. “We didn’t want to book 52 guests a year; we wanted it to be just me and Bruce.”
Thompson also came up with the idea of using social media (for the first year or so, it was Twitter polls; now it’s a poll on Facebook) to allow listeners to choose the topic they’d like to see Thompson and Prichard discuss. “The weekly poll helps us keep the show fresh,” explains Thompson. “The No. 1 rule of sales: Sell them what they’re buying.”
The first episode of “Something To Wrestle” dropped on August 5, 2016. The subject was Dusty Rhodes’s stint in the WWF in the late ’80s. “After we recorded it, I honestly was still thinking, ‘Who wants to listen to this?’” says Prichard. “I was told that if we did 20,000 downloads, that would be amazing. The Dusty podcast did 60,000 downloads, so we knew we had something.”
Within a few months, Prichard and Thompson were getting nearly 400,000 downloads on the first day that an episode would drop, and now they routinely approach and sometimes surpass the one-million-download mark each week, making “Something To Wrestle” one of the most popular podcasts on the planet. Prichard’s initial sheepishness about the potential success of Thompson’s brainchild has now morphed into a focus so intense that Prichard will proudly show you the podcast’s download numbers up to the minute on an app on his phone.
They may not say it, but the thing that Thompson and Prichard both seem to be most proud of is that they are doing “Something To Wrestle” their way, breaking every rule of podcasting in the process, as if the podcast medium is even mature enough to have rules yet. “All the experts told us to keep it under an hour; ours routinely go three hours,” says Prichard. “They told us not to cuss; we cuss. They said don’t start the show with a bunch of promos and ads; we do.”
“We’ve been given a lot of advice on what not to do,” says Thompson. “But over 80 percent of our listeners listen to our show all the way through, so if that’s the case, then the rules don’t matter.”
So what is it about “Something To Wrestle” that has allowed it to grow so rapidly, exclusively on word of mouth? Thompson thinks it’s the voyeuristic nature of wrestling fans. “Fans have this weird obsession with wrestling,” says Thompson. “There’s what we saw and what we didn’t see, and we can never get enough of what we weren’t supposed to see. People never really grow out of that, and Bruce is one of the only people who had that level of access. He was there, and now we are basically building sort of a verbal history of wrestling.”
Richard Deitsch covers sports media for SI.com, and cites the chemistry between Thompson and Prichard as a major selling point. “Conrad does an amazing amount of research, and he knows how to draw great answers from Bruce,” says Deitsch. “As far as the podcast goes, the two of them are on equal footing, which is huge.
Conrad isn’t afraid to challenge Bruce, which is a dynamic you don’t see on most wrestling podcasts.” Deitsch is absolutely right. Thompson and Prichard are not afraid to needle, poke, prod and insult each other, which results in some fantastic screaming matches, but then five minutes later, they’re laughing their asses off.
Deitsch also believes that Prichard’s encyclopedic recall of the smallest details is a game changer for “Something To Wrestle.” “Bruce himself is a fantastic mix of information and bullshit,” said Deitsch. “He’s a showman. He knows how to sell, and he knows how to no-sell (a wrestling term for when someone shows no reaction to an opponent’s wrestling moves.)”
Prichard’s recall is matched only by his ability to impersonate practically every person he worked alongside for those 22 years with WWE. Oftentimes, throughout an episode, Prichard will not only recall the most minute details of a story, but he will dialogue the story in the voices of the personalities involved. The podcast is at its comedic best when Thompson treats Prichard like his own personal impersonation jukebox and has him perform bits like Randy Savage, Dusty Rhodes, Vince McMahon and Jerry Jarrett ordering lunch.
“Bruce has unbelievable comedic timing, and his impersonations are incredible,” says comedian Dan Soder, best known as “Mafee” on Showtime’s Billions, and a diehard STW subscriber.
Soder is a lifelong wrestling fan, and he was hooked by the second episode of the podcast. “As a comedian, I’m on a lot of podcasts, but I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts,” Soder claims. “But Shuli [Egar] put me on to Bruce and Conrad, and the only thing that’s hooked me faster is cigarettes.”
The aforementioned Shuli Egar is a comedian and part of the Howard Stern Show, and, like Sodor, grew up watching wrestling, but drifted away from it around 1999 or so. “Something To Wrestle” has pulled him back in. “I was familiar with Bruce as Brother Love, so I heard about the podcast and within the first episode, I was hooked; by the second episode, I had to subscribe to the WWE Network. Now I binge-watch everything I’ve missed since 1999,” says Egar. “I’m like Donnie Brasco. I’m in too deep! I don’t know who I am!”
Egar touches on an interesting dynamic, one in which many “Something To Wrestle” subscribers are also paying the $10 monthly fee to subscribe to WWE’s online video network, which contains a library of every single WWE television show and pay-per-view ever televised, just so that they can follow along and watch the shows while listening to Thompson and Prichard dissect them. Thus, in a bit of irony, Prichard is actually driving revenue for the company that fired him a decade ago.
The question many have is just how much business the podcast is driving for Prichard himself. The answer to that question could be a thesis on new media.
Part of the serendipity of Thompson’s and Prichard’s content is the medium in which it’s distributed. Podcasting is one of the largest growth areas for advertising revenue, and with only about a quarter of the population claiming to listen to podcasts, according to Edison Research, there is plenty of room for growth.
“We’ve just scratched the surface. Podcasting is only getting started,” says Russell Lindley, president and partner of Houston-based advertising firm AdResults. “We will spend more on podcast advertising than radio advertising this year. This year there will be about $230 million spent on podcast advertising. Next year, I estimate, it will be about $350 million, and the year after that, it could see half a billion in 2019.”
“[Advertising on podcasts] works fantastic for clients,” continues Lindley. “For us, it’s outperforming radio. We measure four different areas in influencer media — national radio host, local radio host, podcaster and satellite host. The best-performing area, by far, is podcasting.”
While its dominant download numbers would lead you to think that “Something To Wrestle” was invented to directly line the pockets of Prichard and Thompson with advertising revenue, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, Thompson says the main reason both of them agreed to start the podcast is that they thought it would help sell mortgages.
“Our whole idea was not ‘Hey, Bruce, let’s do a podcast; it’ll be awesome.’ It was ‘Let’s do a podcast, and then we can sell our subscribers mortgages.’” says Thompson. “That was how we were going to monetize it.” While it’s accomplished that — when asked about the impact on First Family Mortgage’s business, Thompson merely says the podcast has been “phenomenal” — “Something To Wrestle” has been an income catalyst for Prichard in many different ways.
In addition to the boon for Thompson’s mortgage company, each “Something To Wrestle” episode now contains a handful of endorsement-style advertisements, often read by Prichard in one of his wrestling voices, from traditional advertisers. With the lofty download numbers that “Something To Wrestle” is producing, the podcast generates ad revenue in the low five figures on a weekly basis.
That money is the garden-variety income stream that popular podcasts will generate, income from traditional advertisers with a call to action for thousands of listeners. The unique thing about Prichard’s podcast is the ancillary revenue streams it has triggered for him personally. A few years ago, Prichard created a website to sell Brother Love T-shirts. At that time, you could literally count on one hand how many Prichard would sell over a couple of months. Such is life off the grid of wrestling relevance. However, since the meteoric rise of his podcast, Prichard now sells between 300 and 400 shirts a month. He personally calls each and every person who buys one to thank him or her.
“The way the T-shirt website works, I get an email every time a T-shirt is sold,” Prichard says. “So the first couple weeks after we launched the podcast, I started getting all these emails. I thought something was broken on the site. As it turned out, we were actually moving a ton of product; go figure.”
In March, with his download numbers each week rapidly approaching seven digits, Prichard was offered a chance to return to TNA (which by then had been renamed “Impact Wrestling”), playing himself as an on-air character, a far less stressful role than running things behind the scenes, as he had done from 2010 to 2013. “My podcast has more subscribers than their weekly television show has viewers,” Prichard says, chuckling. “It just made sense for them to hire me.” It wasn’t WWE, but Prichard was back on television.
Another revenue stream that Prichard and Thompson didn’t see coming was the demand for live “Something To Wrestle” shows at local theaters and nightclubs, where listeners can hear Prichard tell stories and answer audience questions. Prichard was approached by promoters about doing the first “Something To Wrestle” live show in Orlando the day before Wrestlemania 33 in April.
“I was already incredulous people wanted to listen to my stories on a podcast,” Prichard says. “Now I needed them to come out on a Saturday night and pay to hear my stories? I was scared as hell that nobody would buy tickets to come see me.” As it turns out, the place sold out two months in advance, and Prichard has since done live shows to packed houses in Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit and a handful of cities in Ireland and England. He will be doing a live show in Houston at the House of Blues on November 19.
In wondering what the shelf life of “Something To Wrestle” could be, Thompson is pragmatic. “When you look at the number of characters, story lines and big shows that we could discuss, it could go several years,” he says. “Plus, by the time we get to, say, episode 300, chances are a big part of the audience has only listened to a fraction of the episodes, so we can always revisit old topics from a different angle.”
What started as a platform to sell a few extra mortgages has turned into an entirely different creature. Thompson and Prichard have added a production expert, Matt Koon, to incorporate musical elements and produce the podcast each week, and they’ve brought in a graphics artist, Dave Silva, to handle all the promo art on social media. Both Koon and Silva linked up with Thompson and Prichard on Twitter, which adds yet another layer to the accidental clinic that Thompson and Prichard are conducting in maximizing social media’s reach.
Prichard has deftly turned this “happy accident” (Thompson’s words) of a podcast into the catalyst that’s fueling new income streams and has him the happiest he’s been professionally in years, but the reason the podcast can serve that purpose is simple — it’s entertaining, it’s good.
To that end, “Something To Wrestle” reached its critical peak back in August when it was named Sports and Recreation Podcast of the Year by the Academy of Podcasters, knocking off heavyweights like “Pardon My Take” by Barstool Sports and Bill Simmons’s self-named podcast in the process. Prichard, still to this day incredulous anyone listens to his show let alone gives it a trophy, tweeted out a picture of the trophy the next morning saying, “It’s still here!” In other words, no, it wasn’t a dream.
While that trophy is tangible proof that the content is great, it’s nights like a few before that in New York City that make Prichard’s “Something To Wrestle” journey such a great comeback story. On a Saturday night, WWE was getting ready for its annual SummerSlam show, and Bruce went to meet his old friend John “Bradshaw” Layfield, at the time a color analyst for WWE, for dinner at the WWE’s hotel. Nothing crazy, just a quiet meal between friends in the back corner of the hotel restaurant.
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“After we finished, I was leaving the hotel and on my way out, there were some wrestling fans on the other side of the barricades,” recalls Prichard. “Even though there were some wrestlers already walking around out there, when I came out of the hotel, the fans reacted to me. I got a pop.”
Prichard smiles while telling the story, because “pop” is wrestling slang for a reaction — in this case, cheers. In the wrestling business, a pop is everything. It’s a referendum on relevance, a barometer of respect, and while that unlikely trophy Prichard would receive a few days later was great, relevance and respect are better. After a long, jagged journey into wrestling’s abyss, Bruce Prichard once again has both.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prichard and Thompson are appearing at the House of Blues in Houston on November 19. Fans can purchase tickets here.