By Kim Bhasin
World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. is planning a long-term push into Africa with a continent-wide talent search and media partnerships as management seeks to grow its brand of scripted combat in nascent markets abroad.
The program includes a multiday tryout for wrestling hopefuls in Lagos, Nigeria, in February through an arrangement with WWE’s local broadcast partner SuperSport. WWE intends to bring the top prospects in for additional auditions at WrestleMania in Los Angeles in April.
“This will be the playbook that we’ll use internationally as we start to identify additional markets,” said James Kimball, WWE’s head of talent operations and strategy. “Africa is a focal point for us in terms of this renewed emphasis on global expansion.”
Africa is attracting newfound interest from sports leagues looking for their next growth market, in search of both talent and viewers. The NFL hosted its first official events in Africa this year in Ghana, including a football camp aimed at scouting athletes. The NBA is also pumping investment in the continent as it expands its own pan-African basketball league, which last season held games in Senegal, Egypt and Rwanda.
WWE executives are in talks in several other African nations as they formalize recruitment operations. Kimball singled out Ghana, Kenya and South Africa as the next potential landing spots. WWE also signed a distribution deal with SuperSport-parent MultiChoice Group last week to bring its shows to the streaming service Showmax as it tries to grow wrestling’s popularity in the region.
Management is in discussions to develop a potential docu-series program based on its tryouts as well, and camera crews will start following around the new recruits in Lagos.
Career paths into pro wrestling are often muddled, and WWE is working to streamline and institutionalize the system. In the US, it’s building a pipeline into college sports with name, image and likeness deals now that NCAA athletes are allowed to sign such agreements and retain eligibility. In Africa, routes into the industry are even more circuitous, since there’s no local pro wrestling scene to partake in, but there are fans who watch on TV.
Some of WWE’s top performers over the years were born in Africa, including Ghanian-American Kofi Kingston, who became the first African-born WWE champion. The problem is that they’re often just stumbled upon, instead of actively scouted, so it’s all blind luck.
The latest rising star from Africa is Omos, a 7-foot-3, 28-year-old from Lagos billed as the Nigerian Giant. As a teen, under his real name Tolulope Omogbehin, he attended NBA-affiliated basketball camps and eventually moved to the US to play in high school before moving on to play college hoops. His family had to stay home, since it was difficult to get visas. After college, he scored a tryout at WWE’s facility in Orlando and got signed. A former tag-team champion, Omos is now prominently featured on T-shirts and as an action figure.
The WWE and other sports leagues vying for talent from Africa are hoping that future stars won’t have to take such a convoluted path.
“I’m just really excited for the opportunity that these kids have,” Omogbehin said in an interview. “I was able to go to these camps and play, do the drills and have opportunity to make something of myself, and I’m glad that these kids coming up will have another viable option for them to make it.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.