Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A Conversation with Wrestle Crate UK's Richard Penaluna

We recently got the chance to talk to the man behind Wrestle Crate UK, Richard Penaluna. We originally spoke to Richard in September 2013 as part of our Five Questions with... interview series, back when he was editor of Calling Spots magazine, you find that interview here. In this interview we chat all about what's happened since our last interview, the creation of Wrestle Crate UK, what makes the product stand out in a crowded market, Richard's favourite people to work with and a whole lot more.  

ATPW: Same question as always to begin, what made you a wrestling fan? 

Richard Penaluna: It was either October or November 1997, I should know the date, and it was Badd Blood PPV. In Your House: Badd Blood, that was in particular. I'd seen bits of wrestling in the build up to this. I used to go to my Grandma house on a Saturday afternoon, there was nothing on the telly, so I would watch WWF Superstars, I wanna say. It was an hour recap show, they still have those hour recap shows now. So, I kind of watched that, but it was more in the background. Then my best friend at the time had gotten into wrestling a year before that and he used to collect WWF Magazine. So I used to flick through those magazines without really knowing what they were. I became interested by the characters, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was just coming up and I remember reading a profile about this Texas Rattlesnake badass who was after the boss. I think that's why I've always had a soft spot for wrestling magazines.

Ultimately that lead to Badd Blood. Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels, first ever Hell in a Cell match, to this day it's still my favourite match. That was the moment that I just fell in love with wrestling. That match was just superb. It was a mix of Undertaker, larger than life character, Shawn Michaels, just a regular bloke but completely flamboyant, athleticism and then this character Kane turns up. I remember being young and thinking "This isn't like anything I've ever seen before. It's not sport, it's not entertainment, it's somewhere in the middle and I love it!". I've been a wrestling fan ever since. 

ATPW: It's interesting that you mention the magazine. I find it interesting how many different ways people can get into the WWE product. I've spoken to people who've got into because of action figures, video games, there's just so many different ways that people have been drawn in!

RP: Yeah, that's a good point. One of my friends, his son is starting to get into wrestling. He's maybe six years old and he's getting into it through playing the WWE game on his Xbox. He got a trial or something, didn't buy the game, he just trialled it and enjoyed it. After that he started watching YouTube videos of people playing the game and he now watches that more than he watches actual WWE. Now he's started to collect the figures, he collects the Funko! Pops, but his way of getting into it was literally playing a demo of the game and then finding it on YouTube and watching YouTubers play the game and then he bought the game itself and that's what made him a fan. So I suppose you're right there's lots of different entry points. 

ATPW: In the previous about Calling Spots, you mentioned you'd wrote about wrestling before, so I was wondering when did you start writing about wrestling? And what made you want to write about wrestling? 

RP: That would have been 2007. Ten years ago. I don't know actually. I felt like I had a different ethos now. At that time you'd go on Twitter, you go on the internet blogs, not all blogs, but a lot of blogs, there was so many opinions ten years ago and even to this day, it was all just kind of negative and what wrong with RAW last week and armchair quarterbacks as the cliché goes. I just didn't enjoy reading that and I thought well "I feel like my opinion, is just that, it's my opinion, but my opinion is a lot more positive and when I have conversations with people about wrestling I talk to them because I enjoy it, so I'm not going to talk too much about the things I don't like unless it's particularly pertinent or relevant at that time. The majority of the conversations I want to have about wrestling are about the good stuff, the fun stuff". So I just started writing about that. The ethos was "Wrestling's fun, lets just enjoy it!" and that was the reason why because I felt like I could put something forward and it would just be an opinion piece of a random wrestling fan. I've got no external credentials that would entitle me to have that opinion, but I felt like I had an opinion that was positive and if people wanted to read positive stuff, I would be one of the people that was putting that positive thing out there. That was my goal at the time, ten years ago. 

ATPW: I like the positive aspect. Whenever I get reviews sent into me, they're either all positive or all negative. And I have to say "I can't put this up", because if you've only ever got bad things to say then there's nothing to compare anything to and vice versa. 

RP: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think you can be positive about wrestling without saying that every single thing is great. It's about the balance. It's like watching a bad movie, you can watch a bad movie and go "That was absolutely terrible movie, that was a bad movie, but you know what the way it was shot was excellent" or "That one character was fantastic" or "I really liked that scene". You can watch a movie a movie and say "that was terrible" but pick out something and talk about that's fine. You don't have to like everything, but when you talk about how bad it was, don't just talk about how bad it was, pick out something you did enjoy. Don't just shit on something for the sake of it.  

Relevant because Shit Movies.

ATPW: In between our last interview and the start of Wrestle Crate UK, what were up to? Just to fill the gap between the two interviews. 

RP: Calling Spots grew more than I thought it would. It was a fanzine and it still is, it's just nothing to do with me anymore. Calling Spots grew quite quickly, I guess to a level where we had a decent sized, quite ardent reader-base. That was really good, that was really positive. I thoroughly enjoyed being the editor of Calling Spots. As a hobby, it was great, I got to engage with the readers and the readers would take to different opinion pieces from all the writers and talk to us about it on social media. I used to enjoy generating buzz around the covers, I used to think back to records back in the day when the cover art was something unique and special and people used to take pride in that, so I put a lot of focus on the front cover and I used to love releasing them before the magazine.

I got to tick something off the bucket list, in between the interview in 2013 and starting Wrestle Crate UK in 2015, which was release a book. So we got to write basically Calling Spots: The Book, which was a compendium of the best articles from the first ten issues, but also I got to write about some of the experiences that the team and I had had through Calling Spots. So that was quite good, getting to release a book and having collectors want to own that and buy that so that was probably biggest thing that happened magazine wise.

Then through Calling Spots that's actually how I ended up running Wrestle Crate in the UK. So in 2015, I noticed the company Wrestle Crate in the US, I noticed their Twitter page pop up and I was like "Okay, lets keep an eye on this, this looks interesting" because I like merchandise, I like buying things physically and I like wrestling, obviously, it would be ridiculous if I didn't! So I was keeping a close eye on what they were doing and when I realised they were legit and they were recent boxes and seemed to grow a customer base reasonably quickly given they were the first of their kind in the world, the first wrestling themed subscription box, I reached out saying "This is what we do over here, this is the magazine and I've sent you some samples, here's what we're doing etc. etc." and basically set up a great working relationship with Ed who used to the owner of Wrestle Crate in the US, quite early on in Wrestle Crate's days. That relationship initially being just selling stuff, so "Do you want to buy some magazines?" and fairly quickly that turned into Calling Spots producing a bespoke product for Wrestle Crate. Limited edition versions of the magazine with different covers, artwork from the artists, things like that, so basically there was a Calling Spots presence in Wrestle Crate for six months, I would say. 

We actually worked on a pretty cool project where we worked with Rhyno. The owner of Wrestle Crate used to love trading cards, he used to collect baseball cards, stuff like that and that's a lot bigger in the States than it is over here, obviously. One of the things that they do a lot of in the trading card world, apparently it was new to me, is trading cards that have got a bit of relic, so a bit of match worn attire, like some cloth from a baseball shirt, that's built into the trading card. So we got to make these really cool Rhyno postcards but with that was a bit of Rhyno ring-worn attire, some of his wrestling gear, one of his old ECW t-shirts, things like that. It was quite a unique piece of merchandise, I'd never been involved in anything like that before. Working directly with a wrestler, also with an artist, also with the person buying it and then creating a product and getting it to them. That gave me a taste for it a little bit. So long story short that's how I went from being editor of Calling Spots to where we are in 2015 which was thinking about starting up Wrestle Crate UK.

ATPW: For anyone who isn't aware, can you let them know what Wrestle Crate UK is all about? 

RP: Wrestle Crate is the first ever in the World, monthly merchandise subscription service for wrestling fans. It's a mystery box of wrestling goodies that's sent to your door every single month and I know that sounds a bit catchphrasey, but that's what it is. We've got a team who handpick items, that's nowadays grown to the point where we create content that's actually exclusive to Wrestle Crate. You'll get a t-shirt in every single box, you'll get autographs, you'll get DVDs, you'll get collectibles, you'll get lapel pin badges, you'll get figures, Funko! Pop Vinyls. Basically, you'll get wrestling merchandise from all over the world. They'll be a couple of things that you could go into a shop and buy, the Funko! Pop Vinyls that sort of things, but what makes it unique is that we get to work directly with wrestlers, wrestling promotions to create content that you can't get elsewhere, t-shirts that you can't get elsewhere, the autographs, the print itself will be something unique that the wrestlers don't sell themselves, so even if you have that person autograph, you're not going to get a duplicate in your collection.

So basically, if you collect wrestling merchandise and if you spend money on wrestling merchandise every month, then if you sign up to Wrestle Crate, you'll pay less money and get a larger value than what you've paid box of wrestling merchandise. With the aim particularly being on good quality. I think we're at a point now, particularly in the UK with Wrestle Crate UK where we know who are audience is. Our audience is what I like to call the "modern wrestling fan". We're at a point now, in 2017, where there's sooo many flavours of wrestling, but wrestling fans know what they want and that's why you get people who are so passionate about supporting PROGRESS, people who are so passionate about supporting WWE and even TNA...Global Force Wrestling...I don't know what they're called these days...Impact fans, they will defend Impact because that's their particular flavour and that's what they love and you know what that's fantastic. As a wrestling fan, we are in the best time possible to enjoy wrestling, because we can get it easily and we can pick the flavour of wrestling that we want. So, with Wrestle Crate we get to sample all of these different flavours and bring a little piece. But ultimately, we know our fan base and we know the flavours that our fan base like the most and we will bend over backwards to get exclusive items that we know our fans will enjoy.

ATPW: Since Wrestle Crate launched, there's been a lot of similar products come out, different crates, different companies, in different forms, what makes Wrestle Crate stand out from the new pack?

RP: A couple of things. If you look at the wrestling subscription landscape, you've got there's a clear divide. There's some absolute garbage out there if I'm honest, there's some bad wrestling subscription boxes. There's some particularly niche wrestling subscription boxes and then there's the three front runners. 

So without naming names, you've got one that is very specifically, just for WWE fans, 100% for WWE fans, which is powered by Loot Crate. So, they know their audience which is clearly more collectibles, for lack of a better phrase. If you've ever bought Loot Crate, because Loot Crate as a company are the pinnacle of the subscription service, the founders of Loot Crate are geniuses, I've got the upmost respect for the people who started Loot Crate. But Loot Crate work with WWE and they have their own box and it's very like Loot Crate but with WWE stuff in it. So there's them. 

Then on the other side, there's a company who just work with independent wrestlers. That's it. That's their kind of business model because they already have contracts with these people, because they sell items for them already. 

Then there's Wrestle Crate, the original, who will give you the best of both worlds. We're in an advantageous position where we are able to curate officially licensed WWE products. For example next month's crate has officially licensed WWE products, last month's crate has officially licensed WWE products. But we also can work with anybody in the world that we want, we're not restricted by contracts. So we've worked with Ring of Honor directly this month, we've worked with the British Strong Style lads, who are absolutely on fire, we've had an exclusive agreement with PROGRESS Wrestling to produce items that you can't get anywhere else. So we're in a great position where we can offer customers a mix of every type, every flavours of wrestling in the World.

ATPW: It's great to have that mix. I think it's great that we're at a time where you find whatever you want for whatever you're into it...

RP: Yeah, you know what, if I just watched WWE, I wouldn't subscribe to Wrestle Crate, that's fine, that's not really our target audience. At the same time, if you don't watch any WWE at all, then that's probably not our target audience either. So those two particular niches, there's other option out there. This goes back to what I was saying before about understand our customer base. Our customer base is the modern wrestling who watches WWE, who watches RAW, SmackDown Live, NXT and enjoys that, but at the same time will go and watch PROGRESS, will go and watch ICW, will go and watch Fight Club: PRO in the UK and in Germany, because Germany is by far our second biggest customer base, so in Germany would go and watch wXw. That's our target market, the wrestling fans who do enjoy WWE, but also enjoy the different flavours that are a bit closer to home.

ATPW: It sounds like a pretty good way if you were someone who only watched WWE, but were looking for an in to other wrestling products, because sometimes it is difficult to know where to start, because there is so much out there. So perhaps Wrestle Crate could work as a sort of tester for someone like that.

RP: I'd like to think so. That's actually quite an interesting point. Something that we've done as a company over the last year, we get to work with the biggest wrestling companies outside of WWE in the world. To be able to create exclusive Ring of Honor merchandise, where you can't buy it on the Ring of Honor website, they won't sell it, but their team helps us make it and helps us market it and to me that's still mind-blowing. Ultimately, we get to create these different flavours and pull together premium items.

At the same time, something we've put an active effort into for the last year or so is working with smaller companies so not quite your Ring of Honor levels, not quite your PROGRESS levels, basically companies that aren't going to fit 1000, maybe 1500 people into a building, but companies that are slowly doing their own thing, creating their own unique way of doing things. Good companies, but companies that haven't yet made that break, that jump, to get to that Ring of Honor level, that PROGRESS level, that Fight Club: PRO level. What we've been doing is working with them for the last year, to say to those companies that "We'd love to work with you. Why not introduce your product to our subscriber base and show them what your product is?" and what that's allowed us to do is, in the last twelve crates or so, have a download. So you can download a free show or maybe access their on demand for a month to give Wrestle Crate subscribers, as you say, that taster of what these companies are. So it's not these premium items that you've paid for, but it's an extra bonus for being a Wrestle Crate subscriber. If you've been a Wrestle Crate subscriber for the last year, you would have got something like eight full wrestling shows, from all around the world, from Australia, from New Zealand, from Canada, from Germany, for free to download to your ipad or whatever. Then also on demand and things like that. That;s on top of everything that you get in there, the physical stuff. It's just bonus loot. 

Yeah, I do think there's definitely value in introducing wrestling fans to good wrestling, from around the world that they've potentially not come across yet. 

ATPW: Have you had any particular favour items that you've included in your boxes? Anything that you were particularly excited to send out to people? 

RP: Yeah, a few. I mean, genuinely, I tend to curate it all, I've got a team that I can bounce ideas off, but ultimately I like to plan it all out in my head and I've got this book that I carry around religiously so I can jot down ideas and stuff. I plan maybe three, four, five months in advance, so I can write down "Okay, we're doing that here, we're doing that there", so I can paint a picture of what the next few months are going to look like. So I can think "Are our fans getting enough of this? Are they getting enough of that?" We like to announce items each month, so I can plan in advance "This is this big announcement this month, people are going to excited to hear we're working with this person, so we can announce that next month". Those are the items that I get most excited about.

We recently worked with Marty Scurll, I really enjoyed that. Marty is just fantastic, so well-rounded, great in the ring, such a great character and I think the fact that his merchandise sells so well on Pro Wrestling Tees sums up his popularity. I think he's fantastic. So we worked with Marty, we got to make an exclusive print, which he hand signed and we got to make an exclusive Marty Scurll t-shirt, which again you couldn't get anywhere else. So I'd say they were some favourites. We have a Jimmy Havoc lapel pin badge this month and we've made it in the style of the old Hasbro WWF figures, which to me the concept of Jimmy Havoc the character as a Hasbro kids figure is just hilarious. That's a personal favourite, we've done pin badges for about a year now and this is my favourite, I love it. Early on we worked with Kurt Angle to get some signed prints, which was obviously really cool, because it's Kurt Angle! The British Strong Style lads, it was an absolute pleasure working with them, we got to do an exclusive t-shirt and an exclusive signed print. I think those are my favourite items, but if I'm honest it was more the people that we get to work with that make the items. The items are just a bi-product of working with a great wrestler and a good person.  

ATPW: Is there anyone left who you'd love to work with? 

RP: Let's not give too much away about what's potentially on the cards. I guess, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart are two that would be just perfect for Wrestle Crate. I think, realistically we'll have, at least, one of those two in Wrestle Crate in the next month. Closer to home CCK are fantastic, Travis Banks is on fire. The beauty of British wrestling at the moment is we lose people, we lose Marty to Japan and America, we look like we're going be potentially losing Pete Dunne, Tyler Bate, obviously we lost Jack Gallagher and Noam Dar, but as we lose a fantastic wrestler, there's someone else who's coming through. The British wrestling scene is so good at the minute, although I've named CCK, Travis Banks, Martina the Session Moth is on fire at the minute. She's just taken off because people just get it. People look at her and go "Yes, I know what your character is and that is fantastic". I'd love to work with those three, so I'd love to work with those free but I'm sure that when we do hopefully get to work with the CCK lads, Travis Banks and Martina, six months down the line, if you ask me the same question, I'm sure the British scene being the way it is, I'll be able to give you three or five names of the next group of guys coming through. The guys and girls of the UK at the moment are just fantastic. 

ATPW: What wrestling have you watched recently? 

RP: I have to be very clever with how I consume wrestling these days, because time isn't something that I have a lot of. I still love it, I don't love it any less, but Wrestle Crate has grown to a point where, ultimately it's still a family run business, with me doing the creative and the day-to-day running of the company, the majority of that is just on me. I've got a fantastic team that I work with, so I've got a packing team and I've got an art team and I've got a curation team, but it's mostly me, so with that in mind, consuming wrestling isn't as easy as it was when I was editor of Calling Spots when I could stick the Network on all day and I could watch PROGRESS on Demand and I could watch the latest Ring of Honor iPPV and I could buy DVDs to watch. I just physically don't have that same level of time. So the way I consume wrestling has had to get cleverer, because I still need to stay on top of what's going on all over the world. I need to know what people are enjoying, even if it's not to my taste, because I've got an obligation to the Wrestle Crate subscribers to make sure it's not just one persons views and it's not just what I think is good, because that's selfish. A lot of the way I have to take in wrestling is through social media, through picking bits and bobs, if I'm honest.

So to answer you question, outside of WWE, because lets be honest I have to watch WWE, the last wrestling that I enjoyed and went out of my way to watch is a company that's quite local, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and they're called NORTH and they've been on my to-watch-list for a year or nine months. Basically after that first show I was like "This looks interesting, I need to go and watch this and scout this and see what this is". So, it was half a mission, I guess, to go and check it out, see if we can work together, go and meet the owner, which I got to do, a really nice guy. On top of that it looked like a good wrestling product, it looked like they'd got to grips very quickly with understand what their audience was. Which was people who like wrestling, who want to go out, have a few drinks and a laugh and enjoy some...I don't want to say "Punk Rock Wrestling" because that's obviously another companies thing, but you can see the similarities, you can see the underground type feel that they've gone for. It's set in a nightclub. So that was the last wrestling, which was maybe a week or two weeks ago, that I went out of my way to watch. From that show, standouts were once again were Martina, "Flash" Morgan Webster who we've worked with before, but watching him do his thing in that intimate setting was really good and he was moved into the main event after there was a few dropouts, so that was really good to see "Flash" thrive in that, obviously he's having a hell of a year coming off of BOLA. El Ligero is just class. You can put El Ligero anywhere on the card, from the hot start, literally you can put El Ligero anywhere on the card and he will deliver. So yeah, NORTH Wrestling, first time I'd seen them, if you'd asked me a month ago I couldn't vouch for them, couldn't say anything about them, but genuinely really enjoyed it, they're definitely a company to keep an eye.

ATPW: Just to close up, where can people find Wrestle Crate UK online and anything else you've got to put out there? 

RP: Wrestle Crate is on Twitter @WrestleCrateUK. The same again for Facebook, just search Wrestle Crate UK. The website is WrestleCrate.co.uk. Have a look, if you're a wrestling fan, if you like me enjoy buying wrestling merchandise, t-shirts, autographs, DVDs, then I would love you to come check out what we're doing. We're a family run business, I'm a big advocate of supporting wrestlers and what they do, as a fan of wrestling, I'm conscious that wrestlers put their bodies and their livelihoods on the line to entertain us and I think that can often be understated. I feel like I'm in a really privileged position, where I'm the owner of a company who gets to work directly with wrestler to put some extra money into their pockets and to give something to our fans, it's like a win win for everybody. You get great merchandise, you know that indirectly you're supporting the wrestlers, whose product you get in that box. If you like mainstream wrestling too, you know you're going to get some WWE stuff in there as well. So if physical wrestling merchandise is your thing, then do check it out. We'd love to have you on board.


A big thanks to Richard Penaluna for taking the time out to chat with us, we wish him and everyone at Wrestle Crate UK the very best. 

Interview by James Marston - Conducted 15th September 2017

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