February 6, 2006
The evolution of Don WestBroadcaster goes from hawking sports collectibles to cheering on TNA's finest
By RYAN NATION - SLAM! Wrestling
Prior to joining TNA in 2002, Don West was best known for selling sports memorabilia during the graveyard shift. Nearly four years later, he's proven to be one of the most unique colour commentators in professional wrestling.
SLAM! Wrestling recently caught up with West, along with individuals from his past and present, to discuss the journey from sports cards to sports entertainment.
"I was born in Chicago and grew up in the Chicago area," said West. "I was a sports broadcasting major out of Purdue University and was always a big time sports junkie and collector.
"My brother, Dale, was involved with this upcoming new shopping channel called Shop At Home," continued West. "They had a sports show that they were trying to get off the ground and running. Dale knew my knowledge of sports and sports collectibles. Couple that with my robust personality, he thought I would be perfect for the job."
Although West had the expertise, qualifications and his brother pulling for him, he didn't start out selling anything sports related, but rather utensils.
"My brother happened to be the Chief Financial Officer at the time, so all he did was get me the interview," explained West, 42. "When I interviewed, they said this scrabbly voice of mine would never work on TV. They said 'you may turn off the buying customers, we don't wanna do it.' So, I had all my hopes built up only to receive nothing.
"Believe or not, I ended up going in the back door for a guy who was selling knives in 1991," added West. "We took his show from a few hundred thousand dollars a year to almost $2 million a year in one year's time. That was a whole lot for this small station at the time."
After garnering success selling knives, West was finally given the opportunity to host a show centered around what he knew best.
"When the network saw what I could do, and that my voice was a help and not a hindrance, they approached me with the sports show," said West. "I took it over in March of 1993. We took it from almost $3 million dollars a year to close to $150 million a year within the next eight years."
"I loved the product, so it was easy to sell," continued West. "I was live midnight to about eight in the morning four nights a week. To get people to stop on the channel, you had to be doing something a little different. When someone is up at three o'clock in the morning, trying to be quiet in the living room, flipping through the channels only to hear this screaming guy with Michael Jordan cards; they would stop and listen. If I could get them to listen long enough, I could sell a bunch of product. It was a lot of fun."
As time went on and the popularity of the Sports Collectibles grew, Saturday Night Live's own Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan parodied Don West and his broadcast partner Eddy Lewis in three different skits.
"I actually did see it when it first aired, but I didn't know what it was," said West regarding the parody. "TV monitors are set up in the studio. Someone that day had it on NBC watching a ballgame or whatever had been airing. The volume was turned down, but the channel was never changed.
"I remember doing the show Saturday night as we always did," continued West. "I looked up while we're doing the show, and there's Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan with a gigantic Shaq plaque on the screen. It was the same Shaq plaque we sold a week earlier. Within seconds, the phone banks lit up with people telling us to flip over to Saturday Night Live. We got a lot of mileage out of that as a result."
West then recounted a humorous story regarding his rising popularity while shopping with his mother: "There were other things I used to sell, and there was a stretch where Beanie Babies were the rage. For about two years, we sold Beanie Babies out the ying-yang, man! I remember being out with my mom shopping, and we went into this Hallmark store that sold Beanie Babies. All of a sudden, these girls behind the counter shouted, 'There's the Beanie Baby guy!' My mother's first experience out in public with people recognizing me had nothing to do about sports, it was about Beanie Babies. She'll always have that image."
In 2000, Vince Russo and Jeremy Borash approached West about joining WCW.
"The first call I got was from Jeremy Borash," explained West. "The two of them used to watch the show late at night in their hotel rooms while on the road. Vince Russo is a huge sports fan and a gigantic baseball fan -- one big thing him and I have in common is a love for baseball. They contacted me quite a bit for about a six-month period."
"Don was far and away the best salesman I'd every seen," Russo told SLAM! Wrestling. "If he could sell Josť Cardenal baseball cards at three o'clock in the morning, then he could definitely sell wrestling!"
"I even approached Shop At Home about it because I thought this might be fun," added West about the offer to join WCW. "However, the network could almost see the writing on the wall. They figured I would have so much fun doing it and wouldn't get me one hundred percent of the time. They gave me an ultimatum, either one or the other. At the time, I couldn't give up the sure thing for something that I had never done before. Just a few months later, WCW was bought out by Vince McMahon."
West eventually departed from Shop At Home in 2001 after being with the network for nearly a decade.
"I'm not going to get into all of the specifics, but it was a mutual agreement," stated West. "I had been screaming for eight hours a night, four nights a week. I also did all of the buying. Basically, I was living on one or two hours of sleep a day for almost ten years. Physically, I just couldn't do it anymore. I had done very well and was ready for a new venture. Our agreement was all good and amicable; they took good care of me. They didn't want me going to competing stations, so they let me take some paid time off. This allowed me to get into a sports talk show with WNSR in Nashville."
It was during this time that TNA management contacted West about being involved in the company.
"All of a sudden, Jeff Jarrett calls me out of nowhere," recounted West. "He explained to me how they were starting this new company and wanted to meet with me. He and Vince (Russo) were good friends and Vince had showed him some of my stuff."
According to Russo, "I told Jeff about Don. Jeff trusted me and went with my instinct. Then when he met Don, they really hit it off."
While the idea was alluring, West was reluctant to accept the offer at first.
"At the time, I was starting up a bunch of things," commented West. "I thought I wouldn't do it because I couldn't give my full commitment. Jeff kept calling -- he would always call every few weeks and say, 'I think there's something about your personality that we need on this show.'"
Executive Vice President of TNA Jeff Jarrett shared his outlook on Don West with SLAM! Wrestling.
"It's all about passion, enthusiasm and energy," commented Jarrett on West's ability to sell sports merchandise. "I did some research on him, and he did record numbers. He had a passion that translated through even when selling memorabilia on the graveyard shift. Will Ferrell didn't do the parodies because he was selling a lot of merchandise; it was because Don had a unique style and ability that definitely caught your eye. Again, the biggest thing was the passion that he put into that program."
Eventually West got together with Jeff Jarrett, Jerry Jarrett and Ron Harris for lunch to discuss the option of joining TNA.
"I talked with Jeff and his dad, and we hit it off," recalled West. "I found out later that I was not only auditioning in front of Jeff but also in front of Jerry. They saw something they liked and kept calling me. My wife of nearly 14 years, Terri, finally said 'why not do it?' I'm one of the lucky ones; I married my best friend. That's the honest to goodness truth. She's really been my best supporter over the years. If you get that in life, you're already ahead of the game."
TNA co-founder Jerry Jarrett recounted his initial impression of West with SLAM! Wrestling during the aforementioned lunch meeting: "I thought Don was a person with charisma. I realized he knew nothing about the wrestling business, but his personality expressed excitement and because we were going to try a three-man team, I thought he could fill the position we were seeking. Don was originally going to be the 'wrestling fan in the announce booth.'"
Jeff Jarrett expounded on how the company wanted to take a different approach to the announce team. "The traditional approach to professional wrestling broadcasting is you basically have a play-by-play guy and an antagonist. Over the years, Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan was probably the best. Jerry Lawler is a guy who morphed his career from being a serious wrestler into a heel colour commentator. Jesse Ventura was also very good. However, that to me was a part of the business that couldn't be duplicated. I thought we needed to take a different approach, and Don is a fan's man. He's someone who has enthusiasm. Don West had that energy and passion about wrestling. I knew before our first lunch meeting that there was a real good opportunity to do something that really had never been done in wrestling on his approach."
Jerry Jarrett explained how he originally wanted West to have a different look from traditional commentators. "Since Don was to be the 'wrestling fan in the announce booth,' I felt that he should dress casual, colourful and not attempt to dress like a typical announcer, which he was not."
"When I first started, Jerry Jarrett said he wanted me to have a different look," stated West. "I tried Hawaiian shirts at the first couple of shows, but that just didn't look good. Then, I started going to this rental place and renting zoot suits but that got kind of expensive. My wife found all of these different shiny shirts with matching ties on sale at Burlington Coat Factory, and she brought them home. I started rotating them on Pay Per Views. All of a sudden, it becomes a part of who you are. I'd read the Internet and the responses. There were always a few people who would blast them. Other people, who weren't taking life so serious, were going 'hey, that looked great. I like the silver and the blue.' Then some of the fans started coming to the shows wearing shiny shirts.
"The day I knew it really had taken off was when I had spilled something on one of them and couldn't wear it," continued West. "So, I had to wear a Hawaiian shirt, which is something I wear a lot during the summer. I got around 200 e-mails saying, 'put the shiny shirts back on!' I've basically wore those shirts out and have upgraded to something a little nicer."
West called his first wrestling match for TNA on June 19, 2002 in Huntsville, Alabama. Prior to the show, he experienced the commonplace pre-match jitters.
"I had an anxiety attack about five minutes before the show started," recalled West. "I'm kind of high strung anyways, and anxiety is what I feed on. I've never been more nervous about anything than that. I didn't have the knowledge that these guys did. I've enjoyed wrestling and always watched it. I had done sports broadcasting before with basketball, baseball and football -- but I had never done wrestling. I was pouring sweat and scared to death. Thank God for Mike Tenay back then, that's for darn sure!"
"The Professor" Mike Tenay also took the time to discuss his first impression of his partner in crime with SLAM! Wrestling.
"My first meeting with Don West was one day before TNA's first ever show in June of 2002," said Tenay. "We went to lunch and immediately found we had many common interests. I was impressed with his vast knowledge of sports, but realized he had only a basic understanding of the wrestling business. I wasn't a viewer of Don's Shop At Home sports memorabilia TV show, but my son was, and he wanted to know if Don was really a sports fan or just cashing in on the craze. Needless to say, Don passed every sports test I threw at him with flying colours."
West received some insightful advice early on from his peers about his role as a broadcaster.
"I explained the position he was to fill on the announce team, and that he did not have to attempt to learn the names of the wrestling moves because Mike Tenay was the expert in that area," said Jerry Jarrett. "I suggested he have fun and if ever the job was not fun, to quit because the fans would be able to sense his attitude. The wrestlers that become superstars would wrestle even if they had to pay instead of getting paid. They love what they do. Don has become a superstar because of the same attitude. All you have to do is watch one TNA show, and you know Don West loves what he is doing."
Tenay further added, "I can recall that when we started out in TNA, my advice was pretty basic. Don was handpicked by TNA management to be the fan's voice. I can remember that we worked on talking in sound bites to try to elicit the type of response that a fan at home or in the arena might have to a certain move or situation. I recall that Jerry Jarrett and I worked with him on the timing of his sound bites -- when and where to enter the broadcast and what moves to place extra emphasis on. I also remember that after the first show (broadcast live) and after the second show (voiced over in studio in Nashville) that I wasn't very optimistic about the three-man broadcast team that management assembled."
The transition from a three-man broadcast team of Tenay, West and Ed Ferrara to the current two-man announcing setup of West and Tenay proved to be more effective for all parties involved.
"It's hard when you've got so many people trying to say the same thing," said West. "Although I will say Ed Ferrara was always good to me. I really enjoyed being around Ed. He left for his own reasons, and it had nothing to do with the booth. Once he left, we discovered that the two-man booth seemed to work better. Other than Mike Tenay, Ed was really good in helping me along because I was finding my way. I'll always appreciate that from him." (Ferrara currently resides in Chicago, teaching writing courses at both Columbia College and the University of Chicago.)
"Don and I really hit our stride shortly after Ed Ferrara left TNA to move to Chicago," added Tenay. "I think that initially Don might have been nervous, knowing he had a bigger role in the broadcast, but almost immediately, the larger role allowed him to be more comfortable. It was easier to adapt to the two-man booth, and we started to pick up the on-air chemistry within a few shows.
"Don is totally different from any colour commentator in wrestling history," continued Tenay. "I've noticed that his style takes a few shows to get used to. When we would switch networks (first to Fox Sports Net and now to Spike TV), new viewers would initially be negative to Don's style. But, if you listen to him for a few weeks, his genuine enthusiasm and interest in the product wins you over."
When questioned on what he felt West brings to the table since carving out his own niche, Jeff Jarrett had the following to say: "He brings a zeal and a passion to the show, something that is so different. I don't see that there's been anything close to Don West and how he responds. He's a great compliment to Mike Tenay -- that's what makes their chemistry so great. Mike is virtually a walking encyclopedia of the professional wrestling business going back several decades.
"The team works," continued Jarrett. "They compliment each other and that's basically what a good tag team is. Take America's Most Wanted, they're not a bookend tag team that was so prevalent in the '80s. Those two guys are different personalities. James Storm is the cowboy and Chris Harris is more or less the city slicker, but their styles compliment each other. I think Mike and Don are the same case. When you hear them call matches, Mike tells such a great story, and Don brings that excitement and enthusiasm. When a big move is done or a dramatic turn in events happens, Don enhances it and makes you feel that all the much more."
While West is quite happy and comfortable with his involvement in wrestling, he never imagined he would be where he is today.
"I would have figured we were smoking some bad stuff," joked West. "I'm being facetious, but no way would I have ever thought that -- not in my wildest dreams! I was always into sports broadcasting, and my goal was to be sports broadcaster or radio sports show host. I got involved with Shop At Home and that took on a life of its on, but that was never what I planned on doing.
"When it was first brought up by Vince (Russo), I just thought it's not me," continued West. "He said, 'you don't understand, it is you.' I would have never bought it. If it wasn't for Vince though, I wouldn't be here."
West has acquired a lot of knowledge about the wrestling business from being an outsider going in full throttle.
"The first thing I think that you learn is the language," stated West. "There's a language that's all to its own in wrestling. Heels, babyfaces, marks... there's a whole dictionary of words that you end up having to learn. It seemed foreign to me at first. You have to learn the lingo.
"Being around Mike, it was exciting to learn how many different moves and holds there are," continued West. "It's not just a punch and kick. It's also interesting to see what each wrestler's finishing moves are and what they prefer the finishers be called. Learning all of that and realizing how much depth there is was the biggest shock."
West also shared his predictions for the future of TNA.
"I see a two-hour slot coming, hopefully in the near future. We've got to with the stars we have, we need to get more airtime. I see the competition coming again. I don't know if there will ever be the Monday night wars type of competition. Our growth is going to be in such bigger increments. I see us traveling more, doing a lot more house shows and doing the Pay Per Views in different cities."
West also described how hard everyone works behind the scenes in TNA.
Jeff Jarrett for example. "That guy lives, breathes and sleeps TNA," said West. "Somebody is calling him whether they are asking for a job or asking for an interview nonstop. His phone is ringing every 15 seconds.
But how has Don West evolved over the years as a colour commentator?
"Don has made incredible strides in the past three-plus years," stated Tenay. "He has evolved from simply the fan's voice to a position where his knowledge is equal to his enthusiasm. Don has really impressed me with his desire to improve as a broadcaster combined with his desire to learn, and more importantly, understand the wrestling business. I've worked with some great colour broadcasters through the years like Bobby Heenan and Larry Zbyszko, but I can honestly tell you that I've never been as comfortable working with someone as I have with Don West."
According to Russo, "He's grown by leaps and bounds. Don West is great at what he does, and he's a great, great human being!"
"The proof is in the pudding," exclaimed Jeff Jarrett. "Listen to his first broadcast and then listen to a recent one. There's a reason that guys get into the business and become good at what they do after awhile. It just takes time; you cannot do it over night. Even the naturals who take to the professional wrestling business pretty quickly still take years, not months, to develop a real comfort. Not only are they comfortable on camera, but they know how to sell the product, make money and entice the fans to come back week after week. That's something Don has improved drastically in.
"The only drawback about Don is that he knows too many facts about a worthless sport, that being baseball," chuckled Jarrett. "I always bug him about it."
According to Jerry Jarrett, "I think he is the best. In the beginning, some fans thought Don was a bit over the top. Don would read the comments on the Internet that concerned him and get a bit down. We discussed the comments, and I advised that the reason for the comments were that the fans had not yet learned that Don was being himself and his energy and excitement was real. I suggested that when the fans realized that Don was not acting, they would appreciate him. I'm delighted that my forecast has turned out to be accurate. Don has become as important to the TNA show as any talent on the show. I think Don is a superstar."
West also explained what he learned from sitting under the learning tree that is Jerry Jarrett. "He's been so good to me that I don't even know how to describe it. The fact that he stuck with me is the main thing. I'll never forget when times were tough early on in our first few months, he had to call me up and say, 'Don, we're really having to cut budgets. We're going to have to cut your pay in half.' He felt so bad about it, but I was just glad that they weren't firing me. He can tell stories like nobody else. I would love to just sit with Jerry and listen to his stories realizing he'll forget more in this business than most of us will ever learn. It's something just to hear all of those stories about him and Jackie Fargo. Again, he was just so good to my family, and I'll have nothing but nice thoughts when it comes to Jerry Jarrett."
Unlike the wrestlers who might have had their pay cut, however, West had a fall-back job that he continues to juggle with commitments to TNA. He hosts The Sports Reporters from noon to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday on WNSR AM 560 in Nashville, with a rotating stable of local sports experts.
When his broadcasting career is finished, West would like to be remembered fondly by his peers and fans.
"Honestly, I took as much criticism as an announcer can take starting off," recalled West. "That's just part of being in showbiz. I worked hard to improve, and I do take it seriously. If someone asks me what my main job is, TNA or the radio show for WNSR?, I've got to be honest and say it's TNA Wrestling. I'm in this for the long haul. I hope to be here all through our successes because it is so fun. To reiterate, I would love to be remembered as someone who worked hard, constantly improved, tried to listen to constructive criticism, and did whatever it took to get better while still being me."
Ryan Nation would like thank everyone who was involved with this project. A special thanks goes out to both Caroline Williams and Matt Conway at TNA Wrestling for their much needed and appreciated assistance.