BOTHELL — When Bryan Alvarez goes upstairs and turns on his microphone, pro wrestling fans around the world listen.
Alvarez is the host of Wrestling Observer Live, a two-hour radio show that he produces in his home studio. It plays weekdays on hundreds of stations and Sundays on Sirius XM.
On one Sunday afternoon in May, Alvarez plopped in front of a computer screen and chatted with co-host Mike Sempervive, who was on the line from Delaware. That night was the WWE Elimination Chamber, a pay-per-view wrestling match featuring the biggest name in the sport, John Cena.
Alvarez and Sempervive were trying to predict how Cena’s match would end. Would he get pinned? Powerbombed? Disqualified?
Alvarez took calls throughout the show, bantering with an eccentric batch of listeners from California to Wisconsin to India. All of them were men, and they didn’t sound young.
“Your general wrestling fan is a lot like me,” said Alvarez, 40. “There was a really hot period for wrestling in the mid-90s, and a lot of kids grew up watching it in the ‘80s. When I was 21, the average wrestling fan was 21.”
Wrestling Observer Live is distributed by Sports Byline USA, a 24/7 radio network that estimates a total audience of 5 million listeners per week.
“There’s no other show I’m aware of that has the audience that Bryan has,” said Darren Peck, president of Sports Byline USA. “I can’t imagine there would be one with the platforms and the reach he’s achieved.”
Many of the show’s listeners are regulars at Figure Four Online, a website that Alvarez runs with wrestling and MMA journalist Dave Meltzer. The site, which charges $10.99 a month for a package of podcasts and a members-only message board. Alvarez declined to say the number of subscribers, but said they had more than 1 million page views from 220,000 unique visitors in May.
Alvarez is more than just a fan. He wrestled professionally throughout the Northwest under the name ”Chico” in the 2000s. “I didn’t like that name,” he said. “But that’s all anybody would chant.”
His fascination with the sport started in childhood. At 11, he and his friends put couch cushions on the floor and videotaped themselves as they grappled. By 16, he started coaching gymnastics and wrestled in the studio during off-hours.
“Once we discovered the spring floor, it was on,” he said. “Foam pit, crash pads. We put the balance beams in a square, and that was our ring. We taught ourselves how to wrestle.”
They called themselves the Youth Wrestling Foundation. They won a lottery spot on Seattle’s Public Access Channel and broadcast their own matches weekly from 1993 to 1995. Alvarez made a newsletter for their fans, and when the show ended, he started sending them a newsletter about professional wrestling. He called it Figure Four Weekly and asked for $40 a year for a subscription. It was 1995, and he was 19.
A couple of years later, he started working as a referee at local wrestling shows. One day a guy didn’t show up, so he stepped in to take his place.
“It was absolutely the most horrible match you ever saw. Complete disaster,” he said. “When it was over they said, ‘Hey, wanna wrestle again?’”
So he wrestled again, and again, and again. From British Columbia to Everett, Seattle to Tacoma, Portland to Eugene. He did the early shows for free. Then he worked his way up to $20 a night. It barely paid for his gas and his meal.
“But it was still something,” he said. “And I was lucky. Vinny, my co-host on the podcast, I don’t know if he ever got paid.”
Vinny, known as Vinny V in the ring and Vincent Verhei out of it, now writes for Figure Four Online and co-hosts a podcast called the “Bryan and Vinny Show” three times a week.
“I’m a much better writer than wrestler,” Verhei admitted. “I’ve been writing since third grade. I used to skip recess in grade school so I could stay in and write more.”
“That explains a lot,” Alvarez responded.
A handful of regional wrestlers made decent money, but Alvarez wasn’t one of them. Instead, he expanded his journalism endeavors. he started a 900 number, charging callers 99 cents a minute to hear the latest wrestling news. The first month brought in $2,000 — $1,200 for the 900 provider and $800 for Alvarez. He thought he had it made. But there was a catch: You couldn’t prevent children from calling. His big money month? It was one kid. He even knew who it was. When the kid’s parents refused to pay, Alvarez was told he owed the 900 provider the outstanding $1,200.
“I was like, ‘I can’t pay this bill, I’m doomed,’” he said. “So my grandmother called the 900 provider. She didn’t say she was my attorney, but she said ‘I’m representing Bryan Alvarez,’ and she went back and forth with them. Finally they said I didn’t owe anything and shut down the line.”
That’s when Alvarez started working with his website partner Meltzer, who published a popular wrestling newsletter and ran his own successful 900 hotline.
He hired Alvarez to take calls for him, and when he got an offer to do a show for the Internet radio network eYada in 1999, he recruited Alvarez to be his co-host. They called it Wrestling Observer Live.
Alvarez worked for free for the first year and a half, living at home and teaching gymnastics for money. The show moved to the Sports Byline USA network in 2002 and found a Sunday spot on Sirius when the satellite radio platform launched in 2006. The next year, Meltzer got hired by Yahoo! and was replaced by current co-host Mike Sempervive.
Meanwhile, Alvarez had moved his newsletter online. He merged it with Meltzer’s newsletter in 2008 to create what is now Figure Four Online. The site uploads eight new podcasts a week, and they’re not all about wrestling. A Thursday show features Alvarez’s grandmother (she recently hosted a poetry contest for her grandson’s 40th birthday). One podcast, “After Dark,” explores the paranormal.
“Wrestling fans and fans of the paranormal are very much alike,” Alvarez said. “You don’t go up to your friends and say, ‘Hey, I think I saw Bigfoot.’ This is just like wrestling fans: You don’t talk about your wrestling fandom to your buddies. You like something that isn’t cool in the mainstream.”
These days Alvarez still keeps a side job as an instructor at Evergreen Karate and Jiu Jitsu in Bothell. His wife, Whitney Neugebauer, also teaches there. Her thoughts on her husband’s wrestling mania?
“People ask me that a lot. I’ve never found a go-to answer,” Neugebauer said. “It’s fine, everyone likes their own stuff. I like my own stuff. I’m really into whales.”
After signing off from the Sunday night show in May, Alvarez descended a staircase and joined two friends watching the pay-per-view in his living room: Vincent Verhei, his co-host on a recap podcast later in the night, and Matthew Burrill, a subscriber to the website.
As the matches played out, Alvarez tweeted about the action and took notes on his laptop. He was a long way from diving through rings for gas money and volunteering as a radio host. Now wrestling junkies around the world had given him a career. After so many years, it paid to be more than a fan.