Geno Mrosko went from high school dropout to running one of the most popular sites on SB Nation. As the managing editor of Cageside Seats, he took the pro wrestling blog from 700,000 hits in 2011 to over 130 million last year. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even watch wrestling when he was offered the gig.
“I hadn’t been paying attention, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up,” Mrosko said. “I figured I’ll watch and learn as I go along and it’ll all come back to me.”
When he was 8 years old, his dad popped a Survivor Series 1990 tape into the VCR. Instantly captivated by Undertaker, Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan, he fell in love with wrestling, following the melodrama through the Attitude Era until souring on the product around 2003. Mrosko still enjoyed combat sports, though, and joined the MMA community at BloodyElbow.com. That’s where former Cageside Seats owner David Bixenspan sought out MMA writers.
“He brought me on and I did enough work that I caught the eye of Tommy Myers from MMA Mania,” Mrosko said. “He offered to pay me and I rose up pretty quick, soon he made me managing editor. After six months, Bix left Cageside and they asked me to be editor in chief. They said we’ll pay you this much money in addition to what you’re getting paid here. You make your own site and you make the editorial direction.”
Mrosko’s first act of business was asking the Cageside staff to stay. Only Keith Harris did. “He stuck around because he liked the format, and it was just a hobby for him. He wasn’t worried about getting paid. I really needed him because he was like an encyclopedia of knowledge,” Mrosko said.
With nobody else left, Mrosko turned to Sergio Hernandez, his friend from MMA Mania. They became a two-man content machine, posting at least once every hour from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. CST. The posts varied from news updates to videos to interesting quotes to rumors, anything that would keep readers coming back.
“Content is king,” Mrosko said. “Back then, sometimes the site would go three days without getting an update on the front page. So we kept posting so people knew that whenever they came to Cageside Seats, there would be something new to read.”
There was also a shift in focus: too many MMA blogs oversaturated the market, so Mrosko eased more wrestling content onto the site until Cageside Seats became the only blog on SB Nation dedicated to pro wrestling. “I feel like, aesthetically, we have the best looking pro wrestling site on the internet. A lot of the other sites look terrible,” Mrosko said.
In order to get more eyes on their revamped site, Mrosko and Hernandez began doing March Madness-style tournaments. A graphic designer created brackets for competitions like “Greatest Wrestler of All Time.” Readers would have to sign up to vote and then comment on the results. “It was pitched to us to create different accounts and comment to help foster discussion,” Mrosko said. “But we didn’t want to do that. I also branded the audience, calling them Cagesiders. I was a huge NWO mark and loved the Outsiders so I’d end articles with ‘Tell me your thoughts, Cagesiders.’ It made it feel more like a community.”
As the content piled up and the members grew, the page views quickly exceeded their 10,000-a-day ceiling. For the past six years, the page views have increased year-over-year to the point that now Cageside Seats often doubles MMA Mania’s traffic. Mrosko says the site reached its highest views the day after SummerSlam 2016 when Finn Balor was injured, Brock Lesnar bloodied Orton and rumors circulated of a backstage altercation with Lesnar and Chris Jericho.
With more hits came more money, and with more money came more workers. The two-man operation has expanded into an efficient staff of dedicated, knowledgeable writers. “On August 5, 2011, I clocked in. I still haven’t clocked out,” Mrosko said. “Just six months ago, I worked it to where I get two days off every week. I’ve worked really hard, but without my team, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Pro wrestling is dumb and awesome
A few weeks ago, Mrosko took the day off and was able to watch Raw just as a fan. Of course, he still wrote about it, but it was a totally different experience.
“I enjoy wrestling way less since I got involved with this,” he said. “Watching something and knowing you have to write about it or look deeper into what they’re presenting, the critical eye is necessary, but it really does impact how much you can enjoy it.”
The Cageside Seats staff has different beats that everyone covers, so not one person has to watch every company’s product. However, covering WWE alone is a full-time commitment. With three hours of Raw on Monday, two hours of Smackdown on Tuesday, an hour of 205 Live after Smackdown, three-hour (sometime four-hour) pay-per-views more than once a month, in addition to all the WWE Network specials, even diehards can burn out.
“It would be really cool if we had a Steve Austin,” Mrosko said. “Not even the attitude or the character itself, but the popularity of him. Maybe cause of the age I was, but he felt really big. It just doesn’t feel big now.”
Mrosko says that UFC 217 drew massive traffic for MMA Mania, but when WWE has a pay-per-view aside from WrestleMania, the traffic pales in comparison. “If I get a big enough news story, I can have a bigger Tuesday than a Sunday night when there’s an event,” he said. “It sounds bad, but a lot of times I root for chaos. I like stuff like the Smackdown invasion of Raw because I know that’s going to hit for me. After all, I’m a running a business here. What’s going to get me traffic? Just like they hope it gets them viewers.”
While WWE has a monopoly on the mainstream North American market, no single pro wrestling website has gobbled up all the online space. Sure, the Wrestling Observer is the industry’s go-to for the latest news, but there are many other sites that offer different content. “There are two ways to make it: be good at what you do or shit on Dave Meltzer,” Mrosko said. “Shitting on Dave Meltzer has become an industry.”
It’s fascinating how many people insult the historian, yet copy and paste his information for their “newz sites.” Mrosko says a lot of those “newz sites” just post whatever is out there in a super dry format. “So much of it is the same, it’s just a different website title,” he said. “There’s no personality to what you’re reading. It’s really robotic.”
He takes inspiration from Deadspin and Pro Football Talk. The key to his site’s success has been the combination of sizzle and substance: lots of content broken up into quick bites and then the occasional long form piece, just to satisfy that appetite for quality writing.
“We try to find something interesting and talk about it,” Mrosko said. “I like to think of it as you’re interacting with us when you’re reading our story. It’s a written thing of course, but it’s like you’re having a conversation and you’re reading me talking. Then I give you time to talk at the end of the article.”
Even though he wasn’t following the product when he took over Cageside Seats, he’s living every fan’s dream – writing about pro wrestling for a living. It was a case of right time at the right place, with a relentless work ethic and passion to succeed.
“I got lucky with coming on SB Nation,” Mrosko said. “Vox Media has grown so much. They take care of the back-end stuff. They make it real easy and it looks so good. For someone just starting out, get good enough that someone who really has their shit together wants to bring you on.”