The indie scene in the United States dates back to the days of regional territories. When a promoter ran opposition in even one town controlled by a National Wrestling Alliance sanctioned territory, they were often called an "outlaw" territory. This is considered by some to be a forerunner to indies since some stars of the past got their start in these low quality local rivals to the big regional territories.
The modern definition of the independent circuit came about in the middle to late 1980s and fully formed and flourished after 1990. These promotions initially sought to revive the feel of old school territorial wrestling after former territories either went national, such as WWF, went out of business, or eventually did both, such as WCW. Several indies did in fact manage to tour different towns within a region and maintain a consistent schedule.
After Vince McMahon, seeking regulatory relief, gave in 1989 testimony in front of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission where he publicly admitted pro wrestling was in fact a sports-based entertainment, rather than a true athletic competition, many state athletic commissions stopped regulating wrestling. This obviated the need for complying with many expensive requirements, such as the need for an on-site ambulance and trained emergency medical personnel at each bout. After the business was thus exposed and deregulated, just about anyone could be a promoter or a wrestler since no licensing beyond a business license was then required. Many thought they could save money by holding shows in lesser towns and smaller arenas with little to no televised exposure, leading to many shows being held only once a week or once a month in local towns.
Differences between "the old territories" and the current independent scene
Territories held shows in a certain, major town each week while also going to a different smaller towns night after night with several towns covering a certain region. Most of today's indie promoters struggle to hold a show on a monthly basis in a single town. Promoters in those days could fill big arenas seating well up into the thousands, while most current indie promoters struggle to draw a few hundred people at a high school gym, small venue (such as a VFW, American Legion or church hall) or local fairground.
Wrestlers in the territories could afford to make a good living in the wrestling business for years at a time (despite often still needing a day job for insurance and retirement benefits) while most current-day indie wrestlers struggle to pay their bills if trying to make a living entirely from wrestling, often risk living out of their car. Territories generally also had weekly television shows on local stations in each major town which were viewable over the air in all or most of the smaller towns targeted by the promotion, while most indies cannot afford such exposure.
Many of today's wrestlers learn their trade in a wrestling school, but scrape by learning their craft on occasional indie bookings with no consistency in developing their skills the way many wrestlers during the era of the territories had been able to do. Formerly, most wrestlers would learn the basics by setting up the ring or having a job at the arena setting up chairs and selling merchandise, refereeing matches, or some other way of being trained while entering the business.
They would then wrestle night after night in a different small towns before they debuted as part of the card on the television show and eventually on the main weekly event in the promotion's focal city, and then often go to other territories to learn something new from experience. Many young wrestlers in this era do not have this kind of tough education in the business or the luxury of learning their craft from experience.
Focus of U.S. indies
Independent promotions are usually local in focus and, lacking national TV contracts, are much more dependent on revenue from house show attendance. Due to their lower budgets, most independent promotions offer low salaries (it is not unusual for a wrestler to work for free due to the fact most promoters can only afford to pay well-known talent). Most cannot afford to regularly rent large venues, and would not be able to attract a large enough crowd to fill such a venue were they able to do so. Instead, they make use of any almost open space (such as fields, ballrooms, or gymnasiums) to put on their performances. Some independent promotions are attached to professional wrestling schools, serving as a venue for students to gain experience in front of an audience. As independent matches are seldom televised, indie wrestlers who have not already gained recognition in other promotions tend to remain in obscurity. However, scouts from major promotions attend indie shows, and an indie wrestler who makes a good impression may be offered a developmental or even a full-professional contract.
The advent of the Internet has allowed independent wrestlers and promotions to reach a wider audience, and it is possible for wrestlers regularly working the indie circuit to gain some measure of fame among wrestling fans online. Additionally, some of the more successful indies have video distribution deals, giving them an additional source of income and allowing them to reach a larger audience outside of their local areas.