EDITOR'S NOTE: With this column, we welcome Eric Benner as our regular Thursday columnist.
Thursday, August 13, 1998
Celebrities help and hurt wrestling
This weekend, in the main event in the WCW pay-per-view Road Wild, in Sturgis, North Dakota, pitted the team of six-time former world heavyweight champion, Hollywood Hulk Hogan and WCW president, Eric Bischoff, against former Unites States and television titles winner and master of the diamond cutter, Diamond Dallas Page, along with Tonight Show host, Jay Leno. If you forget about the controversy, forget about the debates, the arguments, and the brawls over how bad a bout this was, what does it sound like to you?
To me, it sounds rather silly. There's a very noted contrast here in that you have two of WCW's most distinguished and honoured athletes teaming up with -- how do I put this -- 'civilians' to face off in a pay-per-view main event. On a different note, it sounds interesting. The first time I heard the announcement of Jay's participation in the event, I don't remember having been disappointed at all - not because I thought the match would be good, but because I wasn't planning on watching Road Wild anyway, and I was looking at the long-term picture.
This admittedly isn't the first time we've seen non-wrestlers participating in important bouts, in fact it has been happening a lot recently. Bash at the Beach, this year, featured the same two WCW wrestlers squaring off, but instead of teaming up with the head honcho and late night king, they opted for Dennis 'Rodzilla' Rodman and Karl 'Mauler' Malone, respectively. The appearance of two of basketball's biggest stars on opposite sides of a wrestling ring struck me just the same way Jay did - silly but good. Again, I wasn't thinking about the pay-per-view itself, but what it could do for wrestling. On the very same card, professional football player Kevin Greene was scheduled to face the Giant.
There are lots more examples of this in recent memory. Rodman at last year's Bash (with Hogan against Luger and the Giant). Kevin Greene's feud with Mongo. Mike Tyson as a special ring enforcer in the earth-shattering Michaels/Austin Wrestlemania title bout. Pete Rose's presence at the same event. Lawrence Taylor. Mr. T. Butterbean. MTV. All of these are examples of Hollywood and the world of North American sports flooding over into professional wrestling. Even Goldberg is an example of such a crossover. He spent some time in the NFL. Rocky Maivia and Faarooq were both college athletes before going into wrestling.
But that's not what I'm talking about. What I mean to discuss is the people who made their careers in the limelight outside of wrestling, and who then participated in wrestling. There are two angles from which to look at this. The first is from the side of the athletes and celebrities who wrestle, the second is from the side of the wrestling organizations, themselves. To fans, I suspect the latter is of greater importance.
Which is why I'll talk about the former to start. For years, wrestling has been a shunned entertainment. Swept off in the corner with pornography and carnivals and other non-tolerated vices, wrestling has had to fight an uphill battle for years, a battle for respect, for recognition, for dollars. The first real victories of the side of wrestling occurred arguably in the mid-eighties. The first really national organization, the World Wrestling Federation, was starting to gain attention; they already had weekly television show, eventually more, and now they even managed to make people fork over their precious dollars for wrestling on pay-per-view. The decisive battles in that first war for respect were the ones not won by Rick Steamboat and Ric Flair and Randy Savage and the Midnight Express in their most classic of matches, they were the ones won by what is now dubbed "rock and wrestling," a term that basically means wrestling hyped up with loud music and other aspect of popular culture. One of those aspects is celebrities. Wrestling gained a lot of steam during the year its marquee event, Wrestlemania, attracted the attention and eventually participation of MTV. For a few years, wrestling was in the limelight, under the guidance of Terry 'Hulk' Hogan's prayers and vitamins. Such personalities as the nay-saying Bob Costas were getting involved.
There was a void during the early nineties in which wrestling decelerated a little bit, maybe even worked itself backwards. But, like all things, wrestling has its recessions and its booms, and it was bound to boom again.
What better cause for the coming boom than Ted Turner's entry into the market, his purchasing of WCW and the creation of the WWF's first real competition. This isn't a history lesson, so suffice it to say that wrestling again gained steam, slowly but progressively, for about two years, until it skyrocketed when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash made their debut on and impact in WCW.
Since then, we've seen lots of records. Record ratings. Record wrestler salaries. Record attendance at arenas and stadiums. Record merchandising. Ten years before, it had combined with rock, now it was on a roll.
But it had yet to be accepted. There are still the legions of people who make up the collective consciousness who roll their eyes at the thought of wrestling, or even 'sports entertainment'. So what does it take to get accepted? To be perceived as normal and allowable by the masses, by those who decide what is popular? No more than about ten or fifteen percent of North Americans ever watched Seinfeld on a given night, but it was insanely popular on our scales, so not everyone has to like or appreciate wrestling for it to be deemed normal. It just takes a fan following that it arguably already has, maybe a little bigger, and a less negative attitude by the rest.
Why is it important for wrestling organizations to convince the millions and millions of people who probably won't watch wrestling, anyway, that it is acceptable? That's because there's a large portion of our population, a portion that WCW is decidedly more enthusiastic about than the WWF, that won't attach itself to wrestling, but that may tune in once every so often if it is deemed worthy.
Tom might watch wrestling no matter what people say, and Fred and Jim won't watch it no matter what you tell them, but Billy would probably watch it once in awhile if only Fred and Jim would stop making fun of him. So who does WCW have to target to get the undecided portion of the population (Billy) to watch? Even though they'll never watch, the nay-sayers (Fred and Jim). And that's just what WCW is doing. They're trying to flood mainstream media with references to wrestling until it just becomes so common-place that people will be used to it. They've already got a head-start, since it's always been a part of their plan to hit towns regularly enough with shows, and with those shows usually comes some publicity. But lately, WCW has set their sights a little higher - they've set them on ESPN, and CNN, and your local nightly news. They don't want to be the lead story, they don't even care if they're in the sports section or not, as long as they get a blurb somewhere. "And in the lighter side of the news today, Tonight Show host Jay Leno, of all people, will be participating in a wrestling match, of all things." Or whatever. The point is that if you bang it into people's heads enough, they'll get used to it. And then Fred and Jim may not watch Nitro, but they'll leave Billy alone when he does, and that's one more viewer for WCW.
But there's a problem with this strategy that must be addressed. Maybe seeing basketball players duking it out will make Jim and Fred think that wrestling is cool so that Billy can watch, but what about Tom, the loyal fan who has always watched wrestling, despite Fred and Jim, because that's what he likes: wrestling? WCW risks alienating the Toms out there, the people who watch Nitro every week and set their VCRs when they get a date or have to work overtime, all in the name of attracting a Billy, who might watch Nitro if it's on, and if there's no basketball, no football, and no hockey - and who probably won't even touch Thunder. Who knows if he'll buy a pay-per-view? But that's a risk the big-wigs at WCW have decided to take, and I think it's the right call. There's always the chance that a Billy could develop into a Tom, and I think you actually earn about ten Billys for every lost Tom, so it evens out.
The WWF has tried gimmicks like this before, but never so big and never so many in succession. I remember when Bam-Bam and Lawrence Taylor fought at Wrestlemania, and I remember Mike Tyson's five words and two movements over six weeks of WWF Raw and Wrestlemania, but I don't think it produced the kind of constant bombardment that WCW has created lately. It's as if the WWF was testing the waters with mainstream gimmicks, and in the end, they decided to use them more sparingly and less evidently. There will still probably be celebrities present at next year's Wrestlemania, but there's a big difference between having Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy escort wrestlers to the ring than to have them fight in the main event. It's a little less of everything - less of a draw to the mainstream masses, less of a repulsion to the wrestling purists.
There's one other problem with WCW's attempts to increase its ratings. When they convert someone into a fan, generally speaking, they're converting a Billy. Someone who previously didn't really watch wrestling. When the WWF gains a convert, who are they welcoming? Since wrestlers and wrestling (or at least wrestler soap operas instead of Hollywood soap operas) are their main attraction, they'll probably attract wrestling fans. Where do wrestling fan converts come from? WCW.
That means that when the WWF is on top of their game and drawing fans, they win and WCW loses. But when WCW is on top of its game and draws fans, they win and the WWF doesn't budge. Assuming each organization shares the limelight, the final result is that the WWF gains, and WCW gains what it loses. Good deal for wrestling, bad deal for WCW.
If you think I'm making this up, take a look at the quarter-hour ratings for a given week. In quarter-hours in which the WWF puts on their best part of the show (a DX skit or an Austin main event), especially in the middle of the show (since both shows tend to be at their best at the end), WWF ratings go up and WCW ratings go down. When WCW has something worth watching on (Chris Jericho, Kevin Nash) their ratings go up, but the WWF's will be the same or similar to what they were fifteen minutes prior.
What's my verdict? Using the tactics they use right now, the WWF wins, WCW loses, and the fans win, if only because they can still choose between one or the other, and the sport wins, because WCW really is doing it a service.
But that's not the way it has to be. WCW should continue to attract the very large pool of plausible fans from the mainstream, but instead of showing the new fans more and more celebrity main events, use the potential they have locked away in their poor booking. Draw the fans to a pay-per-view with Leno in a funny outfit or basketball players from opposing teams in the finals, but keep them there with Rey Mysterio Jr., Chris Benoit, Saturn, Raven, Kanyon, Chris Jericho, and Konnan. I was lucky (or maybe WCW was) that the first Nitro match I ever saw was a Mysterio/Malenko match. It made me an instant fan. If my first Nitro match had been Duggan/Morrus, it might have been a different story.
A pay-per-view card stuffed-full of possibly classic matches followed by the main event (however poor) that drew the fans there in the first place could really spike WCW's ratings.
The WWF is already doing it. When they brought in Mike Tyson, they didn't even let you see him fight. Instead, he was at ringside, getting involved in their most heated angle, Steve Austin vs. Degeneration-X. If you came to see Tyson, you saw Austin and Michaels. Vince McMahon used Tyson to showcase the talent he had locked up. Bischoff uses their celebrities to showcase a card with Meng/Barbarian and Chavo/Stevie Ray, and to me, that's a waste.
Overall, the new mainstream bombardment technique of WCW makes sense to me, and I think that part of their plan is working. If only they could get the other thirty hours of their wrestling on television to work, then they'd be rolling. Steam-rolling. Over Titan.
I'm not saying I could replace a corporate executive, but there are a few things I might do differently than Eric Bischoff right now. I think that a lot of what he does is right on the money, and I respect the man's genius, but I think his vision is clouded by his involvement in the angles right now, and by the initial success of the nWo. Next week, I'll examine this in depth; what's he doing right, what's he doing wrong, and what would I change.
Thanks for tuning in. If you have any questions, comments, or flames, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org at the sound of the beep, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks again to SLAM! Sports for taking me on and best of luck to be predecessor, Donne Abreu, in his new gig at TSN. This is Eric Benner, and that's the Truth.