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King of the Ring

Let the critics snipe, pro wrestling honcho Vince McMahon will tell you, "we're about what people want."
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

(continued from page 1)

"You're in my state now," Ventura barked to Triple H, one of three wrestlers competing that evening. "I am law and order here."   Prior to the event, Ventura had bragged that he was "bigger and more powerful than Vince McMahon." Prove it, McMahon would likely bark back. At 6-foot, 2-inches and 230 pounds, McMahon has a commanding presence. His eyes resemble dense brown stones, friendly at first glance, but unwavering, and taking on a laser-like intensity at the slightest prompt. Even if a governor holds more clout than a big-time promoter does, McMahon will gladly cherish the struggle.  

Consider McMahon's long-standing rivalry with media mogul Ted Turner. In the early 1980s, when Turner sensed the potential of wrestling and sought to buy the WWF, he told McMahon, "Vince, I'm in the 'rassling business." "Fine, Ted," countered McMahon; "I'm in the entertainment business." Rebuffed by McMahon, Turner launched World Championship Wrestling (WCW), signing WWF stars. "The only bad guy I know is Ted Turner," says McMahon. But how bad can he be when each is winning in the marketplace? Even rivalry is but a plot point. Several years ago, the WWF created a hayseed character called "Billionaire Ted."  

Flip as McMahon's comeback line may seem, the truth is that entertainment has been the cornerstone of the WWF's success. Back in the mid-1980s, McMahon publicly admitted what everyone knew for years: plots were built in advance by a team of writers, producers, directors and technical experts, the lines scripted (albeit with room for improv), the outcomes predetermined.

McMahon's announcement liberated wrestling from dealing with complicated licensing fees and costly state athletic commissions. McMahon subsequently coined the obvious but useful term "sports entertainment" to describe his business. The WWF made its focus even more emphatic later in the decade when, in February 1989, just as the New Jersey Senate was deciding whether to remove wrestling from the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission (which levies a 10 percent surtax on profits from TV revenues), a WWF statement declared that wrestling should be defined as "an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest."

"Wrestling had been promoted as a sport," says McMahon, "but it wasn't true even back when Abraham Lincoln wrestled. So I said, 'Let's level with our audience and corporate America.' To The New York Times, it was big news. To us, it was a way to tell Madison Avenue, 'This is who we are.'

"Just look at all the elements on our show. It's action-adventure. But it's also a talk show. But someone else might say it's a cartoon beyond belief. Or it's a soap opera, or a grandiose rock concert. And the athleticism is nothing short of extraordinary. We have no boundaries or limitations. We can go anywhere we want to. We're only limited by our imagination and creativity. We take the best of show biz and roll it all into one."  

Lately it's been rolling pretty darn good. Over the past two years, according to WWF estimates, revenues have tripled, from $81.9 million in 1997 to $251.5 million for the 1999 fiscal year that ended on April 30. Better yet, net profits, down $6.5 million in '97, were up $56 million in fiscal '99. World Wrestling Federation Entertainment holds more than 200 live events each year in major stadiums and arenas throughout the world. Every week, WWF produces nine hours of original television programming for such outlets as USA Network and UPN. This year, "Raw is War," WWF's USA Network entry, was the top-rated cable program for 19 straight weeks. WWF's three cable programs ("Raw is War" is often broken into two programs, "Raw Is War" and "War Zone," and there's also "Sunday Night Heat") earned 26 of the top 30 rankings on the Nielsen list of most-watched shows among all basic cable networks. During the week of July 26 to August 1, for example, the highest ratings on basic cable networks (approximately 15 to 20 networks in each of 212 designated market areas) were all earned by WWF programs, each viewed in more than 5 million homes.

The WWF also distributes its programming and pay-per-view events to more than 150 nations in nine languages. WWF markets and sells its branded merchandise through a network of some 85 licensees worldwide; publishes two monthly magazines with a combined annual circulation of approximately 5.8 million; and distributes news and information about its programming and products through its Internet site.  

The empire took even bigger strides on August 3 when WWF (the parent company was formerly known as Titan Sports) declared its intention to become a publicly held company by offering approximately $172.5 million in class A stock and earn a NASDAQ listing. Such august bodies as Bear, Stearns; Credit Suisse First Boston; Merrill Lynch and Wit Capital were slated to manage the IPO. A New York Post article estimated WWF's potential value at $750 million.

Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, believes historical events are a major reason for wrestling's recent ascent. "Since the end of the Cold War, there's no one for us to beat up on, no real hated enemy like we had with the Soviet Union for so many years," says Dundes. "We've had a hard time finding outlets for our machismo. On the face of it, we condemn violence. But any chance for a culturally sanctioned escape is worth it. We don't really want to see blood. Wrestling is actually a good thing--far better to see this stuff come out on a playing field than in battle. The hype's almost more fun than the game itself."

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