In 1954 the French philosopher Roland Barthes produced a learned essay about the "mythology" of professional wrestling. Among other things, he wrote, "The virtue of wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters.... Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: In both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve."
Which brings us directly to WrestleMania VII. For in the latest of the World Wrestling Federation's annual editions of mad, mad, mad myths-on-a-mat, we will indeed experience another spectacle of excess—unfortunately, however, minus the prescribed "light without shadow." The event will take place indoors in the Los Angeles Sports Arena this Sunday before a sellout crowd of 16,000. Originally, Spectacle of Excess VII was scheduled to unroll in all its absurd glory on the sun-drenched floor of the Los Angeles Coliseum before some 100,000 spectators. Due to the gulf war, the attendant fear of terrorism and the necessity of a complex (and expensive) security system to guarantee everyone's safety outdoors, a decision was made late in January to move the show into the Arena, and everything has been reduced in scale from gargantuan to pretty big.
It is a shame, for revenue expectations at the Coliseum had been marvelously gross: a live gate of $3 million, novelty purchases of $1 million, food and beverage purchases of $750,000. These are totals that have been exceeded by no other Coliseum attractions save the 1984 Summer Olympics and the Super Bowl, which also happen to be the only other major sports spectacles pretentious enough to use Roman numerals to keep track of which is which. In the Arena, the gate for Wrestlemania VII will be about $750,000, novelties about $150,000 and edibles $100,000. However, audiences tuned in elsewhere are expected to produce $25 million in pay-per-view TV (at $29.95 per set), $500,000 from closed-circuit theater locations and $3 million from videocassettes.
Be it myth, sport, spectacle or simply wretched excess, pro wrestling has in recent years emerged from squalid halls and remodeled itself—up to a point. The current WWF version retains the classic mythical images of wrestling—what Barthes called "the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice." But there is another kind of myth on display, an American business myth that has sprung from the brow of a huckster/genius who excels at the non-Greek arts of marketing, television production, merchandising and a unique type of cross-media promotion that combines comic-book hype with hard-core hokum to produce a showbiz package so flamboyant that it makes the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade look like a Russian funeral procession.
March 25, 1991
The man who has given birth to this garish package is a tall, bulging bodybuilder named Vincent K. McMahon, 44. To fans of the WWF, he is well known as one of the often clownish TV announcers who—in their hoarse efforts to describe what is going on in the ring—seem to sweat, bellow and suffer even more than the wrestlers themselves. But there is nothing clownish about Vince McMahon the businessman.
In 1988, Forbes estimated that McMahon was "easily a centimillionaire," and he has gotten even richer since then. The umbrella corporation that McMahon formed over WWF and its subsidiaries is called TitanSports, Inc. WrestleMania VII is only the iceberg tip of this unique $500 million corporate empire. Titan-Sports competes successfully in a wide variety of industries—including live entertainment, syndicated TV, pay-per-view TV, video-cassettes, magazine publishing, catalog merchandise and children's toys. The corporation employs more than 300 people scattered throughout three different buildings in downtown Stamford, Conn. Next month, TitanSports will move into its brand new $10 million, four-story corporate headquarters, with the Stamford address of 1 Titan Tower: The facilities include a daycare center and a company restaurant.
The single most essential, and most amazing, reason for McMahon's success is that he not only has moved wrestling out of the grim, smoke-choked environments of its past but he also has turned it into high-gloss family entertainment. These days, WWF wrestling shows compete for audiences with the Ice Capades, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Harlem Globetrotters and Walt Disney Productions.
Steve Allen once joked while broadcasting a wrestling match in the late 1940s, "Leone gives Smith a full nelson, slipping it up from either a half nelson or an Ozzie Nelson." And this is exactly what Vince McMahon has done: He has lifted this ugly old game to the top shelf of American niceness and launched it into its Ozzie Nelson Age.
If anyone was born to be a wrestling promoter, it was McMahon. His grandfather Jess was the boxing matchmaker at Madison Square Garden during the era of Tex Rickard and later worked as a wrestling promoter in New York and Philadelphia. His father, Vincent J., controlled wrestling over much of the northeastern U.S., from the 1950s until young Vince bought him out nine years ago.
Nat Frank, a language-busting old-style sports columnist for the Philadelphia Observer, wrote this paean to the elder McMahons in 1964: "It was Jess McMahon who held the unique distinction of having put together the initial series of punchfests marking the opening of the then new New York City's Madison Square Garden, the mecca of pugilism. After several seasons in Philadelphia, the powerful and idolized Jess McMahon returned to the Great Fight Way to continue his interest in staging the clouting cards. However, he added the sport of wrestling to his promotions. His chief aide was a son, Vince, who handled all of the details, made the rounds with his father. There was noticed the willingness of the McMahon offspring to learn more and more about the bone-bending art. He made mental notes, thought some of the ideas didn't quite jell with his opinions; but then and there he vowed he would go places in the grip-and-get-gripped field. To make a long story short (because of space limitations) this very same Vince McMahon is the recognized top man in all grappledom."
The young Vince admired the elder McMahons, too. Says Vincent K.: "In a game full of misinformation, my grandfather always told the truth. He was college educated and he kept office hours like a banker. He did business with some pretty tough customers, such as Frankie Carbo, but kept his integrity. My father did some boxing, too, and was more or less New York-based, then opened up in Washington and did wrestling and some rock 'n' roll back when that was first starting. He founded the WWF in 1963. My dad was a fabulous human being, fair and warm."
But times have changed and so have the McMahons. Vince went to East Carolina University, then worked for his father as a wrestling commentator on cable TV. In 1979 he bought the Cape Cod Coliseum in Yarmouth, Mass., which included a 5,000-seat hockey rink, where Atlantic Hockey League teams played in winter and rock bands played in summer. Ambitious and smitten with a then radical vision of marrying rock 'n' roll to rasslin', Vince bought out his father's stock in the WWF in 1982. Vincent J. died in 1984, but by that point his only son had declared war on the entire structure of American professional wrestling as it had been nurtured and loved by promoters since the turn of the century. "Had my father known what I was going to do, he never would have sold his stock to me," says Vincent K. "In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge. Each little lord respected the rights of his neighboring little lord. No takeovers or raids were allowed. There were maybe 30 of these tiny kingdoms in the U.S. and if I hadn't bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them, fragmented and struggling. I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords."
In 1982, McMahon launched his first massive attack—not with a slogging ground war to capture live audiences from enemy arenas but with the cold, airborne eye of television. "My major step was television on a local basis," he says. "We already had our network in the Northeast and we started selling these shows to stations in other fiefdoms. In Chicago, in Los Angeles, the WWF brand of wrestling was something new. We had better athletes—more upscale and more charisma. The local guys were lazy. They weren't listening to the marketplace. We were so consumer-oriented. We never lifted our ears from the ground. We gave the public what it wanted. We broke the mold."
McMahon's brilliant application of TV in all its forms—broadcast, cable, pay-per-view—was exemplary and ruthless. To place his shows regularly on important local stations in enemy territory, he used wads of money for ammunition, paying stations to carry WWF events, sometimes as much as $100,000 a year. It was expensive and risky, but once McMahon bought his way onto the local tube, the public began to respond to the WWF's jazzy shows. Today, TitanSports has 300 television affiliates across North America, which amounts to the largest syndicated TV network in the world. Some 20 million viewers watch regularly. WWF's weekly syndicated shows—WWF Superstars of Wrestling, WWF Wrestling Challenge, and WWF Wrestling Spotlight—rank third in audience draw behind Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. TitanSports does 185 localized versions of each of those syndicated shows, which are dubbed in seven languages and sent to 40 countries. An NBC late-night show, Saturday Night's Main Event, is broadcast six times per season and is favored by fraternity men and yuppies.
WWF's use over recent years of pay-per-view television for its quarterly extravaganzas—the WrestleManias, Royal Rumbles, SummerSlams and Survivor Series—is the envy of the TV sports world. Those four shows have consistently succeeded better than all other pay-per-view programs, with the rare exception of superstar boxing matches with Sugar Ray Leonard or Mike Tyson. In 1989, four of the top eight pay-per-view shows in the U.S. were Titan productions, and last year Titan had four of the top five. In the decade or so that U.S. pay-per-view programming has been available, no single program has ever been sold to a million homes. But Wrestle-Mania IV (at $19.95 per view) drew 909,000 homes and WM V (at $24.95) drew 915,000, while WM VI (at $29.95) drew 825,000. Lesser WWF extravaganzas for the past three years have averaged over 500,000 (at $19) per show. Recently, however, there have been signs that the frenetic fascination with pro wrestling is fading. Still, with prices per home at an average of $23, the payoff on even the lowest-priced, least-popular WWF event has been well over $8 million. The take from each WWF pay-per-view program is split among the local cable outlets and the WWF, which ends up with 50% of the pot.
Pay-per-view is potentially the richest TV treasure chest ever. Television people see it as the great money machine that might be able to finance big-time American sports in the coming years, after the networks' sports divisions have gone broke paying billion-dollar rights fees. Sports columnists have predicted for years that each of the 40 million houses tuned in to the Super Bowl will have to pay $50, and the NFL will reap $2 billion in one afternoon. The arithmetic is there, all right, but so far, the politics are not. Nor is all the technology. Nor is there a public willingness to pay big bucks for what has so long been free.
Even as his TV empire was growing fatter with every match, McMahon was also running a complex national network of nightly live events. With a peripatetic troupe of some 60 wrestlers, eight referees and 10 publicists, the WWF put on in 1990 alone a total of 663 separate live events, spread over 191 different cities ranging from Yuma, Ariz., to Lake Charles, La., to Duluth, Minn.
To add another dimension to this logistical labyrinth, the WWF also uses its syndicated national TV shows to promote its local live events by inserting individualized promos into the tapes of the syndicated shows. This means that whenever a syndicated WWF Superstars of Wrestling show appears on Utica's Channel 33, it contains promos touting whatever WWF live card is coming to Utica next. Some 1,000 such tapes are sent out each month from the WWF's state-of-the-art TV production facility in Stamford.
Basil DeVito Jr., senior vice-president of marketing for Titan, says, "We are a hybrid—national in scope, but local in impact. The same TV stars you see on the tube come right to your hometown. Vanna White doesn't come to Peoria. The NFL doesn't come to Peoria. But Hulk Hogan comes to Peoria, in person! And unlike big league stars, WWF wrestlers are never in an off-season. Those guys are performing 350 nights a year."
The WWF's relentless warfare has all but destroyed its serious competition. Ted Turner has continued to operate the National Wrestling Alliance in Atlanta, to help fill time on his superstation WTBS. McMahon speaks of Turner's operation with undisguised condescension: "Ted has trouble with the wrestling genre. This is a highly specialized product—unique—requiring skills not available in normal marketing situations. Our competition is not from Ted, it is from the National Basketball Association, from big rock concerts, from Disney."
So we acknowledge McMahon as a master strategist who has conquered just about every bit of territory in grappledom. But in the course of obtaining this near monopoly, he has made radical changes in the esthetics, the ethics and, in effect, the very essence of pro wrestling as the world had previously understood it.
"The difference between Dad's and Granddad's day and my day is pure presentation," McMahon says. "There was too much emphasis on the sports element and not enough on entertainment in the old days. Now we call it sports entertainment. We don't want to de-emphasize the athleticism of wrestling; these are great athletes with great charisma. But in the WWF, entertainment is the key."
As everyone knows, the WWF's idea of entertainment is an often tasteless explosion of high-camp fun starring costumed buffoons the size of zeppelins who ride into an arena on waves of hilarious hype and deafening rock music. It is a unique mix of entertainment, ranging from Saturday morning cartoons to MTV and from Greek drama to bullfights.
Wildly popular as this form of wrestling has come to be, old-timers do not see WWF-style presentations as examples of the bone-bending art at its best. Lou Thesz, 74, who retired from active wrestling in December, after a 55-year career during which he held championship belts in many different fiefdoms, is critical of the WWF. "McMahon's wrestlers aren't wrestling, they're putting on tumbling acts," he says. "On a scale of one to 10, McMahon gets a 9.5 for hype, music, presentation before the match. But after the bell rings, his shows don't rate above zero. He has raped wrestling."
Even more troubling to many old loyalists and purists is the fact that the WWF declared publicly in February 1989 that pro wrestling is not a true sport. In a statement delivered by the WWF to the New Jersey Senate as it was about to vote on a bill that would remove wrestling from the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission (which levies a 10% surtax on profits from sports TV revenues), the WWF said that, henceforth, professional wrestling should be defined this way: "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."
This admission was not big news to most people. As Roland Barthes put it so lucidly some 35 years ago: "The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.... This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling it would make no sense."
True enough. Yet, predictably, the WWF's stance—pragmatic as it was—was very disturbing to old-fashioned wrestlers and wrestling aficionados. Art Abrams, 68, a longtime wrestling photographer and currently the treasurer of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a Los Angeles-based organization that has 1,400 wrestling-oriented members, says: "A lot of our people don't like what Vince McMahon has done. They think he went against the code. They think he destroyed the mystique. Sure, these guys all admit in private that it's show business, but they have remained loyal to the credo that you never admit that openly. They all feel you lose the gladiator glamour when you call it entertainment only." Maria Bernardi, 65, a former women's champion who wrestled competitively for 26 years, says, sadly: "I never considered it anything but a sport. To call it entertainment alone is to take away the pride we once had in being wrestlers."
Lots of people rushed to tell McMahon after the New Jersey confession that he had effectively bankrupted the WWF because the world would now reject his shows and return to promoters who continued the fiction that it was all real mayhem. "The doomsayers were everywhere," recalls Steve Planamenta, WWF's media director, "but we did better business for the rest of that year than we ever did before."
In fact, McMahon's most sensitive critics, the men and women who book WWF events into America's stadiums and arenas, have only praise for his decision. John Urban, director of the Family Entertainment Division of Madison Square Garden, which puts on eight or 10 WWF cards every year, says: "Once Vince moved past the big question—Is it real or not real?—they shook off the last vestiges of the old pro wrestling image. It became more respectable than ever. It used to be a cult—you either loved it or you despised it. People used to think, pro wrestling, ugh, Ice Capades, great. No more."
Peter Luukko, 31, until recently general manager of both the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Los Angeles Sports Arena (the Arena also puts on eight or nine WWF cards a year), says: "Wrestling always produced strong crowds, but it was often a very rough night—mostly males who were beer-drinkers and had a tendency to get into a lot of fights. That was as recently as seven or eight years ago. Vince not only called it entertainment, he made it over into real entertainment—rock music, hype, stars, lights—and that brought fans out of the closet from every age and economic group—teens, children under 10, film stars, attorneys, bankers and the blue-collar people who came before."
So attractive is the WWF approach that last year Luukko whipped up a formal—and very flattering—bid to convince McMahon that WrestleMania VII should come to the Coliseum. "We told him that we considered WrestleMania, the Olympics and the Super Bowl as equally great events," says Luukko. "And it wasn't just a sales pitch, we meant it."
Moving the big show from the Coliseum into the L.A. Sports Arena was a great disappointment. Luukko says that 16,000 tickets had been sold two months before the event: "That was an outstanding sale at that point. Now we are really in a bind, because the whole world wants tickets and we were just able to squeeze in the ones we had already sold for the Coliseum." At the time McMahon made the decision to move into the bunkerlike Arena, the gulf war was scarcely two weeks old and fears of terrorism were much sharper then than they are now. Also, the press was heavily critical of the WWF's current villain-champion, Sergeant Slaughter, who used to wave an Iraqi flag in the ring and employed an ostensible Iraqi loyalist, one General Adnan, as his manager. Some writers thought that Sergeant Slaughter's flagrantly unpatriotic behavior might create a dangerous atmosphere at WrestleMania VII, where he was slated to meet Hulk Hogan, the consummate American flag-waver.
Well, no one knows. But, as we have said, what goes on in Los Angeles this Sunday will be actually but a small portion. of McMahon's vast enterprise. WWF realizes $200 million in annual sales of its own merchandise plus licenses. It has over 80 videocassettes on the market, and they have produced more than two million sales over the last five years; six cassettes have gone platinum (meaning 120,000 sales). Nonvideo items include WWF lunch boxes (licensed to Thermos); ice cream bars (Gold Bond); children's vitamins (Solaris Marketing Group, Inc.); and a great variety of video and board games and toys, including Wrestling Buddies (Tonka), which was the third-best-selling toy of the 1990 Christmas season. The WWF Magazine, a slick monthly publication given over entirely to hype, has a paid circulation of 350,000.
And there is more to come. McMahon is moving into bodybuilding. He has formed the World Bodybuilding Federation, the newest subsidiary to TitanSports, and he is prepared to move in with typical flair and grandeur. "We are defining bodybuilding in a much broader way," he says. "If you run or exercise or if you simply take a vitamin every day, that is bodybuilding. This is the market we are focusing on, and it is a big one. Also, the formal competitions are quite dull, and we intend to do them on a much grander, much more glamorous scale. TV and marketing are the keys."
Nevertheless, whatever flamboyant upheaval McMahon may visit on the hitherto arcane sport of bodybuilding, it is wrestling that he knows best. Having conquered the U.S. on almost every front, he is now eyeing the rest of the globe. The WWF has sent its various hulks, warriors and earthquakes on a number of successful foreign tours, and the time could be right for a major international expansion. "Anyone in any country can understand wrestling," says McMahon. "There is no rule book to master. It's not like hockey or soccer. It is as comprehensible in China as it is in Canada. Children love it. Our guys are role models for kids everywhere. These are guys you can take home to mom, even mama-san in Japan or mumsie in England."
Barthes concluded in his famous essay that there was a quasidivine quality to the grip-and-get-gripped set. "In the ring," he wrote, "wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible."
Vince McMahon would certainly agree that wrestlers are universal symbols. Indeed, his vision of the future does not even stop at the boundaries of the planet. "Who knows?" he says. "Someday we may hold WrestleMania on the moon. Full moon, full house. I can see it now."