When Owen "Blue Blazer" Hart plunged 50 feet to
his death at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., during a recent Sunday-night pay-per-view
event, it capped off a tumultuous week for World Wrestling Federation capo Vince McMahon.
Earlier in the week, the WWF chairman was fending off press
inquiries about the initial public offering he was allegedly planning. By week's end,
he was dealing with equally rabid calls about how Hart's operatic entrance into the
ring went awry.
As Hart was being lowered into the ring, the cable of the
safety harness he was fastened to suddenly gave way, hurtling him fatally downward. It
marked the first time a wrestler had died in the ring in the United States or Canada since
For McMahon, Hart's death was a bizarre coda to the
salad days of the late 1990s, which have been marked by the meteoric rise in the
popularity of the WWF, owned by Stamford, Conn.-based TitanSports Inc.
Fueled by the popularity of its cadre of hard-boiled and
flamboyant grapplers, led by the controversial "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the
WWF has seen its Nielsen Media Research ratings shoot up. They peaked with a gargantuan
8.1 May 10 for its Monday-night lineup of WWF Raw and WWF War Zone on USA
The 8.1 was the single largest audience for a regularly
scheduled entertainment program in the history of basic cable. Both the WWF and its rival
league -- World Championship Wrestling, which is bankrolled by Time Warner Inc. vice
chairman Ted Turner, airing on Turner Network Television -- consistently dominate the
Nielsens, although the WWF has had the best of it lately.
This is light years from those days when you'd
conspire with your grandma to play hooky from church Sunday mornings to watch Bobo Brazil
do battle with The Iron Sheik from Syria.
Stars of both leagues, like Austin and veteran WCW star
"Hollywood" Hulk Hogan, have become household names whose widespread popularity
has been leveraged via a passel of lucrative licensing and marketing opportunities.
Wrestlers have become the newest form of multimedia stars,
doing walk-ons for shows like ER, Suddenly Susan and The Drew Carey Show.
And the profiles of both leagues are only getting higher.
Witness, for example, the state of Minnesota, which
installed the former Jesse "The Body" Ventura -- now morphed into Jesse
"The Mind" Ventura -- as its governor this year.
And, of course, McMahon has been at the forefront, with
alleged plans to open a WWF-branded casino hotel in Las Vegas and a record label, which
goes a long way toward explaining any serious interest he may be entertaining in taking
the operation public.
Not to be outdone, WCW president Eric Bischoff just cut the
ribbon on the first of its themed restaurants, World Championship Wrestling Nitro Grill,
also in Vegas. The menu offers such mouthwatering fare as "Crushrooms,"
"Machoman Nachos" and "Slamboree Swordfish." Plans call for more
openings in the United States and abroad.
THE DISNEY MODEL?In effect, McMahon and Bischoff have
taken a page out of The Walt Disney Co.'s business model.
"Vince is obsessed with his product," said Bonnie
Hammer, senior vice president of Sci-Fi Channel programming and USA Networks Original
Production, who collaborates with McMahon. "Vince is a great marketer of this
franchise. His entire family is involved, as this has been his entire life."
So is the possibility of overexposure a concern?
"It's impossible to oversaturate a marketplace with a brand. That's how you
sustain growth -- by extending the brand and maximizing every opportunity to expose it to
new consumers," argued Bischoff, sounding more like an MBA (master of business
administration) from Procter & Gamble Co. than a showbiz impresario.
So how did this thing get so big? Long perceived as a
psychic "Bengay" for the downtrodden citizens of the trailer park, wrestling now
has broadened its fan base, embraced by the Brie and Chardonnay crowd.
"My brother, the neurosurgeon, goes to wrestling
events with his Silicon Valley pals," Hammer said. "More women are tuning in to
wrestling than you'd suspect, too."
Many factors come into play, but one thing is certain: The
critical mass in cable-TV penetration achieved in the early part of this decade played a
significant role in fueling the breakthrough of professional wrestling as a bona-fide
pop-culture phenomenon. Pay-per-view also upped the ante.
"Cable's penetration grew so much that economies
of scale were created where they didn't need to rely on syndication anymore,"
said Wade Keller, who puts out Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly, a nationally distributed
newsletter out of Minneapolis that is widely read by wrestlers and promoters, as well as
by fans. "The shift from syndication to cable really happened in 1992-93."
So isn't it cruel irony that a faulty cable was
presumably at the center of the Hart tragedy?
THE TURNING POINT
Many observers believe the pivotal spark that lit the fuse
for wrestling's ultimate success was when Turner launched WCW in 1995 after being
spurned by McMahon, who refused to go into business with him.
The competition between the two leagues on cable --
currently in the form of Raw and War Zone versus WCW's Nitro --
upped the stakes, forcing both shows to get better.
To wit, the WWF was generally scoring 3s in the Nielsens
before WCW's launch. When WCW started up, the WWF slipped down into the 2s before
eventually rebuilding its ratings to its current dominant position.
Pro wrestling was born at the turn of the 20th century from
traveling carnival contests featuring local toughs grappling for bragging rights. The
authenticity of the competition was long on tedious stalemates and short on drama, which
eventually inspired promoters to rig many of the outcomes.
By the 1920s, the fix was in, according to Keller, as
wrestling had evolved -- or devolved, depending on one's point of view -- from a
genuine sporting event into an entertainment vehicle with 100 percent-predetermined
The 1950s were also a boom period, as wrestling found that
it fit perfectly into the confines of a TV studio. Promoters started forming groups around
regional TV stations. Trying to stave off increased competition from other sports and
entertainment programming, by the late 1960s, wrestling was run by 26 promoters with
distinct geographic territories, according to Keller.
In the 1980s, during the nascent stages of cable TV, World
Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas became the first group to syndicate a show and
market it. At the same time, McMahon started syndicating his product in the Northeast.
What that product has evolved into is high-octane mayhem
that may not be the simplistic or pedestrian fad naysayers deem it to be.
"We've reinvented ourselves, like any
entertainment company does," McMahon said. "We're a contemporary hybrid
with elements of cartoons, rock concerts, soap operas and talk shows. It's almost
like a variety show or a two-hour movie on USA."
It's telling that the word sport doesn't enter
into McMahon's equation. That's not to say that wrestlers are not athletic --
the craft requires one to be an acrobat or stuntman, employing a mix of choreography and
Bischoff also pointed to a dearth of quality
primetime-viewing alternatives as another driver behind wrestling's success.
"News shows just regurgitate the same stuff, while
sitcoms have a blandness in terms of creativity that is mind-numbing," Bischoff said
of the two genres that dominate most primetime lineups. "Wrestling is simple, but the
characters are loud and larger than life. You've got athletic individuals performing
a Greek tragedy."
In fact, feeding the serial nature of the program, McMahon
runs his operation not unlike an episodic drama or sitcom.
"He's developed story lines that everyone can
identify with, from Stone Cold dissing his boss to the family feud over control of the
corporation between Vince and his son, Shane," Hammer said. "The WWF deals with
aspects of society, albeit in a twisted way. Love 'em or hate 'em, they are
In fact, the program is so story-driven that two-thirds of
the show typically focuses on shenanigans outside of the ring.
According to Indiana University professor Walter Ganz, much
of the WWF's recent supremacy over archrival WCW has to do with superior writing.
"I've had many wrestling fans tell me that WCW has better wrestlers, but McMahon
has better writers," Ganz said.
"We can't compare checkbooks with Ted Turner, but
[the WWF's] all-around production value is much more professional," McMahon
McMahon, with the support of Hammer, has vowed not to
become complacent. The WWF has employed a bait-and-switch approach to keep story lines
fresh with a large stable of stars in rotation. McMahon has even hired writers that come
from serial-TV backgrounds.
"Growth of the WWF comes from the outside,"
McMahon said. "You need to get people who aren't indoctrinated in order to get
McMahon's vigilance extends to doing a lot of focus
groups. "Listening to your audience is how you keep from getting stale. It's not
about what is Vince McMahon's cup of tea," he added.
It's this vigilance that has helped McMahon to steal
much of the spotlight from Bischoff. In the past year-and-a-half, while the WWF's
ratings have steadily increased, WCW's have remained flat. WCW, according to some
critics, had been relying too mightily on aging stars from the 1980s like Hulk Hogan and
The importance of being vigilant has not been lost on
Bischoff. "I've learned the hard way. For a couple of years, we dominated the
competition, but we got a little comfortable, and that was a mistake," he said.
"Audiences want to be challenged. You have to stay unpredictable."
Bischoff said the early abandonment of the successful
"New World Order" story line about corporate turf wars was, in retrospect,
ill-advised. "We're not back to where we were, but we're headed in the
right direction," he added.
Keller likened the evolution of the WWF to that of the
National Basketball Association, connecting the success of both leagues to the backs of
two formidable superstars, Steve Austin and Michael Jordan. "Vince is targeting 18-
to 35-year-old men right now, when he used to target kids," Keller said. "This
allows them to be edgier, and Steve Austin embodies this strategy."
"In the past, it was simplistic in terms of good guys
versus bad guys," McMahon said. "We're more reality-based now."
A Boston professor took it one step further.
"Wrestling is not necessarily escapism," said Henry Jenkins, professor of
comparative-media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of a
well-known essay on the WWF, "Never Trust a Snake: WWF Wrestling as Masculine
"It's mythology," Jenkins added.
"It's a way for the American people to deal with societal issues by tapping into
a melodramatic form."
Jenkins told the story of attending a WWF event at the
Boston Garden in the early 1990s, at the time of the Gulf War. Hulk Hogan was squaring off
against Sergeant Slaughter, an American soldier brainwashed by the Iraqis and trying to
come to terms with the American people. "I saw grown men cry that evening."
McMahon downplayed all of that as intellectual sop.
"We're in the entertainment business," he said. "We have a good handle
on human emotion and what makes us all tick, but we're certainly not trying to make
socially redeeming statements."
If anything, McMahon just wants to take aim at the
zeitgeist to reveal the truth about America, warts and all. With the 18-to-35 male target
in his crosshair, Jenkins believes McMahon and his crew have crafted Stone Cold Steve
Austin into the archetypal anti-hero for political incorrectness, which resonates with
Meanwhile, critics have taken shots at the menacing Austin
for spouting racist and sexist views. But Austin has gotten rich off of this shtick,
having raked in around $8 million last year, according to most estimates.
As for WCW's current fair-haired boy -- a former
member of the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons who goes by the moniker
"Goldberg" -- Jenkins believes his initial appeal had to do with being the
"little Jewish guy who's fighting back." He has since become more
"Guys like Goldberg provide kids who feel they're
being abused by the system with fantasy figures who can take control of a situation,"
However, lately, stories of disenfranchised teen-agers
abused by the system have struck the rawest of nerves in the aftermath of the high-school
shootings in Littleton, Colo.
With the content police fully mobilized by the White House,
a lot of fingers are being pointed at Hollywood, but the wrestling community does not seem
to be too concerned.
"The WWF is humor-based ... It's not like NYPD
Blue," Hammer said. "The WWF doesn't kill, rape or maul anyone."
"They'd be hard-pressed to associate the violence
issue with us," McMahon added. "If you compare us with other action-adventure
programs, we're like Sunday school. We use garbage cans and folding chairs, not
AK-47s and handguns."
As far as the bevy of buxom babes that adorn the
proceedings, "The WWF's sexuality is tame in comparison with something like [Beverly
Hills] 90210," he said.
Jenkins, for one, believes incidents like Littleton spark
hysterical reactions that don't properly frame the issue. "These violent images
are not causing violent outbursts. In fact, these images are symptoms of frustrations of
youth, and they could actually be an outlet for them," he said.
Bischoff didn't bother to disguise his scorn for
smarmy politicians covering their backsides, who cast aspersions against the kings of
"As ridiculous as it is to blame [President] Clinton
for Littleton, that tragedy had more to do with a lack of ethics and morals, embodied in
our president, than it had with anything to do with wrestling," he said.
IS THERE A LINK?
Others in academia disagreed. Many scholars said
accumulated evidence culled from thousands of studies over decades draws a link between
violent media content and youth violence.
In fact, Ganz was commissioned by Inside Edition to
do a content analysis on WWF Raw that was revealed back in February. Ganz's
findings revealed that over a one-year period, there were 1,658 times when someone grabbed
or pointed to one's crotch and 157 instances where a wrestler or audience member
flipped somebody the bird.
"The IU study was done out of context," Hammer
claimed. "They took actions by wrestlers and gave the actions their own spin."
TNT vice president of marketing Scott Safon acknowledged
that wrestling needs to be responsible about rhetoric on its shows that lean toward the
"But at the end of the day, wrestling is not about
weaponry," he said. "Wrestling fans love it for reasons that are not about
As for the Owen Hart tragedy, most observers believe it
will be, in the final analysis, nothing more than a blip on the screen.
As this story went to press, the Kansas City Police
Department was moving forward with its investigation of the accident. At press time, a
KCPD spokesman said there was no evidence of any foul play or negligence on the part of
the stunt crew at the Kemper Arena that evening.
McMahon -- who has been accused in the past by Hart's
brother, Bret, of treating his wrestlers like "circus animals" -- has proven
over the years to be a resilient man.
"Wrestling has proven to always be able to redefine
itself," Jenkins said. "Vince and his father before him have always done