The Wrestling Boom Opportunity the Industry Missed

What if the biggest economic booms in wrestling aren’t just about creating stars?

Common Wrestlenomics wisdom tells us economics in the industry are largely a result of star power promoted through strong media distribution.

But what if there’s another more important factor that comes first, from which stars are created almost as a side effect?

Maybe the greatest explosions of popularity happen when the usual expectations about what pro-wrestling is get upset.

If you’re a long-time wrestling fan my age or a little older, you lived through this. The two biggest booms for the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) began in 1985, then again in 1998. Each period made the company more popular than ever, set business records for a few years, then dissipated.

Vince McMahon arguably transformed wrestling into a more showy, ridiculous style of entertainment. No doubt there were debts to other territories (like Memphis) but “Vince Jr.”’s WWF leaned hard into more gimmicky, larger-than-life events with more colorful characters who came ready to be merchandised. Less concerning for Vince was the longstanding will in the business to preserve the mystique of wrestling and to keep audiences wondering what was real and what wasn’t.

From Vince’s perspective, he probably thought the wrestling he inherited from his father’s generation was boring: just a bunch of guys rolling around in their underwear. Perhaps as well as to combat his own insecurities about his work, he wanted to bring his form entertainment to become accepted as a just another member of “show business”.

WWE revisionist history would tell you this was when Vince rescued “rassling” out of the smoke-filled auditoriums and into glitz and glamour, with updated TV programs, consumer products, and celebrity-studded Wrestlemania events. This is when he invented Sports Entertainment. 

In reality, he did transform what had been a simpler, more regional business into a national business. He applied higher production values and a more outlandish and marketable creative approach. And Vince did use celebrities from other walks of life with success: people like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper. He jarred expectations about what pro-wrestling could be.

And maybe that discord brought out the boom of the mid-1980s as much as the charisma of Hulk Hogan and other supporting characters like Andre the Giant, Roddy Piper and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.

Following the first Wrestlemania in 1985, despite the simulated violence, WWF very much marketed itself at kids. The company’s “go get ’em champ” spot, featuring Bret Hart, is a memorable and effective bit of advertising directed at kids.

Through the early 1990s, there were definitely places the WWF wouldn’t go as far as getting too violent or too vulgar. There were limits on the content. Its major competitor, World Championship Wrestling, vying for the same demographic, acted similarly. As a result, the forbidden elements became an opportunity, especially in a culture where the kids of the late 80s and early 90s were reaching their teen and young adult years.

Through the mid-1990s, the audience was deprived of a spectacular element, not all that different from psychology around how, more intentionally, the audience is deprived of a certain element in various wrestling story-lines where, for example, the audience is deprived of seeing a babyface win a title — and, ideally, business is drawn out and peaked until finally there’s a new champion.

By 1997 or 1998, the edginess opportunity for the WWF was ripe to be capitalized on, along with the advent of new top stars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. The open secret that Vince was really in charge was finally confronted on-screen as he too took on a valuable heel character. On what was once largely a kids’ show, Austin swore, drank beer, and raised his middle finger. There was more blood and violence than previously allowed. Rock popularized catchphrases and new euphemisms. Women in the WWF were more hypersexualized and objectified than ever. Taking inspiration from the lower profile Extreme Championship Wrestling, Vince again broke expectations about what pro-wrestling was.

Maybe the exploitation of this edginess opportunity was really the catalyst for the economic boom we now call the “attitude era”; and stars like Austin, Rock, Vince, Triple H, and Mick Foley were essential, but wouldn’t have driven so much revenue without the cultural momentum that coincided with the peaks in power of other vulgar media stars like Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, and the animated kids of South Park.

Obviously this kind of cultural opportunity isn’t the only way to boost business, but maybe it’s the way to boost business in the biggest way. There are examples of a more pure star development that increased business and which don’t seem to coincide with some kind of broad transformation of pro-wrestling’s expectations. The rise of Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi in turning around New Japan’s business early in the 2010s is one example. The emergence of Místico as huge star in the mid-2000s for CMLL is another. Around the same time John Cena and Batista were well-developed stars who strongly helped a WWE that needed new heroes after the exits of Austin and Rock. Maybe the peak of WCW business in 1996, though, does have something to do with wrecking expectations. That’s when the generation’s biggest wrestling star and supposed good guy, Hulk Hogan, turned heel and helped form the very marketable New World Order.

The obvious question to ask now is: Is there a transformation opportunity like the ones found in roughly 1985 and 1998? For WWE or All Elite Wrestling or any other company?

I’m not sure, partly because each one of these transformations, while driving tremendous short-term value, seemed to permanently spend something creatively for the wrestling business, long-term. The mid-80s boom, with its willingness to be more cartoon than sport, spent some of wrestling’s mystique and wonder — even if that erosion was inevitable with the internet on its way. The transformation of the attitude era, and the costly “Monday Night War” that WWF waged with WCW, spent the use of vulgar and more adult-oriented content. The competition between the two companies also normalized a maximalist compulsion for angles in nearly every TV segment: a habit that lives on today to the detriment of the industry at-large. What made the attitude era’s content work economically was that it was opposed to what the content had been previously. In that sense, you cannot bring back the attitude era much more than you can burn a matchstick twice.

Or has such an opportunity to spike revenues by disrupting expectations already passed?

Pro-wrestling is a male-dominated field. It’s mostly men who watch and mostly men who participate. And, if only in the memory of most in the U.S., men are always the big stars.

So maybe the elevation of women a few years ago — attempted, but like so much of what WWE’s done creatively this century, not well-executed — was a massive opportunity. Maybe that was the next upsetting of expectations about what pro-wrestling can be. In July 2015, fifteen years after the height of the attitude era, which was fifteen years after the birth of Hulkamania, WWE brought Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte Flair to its main roster in a move since branded as the “women’s revolution”. Bayley, who seemed to have great potential to appeal to kids, followed those three women to the main roster the next year.

The debut and success of the reality series Total Divas in 2013 likely drove more women to flagship WWE programming, and set the stage. The timing coincides culturally with the “Me Too” and other feminist movements. Within wrestling itself “#GiveDivasAChance” was a popular hashtag the preceded the supposed revolution, and aggregated criticisms about how women in WWE were compensated, presented, and given TV time. The timing lines up too with the popularity of Ronda Rousey in the UFC, who broke expectations about what was possible in MMA, and who could’ve come to WWE in 2018 to extend the wrestling boom, had it happened.

The degree to which Becky Lynch did catch on, to Vince’s surprise, for WWE in 2019 might’ve just been a remnant of what was possible a few years earlier and squandered. And maybe in the line of the rock ‘n wrestling Hulkamania era and the attitude era could’ve been the women’s era for WWE, if only the company had creative leadership savvy enough to still effectively cultivate star power.

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