Sorry, true sports fans. The above title likely makes you cringe, and I appreciate and sympathize with your visceral reaction. We proudly watch baseball, football, basketball and hockey as fans, cheering for true competition. Nothing is more American than seeing who is truly best, and the “entertainment” aspects of professional wrestling directly contradict these elements we hold dear. The outcomes are fixed, so the mainstream sees it as a bit childish.
But like it or not, professional wrestling has been a significant part of American culture for decades. It was closely tied to the expansion of television itself as a medium, followed by VHS, Closed Circuit Television, Pay Per View, the internet itself, and DVDs. So understandably, while the mainstream tends to disregard it, we’d be foolish to dismiss it as a relevant and profitable entertainment medium. And while many of us grew up watching wrestling, and then disregarded it later, I’m willing to bet than most guys, at some point, cheered for Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, John Cena and their ilk. And your grandpappy probably cheered for Bruno Sammartino. But I bet they’re mostly embarrassed to admit it in 2009. Why? Wrestling simply hasn’t been hip for about ten years now, since Steve Austin was chugging beers, and the nWo made wearing a wrestling t-shirt cool. Imagine that.
So what happened? Vince McMahon was seemingly at a point where he was getting what he truly craved: mainstream acceptance. The content got more raunchy and violent, and while sophisticated types still looked down upon wrestling, it’s hard to argue with financial success. So while parents and politicians protested and the content got edgier, WWE went public with an IPO, and the profits continued to pour in.
But like any entertainment form, professional wrestling goes in cycles, and the “boom” was over a few years later. It just so happens that in this case, the down cycle has been increased by the popularity of MMA and the UFC. As Dana White has gotten better at promoting his athletes’ characters and personalities (and consequently putting together matches the public will pay to see), suddenly wrestling has been overshadowed in the realm of mainstream importance. And it may never get it back.
Wisely, WWE has adapted by becoming more kid friendly, switching to a PG rating and even publishing a children’s magazine. Core fans have voiced their disapproval, but that’s where the consistent money is. Go through the motions, sell your $25 t-shirts, and profits continue to be steady, though never spectacular.
On the other side of the coin is TNA Wrestling, an organization that attempted to fill the gap left by Vince McMahon’s domination of the industry (competitors WCW and ECW went out of business at the start of the decade). Building a roster filled with some of the most talented independent wrestlers around, the company seemed ready to pounce on this opportunity. They aimed to create an innovative, exciting product that would appeal to niche fans at first, and from there potentially challenge WWE’s spot on top.
Without getting into all the messy details (if you think the politics in your office are bad, you should see what goes on behind the scenes at a pro wrestling company), somehow this plan got derailed a bit. While TNA prides itself on being an alternative (its company motto is “Cross the Line”), the talented roster has been weighed down by a less-than-creative creative team (redundancy intentional). Fans are generally intrigued by their roster but frustrated with the storylines and characters. Though admittedly, there is some loyalty there due to lack of any other alternative to McMahon’s product.
Now, Jim Cornette, who has been involved in the wrestling business seemingly forever (and is well respected), recently posted a well-written argument to his website attributing the wrestling business’ lack of success to the growth of “hardcore wrestling”. It’s a good read, you should check it out (FYI, it contains some mild profanity). And while he makes some good arguments on the surface, given context and perspective, his attitude is actually an accurate reflection of how the wrestling business is stubborn to evolve, talks down to the audience, and why it’s becoming less relevant with every passing year.
It’s a long piece arguing that “hardcore” wrestling (matches that ramp up violence to grab attention) is to blame for the downfall of the business. But he makes three very false statements. To paraphrase:
1. “If not for the growth of hardcore wrestling in Japan, the audience there would have always believed it was real.”
2. “If not for ECW popularizing the same format in America, fans’ expectations would be the same today as twenty years ago.”
3. “Because of hardcore wrestling, we’re out of ideas and can’t sell anything anymore. Not due to lack of creativity mind you, but because the audience got smarter. And we can’t fool them anymore, but I refuse to give them any credit all the same.”
Formats always need to evolve or die, and Cornette has attached himself to a romanticized “old school” mentality towards the business, with its roots firmly placed in the “carny” culture of years gone by. When the carnival came to town, wrestlers would put on matches and “work” the “marks”, convincing them it was real while maximizing profits. He mentions this mentality often in the piece, thinking old carny strategies are the way to go to keep profits up today.
But look, it’s 2009. And in the age of instant communication, online “tribes”, Twitter, Facebook and blogging, everyone has a platform (coming from me, the irony here is staggering), and almost all information is open and available. And like many businesses in this era, in this economy, you evolve or become extinct. So for all his accomplishments, Mr. Cornette does not understand that his audience has become smarter, and demands something that professional wrestling simply isn’t giving them in this day and age. That’s why they’re leaving: not because they got burned out on the violence in the matches, but because they got burned out on the same old, stale ideas. If you insist on still “working” the audience like an old school carny who gives them no credit (futile as it may be), you should at least start by understanding who your audience is.
Don’t believe me? Check out this excerpt: “Additionally, just who is it that ENJOYS this sideshow garbage? The same type of people who go to rock concerts to punch and bash each other in the face and beat each other up in the “mosh pit”–lower class, mentally challenged college-age (but not attending) guys who piss and moan about their depression and lot in life because they have neither the drive and determination nor mental acumen to change it. Any normal fans who see this type of show or attend one with these type of fans NEVER want to go to wrestling again.”
#1: I’ve been in lots of mosh pits throughout my life, and believe it or not, I graduated college. With honors. Ultimate irony? I also met my fiance in a mosh pit. She’s pretty awesome. And the singer in that punk band who was playing that night? He has a PhD, and a second career as a professor. He grew up in mosh pits too! Talk about showing how out of touch you are.
#2: Speaking from experience, anyone who went to an ECW show was actually hooked, period. To say they would never want to go to a show again is horribly wrong. In fact, ECW ran shows back in my hometown of Queens, New York at a horribly dilapidated Elk’s Lodge. In the winter, we freezed our butts off, and in the summer, we sweated profusely. And the house was always packed, we loved every moment of it, and no one ever complained about the conditions. That is what I’d call a “good product”.
#3: Grandpa Cornette sounds like he really wants the darn kids and their loud music to get off the lawn right here.
He even suggests that his own 90s independent Smokey Mountain Wrestling company drew bigger gates than ECW. Not accurate in the slightest, and if you go to any retail outlet, you’ll see plenty of ECW DVDs, and not many SMW ones. Even the most dedicated wrestling fans hardly remember that organization, much less with any fondness.
Now, wrestling has a certain “code”, again derived from the old carny way (remember that Simpsons episode?) So just by writing this, I’m probably “disrespecting a veteran of the business”, but I mean no harm. I personally worked for the now defunct Major League Wrestling for a while, years back, so I understand this. All I’m trying to say is that like many things today, what worked back then probably needs to evolve to work now.
And if you’re a wrestling promoter who still assumes his audience is as stupid as a kid playing a rigged carnival game? That’s exactly why people are ashamed to watch wrestling in the first place. Give them some respect and credit, stop this mentality of treating them like “marks” (AKA: “suckers” who are viewed as nothing more than ATMs), and maybe they’ll come back.