Growing the WWE product through Wrestlemania: Do “special attraction” matches work?

Brock Lesnar is done as a MMA fighter. His UFC career was limited to a handful of matches (8 official bouts to be exact), in which his meteoric rise was strangely counterbalanced with an almost anonymous fall from grace. In a strange brew of bizarre injuries and generally being a supreme asshole, Lesnar retired from his third sport, four if you count the wonderful world of sports entertainment. Brock Lesnar is 35 years old.
 
His Wrestlemania and now Extreme Rules opponent Triple H has seen a similar fade into off-screen anonymity, though for the real-life Paul Levesque, he’s never been more invested in the professional wrestling business. Married to the daughter of the WWE Alpha and Omega Vincent K. McMahon, Triple H now represents one part of the Holy Trinity behind the world’s leader in sports entertainment. He has a legitimate role running the everyday operations of the company, even going so far as to cut his legendary locks that made him look like a cross between Clay Matthews and Saul Goodman. Hunter is semi-retired from the in-ring competition, only participating in four matches over the past 12 months. Paul Levesque is 43 years old.
 
The match proceeding Hunter and Brock’s featured the legendary Undertaker. Mark Calloway, as he’s known to his friends and anyone that wants to get their ass kicked, just embarked on his 24th year cashing in a check penned by Vince McMahon. He’s played the part of a cartoonish “Dead Man” for a significant portion of his adult life, tweaking his character by adding nuances as small as MMA-style fighting gloves and as substantial as riding a motorcycle to the ring while shaming the WWE audience into cheering during Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit theme music. Taker has been a consistent main event player since his inception during the November 1990 Survivor Series, staying relevant long after all his contemporaries charge $10 for a picture at a Philadelphia Comic Con. As he’s aged well into his 40s, Calloway has become more and more the Dead Man than ever before, now needing no makeup to accentuate his naturally sunken eyes and sharply gaunt cheekbones. The Undertaker is 48 years old.
 
The Rock continued his sporadic two year return to the company jettisoned him into mainstream superstardom with a WWE Championship matchup with John Cena. Is it counter-intuitive to think that as Dwayne Johnson moves further away from the daily grind of the highly physical life of a professional wrestler that he’d actually get into better shape? Now equipped with more money than any of his sports entertainment brethren, Rocky is has been blessed with the best trainers, personal chefs and fitness consultants he can buy. For a man of his age, Johnson is in tremendous physical shape, so much so that he was emboldened to come back to the WWE after not wrestling a match for six years. The Rock is 41 years old.
 
Throughout all their journeys out of and back into the WWE ring, these four legendary wrestlers—some moreso than others—have one way or another managed to stay within the fan base’s consciousness long enough to take four of the six spots in the three most bankable matches at the biggest pay-per-view of the  year. The Wrestlemania main event picture is a complicated formula, with the Holy Trinity deciding on matches based on criteria varying from how it could elevate an unknown wrestler, to how much mainstream attention the match will create to how badly the weekly watching WWE Zombieverse wants that particular bout. Seeing as the McMahons put over 80,000 fans in stadium seats on an annual basis, they’re doing something right.
 
But it sure as hell isn’t cheap. Reportedly, Vince has paid The Rock and Brock Lesnar multi-millions for a contract with a limited working schedule, including clauses for how many matches, television tapings and public appearances each guy will make over the life of a deal. Less specific are the terms for Triple H and the Undertaker, who while semi-retired, remain as contracted employees of WWE.
 
But it’s not like this hasn’t been done before.

Back in the early 1980’s, the then-WWF took a gigantic risk by putting on a multi-million dollar show at Madison Square Garden called “Wrestlemania”. The inaugural event that’s now a part of the popular culture lexicon was merely just souped up, expensive version of the local weekend house card Vinny and his father would put on with Bruno Sammartino in the 60s, followed by Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan in the ensuing decades. To truly differentiate the event, McMahon backed up the truck for popular entertainers (Cyndi Lauper, Muhammad Ali and Liberace—a trio, that I guarantee would have made for the greatest, strangest late night Koreatown Kareoke party ever) to not just appear at the event, but to in fact wrestle. Fresh off his appearance in Rocky III, Mr. T teamed with fellow Balboa victim Hulk Hogan to fight Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorf and Rowdy Roddy Piper in a main event tag team match. The entire event hinged on many factors, but the headlining bout was of course critical to the event being a success or a complete failure.

McMahon’s wager worked. Wrestlemania was a smash success—so much so that just two years later 93,000 fans piled into the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit to watch Hulk Hogan hip toss body slam Andre the Giant in the professional wrestling biggest match still to this day. The gambit continued to work; McMahon would pay fading or semi-retired stars a ton of money to come out of retirement and headline his event. Whilst newer attractions like King Kong Bundy didn’t drive dollars, special attractions like Andre the Giant, Mr. T and William “The Refrigerator” Perry seemed to do the trick.

As the WWF grew in popularity and more eyeballs tuned in to see mainstream star Hulk Hogan, as well as familiar faces like Andre, Mr. T and the like, the company was able to expose the casual audience to new, exciting characters like Randy Savage, Ted DiBiase, Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Rick Rude and others, all of which would continue to drive buy rates and merchandise sales for years (and Wrestlemanias) to come.

Now is there definitive data that suggests these special attraction wrestlers and matches is completely responsible for the rise of the WWF in the eighties? No, there isn’t. Perhaps more viewers were attracted because of megastar Hulk Hogan and the massive talent pool of the time kept them watching. But it remains that Vince McMahon helped establish his brand—and the extremely successful pay-per-view that’s generally regarded as the turning point for the company and industry at large—with three events featuring celebrity wrestlers and semi-retired stars whose names were more impactful than their body slams at that point.

For the years proceeding, the model changed. From Wrestlemania IV onto XXIII, the main event picture was largely dominated by a mix of new wrestlers and old, but largely staying away from the guest star aspect that artificially propelled the product, much like a Swedish Penis Pump might do to a formerly cryogenically frozen British secret agent.  Aside from a Lawrence Taylor cameo match at Wrestlemania XI and a Mike Tyson guest referee appearance at Wrestlemania XIV, Vince largely stuck to building his brand with the personnel he had, featuring active wrestlers like Hogan, Savage, Hart, Michaels, Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H and Cena to promote the now-WWE.

Then, the model changed. After a decade of playing to arenas for pro wrestling’s Superbowl, the company went back to putting on their marquee event in stadiums every April. Perhaps emboldened by the ever growing gates and television audiences, Vince had the special attraction match come back in a big way. Heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather was one of the first, guest starring at Wrestlemania XXIV in a surprisingly entertaining car wreck that some have loving called a “match” with the Big Show. In the next few years, former WWE mainstays like Triple H, The Rock and the Undertaker began wrestling thrice, twice or sometimes even less than once a year. The men who had once proudly made the McMahon family into near billionaires now had part-time gigs not dissimilar to how Mayweather moonlighted as a “wrestler”, contributing to the WWE for both a love of the game, and also an assload of cash. Fans—now forcibly crammed into the all-too-corporate moniker of the “WWE Universe”—continued to pour their hard earned dollars into this yearly wrestling circus, content knowing that these semi-retired legends would happily show up for their one big match per year. After all, for the wrestlers they’ve got top billing, a TV-heavy build featuring the WWE’s excellent produced video packages and of course, the requisite fan anticipation having not seen these legends for months (and sometimes years) at a time.

The strangest facet about all of this is that wrestling fans for the most part, expect these veterans to simply hop back in the squared circle and to ring up a Kobe-esque 40-point game, as if no time had passed. It’s in this way that wrestling fans find themselves at distinct odds from their sports watching comrades. The Rock had been away from wrestling and the physical grind of throwing oneself onto a canvas for over six years when he embarked on a one-off match with John Cena a year ago at Wrestlemania XXVIII. The match ended up being pretty damn good, but if for no other reason that it was brilliantly constructed to hide the Rock’s limitations (being out of ring shape primarily) and highlight his still apparent strengths (dramatic timing on moves, interplay with the audience). However, the thought of four forty-something wrestlers coming back after not facing regular competition and putting on five-star matches is a willing suspension of disbelief that it takes to, well, become a wrestling fan in the first place.

And this is exactly what happened last month. Brock, Hunter, Taker and the Rock all came back in the top three matches of the card to drive ticket sales and PPV buys. Somehow, even as a fan who looks at these issues through an ultimately meaningless meta-prism to find meaning itself in pro wrestling, I convinced myself into thinking that these three men would come back with the same type of vim and vigor that made them stars in the first place.

What happened was that the Rock and Cena threw up a clunker (but entertaining none the less) and Triple H and Brock put on a slow, solid brawl that only really picked up in the last 5 minutes. Meanwhile, the Undertaker bucked the trend by setting it, in putting on a Match of the Year candidate with CM Punk, whose motto “Best in the World” has been cemented as more than just a great catchphrase maniacally shouted on a corner turnbuckle.

Short-term, this was obviously a great decision. Wrestlemania XXVIX did a fantastic buy-rate, settling in at 1.2 million PPVs purchased. There was a ton of mainstream interest, headlined by Dwayne Johnson, the greatest corporate spokesperson since that talking Chihuahua, former UFC Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, and the in-ring returns of Triple H and the Undertaker. Casual fans from all over flocked to Wrestlemania in the Meadowlands, including 5 of the 7 guys I went with who hadn’t watched WWE on the regular since Chyna still looked like a man and Rey Mysterio looked like a little girl.

Long-term? I’m not so sure. Yes, the eyeballs are there. Any lapsed fan who purchased the PPV were sure to see newer wrestlers like Daniel Bryan, Alberto Del Rio, Jack Swagger, The Shield and Sheamus, some of which will hopefully gain enough fame in the WWE where they can one day wrestle once a year and have it be meaningful. The goal is obviously to not just make Wrestlemania reach the most viewers possible, but also for those viewers to then say “Hey, that guy Daniel Bryan is awesome! I want to watch him more. Maybe I should start watching Raw again…” But will those impressions be made as forcibly when Bryan is facing some Boogie Nights knock-off in a tag match halfway down the card? Or would Daniel Bryan be best exposed to lapsed fans for the incredible talent he is if he were the one fighting Triple H?

The question here is how should Vince be building this card? Getting buys for the biggest (and thus highest over-head) event of the year is the goal, but like any company, the goal has to be to build more loyal fans who will give you their money 12 months out of the year rather than just 1. Is the best way to do that to stack the card with the hugest names fighting the hugest names, and thus attracting the casual fans by blowing them away with a “dream match” they never thought they’d see? Or is the notion of seeing these legends and special attractions like Taker, Triple H, Chris Jericho, Lesnar, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the like enough to drive the PPV for those type of fans no matter who they’re facing? If that’s the case, then combine that with the need to create more stars and expose them to the audience at large: rather than Brock/HHH, why not Brock/Sheamus? Or Rock/Daniel Bryan? That’s the huge question—is the draw more dependent on one name, or two names creating an even bigger spectacle? Is the whole greater than the parts?

I went to Wrestlemania with half a dozen casual fans, and most of them left shouting the praises of Bryan, The Shield and CM Punk leaving MetLife Stadium as fireworks lit the Jersey night sky. They had been drawn in by not only seeing a wrestling event on steroids (a funny metaphor, really), but also the panting excitement of seeing Triple H, Undertaker and the Rock, all heroes from the height of their fandoms. I get weekly and monthly e-mails now asking what CM Punk is up to, or if Daniel Bryan is long for the title picture. Do they watch Raw any more than they used to? No, they don’t. But the interest is piqued and they’ll be damn sure to spend money on an event if ever I asked them to go.

Would they all still have been just as willing to go to Wrestlemania or watch it on PPV if the main events hadn’t been such high profile clash of the titans? Yes to the former, but…probably no to the latter. Having been now to three Wrestlemanias, the key to the event isn’t just the name, it’s that you’re in to see a visual spectacle and that something special is bound to happen. With or without the new icon John Cena fighting arguably the highest profile wrestler ever, there’s the feeling that going into that stadium in April that this is big. Bigger than life, bigger than reality, because this isn’t reality. The draw is there no matter who is fighting.

At home? It’s a different draw, and one that matters more. Over 1.2 million households ordered the PPV–the actual eyeballs that caught the event is double or triple that amount. You do the math. Which reach is more important? The viewer at home will still be blown away by the gigantic set, a football stadium filled with screaming fans and enough pyrotechnics to light up a Nickelback concert. But, for the person ordering the show, “the experience” of watching the event is mostly limited to the matches themselves. They’re not going to get the same chills when Chris Jericho and his well-lit jacket, or CM Punk rises to the top rope for his Macho Man tribute elbow. What they’ll see is the camera trained on the two men fighting in the ring, and the drama that the match creates. Could Daniel Bryan do that with Triple H? You bet your ass. But would the casual fan necessarily drop that $70 without hearing two recognizable names at the top of the card. I’m not sure.

As superfans are want to do, they’ll rage on the Holy Trinity for rotating veteran wrestlers in and out of the main event picture at Wrestlemania, and now at Extreme Rules, rather than “growing new talent”. Much like the problems that dragged WCW down years ago, there’s a common thread that the WWE hasn’t grown enough superstars in recent years. It’s a criticism that many fall back on when Dolph Ziggler isn’t doing nearly enough to elevate himself, or Kofi Kingston is given his 10,000th new program to push him into the main event. But, even if that isn’t true (see, Punk, CM; Sheamus–two gigantic, bankable stars), those names, for all their actual value in the main event, do not have the perceived value that the big, veteran stars have. The truth is when there’s a PPV that cost 75% more than the other 11 months of the year, there has to be that extra little push. Like it or not, that’s what Triple H, Brock Lesnar, the Undertaker and Chris Jericho represent.

The WWE is operating on a come and see model–get the folks in the door, and they’ll see all the wares the store has to offer. Every year, there will be more fans, lapsed fans or new fans that watch Wrestlemania and come away having a better idea of who Dean Ambrose is and that Ryback is the future of the main event picture. They’ll discover that before watching their favorite Attitude Era brawlers take on one another and maybe they’ll be back for round two. It’s not a perfect science–but after all, wasn’t the Undertaker fighting CM Punk this year? And John Cena taking on the Miz with the Rock presiding over the match? There has to be the carrot for exposing new stars to the main stream, and it seems that Vince McMahon and WWE have found the best way possible to do so. It’s a puzzling allocation of assets for the WWE, but, ultimately, the right one.

 

 

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