The WWE is the biggest name in sports entertainment with the number of viewers reaching over 13 million in the United States and with its shows broadcasted in more than 145 countries in 30 languages around the world. No, these are not legitimate sporting contests, but rather, productions with matches that are pre-determined for maximum effect to the running storyline.
The WWE is owned by the McMahon family, considered to be one of the most powerful families in the world in terms of influence to culture. Based in Stamford, Connecticut but with offices around the world from New York and Los Angeles to London and Singapore, the McMahon family owns 96 percent of the voting rights of the company and 70 percent of its economic interests.
And with its astounding library of videos, the company practically exclusively owns the entire visual history of professional wrestling.
The Early Years
Jess McMahon (on right)was involved in boxing promotions, even once putting up the bout between Jess Willard and Jack Johnson in 1915. Toots Mondt (on left) was a professional wrestler who abhorred the boring and deliberate pace of its bouts and introduced Slam Bang Western Style Wresting that aimed to make it more appealing and lively. Together, the two of them established the Capitol Wrestling Corporation Ltd., or CWC, the precursor of the WWE.
Initially, McMahon and Mondt associated the CWC with the National Wrestling Alliance, or NWA. After some disagreements, CWC left NWA and formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation, or WWWF. Some of its early stars included Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund, with the likes of Ivan Koloff, Stan Stasiak and Superstar Billy Graham providing the counterfoil.
The recipe for success was simple enough. There would always be a clean-cut babyface wrestler who would take on all the bad guys. He would win most of the time; the times he lost would be because the heel cheated or did something illegal. Heels would become champions but only to serve as transitions to a new babyface champion. Graham, however, had a nine-month reign as Backlund was still being trained and readied for his reign at the top.
By the end of the 1970s, the WWWF had been renamed to the WWF, or World Wrestling Federation.
The Son Rises
In the early part of 1980, Vince McMahon established Titan Sports, which purchased CWC from his father. He was much more assertive and aggressive than his predecessor.
Under his father’s reign, the CWC and the WWF followed the regional territory boundaries recognized by the NWA even though it was not a member of the alliance anymore. The WWF operated the profitable northeast segment of the country.
The younger McMahon, however, decided to expand outside his territory, thereby angering the promotion outfits of other regions. He also started poaching talents off rival companies. During this time, he was able to sign the likes of Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura (Yes! The former governor of Minnesota), Andre the Giant, Don Muraco, Greg Valentine, Ricky Steamboat and Iron Sheikh. The company toured the entire country. It was a huge risk on McMahon’s part, however, as it required a huge outlay of capital.
McMahon then gambled big time with the staging of WrestleMania. It was billed as the Super Bowl of professional wrestling and it featured a wrestling supercard. To promote the event, the company tied up with MTV and with celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. McMahon clearly wanted professional wrestling to become part of the mainstream and popular culture.
The first WrestleMania exceeded the expectation of even the most optimistic observer. With Hogan as its flag bearer, the WWF got broadcasted on network television, the first time since the 1950s. WrestleMania became a staple and its third offering, that pitted Hogan and Andre the Giant against each other, was seen by more than 33 million people.
Problems and Decline
The company failed to sustain the success of the 80s. In 1993, rampant allegations of sexual harassment and steroid abuse affected the company’s bottom line and forced McMahon to cut the pay of even his prime wrestlers. Both old and new wrestlers were leaving its fold, including the likes of Hogan, Randy Savage, Razor Ramon, Diesel, Sycho Sid and Rick Rude. Even worse, a rival promotion outfit called World Championship Wrestling, or WCW, was beating the WWF in the ratings game.
McMahon tried to revive the WWF by focusing on new storylines, including making the bad guy dominate the championship. He focused heavily on the feud among Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Critics and fans, however, further ganged up on McMahon after Hart’s controversial departure from the WWF when he lost his title to Michaels in what is known as “The Montreal Screwjob.”
Turning the Screw
Rather than collapsing totally, McMahon used the debacle in Montreal to turn things around for his company. He developed the character of Mr. McMahon, a dictatorial owner who forced his ways so long as it was good for business. He introduced a new era called “Attitude” that played on several controversial storylines. He also mocked Hart several times in succeeding fights.
The new era, along with the reinvention of wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle and Mick Foley re-energized the company. More violent and brutal matches were shown. When Mr. McMahon faced off with Austin, the WWF finally regained ratings control over the WCW.
The WWF eventually bought the WCW, as well as another outfit called Extreme Championship Wrestling, or ECW. This allowed the WWF to introduce several new storylines brought about by the invasion of talents from the two companies. New television programs were also launched. It also diversified with the company dabbling in book publications, movie productions and even once investing in the nightclub scene with a bar in Times Square.
The company turned even a dispute with the World Wide Fund for Nature over the use of the name WWF into a successful marketing gimmick. They launched the campaign called “Get the F Out!” and transitioned seamlessly from WWF to WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. Despite the name change, the WWE continues to be the number one name in sports entertainment.