Among long-time wrestling fans, the debate rages on about the legacy that Vincent K. McMahon has etched for his influence on professional wrestling. For many who grew up during the territorial system of professional wrestling – one which saw dozens of full-time circuits operating weekly schedules in a regional area – they look towards McMahon with much contempt. In fact, the World Wrestling Federation is often regarded by the past generation as bringing about the downfall of professional wrestling and the livelihood of many promoters and career opportunities for wrestlers themselves.
However, while the national (and international) expansion of the league now known as World Wrestling Entertainment did change the wrestling landscape, that is not necessarily a bad thing. One could argue that under McMahon’s banner, professional wrestling has achieved its greatest visibility now, then ever before. The WWE constantly is filling stadiums and permeates the social conscious with ample doses of the sport through every medium possible.
How will history remember Vince McMahon? As a visionary patriarch of sports entertainment, or as a ruthless tyrant that saw the demise of an industry model which employed hundreds across the continent? Regardless of where you stand on that particular topic, it is critical to acknowledge that the WWE, under McMahon has created some significant opportunities in the advancement of wrestling as an industry. The following serve as just the top ten of many that can be credited to the global empire which has now been branded the WWE Universe. After reviewing this list, you, yourself can decide what place Vince will hold in history.
10. The Rise of Pay-Per-Views
In the territory era of wrestling, it was common that the heated rivalries between competitors would see tensions build week after week in each city on the circuit. There wasn’t necessarily a big showdown in a larger venue, but the aim was to fill the 2,500 seat arenas to see their hero dole out justice on their antagonist. This soon evolved so that the weekly cards around the circuit might build to major events staged annually or semi-annually at a central location in a larger arena or stadium. However, when operating a national touring circuit, a more efficient vehicle was required to ensure that all of the build-up and anticipation that was growing with each passing house show. Then the final pay off could be seen around the country could be delivered in a timely fashion. The rise of pay-per-view to broadcast those climactic battles between wrestling’s top titans has also influenced the business model of scheduling television programming and is responsible for a great deal of the revenue streams from the sport itself.
9. Going Hollywood
While the use of sports celebrities for product endorsements is not new, prior to the WWE, seldom did professional athletes cross over into movie and television roles beyond a simple cameo appearance. When Hulk Hogan made his brief appearance in Rocky III as Thunderlips, it started the door as to how these wrestlers may extend their opportunities. Wrestlers such as Roddy Piper, Steve Austin, The Rock, John Cena and more have made the jump to Hollywood to the great benefit of wrestling. The mainstream media awareness and appeal of the stars outside of the ring has also influenced the credibility of the sport to new audiences and investors alike.
8. Off-Shoot Television Shows
For decades the wrestling industry was shrouded in mystery and many speculated about what takes place behind the locker room doors and in the lives of wrestlers away from the glare of the ring lights. The development of programming such as Tough Enough and Total Divas has pulled back the curtain on the daily lives of wrestlers. These shows have served to both break down the wrestlers to make them human and relatable, but also build them up to show their resolve in some of sport’s most unforgiving conditions. Even casual wrestling fans, who maybe haven’t been drawn in by the action of the weekly syndicated matches are starting to tune in and are building an emotional connection with the rare collection of talent that have dared travel an unconventional career path.
7. Embracing the Media
Historically, the wrestling industry shielded itself from the media. Aside from promoting the next upcoming match in any given market, generally promoters and wrestlers steered clear of media interviews. This was largely attributed to the mainstream media often dismissing wrestling as a legitimate sport, or trying to expose the business. However, under Vince McMahon, the red carpet has been set out for the media to have access to the stars. As a result, there are interviews, feature stories, photo essays and more featuring the WWE superstars across a wide spectrum of publications on the news stand. Each serves to not only promote the wrestler, but also the WWE brand itself.
If you can believe it, in the 1970s, most of the merchandising that was in place for individual wrestlers was spear-headed by their local fan club presidents. Your only souvenir from the night at the matches might be an event program, or maybe an autographed publicity photo of your favorite wrestler appearing on the card. However, with an eye on saturating the market with his brand, the national expansion of the WWE has brought with it branded items of all varieties. In fact, the merchandising component of the business may well yield more revenue annually than the ticket sales for the matches themselves. Action figures, DVDs, t-shirts and other novelty items have all become part of pop culture lore and have spawned a collector culture among diehard fans.
5. Shedding the “Smoke-Filled Arena” Image
It will be difficult for the current generation of fans to recognize that the rock concert-like atmosphere that seems to be featured on every televised wrestling show was only an innovation of the past generation. Fans who were attending the matches when legends like Ric Flair were first making their way to the ring in the 1970s weren’t treated to ring music to introduce their favorites, there were no video screens, pyrotechnics or array of lights. No, it was simply a spotlight over the ring, often obscured by the blue haze of cigarette smoke in the arenas. The evolution to include multi-media and a visual build up to heighten the emphasis on each star has proven to be one of the major innovations for wrestling’s elevation to the forefront of pop culture.
4. Crossover Marketing with Celebrities
Few will forget the stir that is created when there appears to be an impromptu confrontation between an adrenaline-fuelled wrestler and a visiting celebrity who may be enjoying the matches from ringside seats. Such was the case with Bam Bam Bigelow shoved former NFL star Lawrence Taylor, after feeling ridiculed by the football star during a pay per view event. These incidents, which draw in the fanbase of celebrities to tune in to wrestling goes right back to the first WrestleMania, when star of television’s The A-Team, Mr. T partnered with Hulk Hogan to headline the first ever WrestleMania (which is kind of a big deal!). Not every crossover has been a winner, but for the most part – whether an athlete from another sport, or an actor or singer – the rub has cemented the WWE’s status among the entertainment community’s elite.
3. Going Public
Wrestling has often been operated as a family business – the reins of the company passed down from father to son to operate the pre-ordained circuit. When the WWE announced intention to become a publicly traded company, offering stocks in the business to the open market, many within the ranks of the sport itself were skeptical. For you see, in most cases, the assets actually owned by a wrestling company are often little more than the ring itself and associated equipment. However, McMahon’s growth as more than just a touring wrestling company is evidenced by the manner in which the WWE’s portfolio can be leveraged to secure private investment. From the value of television contracts, merchandising rights, pay per view royalties, and more … there is little mystery why Vince himself, seeks to create a distance from wrestling being the focus, and rather emphasize his value as a juggernaut in the entertainment industry.
2. The Migration to Prime Time
When the WWE first rose to international visibility, it did so among the Saturday morning cartoons that sandwiched his time slot. Professional wrestling, which often found itself in the late night hours on some TV schedules in the 60s and 70s was grateful to have airtime on Saturday mornings to cultivate a new generation of fans. However, the big advertising dollars weren’t going to be allocated to such a show. He needed to move to prime time television and that meant adapting to the network’s desire for ratings. By offering a live format, weekly and episodic in nature, Vince has survived on prime time television for 23 years, with multiple programs. In fact, despite the often maligned reputation of professional wrestling, McMahon’s hold on a prime time TV spot eclipses a vast majority of programs to ever air.
1. Syndicated Programming
The key to the WWE’s success and the reason that fans have fallen into the culture of the organization is owed largely to the syndication of their product. They aren’t simply one of the available wrestling programs on television among a slate of local or regional offerings. No, instead, their perpetual visibility on the airwaves with multiple branded programs weekly, has been the most significant factor in their ability to overtake the traditional territorial model of wrestling. Not to mention ensure the household visibility of their stars and establish themselves as a brand which eclipses an industry. In fact, when people talk about professional wrestling, invariably, for clarification someone will ask “You mean like WWE?” The effectiveness of their market dominance has created an ongoing ripple effect in wrestling where the branding efforts of other organizations pales in comparison. When talking about wrestling, one is either classified as WWE or “not the WWE.” And we all know what people prefer.