Big boys' blues

Big boys' blues, by Andrew Humphreys - August 2002
(Credit: The Bulletin)

They're big, they're buff and they're ratings slayers. Andrew Humphreys warms up for Melbourne's pro-wrestling 'mega-event' which proves these bruisers aren't just for losers.

On Saturday, August 10, 50,000 wrestling fans will pack Melbourne's Colonial Stadium to watch impossible superstars such as Hollywood Hulk Hogan (yes, that Hollywood Hulk Hogan), The Rock, tough guy Triple H, a long-haired, square-jawed Canadian called Edge and buff bad guys like Chris Jericho and ex-Olympic champion Kurt Angle punch, kick, shoulder slam and suplex each other inside and outside a six-by-six metre wrestling ring. There will be eye gouges, low blows and submission holds. Steel chairs, road signs, cow bells and tables will be used as weapons. In between, wrestling "divas" like Torrie Wilson and Stacy Keibler will parade and fight in their underwear. Giant video screens, fireworks and heavy metal music will make the night complete. And this is only the beginning.

Wrestling, at least the way World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc does it, is big business. Before the rise of pay television in Australia, it would have been easy to dismiss wrestling as a purely American phenomenon, a marginal product for a marginalised audience (primarily young American males, generally regarded as "trailer trash"). Now, however, wrestling is not only big business, it's one of the driving forces of popular culture. It may seem perverse, but to millions of people around the world wrestling matters, and if you want to know what young men are watching, reading, listening to and spending their money on, you need to take a look at the wrestling.

Over the past two years, the core business of the WWE has experienced huge growth in almost all areas: live events, cable TV, pay-per-view, videos and DVDs, video games, clothing (primarily T-shirts), action figures – you name it, the WWE does it. The company's flagship products – the two-hour weekly TV broadcasts of Smackdown and Raw – have dominated the male 12 to 17 demographic in the United States and are broadcast in 12 languages across 130 countries. This success has spilled into CD sales (through the WWE's Smackdown! Music), book sales (look out for Can You Take the Heat?, the official cookbook of the WWE) and even movies.

Much of this has been due to the overwhelming popularity of the WWE's biggest star, The Rock. His book, The Rock Says, spent 20 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and sold 720,000 copies in hardcover alone. The Scorpion King, executive produced by WWE chairman Vince McMahon and the WWE, cast The Rock as a leading man in a prequel to the hugely successful The Mummy and was a box-office bonanza. The Rock's got a well-trained eyebrow and can flex and grimace on cue. Naturally enough, he's already being touted as Hollywood's next big action hero. The Scorpion King 2 is merely a formality. Where his career goes from there is anyone's guess.

The WWE produces a curious but compelling product, a mix of sport, slapstick, soft porn and soap opera, where old-timers in spandex tights meet newcomers in baggy pants and bandanas. No one even pretends that the wrestling (which makes up a comparatively minor part of every broadcast) is real any more – it's a product, pure and simple – but, to the fans, that's no longer the point. Wrestling is all about entertainment. And it starts with the WWE's live "mega-events".

Tickets for the Global Warning Tour, the first WWE live event in Australia for nearly 20 years, sold out in 48 hours. According to the promoter, Dainty Consolidated Entertainment, Telstra recorded over 150,000 callers attempting to secure tickets via phone in the first hour that tickets went on sale. Ticket prices ranged from $29.95 to $750. Corporate and travel packages were hot items.

"You'd be surprised how many people in corporate Australia –top 50 companies – are into WWE," says Paul Dainty. And when it came to attracting a sponsor (Microsoft's Xbox video games console has the honour), Dainty says he was "literally besieged with people who wanted to be associated with this event".

Dainty has promised that the show will set "a benchmark for future live events in Australia". Fireworks are expected, quite literally, and Dainty is optimistic that there will be more shows to promote in the near future. "Australia is a very important market for the WWE," he says. "We definitely plan to do more, and we hope Global Warning will become an annual event."

Live events provide the WWE with content for TV and pay-per-view broadcasts. There are currently six hours of WWE content broadcast in Australia a week, split over cable channels Fox 8 and Fox Sports. According to Adam Oakes, marketing director of Fox Sports, there was never any question that the WWE package would provide the network with a strong audience, although its demographic (males aged 14 to 24) is skewed younger than the network's core demographic (males 25 to 54).

Outside of live sport broadcasts, WWE Raw rates as the network's strongest show. "It consistently falls in the top-five pay-TV programs, week in, week out," says Oakes. "The passion of the fans is just extraordinary. They're more passionate than most soccer fans, and very loyal."

As well as the flagship two-hour weekly Smackdown (Fox 8) and Raw (Fox Sports) broadcasts, each Australian network shows a one-hour package of interviews and highlights. Fans of other major soap operas – Days of Our Lives, for example – only get five hours of drama a week, and the WWE keeps producing new programs to up the ante.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the new products is WWE Tough Enough, which runs on MTV in the US and Fox 8 in Australia. Tough Enough is the WWE's own reality TV show, where budding WWE wrestlers live, train and compete with each other to win a chance at WWE super­stardom. It's like Survivor with more muscle, and it provides the WWE with a good source of new talent.

New talent keeps the WWE machine rolling. WWE writers will develop characters and storylines in conjunction with individual wrestlers before they're thrown into the ring, a dangerous world of fluctuating alliances, where good and evil can change places in the blink of an eye and the referees are always looking the wrong way. The WWE trades in broad characterisations and stereotypes, such as the Reverend D-Von, an evangelical black preacher, Eddie Guerrero, the wily Mexican, and the are-they-or-aren't-they? tag team of Billy and Chuck, who wrestle in matching red briefs and refuse to compete without their stylist, Rico, who, naturally, also wrestles when required.

Ultimately, however, the fans decide who to love and who to hate, and the WWE writers are inevitably guided by fan reaction. It's an essentially democratic process, and characters have to be able to evolve with the wishes of the audience. Otherwise, they're out. Before he was The People's Champion, The Rock was The Corporate Champion, one of Vince McMahon's handpicked lackeys. He was a great bad guy; now he's a great good guy. All that matters is that people want to watch him win.

Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment Incorporated likes to describe itself as an "integrated media and enter­tain­ment company". The company chairman, Vince McMahon, is also one of wrestling's most colourful characters. He and his family also form a part of the WWE cast and their staged "boardroom" antics provide background drama for the matches themselves.

In wrestling there are good guys and bad guys, heroes and heels, and McMahon is invariably a heel, the one man the fans love to hate. It's a role he plays to the hilt, stripping to the waist and flexing his own considerable biceps whenever it's required.

More often, his role is as the Machiavellian manipulator, taunting the audience ("Unlike all these people here tonight, I don't have to work for a living. Look it up – I'm a certified billionaire. I don't have to work. I do it for one thing and one thing only: ego!") and his wrestlers. Rarely is the chairman of a company so involved with its product.

But McMahon is no ordinary chairman. He's been a part of the wrestling since the early 1970s, first with his father's Capitol Wrestling Enterprises and later with the World Wrestling Federation. Over the years, his company has out-fought and out-rated all challengers (including Ted Turner's WCW) to consolidate its position at the top of the wrestling ladder.

After a successful public offering in October 1999 and an improbable battle with the World Wildlife Fund in the British Court of Appeal, the WWF became the WWE earlier this year. The name change was accompanied by a successful rebranding campaign that implored fans to "Get the F Out". Naturally, the T-shirts were a hit.

But wrestling is a cyclical business and McMahon knows this better than anyone. Despite continued growth, there are signs that the boom may be coming to an end. US ratings for both Smackdown and Raw (shown on UPN and TNN respectively) have waned over the first half of the year and analysts (yes, there are wrestling analysts) have called for new stars to emerge as superstars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin (who walked out on the WWE in June) move on.

Exploiting new markets is an obvious source of growth. Global Warning is the WWE's third major international tour of the year (following shows in Tokyo, Malaysia, Singapore, Cologne, Glasgow, Birmingham and London), one of 340 live events that the company has planned for the current financial year.

It's difficult to imagine that Australian audiences will ever be blessed with the same weekly schedule of WWE live events as their US counterparts, but a successful show at Melbourne's Colonial Stadium is sure to whet their appetites for more – more hair, more skin, more blood, more heroes to cheer and more villains to boo. And the WWE will be happy to deliver.



The Bulletin

ACP Publishing

Official websites

World Wrestling Entertainment

Dainty Consolidated Entertainment



WWE Tough Enough

The Rock official website

Stone Cold Steve Austin official website

Australian Stadiums


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