The American Counterculture, Dr. Christopher Gair’s examination of the connections between civil disobedience and the youthful artistic boom that filled society in the immediate decades following the conclusion of World War II, is a captivating look at an influential moment in modern American history.
Amongst discussing landscape-altering political events (the Vietnam War, the 1969 “Bloody Thursday” shootings at People’s Park in Berkeley, California etc.) and iconic figures such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, the author makes an intriguing statement regarding popular culture and its opposite, the counterculture:
“There is a slippery and often uneasy relationship between the mainstream and the marginal.”
Despite his comments addressing a much larger set of political and widespread social issues in society, Gair’s observation is also effective in addressing the pseudo-sport of professional wrestling and its most unusual affiliation with the world of mainstream culture.
Accepted and celebrated, dismissed and ridiculed several times over by popular culture at various points throughout its 100-plus year existence, the pro-wrestling business, and the industry-leading WWE in particular, has always had an inconsistency when it comes to popular media and entertainment.
In fact, the relationship between the two has altered and transformed so many times over the years that it is often a difficult task to accurately decipher the true status of the connection between the two.
At this present moment, WWE is arguably at its most mainstream-friendly position that it has ever been in.
Indeed, if one is to look at the last 18 months alone, performers such as the charity man John Cena, the credible Hollywood superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the legitimate MMA athlete Brock Lesnar have been positioned as the focal points of the product, seemingly in an attempt to attract as many mainstream eyes on its product as possible, not to mention the massive economic impact WWE events have had on numerous cities across America.
(WrestleMania XXVIII in 2012 reportedly generated a tremendous $100 million for Miami and the Miami-Dade County area, via Hollywood Life.)
Despite this and other continued efforts from WWE to cleanse the somewhat dishevelled image of pro-wrestling and transform it into the super-clean “sports-entertainment,” the relationship between the world of professional wrestling and mainstream media is still far from harmonious, and the McMahon empire, as of 2013, does not have the acceptance that it seemingly craves.
At a time when WWE is quite literally screaming out for approval from its cultural bigger brothers with attention-seeking ideas such as the move to PG programming, the constant barrage of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube posts and other platforms like the recent introduction of the WWE App, an examination of the relationship between pro-wrestling and the mainstream may be a beneficial look into the industry’s position within popular entertainment, and simultaneously provide a valuable analysis of the issues that both sides are struggling to resolve.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Professional wrestling, naturally, has always had a taste for mainstream success within the entertainment world, especially dating back to the first era of prosperity, known as the “Golden Age” of the 1940s and ‘50s. Promotions such as the NWA reached dizzying new heights during this time, in which the advent of television helped to dramatically raise the profile of the business and aid its national expansion.
Over the course of the Golden Age, several performers became the initial branches that connected pro wrestling to popular culture, and in the process became legitimate superstars.
George Wagner, better known as Gorgeous George, was the most notable athlete to surpass the world of wrestling, mainly due to his outrageously flamboyant character, a gimmick that turned heads in straight-laced postwar America.
George, credited as the man that put the pro-wrestling product on the map as an attractive and glittering spectacle, was one of the first true characters in the industry, and his outstanding performances in feuds with the likes of Lou Thesz and “Whipper” Billy Watson combined with his ability to control a crowd attracted interest from mainstream suits keen on exploiting his popularity.
Decades before the likes of Hulk Hogan and The Rock would make the jump from pro wrestler to celebrity, Gorgeous George became a household name by the end of the 1940s, as his star power extended to radio shows with comedy legend Bob Hope and cameo appearances in major Hollywood movies.
(Alias the Champ, George Blair’s 1949 tale of New York mafia attempting to infiltrate the pro-wrestling business, featured George as himself, a bit-part role that was met with approval by audiences across the country.)
At the time, the appeal of George was unprecedented, and his popularity earned an absurd amount of money for the business in terms of ticket sales and television exposure.
In truth, the industry has only seen a handful of crossover success stories since (like the aforementioned Hogan and the 1980s boom period), and as a result, the adoration and mainstream allure of Gorgeous George has been something that the pro-wrestling world has been trying to replicate, to varying degrees, ever since.
For a while, it appeared that the success of the Golden Age had set up the business for decades to come, in terms of mass profit and mainstream relevancy. Sadly, this was not to be, and by the mid-1960s, professional wrestling was forced to take a backseat.
Despite the best efforts of stars such as the WWWF’s Bruno Sammartino and the AWA’s Verne Gagne, the marketability of pro-wrestling on a large scale was simply not there anymore, and despite healthy live attendances, the resulting loss of prime-time television slots (if not being dropped altogether) forced promotions to become localised once again, as opposed to the country-wide phenomenon it had been only a decade previously.
It was only in the early 1980s that the industry, and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation in particular, recovered a sort of affiliation with America’s popular culture.
During the WWF’s expansion process that transformed the very core of the business and once again stirred the interest of the mainstream, the product reinvented itself as attractive and must-see programming, or as Eric Bischoff summarised in his memoir, the WWF became “bigger, louder, sexier and more entertaining than what we as fans had recognised wrestling to be.”
As is common knowledge amongst most fans familiar with the product, the WWF has had an obsession with the mainstream for decades, coinciding with McMahon’s acquisition of the company from his father in 1982.
McMahon Jr., an undeniably smart businessman who is constantly on the lookout for opportunities, realised that the only way for his company to escape the “smoke-filled halls” stereotype was to go straight for the entertainment industry’s jugular, and portray WWF programming as less of an athletic sport, and more of an entertaining spectacle
In fact, the inaugural WrestleMania, the famous super-show staged in March 1985, serves as the definitive example of McMahon’s opportunistic business mind at work. A cleverly booked card that served to showcase the impressive WWF talent pool of the time and attract mega-mainstream media attention, the initial “Showcase of the Immortals” was effective in achieving McMahon’s goals.
Celebrity appearances from the likes of Muhammad Ali, Liberace and Mr. T, combined with the allure of larger-than-life personalities such as Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper, made the show a resounding success, and announced professional wrestling as the new white-hot commodity in the entertainment world.
Aided by the success of the WrestleMania concept and the enormous popularity of then-champion Hulk Hogan, the WWF enjoyed a prosperous period in the late '80s that took in such events as the “Rock ‘N’ Wrestling Connection” with a budding MTV and the astronomical accomplishment that was WrestleMania III.
Alas, in a seemingly familiar story for the pro-wrestling scene, the success was not to last, and the early-to-mid 1990s saw a dip in the interest of the product once again.
Fortunately, the downturn in the WWF’s fortune turned out to be a temporary blip, albeit one that severely dented the company’s financial grounding, and set the wheels in motion for the near bankruptcy at the hands of their strongest competition, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling.
By 1997, WCW was the face of pro wrestling’s mainstream renaissance, as the extremely successful New World Order stable, and subsequent associations with celebrities such as former Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman, screamed of the “coolness” that would resonate with existing fans and new audiences looking to get into the pro-wrestling product.
The WWF, on the other hand, was suffering from a depleted roster (exemplified by the below-par WrestleMania 13) and programming that was increasingly seen as second-rate to the burgeoning WCW—a fact that painfully impacted on McMahon’s finances and, according to Hulk Hogan in his autobiography, led to the belief that Vince and the WWF would “never last another week.”
As the Monday Night War progressed, however, the WWF would regroup, ultimately going on to launch the acclaimed Attitude Era, a period in which young and vibrant performers such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and the D-Generation X stable rose to the top of the card, providing the fashionably edgy “car crash TV” in the process.
It was during this time that McMahon made perhaps his smartest move yet in relation to his product and mainstream attraction, as 1998’s WrestleMania XIV saw “Iron” Mike Tyson as a special attraction. Tyson’s involvement in the Stone Cold vs. Shawn Michaels title bout headliner created massive interest in the show, and the extra eyes that viewed WrestleMania as a result of Tyson’s appearance would have become fans immediately, such was the strength of the card and, at that time, the WWF as a whole.
The Attitude Era was undoubtedly the peak of the relationship between professional wrestling and pop culture, with interest in the pro-wrestling world at an all-time high during 1998 and 2002.
WWF and, for a limited time, WCW stars legitimately transcended the business, and found themselves at the centre of such mediums as television shows (Steve Austin in CBS’ police drama Nash Bridges), movies (Brian Robbins’ comedy Ready to Rumble featuring Diamond Dallas Page, Goldberg and others) and music (“It Doesn’t Matter,” the hit single featuring Wyclef Jean and The Rock).
However, as has become a recurrent theme for pro-wrestling, the buzz would not last. From 2003 onwards, WWE—now the undisputed juggernaut of the business following the demise of WCW—seemingly lost the ability to create legitimate crossover stars like it once did and, as one look at today’s product can attest, the business is once again on the outside looking in.
In 2013, the star power of professional wrestling simply pales in comparison to the highs seen during the Attitude Era and the other previous periods of success, and in return the mainstream attention is considerable smaller.
Admittedly, the WrestleMania tradition continues, with the previous two events living up to their billing as the “annual pop culture extravaganza” by featuring genuine must-see matches such as John Cena vs. The Rock and appearances by such mega-stars as Sean “Diddy” Combs, Flo Rida and Maria Menounos.
That one week in March aside, however, the appeal of WWE and pro-wrestling to the mainstream is almost non-existent. As a matter of fact, it appears that the majority of WWE’s publicity over the past several years has come in a negative light, a manner that has damaged the company’s image even further.
Notwithstanding the obvious examples like the death of Eddie Guerrero and the Chris Benoit tragedy, there have been spates of smaller-scale stories that have also ridiculed McMahon’s company, seen most recently in the Jack Swagger/Zeb Colter vs. Glenn Beck debacle, a scenario in which Andrew Zolides, of media and culture blog Antenna, accused WWE of “begging for attention."
In truth, one could even go as far as saying that if professional wrestling is in the news, it would be a safe bet that it would be for the wrong reasons—be that drugs scandals, untimely deaths or a whole other host of unsavoury scenarios that paint the business in an unflattering light.
Indeed, Will Cooling of Fighting Spirit Magazine touched on this unfortunate reality when he noted that Bruno Sammartino’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame back in March was “the first time in many years that a positive pro-wrestling story was picked up in a major way by outlets across America.”
WWE’s recent failings on the PR front can be attributed to various issues, but one topic that has had an especially detrimental effect on the product is the company’s overbearing desire to reach out to all cultures, and subsequent alienation of the ones it has an existing connection with.
In a scenario that is becoming increasingly more evident as time goes on, it appears that Vince McMahon and the WWE top-brass, as a result of their tireless attempts at securing the advantageous embrace of pop culture, may not realise what they already have in their hands.
In with the Out Crowd
In the eyes of a large section of die-hard fans, professional wrestling is seen as an alternative to the popular entertainment shows on television that, for a variety of reasons, do not cater to everyone.
For years, these fans have viewed pro wrestling as a niche product in which they can rely on to entertain them, even during periods in which the industry is considered “uncool” and unfashionable (see the early-'90s business lull), and especially when popular culture disrespectfully dismisses it altogether as the lowly “fake sport.”
In short, it can be argued that professional wrestling, for many years, was the counterculture product.
For a while, WWE had a strong connection with this type of demographic. During the late '90s and the Attitude Era boom, despite the mammoth success of the World Wrestling Federation and its solid relationship with advertising powerhouses such as AT&T and MCI, the product still contained the characteristics of a counterculture phenomenon.
The bloody violence, sexual overtones and loud, edgy characters seen on the weekly WWF TV of the era was certainly a million miles away from the mainstream-friendly WWE programming that you see on screens today.
At the time, the WWF grasped these fans and capitalised on the notion of a viable alternative commodity. The “WWF Attitude: Get It?” tagline directly appealed to counterculture fans, simply implying that, as a fan of the WWF, you were cooler than mainstream audiences who simply didn’t understand, or indeed “get” the product.
However, as we entered the new millennium and the ‘90s became the mid-‘00s, an internal shift in focus occurred. As the “hot property” tag of the WWF began to wane and the big bucks from the mainstream started to disappear, the company made more and more of an effort to appeal towards mainstream audiences, at the expense of the existing fans who enjoyed what the company already offered them.
For example, the no-blood policy that came into effect in 2008 was implemented not only to appease big-time sponsors, but also to appeal to families who were previously put off by the violence of the ‘90s product—a far cry from the long-term counterculture fans that were fond of the World Wrestling Federation circa 1998.
Although changes such as the no-blood rule made smart economic sense, the fact remains that these alterations also served to alienate the fans who grew to love the WWE over the previous 15 years.
Today, it seems that WWE is so set in its ways of desperately trying to embrace the mainstream, with such moves as its constant mentions of social media and the numerous (usually B-list) celebrity appearances on Monday Night RAW and pay-per-views, that it can, interestingly, be considered a new form of anti-counterculture.
In a way, WWE programming has become a counter-counterculture product, a product so far removed from the counterculture that it would literally do anything to be acknowledge by the mainstream.
There’s no question that this is an unfortunate situation for pro-wrestling fans, but in fairness to Vince McMahon and his empire, some promotions that are no longer with us did counterculture better than the WWF ever did.
The 1990s, much like the politically-fueled 1960s, can make a strong argument for being the decade of counterculture. With the emergence of the Internet, Nirvana, the Grunge movement, Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex and Comedy Central’s South Park, conventional entertainment received somewhat of a makeover during what Camira Powell of PolicyMic describes as a “most righteous” decade.
In terms of pro wrestling, a similarly seismic shift was also occurring. As the last remaining promotions of the territory system were being washed away by the McMahon monopoly, the National Wrestling Alliance was seriously deteriorating, and the previously powerful governing body was on the brink of total collapse. In fact, one promotion only became a success once it broke away from the weakening group and took it upon itself to take on the WWF directly.
Allegedly inspired by the music video for LL Cool J’s 1991 hit “Mama Said Knock You Out," Philadelphia’s Extreme Championship Wrestling came into its own in August 1994. Then operating as Eastern Championship Wrestling under the NWA banner, the promotion took a sharp turn upon the crowning of “The Franchise” Shane Douglas as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Shortly after winning the belt, Douglas cut a shoot-work promo that derided stand-out performers of the past (the Briscos, the Funks, Dusty Rhodes etc.) and relinquished the NWA title, in turn naming himself as the new ECW World Heavyweight Champion.
In a historic segment that changed the trajectory of the company, Shane Douglas’ most telling exclamation was that he, and the new ECW as a whole, had “set out to change the face of professional wrestling.”
Following its shock split from the NWA and the re-branding as a “hardcore revolution,” ECW became a symbol of counterculture within the world of pro-wrestling. Controversial performers such as Raven, the Sandman and The Gangstas were clear opposition to the cartoon characters of the WWF.
ECW cards that featured rings surrounded by barbed wire, Taipei Death Matches, and other incredibly violent bouts were marketed as direct alternatives to the largely safe matches seen every week on Monday Night RAW.
To further illustrate the point, former announcer Joey Styles (via WWE.com) noted that a Philadelphia newspaper of the time commented on attending an ECW show as akin to the “feeling that you were witnessing something illegal.” Alternative culture, indeed.
To ECW’s credit, the new ultra-violent and undeniably innovative content resonated with audiences, and fans flocked to the product in droves. Featuring some of the greatest talent of the era (Rey Mysterio, Dean Malenko and Chris Jericho, to name but a few), the promotion catered towards fans who were disillusioned with the WWF and WCW products and were enthused by the eclectic mix of garbage, lucha libre and technical mat wrestling that ECW had to offer.
To this day, the business has not seen a more passionate or fiercely loyal audience than the original fans who packed out the ECW Arena at each show.
Paul Heyman, the owner and head booker during the company’s heyday, was very much the visionary of Extreme Championship Wrestling, being dubbed “the architect of extreme” in the process.
Previously working in pro wrestling under various roles including a stint in WCW as the on-screen character Paul E. Dangerously, Heyman was incredibly switched on to the business. With ECW, he realised that there was an alternative market that could not be reached by the WWF and WCW, and could therefore be capitalised upon.
His interaction with the fans was instrumental in the company’s appeal, as Heyman’s insistence on being “one of the fans” first and foremost created an unbreakable bond with the ECW faithful, and his clever positioning of the promotion as a cult purely created to challenge the powerhouses of the industry was an ingenious move.
Paul Heyman, a gifted motivator, also knew how to get the best out of his talent. In his unique approach to promo segments and vignettes, Heyman convinced ECW performers to open up about their true feelings on-screen, and speak in a refreshingly honest manner that was largely unseen in the programming of other promotions.
The result of this was several memorable skits that connected with the audience and encouraged fans to invest emotionally in characters and their storylines. Needless to say, several careers were enhanced by this fresh approach to promos, including the work of Brian Pillman, Mick Foley during his days as Cactus Jack and a young, pre-WWF Steve Austin.
Ironically, the very counterculture essence that originally worked in ECW’s favour eventually contributed to its downfall. The brutally controversial product, combined with the WWF’s dominance, made it difficult to maintain a television deal. Following the collapse of the ECW/TNN deal in late 2000, the writing was on the wall.
The company entered bankruptcy shortly after the Guilty as Charged pay-per-view in January 2001, and by 2003, the company’s assets were owned by Vince McMahon. Many of the notable ECW performers either returned to the floundering independent scene or simply quit the business altogether, whilst others (including Paul Heyman and the astonishingly popular Rob Van Dam) took up jobs with the WWF.
Decisively, the anti-mainstream dream was dead.
The legacy of ECW, however, had a widespread impact upon professional wrestling, as the vision of Heyman and Co. undoubtedly paved the way for the WWF’s game-changing Attitude tag. As a result of the company’s influence, several attempts at rebooting the franchise have occurred in the 12 years since the promotion shut its doors, and for an example of how the values of the original product are long-gone, a look at the WWE’s version of ECW is invaluable.
A concept that was “dead before it was even born," according to Heyman in an interview with WWE.com, WWE’s re-imagining featured former ECW staples such as Taz, Sabu and RVD, but the passion and essence of the original company was conspicuous in its absence.
ECW, as WWE’s third brand, only lasted for four years. In what can be seen as the nail in ECW’s coffin, the reboot produced such truly terrible shows as the notorious December to Dismember pay-per-view from 2006, in which only a handful of ECW originals appeared on the ludicrously booked and dismally received card.
Despite ECW’s rather unflattering last stand, the company remains to be the definitive emblem of counterculture in pro wrestling. Paul Heyman and the likes of New Jack were never going to get over with the mainstream.
The ECW product, as violent and perverse as it was, would be simply too much for popular audiences to digest had it actually achieved mainstream exposure, not to mention the negative press from matches such as the Terry Funk/Sabu mauling from Born to Be Wired that would leave the company dead in the water from a PR standpoint.
To the company’s defence, they knew this, and their counteraction was to create a loyal fanbase in the vein of a gang whose members still speak fondly of it today, over a decade after the promotion last aired a match.
When noting the negative press that ECW surely would have received had it been under the spotlight, it is worth remembering that the entire business, and especially WWE, is no stranger to the less favourable side of mainstream exposure.
For all intents and purposes, the relationship between pro wrestling and the press started off fairly amicable. During the earlier years of the industry when kayfabe was at its peak, news outlets across America would carry results of matches as if the contests were genuine, and stars such as Bruno Sammartino and, later on, Ric Flair were featured in newspapers more often than not.
However, as the curtain was peeled back and the pre-determined nature of the business was confirmed by Vince McMahon in a meeting with the New Jersey State Athletic Commission in 1989, professional wrestling was increasingly considered low-brow entertainment, and the business started to fill the tabloids for all the wrong reasons.
The first real low occurred in 1991, with the federal government’s ruthless investigation into the World Wrestling Federation and its alleged rampant drug use attracting mass national media coverage. The infamous “steroid scandal” transformed big names such as Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper into suspected criminals, a development that had a devastating effect on the WWF's public relations front.
With Vince McMahon himself facing jail for supplying illegal substances to his performers, the company was brought to its knees both creatively and financially. Hogan’s disastrous appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show (a display where Hogan, unconvincingly, lied to Hall regarding his steroid abuse) did little to help the recovery of the WWF’s credibility.
The steroid issue foreshadowed the mid-‘90s business decrease, and despite McMahon evading jail time and the temporary introduction of regular drug testing to WWF talent, the damage was seemingly done. Professional wrestling, an art form that was once seen as harmless fun, was now viewed as the lowest of the low.
The WWF’s press coverage admittedly improved when the Monday Night Wars kicked off. The Attitude Era propelled pro wrestling to the top of the entertainment world once again, with the likes of The Rock being featured prominently in platforms such as Sports Illustrated and Saturday Night Live.
Yet the press were still willing to pick at the flesh.
As highlighted in Mick Foley’s book Foley is Good, some outlets took shots at the WWF that were akin to little more than smear campaigns. Dr. Walter Gantz’s Indiana University study of 1999, commissioned by popular investigation/gossip show Inside Edition, was a potent example of this, as the analysis featured several exaggerated reports of crudity from Monday Night RAW, including the use of drug use and satanic activity.
When the findings, however embellished, were run by such big-hitters as USA Today and the New York Times, the WWF was once again painted as irresponsible, money-hungry broadcasters exploiting the youth of America.
Though the ‘90s was a decade of public image disaster for the company and misinformation supplied by the likes of Inside Edition effectively ruining the business’ reputation, the mid-‘00s undeniably represented one of the most tragic periods of negative press in its history.
The death of Eddie Guerrero in November 2005 and the resulting Sports Illustrated investigation (featuring claims that Guerrero had obtained controlled substances such as Stanozolol as little as six months before his death) once again shone the steroid scandal light upon McMahon and his company.
As a response to Guerrero’s passing and McMahon’s eagerness to eradicate the stigma once and for all, WWE introduced the mandatory Wellness Policy in early 2006, yet by that time pro wrestling was again in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Though the Wellness Policy is to be admired and has led to the justified suspensions of main-event level violators such as Kurt Angle, Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio, the regular tests cannot detect everything, and the shocking events of June 2007 serve as the most harrowing reminder that WWE and its performers will always be marred by controversy.
The murder-suicide case of Chris Benoit, a 20-year veteran of the business and former WWE world champion, shook the pro-wrestling world to its core and presented the most widespread backlash against WWE since the government investigations of 1991.
Benoit, allegedly disorientated by years of steroid abuse and severe repercussions from numerous in-ring injuries, killed his wife, son and himself between June 22-25, 2007, a three-day period that coincided with the WWE Vengeance: Night of Champions pay-per-view (an event in which Benoit was booked to appear in an ECW title bout opposite CM Punk).
Posthumous examinations of the performer discovered that Benoit’s brain, purportedly as a result of his involvement in the professional wrestling industry, was so critically damaged that it, in a now-infamous line, “resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient” (via ABC News).
The tragedy understandably attracted all kinds of negative attention to WWE, and the summer of 2007 was a trying period for the company. During this time, WWE’s viewership took a nose dive (RAW numbers dropped 10 percent in July, via Variety), several performers (including Edge, Booker T and Eddie Guerrero’s nephew, Chavo) were involved in the Signature Pharmacy doping scandal in August.
By this time, a number of federal agencies had opened damning investigations into the company’s internal steroid issues—a far cry from the positive mainstream attention that Vince McMahon covets.
In the half-decade since the catastrophic 2007, WWE has improved its public relations dramatically and, whilst still not akin to NFL teams or NBA franchises in terms of mainstream interaction, the company has given the media little opportunity to attack, despite still being frowned upon from a sporting view.
As Robert Zimmermann, WWE’s former Vice President of Public Relations and Corporate Communications, pointed out, “There’s been a lot of evolution in the company that the media has not been paying attention to” (via The Rothenberg Political Report).
This, in itself, may hold the key towards WWE being the entertainment company that McMahon has always wanted, but it does not acknowledge that this may come by way of losing several key audiences that have followed his product for years.
Great Leaps Forward
David O, of the SLTD Wrestling news site, raises a viable question when he asks, “Where is the mainstream media when WWE is doing more than its fair share of charity work and helping to educate the youth about bullying and reading?”
Indeed, the media has been quick to attack WWE when steroid scandals and wrestler deaths have come to light, but the coverage is strikingly less extensive when McMahon and his employees are doing commendable work such as John Cena’s record-setting involvement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Since the dark days of the Benoit disaster, WWE has remained relatively scandal-free, and in turn the company has been offered the opportunity to redevelop its strategies and create a clean standing on which to rebuild its public image.
Initiatives such as the Be a Star Campaign, the WrestleMania Reading Challenge and the partnership with Susan G. Komen have rebuilt the company in a relatively positive light, so much so that former President and CEO Linda McMahon has been afforded the opportunity to launch several runs for Senate as a candidate for the Republican Party.
This new-look WWE seems to be the way forward, not just for McMahon and Co. but for the pro-wrestling industry as a whole. But while the charity appearances and reading campaigns are examples of the admirable outside work that the company has undertaken, they do not address the fact that WWE has lost a considerable amount of fans over the last few years.
The reasons for this are varied and have been touched upon earlier in this article, but the names in charge in Connecticut seem unable to conjure up an adequate plan to stop this downturn.
The strategy to avoid this issue should be clear for WWE. Existing and new fans need to be acknowledged in the same ratio in order for the company to grow, and ex-audiences that have become so disillusioned that they have abandoned ship need to have a reason to tune in once again.
This should not be done by simply rehashing the past (as evident in the past three WrestleMania events and their reliance on Attitude Era talent such as The Rock, Triple H and the Undertaker), but by rebranding the product as cool, vibrant and revolutionary—exactly the reasons that fans were attracted to the WWE originally.
In addition, WWE needs to stop overtly trying to become attractive to all cultures, and instead take its time in building relationships with other sub-cultures.
One sub-culture that would fit WWE would be the thriving world of comics and superheroes. With big-time Hollywood blockbusters such as the Batman franchise and other comic series featuring such megastars as Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Affleck, the comics industry has an amazingly prosperous connection with the mainstream culture (Joss Whedon’s 2012 comic-movie The Avengers became the fastest ever film to gross over $1billion, via Filmonic).
WWE and pro wrestling in general could benefit exponentially from an association with it.
Though the World Wrestling Federation of the early ‘90s was widely derided for being the “cartoon era” and current poster boy John Cena is often referred to, rather unflatteringly, by sections of fans as “Super-Cena,” WWE could learn from the success of comic books in pop culture.
Comic books, much like pro wrestling, rely heavily on an audience’s suspension of disbelief and, as films such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man can attest, that translates incredibly well onto the silver screen and, by association, into the mainstream sphere.
Comic fans, also like fans of pro wrestling, are famously loyal to their form of entertainment, and with their heroes filling movies screens and attracting new fans worldwide, the audience for comic books is only getting bigger.
To further explain the fundamental similarities between the two forms of entertainment, avid comic book fan and current Dragon Gate USA performer Player Uno, quoted in the May 2013 issue of Fighting Spirit Magazine, notes that “wrestlers are almost copies of superheroes in a way—add an element of movie drama and theatrics, and you have just about everything that the common ‘nerd’ enjoys.”
For WWE to capitalise on this, there could be a star with a comic-styled character, and someone that could tap in the same type of cross-over appeal that currently exudes from comic books. The current WWE roster contains several candidates that could fill this role, with the obvious choice being the high-flying Rey Mysterio (incidentally, Mysterio has sown the seeds for such an idea by dressing as such superheroes as Captain America at previous WrestleMania events).
However, with the luchador becoming increasingly injury-prone and beginning the process of winding down his in-ring career, other names such as Sin Cara or even developmental talent such as Sami Zayn (formerly of El Generico fame in Ring of Honour and the indie scene) could rise to the task.
If executed properly, the new character could impress pro-wrestling fans by being technically savvy, but also stir some interest amongst popular entertainment outlets by being a marketable character that could be attractive to widespread audiences.
Furthermore, this could present WWE with some synergistic ideas for the character within the realms of comics, television and film, similar to the treatment that Sin Cara, under the guise of the absurdly popular Mistico, received in Mexico’s CMLL promotion between 2006 and 2010.
Whilst ideas like this would be of a beneficial nature for the company and Vince McMahon’s mainstream dreams, they will be redundant if WWE continues with its current tactics of trying to force its way into American pop culture.
This article may seem fairly draconian when WWE, in its simplest terms, is just a business that is trying to increase revenue, and that will undeniably come with exposing their product to a more mainstream viewership. However, in the eyes of the fans, the company is on the verge of creative suicide, and it needs to be recognised.
The relentless self-promotion, the attempted aggrandisement of the numerous “Did You Know?” spots and the overly non-violent in-ring action are complete turn-offs for fans, bordering on insulting. As a result, the response from the audience is glaring—WWE may need to change its strategy before it causes irreversible damage to its own product.
Paul Heyman, now towing the WWE company line in an interview with Digital Spy, recently declared that “if you want to main event and if you want to profit in the entertainment business, you have to go with those trends and spearhead new trends.”
But must that be at the expense of existing fans? And must WWE be so obvious in its attempts to attract attention that it has become almost embarrassing?
The pro-wrestling industry and its relationship with mainstream culture is at a pivotal moment, and in the case of WWE’s current counter-counterculture product, it may need to address old audiences in order to embrace the new.
Thank you for reading!
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