Vince McMahon and WWE created the blueprint for the pro wrestling pay-pay-view and are about to tear it up and reconfigure it with the launch of the WWE Network.
McMahon made pay-per-view the tracks for his money-making train to run on. Others followed his lead. After Feb. 24, WWE heads down a new path, one that promises to be as industry-shaping as the last.
The latest headlines about the WWE Network sound a lot like those before the company dove into the world of pay-per-view—WWE will alter the way fans watch its programming via a risky business move.
As it is about to do again, technology changed pro wrestling forever in 1985.
From Closed Circuit to Pay-Per-View
Boxing beat pro wrestling to pay-per-view. HBO broadcast Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier on Sept. 30, 1975 on pay-per-view.
WWE and its competitors were putting on super-sized shows but hadn't yet tapped into that format. Wrestling leaned on closed-circuit television instead.
The NWA-associated Jim Crockett Promotions began running Starrcade shows in November of 1983 on closed circuit. McMahon created WrestleMania in 1985 and chose the same way to deliver it to the audience.
He was not content with just one major show a year, though.
On Nov. 7, 1985, WWE produced an event dubbed "The Wrestling Classic." That night Junkyard Dog defeated Randy Savage in the tournament finals and fans watched that victory on pay-per-view.
The second annual WrestleMania was a pay-per-view event as well.
It wasn't until 1987 that Jim Crockett Promotions moved from closed circuit to pay-per-view. By then, they had a fight on their hands.
WWE created Survivor Series that year and placed it on Thanksgiving week, a spot Starrcade had occupied for four years. McMahon intended on being king of the PPVs, knocking his competition on its back.
McMahon played his trump card, invoking a clause where none of the cable companies could carry another wrestling event within 30 days of his. In other words, the companies could either carry Starrcade or the Survivor Series, but not both. With McMahon's strong promotion of the WWF, few cable outlets risked carrying the lesser known NWA product over the WWF's.
The strong-armed technique made him no friends, but making money was another matter.
WWE was not only profiting from ticket sales but raking in money from folks sitting at home. Scott Beekman writes in Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America, "WrestleMania III grossed more than $10 million dollars in PPV buys."
He wanted an even bigger profit, though.
McMahon was forced to pay fees to state athletic commissions as pro wrestling was still treated and marketed as a sport. In 1989, he moved away from that by revealing wrestling's dirty secret—it was rigged.
Beekman writes, "McMahon's decision to break the kayfabe led to the abolition of licensing fees but also made him an arch-villain to many in the industry." McMahon was not done making changes to wrestling; he looked to bulk up its event schedule.
The Schedule Swells
WWE pay-per-views started to grow in the late '80s. The company added SummerSlam in 1988 and Royal Rumble in 1989 (after airing the 1988 Rumble for free on cable TV), giving it four profit-creating PPVs a year.
Shaun Assael of ESPN writes, "That decision would earn him the label of visionary in the still nascent world of alternative distribution."
He forced the industry to catch up. Jim Crockett Promotions (which had become WCW) countered by putting WrestleWar and Halloween Havoc on its calender.
McMahon kept pushing for more. The "Big 4" pay-per-views had company when WWE produced No Holds Barred. The concept was to show the movie featuring Hulk Hogan as well as a tag team Cage match between Brutus Beefcake and Hogan vs. Savage and the movie's villain, Zeus.
King of the Ring came in 1993. The In Your House series of pay-per-views began in 1995.
The growth only continued. By 1998, WWE was up to 14 events a year and WCW had 16 that year.
WWE dictated the schedule. As it added, WCW had to as well. Wrestling dominated the pay-per-view industry largely because it had so much programming. Boxing didn't have nearly as many events.
Today's WWE pay-per-view schedule features roughly one event a month with two shows in October. Pay-per-views have become the centerpiece of programming, the climax for storylines, the place all the network TV shows are building toward.
Thanks to McMahon and company, the pay-per-view is the industry standard.
Everyone from Mexico's Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion (better known as AAA in the U.S.) to ECW went the pay-per-view route. Beginning in 1993, UFC joined the pay-per-view game and has since greatly depended on it. The majority of its shows are PPVs.
McMahon created a model and others have used it after him. He and WWE now prepare to break that model apart and start anew.
WWE is synonymous with pay-per-views. In fact, if you visit PayPerView.com, you'll be directed to WWE.com.
The sports entertainment giant clearly sees the flaws of the PPV model, though, and has its eyes on newer media tools.
Pay-per-views ask so much of fans. A devoted WWE fan could spend over 550 bucks on programming a year. It's not as if WWE's target demographic is the filthy rich either.
With as many entertainment options as folks have today, it's getting harder and harder to shell out that amount of money for pay-per-views. It's hard to blame fans for going the illegal streaming route.
Maybe McMahon looks at WWE's future should it lean on pay-per-views as it has for long and sees a withering sport like boxing has become. Maybe McMahon agrees with Stephen Totilo, who writes at Kotaku.com, "PPV is the fool's option going forward. "
The WWE Network takes cues from Hulu, HBO Go and Netflix, offering a buffet of viewing options for a monthly subscription fee.
Will it be a sustainable system? Will WWE be able to make a sizable profit or will this be the business version of a belly flop?
Those were the questions that must have been asked when WWE spearheaded pro wrestling's journey into the pay-per-view business.
TNA, UFC and boxing are sure to take notice of this new trek. The WWE Network is risky. Should it flourish, as WWE executives hope, others will surely walk down the already cleared path behind McMahon.