A Year To Remember: Wrestling Landscape In 1986
By 1986, promoters like Vince McMahon, Jim Crockett Jr., Bill Watts, Fritz Von Erich, and Verne Gagne were looking to expand their product and fan base.
It was nice to hold house shows in nearby arenas and clubs.
It was nice to tour Europe and Japan.
It was nice to promote supercards like Superclash, WrestleMania, and Starrcade.
It did promote and gather a fan base. But, the fan base was limited.
There was only one way to expand the fan base and exposure: television.
Television helped to make baseball, football, basketball, and boxing multi-billion dollar industries.
Television made stars of the athletes who played those sports.
Television opened up other streams of revenues.
That's what the promoters were thinking and hoping it would do the same for Pro Wrestling.
Promoters saw the benefits of cable television dating back to the 70's.
In 1972, Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW) moved from a local television station to an upstart UHF station. This station would eventually expand to become WTBS in 1979.
Ted Turner was the mastermind who moved this station to become the "Superstation", which it currently proclaims to be. Besides baseball (Atlanta Braves), wrestling was the backbone of this station and as the TBS grew, so did wrestling.
Turner's Saturday night wrestling slot was considered prime time and was envied by all promotions.
Even McMahon wanted that slot. He basically bought GCW in order to show his WWF programs on TBS. This change and program was not popular with the fans down south who wanted to see "rasslin".
Realizing that he wouldn't succeed, Vince sold this prime spot to Crockett for $1 million.
In the early 80s, WWF began showing weekly programs on the USA network and monthly shows on the Madison Square Garden (MSG) channel, which was limited to the Northeast markets.
Looking to expand the markets in the mid-80s, WWF began targeting network television with wrestling programs like Superstars of Wrestling, Wrestling Challenge, and Wrestling Spotlight. These shows mostly contained squash matches and promos on upcoming cards. It became a staple on Saturday mornings and the shows continued to increased to other channels heading into the 90's.
McMahon also moved to late night television and aired two Saturday's Night Main Event (SNME) programs on NBC. Due to the high ratings, NBC provided McMahon with five dates per year, which started in 1986.
SNME aired in the time slots usually occupied by the ultra-popular show Saturday Night Live.
SNME was a treat for us fans who did not have cable television. SNME would show four quality matches which was a contrast to the usual squash matches and often included Hulk Hogan.
Vince didn't stop with the various television programs or the toys, he created the animated show Hulk Hogan's Rock N' Wrestling. This cartoon aired every Saturday on CBS and lasted for one and a half years.
On the show Hulk Hogan and his friends would go on adventures and fight the rogue wrestlers led by Roddy Piper.
Other popular wrestlers who were on Hogan's side were Junkyard Dog, Andre The Giant, "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, Tito Santana, Hillybilly Jim, Wendi Richter, and manager Captain Lou Albano.
Piper's crew consisted of Big John Studd, Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, The Fabulous Moolah, and manager Mr. Fuji.
Even though it was pretty lame, it did succeed in attracting the younger audience. It were these young fans who had their parents buy the merchandises (wrestling belts, shirts, and the puffy #1 finger), the toys (dolls, ring, and thumb wrestlers), and the wrestling magazines. The money began to rolling in hand over fist for McMahon.
There was no stopping the WWF.
After seeing the success and benefits Crockett and McMahon was receiving with their cable contracts, Verne Gagne signed one with ESPN in the end of 1985.
The relationship was an instant success for both involved and the contract was extended in 1987, which lasted until the promotion folded in 1991.
Originally the cards were taped in Atlantic City, New Jersey to compete in the WWF backyard but was moved to Las Vegas, Nevada as a request by ESPN. This move was a way to gain the markets in the west which was still undiscovered.
These shows are currently being re-aired on ESPN Classic, which brings back mixed memories of the organization. You basically see a strong promotion with a long and successful history fall apart in front of your eyes.
With the "Big" three promotions airing their programs on cable and national television, it was now the time for the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) and the World Class Wrestling Alliance (WCWA) to follow in their quest to go national.
As mentioned while writing about the WWF, cable television wasn't available everywhere back in 1986. Unfortunately, I was one of the people who couldn't enjoy watching wrestling on MSG, USA, TBS and ESPN. I was stuck with the squash matches on Saturday morning, like King Kong Bundy v. Salvatore Bellomo or Tito Santana v. Barry O.
But something happened during the year that would change this wrestling fan's life.
I discovered wrestling on NY Channel 68. This UHF channel was airing syndicated programs six days a week, which included exciting matches from JCP, WCWA, and UWF.
This New Yorker was watching wrestlers that I read in the various magazines.
I was watching matches, which I mimicked using GI Joe figures.
I was now able to put a face to the name and saw their wrestling skills displayed on my 13 inch TV.
It didn't matter that it basically took half the program to work the rabbit ears so the screen was somewhat watchable. I was hooked with wrestling outside of the WWF Northeast.
I watched the Superpowers (Dusty Rhodes, Road Warriors and Nikita Koloff) battle the Four Horseman all year.
I watched Hot Stuff International Inc. (Eddie Gilbert, Sting, and Rick Steiner) fight the UWF faces like Steve "Dr. Death" Williams, Ted Dibiase, Terry Taylor and the Fantastics.
I watched Chris Adams feud with the champ Rick Rude in WCWA.
Being able to reach guys like myself, in New York, was what these southern promotions was aiming to do. This was a way to fight back against the WWF.
The winners of this competition were the fans. We witnessed the best wrestling, story-lines, and feuds from various promotions.
This all was happening back in 1986 and it was on my television.
The next installment will describe the landscape of wrestling and events that occurred in 1987 through 1989, as the decade was coming to an end and wrestling was continuing to get bigger.
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