Starrcade vs. Survivor Series: The Fight for Thanksgiving That Changed Wrestling

David Bixenspan@davidbixFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2013

Survivor Series '87 main event
Survivor Series '87 main eventWWE.com

Note: Historical business information all sourced from back issues of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

In 1983, pro wrestling was booming all over the country. While there were some signs of what was to come with the rise of cable television, many territories were on fire with some doing unprecedented business.

Jim Crockett Promotions was, at that point, the crown jewel of the National Wrestling Alliance. One of the three best paying territories in the United States (along with the AWA and WWF), it kept a huge roster (wrestlers who wanted in were often wait-listed), ran multiple shows a night and was even running specialized storylines in different parts of the territory (divided into North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia).

The big match early in the year was a feud-ender where Sgt. Slaughter and Pvt. Don Kernodle defended against longtime top babyface team Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood in a cage match where the losing team must split forever. It was going to be a big match no matter what, but there was a twist that made it even bigger: Instead of trying to run the match in every major city and pretending that each match was the big one, it was stressed throughout the territory that you had to go to the Greensboro Coliseum to see it.

This unprecedented move led to the show, dubbed "The Final Conflict," not only selling out but also turning away thousands of fans to the point that it caused a traffic jam, which has become legendary in the region. From there, the next move was to take the annual Thanksgiving night show in Greensboro, build up the biggest card ever and broadcast it via satellite to giant screens in arenas throughout the territory on closed circuit television. Dubbed "Starrcade," it was another huge success, and its 30th anniversary was this week.

In 1985, Crockett eventually took over the Atlanta-based Georgia territory after the WWF's takeover of the area went south, giving them national cable exposure on TBS. Atlanta had its own tradition of Thanksgiving night shows, so Starrcade was expanded, with matches alternating between the Greensboro Coliseum and the Omni. The event became an even bigger success.

That takes us to 1987. It looked like the sky was the limit: Starrcade '86 had been the biggest event yet and the home video release by Turner Home Entertainment was the biggest-selling wrestling videotape to date. The WWF ran the biggest show in its history, WrestleMania III. Not only did the show sell out out the Pontiac Silverdome, but it also sold 450,000 tickets at closed circuit venues and the pay-per-view broadcast was purchased in 400,000 homes, which was 8 percent of the PPV universe at the time.

While the WWF had become the "mainstream" pro wrestling promotion, especially with Saturday Night's Main Event specials on NBC when being on network TV was incredibly valuable, JCP had been doing incredible business. JCP generally got more viewers for its flagship cable TV shows. Even more, their national expansion, which they were taking slower than the WWF did, was going great. They sold two million tickets in 1986, more than WWE has in any given year since 2002.

1987 was going to be Crockett's year. Like WrestleMania, Starrcade would finally be available nationwide on PPV. Business had been great, and while it would have been foolish to expect WrestleMania III-level business, it was expected to be the biggest non-WWF show ever. Unfortunately, a series of mistakes took a major toll on the company before Starrcade:

  • JCP greatly overspent on expanding their network of stations for their syndicated programs, even buying Bill Watts' failing Universal Wrestling Federation for too much money to get the right to pay a lot of money to the stations the UWF was on.
  • The TBS shows switched to a format of 30-second squash matches paired with 90-second interviews, putting Crockett in last place in Nielsen ratings among wrestling shows.
  • Top stars were signed to guaranteed contracts to keep them from going to the WWF. If their payoffs didn't meet the guarantee, talent got balloon payments at the end of the year.

As all of this was going on, it came time to set up Starrcade. There were two goals in mind: Set the company apart as a very different kind of pro wrestling from the WWF, and set up a big match for Starrcade. At a syndicated TV taping in Detroit, perennial challenger Ron Garvin won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Ric Flair. Not only would Starrcade feature Flair trying to regain his title, but he'd also be doing so against one of his best opponents and the man he had his stiffest, most believable matches with.

Meanwhile, the WWF announced it would be adding a second annual PPV event to its calendar, a fall event to complement WrestleMania in the spring. Called Survivor Series, it would consist entirely of elimination tag team matches to entertain families across the country who had gathered earlier in the day for Thanksgiving.

Yes, they were trying to block Starrcade. JCP countered by moving Starrcade to the late afternoon/early evening, and at first, it seemed like everybody would win. Cable companies could offer a package deal and make more money. Fans would see two supercards back to back on a holiday after enjoying comfort food with their families. Only the WWF would lose in any way since its plan was backfiring, but realistically both wrestling companies would benefit from the increased attention.

The WWF refused to let the cable companies foil its plan and gave an ultimatum: If you carry Starrcade, you won't get WrestleMania IV. Unlike now, where InDemand and TVN distribute PPV events to the remaining larger cable companies, in 1987, every single cable company had to be negotiated with individually. The income generated by WrestleMania was huge. Almost all of the cable companies buckled, with only four carrying Starrcade: three in JCP's home base and one in San Jose, Calif., where those in charge refused to go back on their word.

While there was no way for Starrcade '87 to be a runaway success anymore, there were some bright spots. The live event itself in Chicago sold out the UIC Pavillion, while the PPV did well among the homes it was available in, with about 20,000 orders for a 3.3 percent buyrate. That was about the end of the good news. For starters, fans in the Carolinas rejected the show being moved to Chicago, and the closed circuit showings (accompanied by some low level live matches) did poorly.

While Crockett's house shows were usually far superior to the WWF shows at the time, on this night the consensus superior show was Survivor Series. The Crockett wrestlers had flown in from New York, where they worked a major house show the previous night, their debut at the Nassau Coliseum, where Wargames was the headliner featuring most of the top wrestlers in the company. Not being well-rested for the big show, they were outdone by the WWF stars, who took advantage of being in 10-man tag team matches and had an action-packed card.

The top Starrcade matches all had other problems, too. The Midnight Express renewed their feud with the Rock 'n' Roll Express in a scaffold match, the gimmick that sold the tickets the previous year but didn't necessarily produce good matches. The Road Warriors were disqualified after seemingly winning the tag titles in their gimmick home town of Chicago, which killed the town for years. The main event was hampered by Garvin not catching on as champion to the point fans completely turned on him, and his cage match with Flair was arguably the weakest match in their long rivalry.

After Starrcade, the company tried to rebuild. The two UWF TV shows were turned into rebadged versions of the mainline Crockett syndicated shows before being dropped. Flair didn't have any house show challengers of note in line, so he was mostly wrestling tag team wrestlers. The company geared up for a return to PPV that it could hopefully make money on this time.

The Bunkhouse Stampede was booked as a quick return to the Nassau Coliseum after their successful debut To complicate matters, while the WWF didn't book another PPV show, not only did it book its own bunkhouse battle royals on house shows around the country, but it also got a live special on the USA Network: the first annual Royal Rumble, its own specially branded battle royal.

While PPV clearances started to turn around, everything else was worse than Starrcade for Crockett. The gimmick and oddly small undercard didn't click with New York fans, so the Nassau Coliseum was half full. The wrong start time was printed on the tickets. The show barely ran two hours and was a huge disappointment. JCP killed two of the top three markets in the country in two months.

When WrestleMania came around a few months later, JCP had their last real moment in the sun. They scheduled a show in Greensboro that afternoon and got their own live TV special on TBS, dubbed Clash of the Champions. With a loaded card headlined by Flair vs. Sting in a match that went the full 45-minute time limit, it was a huge success on its own and appeared to hurt WrestleMania, which was relatively flat in terms of buys in spite of the PPV universe growing rapidly.

While Crockett continued to hang on for another 11 months after Starrcade '87,  too much damage had been done by the reckless spending and screwjob-heavy booking. For all of the bright spots like the ratings the live Clash of the Champions specials did on TBS and booming house-show business after a controversial finish ended their first PPV with full clearance (thanks to distribution by Turner Home Entertainment), they had to sell the company.

With wrestling being one of the three key programs on TBS (along with Braves baseball and Andy Griffith Show reruns), Turner Broadcasting (now Bleacher Report's parent company) bought them out. Initially dubbed the Universal Wrestling Corporation, the name was soon changed to World Championship Wrestling, branding that had been used for the TBS shows going back to before Crockett even got the time slots.

As for Starrcade? It was moved to the week after Christmas, and the cable companies ordered the wrestling companies to play nice. Survivor Series eventually moved to Thanksgiving night for a few years before steering clear of the holiday weekend.

Even if Starrcade '87 had gone off as planned, the outcome likely wouldn't have been much different. Too many mistakes had been made. What likely would have happened is they would have been able to control the bleeding, there would have more traction for early PPV events and it would have just been a more drawn-out process before the company was sold.

Regardless, Thanksgiving 1987 is one of the craziest, most historic days in wrestling history. No matter what, nothing close to it will ever happen again.

David Bixenspan has been Bleacher Report's WWE Team Leader and a contracted columnist since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @davidbix and check out his wrestling podcasts at LLTPod.com.