Sports

RAW Reunion? End Of The Sports Entertainment Era?

This is Venom I was away for a bit, but I’m back with another WWETV exclusive article. This particular topic strays from the regular material I write about in terms of music, but this sure lands in the entertainment and sports realm.

We are going to look at the world of pro wrestling or like Vince Mcmahon loves to coin it (for the meantime), sports entertainment. 2019 has been a strange year with record low ratings and declining attendance despite WWE about to embark on its biggest contractual agreement in history.

Fox Sports, has inked a HUGE deal with WWE, in the monetary range of $1 BILLION DOLLARS. The WWE should be at its apex right now in terms of attention from the masses and having pro wrestlers wanting to join the most recognizable wrestling organization on the planet. However, WWE is in panic mode due to their workers being frustrated with the company’s creative direction, and also the threat of AEW igniting another wrestling war that has not been seen since Vince Mcmahon ended the war on Nitro back in 2001.

The clip above was so surreal at the time for the fans of pro wrestling because it was truly the night that Vince Mcmahon’s vision of sports entertainment totally won the war. He closed what was a decades long beef that was sizzling between Vince Mcmahon and other promoters of traditional professional wrestling. WCW was the last remains of a former powerhouse that had lineage with organizations such as NWA via Crockett in the 80’s.

What people witnessed that night was seeing “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, who many claim is the GOAT of pro wrestlers, get in the ring to pour his heart out. He let the emotions run high letting everyone know the boardroom politics that was going on with the early 1980’s scene when Vince Mcmahon’s father, Vince Mcmahon Sr, was running the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation).

We need to go down a bit as I tend to do, the memory lane, of pro wrestling’s rise into pop culture under Vince Mcmahon Jr. Yes, I will not ignore the fact, that pro wrestling was extremely popular in the advent years of television with the likes of “Gorgeous” George and the original “Nature Boy”, Buddy Rogers. There is a cycle to this industry and I believe we are heading into a phase that once occurred.

Vince Mcmahon built the WWF (name changed from WWWF eliminating one letter) on understanding how to market in the cable television era. He also understood for pro wrestling to sky rocket in the “Rock Star” 80’s, it needed to have “larger than life” stars who would seem huge in big stadiums or elite arenas such as Madison Square Garden.

As everyone knows in wrestling circles, Vince Mcmahon Sr., fired Hulk Hogan when he went on to do the character, “Thunderlips”, in Rocky III. The promoter felt there shouldn’t be any confusion for audiences as to what profession his wrestlers were in. He probably didn’t want any cracks in the illusion of fantasy and reality that the film may have brought. In contrast, Vince Mcmahon, saw Hogan for what he was.

A huge star with potential to sell out arenas and give WWF the needed box office appeal for the national expansion plans of Vince Mcmahon. Those plans included going to war against all the other fiefdoms aka territories in the wrestling business. What would transpire was a war that would not be seen since the original days of the WWWF breaking away from the NWA in the early 1960’s. This time however, Vince Mcmahon would break all the rules that were set up by his father’s associates. There was no room for friendly handshakes or imaginary borders set forth by the old establishment. Vince Mcmahon was on a mission to takeover worldwide.

Jesse “The Body” Ventura speaks candidly about the differences between the two Vince Mcmahons who ran the empire we know today as WWE. He stated how Vince Sr. was more of a smooth operator than his son, Vince Mcmahon. He also confirms Mcmahon’s zeal to take the company to higher heights than his father. This passion to take out all other promoters led to Vince Mcmahon going up against the TV mogul Ted Turner in what is dubbed in wrestling history as “Black Saturday”.

July 14th, 1984; one of the most important days in the history of wrestling. As Vince Mcmahon had done an invasion down south by giving that region his version of pro wrestling from the north.

Georgia Championship Wrestling had just began promoting under the name World Championship Wrestling (WCW), yes that same name that would be the chief rival of Vince Mcmahon in the 1990’s, but in 1984 was still very much apart of the National Wrestling Alliance, the NWA, not to be confused with the 80’s gangsta rap group headed by Eazy E (although Eric Bischoff who would be the head of WCW would take on that rap name Eazy E in the 90’s).

Jack Brisco and his brother, Gerald Brisco, were the big stakeholders in the organization. They would end up selling their stock in the business along with the TV contract to Vince Mcmahon. The WWF on TBS was a ratings disaster. GCW’s core audience hated the WWF’s soap opera approach, preferring a more athletic style. This would basically be the big divide in the wrestling universe between fans that would rage for years until 2001.

Vince Mcmahon was able to pull a fast one over his competition and the TV executives. Mcmahon had promised TBS he would provide content for the time slot, but ended up only using the time to promote clips of events up north at Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, and Chicago Rosemount Horizon.

The beef with Mcmahon and Turner started when Turner leaned on Mcmahon to sell his timeslot. McMahon sold the TBS timeslot and GCW name to Jim Crockett, Jr. Rumor has it that money helped to financially set up the first WrestleMania that was headlined by Hulk Hogan and Mr. T at Madison Square Garden. It was a stroke of genius having Hulk Hogan and Mr. T in Atlanta promoting the New York event.

Mcmahon also set his sights on getting his “Superbowl Of Wrestling” promoted on cable television. Hulk Hogan and Mr. T would also appear on the popular Saturday Night Live.

Vince Mmcahon’s vision of Sports Entertainment was reaching new heights as “The Hulkster” received mainstream attention in the sports world from none other than Sports Illustrated. Hulk til this day is the only pro wrestler to grace the cover of the revered sports magazine. The move to bring Hogan back to the WWF in 1984 worked for Vince Mcmahon. Using the familiarity of Hogan and Mr. T from the Sylvester Stallone Rocky franchise made the WWF an instant household name due to the box office appeal of Hogan and Mr. T.

The WWF would continue to grow after the initial WrestleMania using NBC as a platform. The ratings of Hulk Hogan on Saturday Night Live helped NBC to understand that the WWF was now the trending entity in American pop culture. It led to a WWF centered show entitled “Saturday Night’s Main Event”.

Some of the ratings of that event are the biggest in the history of the industry and that made executives take notice. By 1988, NBC put pro wrestling back on live network television after being off that sort of platform since the days of Gorgeous George. Dick Ebersol, former producer of “Saturday Night Live” was asked in 1987 by NBC to put together a prime-time version of the “ Saturday Night Main Event” because it had consistently out-rated “Saturday Night Live” in the ratings as an occasional substitute for that late-night comedy series. The match that would be the epic to make history?

The rematch of Hulk Hogan vs Andre The Giant from the greatest event in the sport’s history, WrestleMania III. The bout took place in Pontiac Silverdome, sold 450,000 closed circuit tickets across North America, and garnered 400,000 pay-per-view buys in a universe of just 5 million homes It was a record breaking event and the WWE knew the rematch could be even bigger.

The match ended up becoming the most watched match in USA history. The two icons performed in front of more than 33 million viewers and received a 15.2 whopping rating. The 1 hour special would pretty much become the blueprint for Monday Night RAW in the early 90’s, but at the time Vince Mcmahon and Dick Ebersol were leery of having pro wrestling as a weekly series.

Wrestling is an arena business. That’s where the money is drawn and too much (prime time) television would weaken the live business

LA TIMES – Dick Ebersol

These words above would be quite telling as many old school fans and critics point to February 5th 1988 as the day wrestling died. The reason being is the Walt Disney style ending to the match which saw twin referees. It was apparent from that night forward, Vince Mcmahon was taking the PT Barnum approach for good. In 1986, Vince declared himself, “I Am The Walt Disney Of Wrestling” to CNN’s Larry King.

1988 also saw a change in pro wrestling when Ted Turner officially jumped into the game. In the winter of 1988, Turner purchased the same promotion that Vince Mcmahon did his invasion on a few years earlier, Jim Crockett Promotions aka WCW. The company would be rebranded after its flagship Saturday night show, World Championship Wrestling, and would remain affiliated with the National Wrestling Alliance until September 1993.

The wrestling boom perhaps hit its apex just a few months later with the WrestleMania V ppv in 1989. The company would not see ratings or buyrates at the same level again until the summer of 1998 when Steve Austin came around to save the WWE. Weeks before that event headlined between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, Vince Mcmahon went into the court system to declare pro wrestling as an exhibition rather than a genuine athletic contest. This was done to eliminate paying huge sports taxes and having medical doctors at ringside.

The NWA /WCW tried to capitalize on the divide and disillusion he created with the testimony in courts, but the American fad of pro wrestling pretty much came to a streaking halt in Toronto, Canada at WrestleMania VI when the WWE tried to crown the heir apparent to Hulk Hogan in Ultimate Warrior. Hulk Hogan was considering at the time to put more energy into Hollywood by becoming an actor. A prelude to guys like The Rock that we see today. The ppv failed to capture the same number as in 1989 and the damage was done. Vince’s run to make himself as big as Walt Disney started to crumble as Hulk Hogan’s image took a PR nightmare route when the steroid scandal broke out in 1991.

The WWF in 1991 was starting to slide in popularity and this steroid breakout news only accelerated matters. Vince Mcmahon tried to do damage control, but it only got worse when his father’s champions in Bruno Sammartino and “Superstar” Billy Graham mounted on the problems as they voiced their displeasure with the sports entertainment empire era. The WWF now had a sex scandal they also had to deal with.

The rise of more athletic stars who were very versed in more diverse style of wrestling took place during this time. Canada’s Bret Hart would lead the charge against the guys who helped to put wrestling on the map. The company also tried to gain back favor with the wrestling audience before the “Rock N Wrestling” era by bringing back former champion Bob Backlund. He was the champion that led the company before Hulk Hogan.

The fans also were now more willing to accept the lesser sized stars due to the steroid scandal. The WWE would not curb financial pain however. Vince Mcmahon would try to go back to the well with larger athletes or bodybuilder types in Lex Luger and Kevin Nash(aka Diesel), but the men just couldn’t recapture the magic that stars like Hogan, Andre The Giant, and Ultimate Warrior could.

The business was in a downturn and had some interest when Hulk Hogan jumped to WCW for the dream match of the 80’s against Ric Flair, but things would not turn around for the industry until Hulk Hogan actually addressed the elephant in the room. Perhaps the fans felt betrayed by Hogan and the WWF in terms of putting their trust in them and they lost their good faith.

Well, in the summer of 1996, all hell broke loose when Hulk Hogan gave an astounding speech at WCW’s Bash At The Beach. The promo by Hogan was very significant as he blurred the lines of attacking his critics and also taking shots at his former employer who was running ageism ads against Hogan as they were trying to move on to a “New Generation”.

Almost immediately, mainstream attention and ratings started to go up for the organization that was always deemed second class to Vince Mcmahon’s northern counterpart. The realism and acknowledgement of what was wrong with the fan reception and also the direction of the business turned out to be a shot in the arm that was needed since 1991’s steroid and sex scandal that ruined the industry’s mainstream appeal.

Now with what seemed to be a more genuine product in the fans’ eyes, it was up to the WWE to respond and ride the wave. They were fortunate enough to have Steve Austin rising in the ranks and being relatable to the new generation of fans and drawing in the lost crowd from years earlier. Austin was the anti-Hulk Hogan of 1991 and seemed to be more of the working man’s champion instead of the “Hollywod” star champion Hogan was.

A second boom started once again with the help of Hulk Hogan. This time around the business model had weekly tv shows and 12 ppv shows a year. That would be a no go in the 1980’s as evident by the quote above by the former producer of NBC’s Saturday Night Main Event programming. However, was the old saying still true?

The WWE and WCW saw heights never seen before as the weekly shows were like big time ppv shows during the year. The two were battling it out and something had to give. Someone had to lose eventually and it was WCW. The “Attitude Era” bubble did a huge burst in 2001 and here we are today.

Vince Mcmahon ran the brand names as long as he could from the remains of the other organizations such as WCW and ECW. He gave fans dream matches such as Hulk Hogan vs The Rock in what would end up being the wrestling industry’s version of Babe Ruth vs Joe Dimaggio. The crossover mainstream star who put the WWF on the map returned to face the Attitude Era’s version of himself in The Rock.

Vince Mcmahon has been on his mission to once again find the next Hogan or Rock. Just as Vince had problems in the 1990’s finding the new Hulk Hogan, he has faltered even harder this time around. There is no Steve Austin on the horizon and there is no charismatic entity such as Dwayne Johnson.

The best the WWE has come up with since Austin and The Rock have been John Cena and Batista. One man is already out the door in Hollywood and the other has one foot in the door as well. Neither men actually captivated the audiences with the same passion in terms of creating new audiences that will watch decades later. The falling attendance and ratings have shown this.

In recent years, the WWE brought back Brock Lesnar who was a homegrown sensation during the initial days of the WCW buyout. He went on to have fame elsewhere in UFC which became a parallel rival of WWE’s core fan base. The WWE tried to capitalize on this correlation by bringing in Ronda Rousey, but it only put more shine on WWE being unable to create its own stars in the last 20 years.

The fans until a few months ago, also seemed to give their new top star, Roman Reigns, the Hogan backlash of 1991 in WWE and 1995 backlash in WCW. Tonight, they had their RAW Reunion and it was a celebration of RAW allegedly with the returns of Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and John Cena. The Rock is nowhere to be found around the sinking ship. It could be a cry for help as WWE wants everyone to remember it’s the home of the legends. The problem is WWE has been ignoring the holes in the ship and now it is about to burst at the worse possible time.

What we may have seen tonight, is the swan song of Vince Mcmahon’s Sports Entertainment. As by the fall, Fox Sports wants Vince Mcmahon to give his network a sports oriented product. In doing so, Fox would be able to utilize all of its media resources that absorb the other sporting franchises on the network. The problem I see here is that Vince has ran out of his parlor tricks.

They used the legends so much over the years that they have ran out of dream matches which mostly consisted of bring back stars from the Attitude Era (late 90’s) or Ruthless Aggression Era in the early part of the millennium. The new stars also are not going to automatically become stars just being alongside legends. The formula in WCW worked due to WCW having stars beforehand such as Sting and Ric Flair. For the likes of Hall and Nash, they were built up in an environment where they proved themselves before hanging out with Hulk Hogan in the NWO.

The product has also been overexposed to where there is a portion of the audience who are armchair quarterbacks that actually predicted this downfall 10 to 15 years ago due to the WWE having many similarities to the ills of WCW in their prime. The RAW reunion last night only put more of a spotlight that the legends, fans, and even the promoters have left the new generation in the cold because they believe they don’t measure up.

A picture says a thousand words, but video says a million. The stars of yesteryear outshone the stars of today and the reaction from the audience is telling. They were hot for a lot of the older stars in comparison to guys like Roman Reigns who is there weekly.

I’m sorry, but Vince Mcmahon has pulled a “Black Saturday” on Fox News and USA Network with this current crop of roster. By this I mean, Vince Mcmahon sold the legacy of WWE to Fox Sports for that mega deal, but they are receiving a promotion of a Smackdown name brand that was made a household name by the likes of gus like DX, Rock, and Austin.

Now compare tonight and look into the next few months to how Vince Mcmahon operated in 1984 and 1985. He made moves and got players with star power to help make sure his product was on fire when he executed moves with television executives at MTV and NBC. It also has become apparent that 3 hour RAW broadcasts weekly has numbed the audience in arenas and at home. They need to do these RAW reunions to change the pace for viewers who have been losing interest year after year.

Have we now seen the end of the sports entertainment era that Vince ushered in that made all of his competition null and void? Could Vince Mcmahon’s new direction that was handed down from the powers that be at Fox Sports for more sports oriented presentation be the end of Vince Mcmahon wanting to be Walt Disney? His daughter, Stephanie Mcmahon-Levesque, said a few months ago that there is no reason that WWE can’t be bigger than Disney.

As Vince Mcmahon and his offspring’s aspirations to be a huge Walt Disney aka Sports Entertainment, the family business is now a publicly traded company that has stockholders to answer to on Thursday.

The WWE as we know it from 1983 until 2019 may never be the same again. Come the fall season, if WWE doesn’t deliver the goods promised, will Fox force Vince’s hand the way Turner did back in 1985?

The WWE may have to shed it’s goals of being the Walt Disney of wrestling and focus on being the Major League Baseball or National Basketball Association of pro wrestling. The industry’s future may depend on it since it seems WWE’s creative is incapable of capturing star power the likes of a Rock, Austin, and Hulk Hogan. Then again, as I illustrated above, lightning struck twice when Hulk Hogan captured the imagination of millions of fans in the 80’s and 90’s. The WWE got lucky with seasoned territorial trained athletes such as Steve Austin and had a star with family lineage in the business with the likes of The Rock, who understood what it took to become the true heir apparent of Hulk Hogan.

The John Cena Era of WWE could only have been so unlucky to not have that lightning strike twice. He never did reach that level of stardom that kept fans around years after his career started winding down. Cena is around the age that Hulk Hogan was when he turned on the Hulkamaniacs that grew up with him. The WWE has even hired one time arch rival Eric Bischoff to help with the sagging ratings and attendance for Smackdown. Perhaps, Vince Mcmahon is almost 20 years too late with this idea. This may have been revolutionary in 2001 if Mcmahon brought in Bischoff and the real WCW to keep those who followed that brand around. The same with the hiring of ECW’s Paul Heyman. This would have been revolutionary for the failed execution of Mcmahon’s version of ECW in 2001. Now it seems WWE is trying to keep them away from AEW more than anything else. It is also telling that Bischoff will be an executive to deal with Fox network. Is Vince of 1984 not trying to take the hit if Fox pulls the plug on his vision of sports entertainment?

As I said, perhaps there are no more magic tricks for sports entertainment and they need to go back to the age of post Gorgeous George of sticking to the script of being a niche pseudo sport.

Oh, I’m sure there will be AEW fans reading this wondering what do I think about their chances of winning the impending potential war. I see AEW giving new possibilities, but you need that one star that the people will go to their phones, televisions, and arenas for. That one guy use to be Hulk Hogan for the most part, but at his age and damaged perception over the years maybe no star will ever be able to attract such a massive popular following without backlash.

Then again, we could just be around the corner of the next Stone Cold, who didn’t have to be the perfect role model. Maybe we will be surprised with another rock star in Dwayne Johnson rise to the occasion. However, the landscape is so drastically different than it was in that glory time period of 1985-1989 and 1996-2000.

The company of AEW does not have the luxury that WCW had with its lineage and legacy from a previous decade with the addition of some of the biggest stars ever (Hogan, Savage, and Warrior all jumped) jumping from a sinking ship at the beginning of the 90’s. AEW will be asking fans to start from scratch and that may be a tall order for some to have the patience to see new batch of stars grow without knowing the long term outcome of the company.

The WWE were lucky in the 1990’s because of the track record they had with stars in the 1980’s. Vince Mcmahon promised new stars and a new way of doing things in late 1997. However, it is notable that Vince Mcmahon promised to provide the opposite of the Hulk Hogan Era of Rock ‘N Wrestling. It shows that Hogan’s impact was the pulse of the industry and that WWE had to react due to Hogan understanding at the time why the fans had turned on him. Austin became the perfect foil against the establishment that the fans now despised due to the earlier part of the 1990’s.

The only person who I can see having this kind of pulse to reverberate through the industry that will hit the emotional buttons like Hulk Hogan did in the 90’s with attacking the real problems fans had with the product is either John Cena or The Rock in AEW.
The Rock for obvious reasons would automatically create a huge reaction to shake the foundations of what was built in the last 20 years. John Cena is the other person due to him being the poster boy for what was deemed the PG Era that ran in the 00’s post Austin and Rock’s Attitude Era. He has been blamed for the downfall of the WWE and why fans started to do backlash on top stars who are suppose to be fan favorites.

The company delivered in 1997, but can the same be said since Vince Mcmahon bought out WCW and ECW? There was a lot of promise to fans on that dual RAW/Nitro telecast, but also a lot of leery WCW fans. Their fears were found to be grounded in reality as WCW in WWE failed miserably by the end of 2001. He has not rectified the burial of the wrestling fans who followed those leagues over the WWE’s. In WCW’s case, the WWE kept reminding those fans who won the war even when they had signature stars such as Sting on board a few years ago. It is why it is vital for the survival of the industry that AEW be the replacement of those leagues that went bye bye all those years ago. Will AEW be the ones to put an end to Vince Mcmahon’s sports entertainment era? Or will Fox force both brands hands? Time will tell.