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  1. #1
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Take Up Thy Wrestling Boots and Walk - "Sports Entertainment"


    For some people, sports entertainment is a fairly harmless label. To them, it's really just a way of rebranding the WWE and is something that emphasises the specifically ‘entertainment' aspect of the wrestling business, rather than presenting itself as a pure sport. The problem, of course, is that these people have not been paying much attention.

    There are so many examples, far too many to try and quote here, in which the McMahons and their key lieutenants have dismissed wrestling, and presented the sports entertainment vision as something greater than the ‘pro wrestling' that a Fritz Von Erich, Jim Crockett, Bill Watts or Verne Gagne was putting out into the world. Go back and look, if you care to, for all the times that Vince McMahon has said ‘I'm not in the wrestling business', or has taken a snide attitude towards ‘wrasslin'.

    There's a major class dimension in all of this. Though the WWE are now often equated by some with a kind of populist position (as opposed to the indies), the reality is that no one has done more to destroy the working class roots of professional wrestling than Vince McMahon. There's a moment of erasure that goes on in the talk of moving wrestling out of smoky rooms and into big arenas in the 1980s, with the increased production values that were brought in with the Rock N' Wrestling Connection.

    I mean, it's pretty factitious as an argument anyway, as even in the New York territory alone, there were 36,000 people at the 1980 Showdown at Shea, rather than the 19,000 at Madison Square Garden for Wrestlemania, so it's not like big audiences just came along with the Vince Jr era. And anyone with territorial knowledge can probably point to the big venue in each of the other major territories which would be run regularly and would see audiences not unlike a decent showing for a RAW or Smackdown. OK, so to offer full disclosure once you go over 40,000 then you're dealing solely with the WWE or with the Japanese promotions, or some very unusual special events. But the idea that wrestling was effectively bingo hall entertainment before Vince got his hands on it is pretty spurious and can be disproven fairly quickly with the bare minimum of research.

    But this is a tangent. The thing that people often miss out of the equation is that in the territory days, the audience was far more diverse in terms of the range of people you'd get in the buildings, but the share of that audience was – particularly in some areas – far more working class than at any time since. What the WWF did, in the 1980s, was make a studied decision to replace that wrestling audience with another one: middle-class families, with more disposable income, who would not only buy a ticket to the show but would buy action figures, lunch boxes, ice cream sandwich bars. It's not unlike the move in the Premier League in England, away from the traditional working class fan-base towards the ‘prawn sandwich brigade', who can actually afford a season ticket and £90 for the nylon shirt with the name of a Korean casino on the front of it. In subsequent years the families have been replaced by groups of young white men in black t-shirts, but the emphasis is still the same – tickets are expensive and a lot of the priority is on shifting merchandise, and so the WWE audience is necessarily people with a disposable income to spend on wrestling, in a way that it wasn't when tickets were cheap. And when you run the figures, not all of this is explained by simple inflation, either: if it were, a ringside seat at Madison Square Garden for a major event would cost a measly $55. Not only does that not guarantee you a ringside seat for a world title bout, but you'd struggle to get in the building for that for any WWE card.

    Perhaps given similar moves in other sports and companies, one might conclude there is something inevitable in all of this. But even so, the inevitability of something doesn't mean that the dispossessed need to go gently into the good night.

    I don't blame you if, after the way that I've begun this column, you're a little confused. Why have I started talking about class, when this began with the distinction between wrestling and sports entertainment? But here's the thing, these two factors are not as disconnected as they might appear. Implicit in McMahon's disdain for wrestling and his insistence that he works in the entertainment business is the fact that Vince has always been a bit ashamed of where he gets his money. It's the only thing that explains both his repeated and vociferous attempts to distance himself from the industry that made him his money and his attempts to make the WWE more of a multimedia organisation, one that provides other TV programming, movies, opens restaurants, and even tries to start a football league. The rebranding as sports entertainment has been part of a consistent attempt at the gentrification of professional wrestling. Deep down, McMahon wants to be a billionaire and a mogul, but not one that is immediately synonymous with pro-wrestling. He'd have liked nothing more than for the Bodybuilding Federation to have eclipsed the WWF in popularity. If it had, I wouldn't bet that the WWE would even still exist in its current guise.

    One might, if you were of a psychoanalytical bent, speculate that in Vince McMahon there is still the young child of a turbulent family in 1940s North Carolina, who didn't meet his father until he was twelve years old, and that there's mark that period in his life has put on him that he has never been able to leave behind. Frankly, this personal side of things doesn't interest me as much as the social. Besides, it's not as if things didn't really work out quite well for him in the end.

    My own interest lies in the effect that this has had on the product that the WWE puts out on TV. There's a lot of talk out there about the problem being that it is produced for an audience of one and that Vince McMahon is just out of touch with what the majority of the fan-base wants. But I think this dimension is far more to the point – a wrestling fan is unlikely to ever get what they want from the WWE while they retain this attitude towards the industry, this presumption that sports entertainment is not only different from, but better than – even higher class than – professional wrestling.

    The trajectory of WWE programming since McMahon has taken over is broadly away from pro wrestling and towards sports entertainment. There are some stoppages and reversals over that time period, and there are some particular aspects of New Gen that really don't work with that kind of framework. Generally speaking, though, this is the case, and it accelerates once Vince Russo gets a lot of control over the WWE midcard. What this means in practice is that if you started watching the WWF before, say, the summer of 1998 you were watching essentially a hybrid affair, a wrestling show that had a strong veneer of sports entertainment laid over the top. Some aspects of the show were in this new guise but the majority of the people pulling the show together, and several of the other influences on McMahon, like Jim Ross, Gorilla Monsoon, even Jim Cornette for a brief spell, were all older guys who come from the wrestling tradition. Bret Hart and Randy Savage might be on-board with the modernisation of what Vince was trying to do, but at the same time they were still trained as pro-wrestlers and were going to produce wrestling matches, first and foremost.

    Once you get beyond Wrestlemania XIV and certainly deep into that summer, WWF wrestling has become the WWF TV show. It's not wrestling in the same way, although there is still a strong wrestling angle heading the show to keep the interest of traditional wrestling fans. Austin vs McMahon served as an anchor on those shows while the midcard was filled with a TV aesthetic that was popular at the time.

    Put simply, if you started watching in late 1998 or 1999, it is already less likely that you are a wrestling fan. By this point, unless you were pulled in solely by the main event, it is far more likely that what grabbed you was the WWE's new TV style, this sports entertainment dimension. Once you clear the Attitude Era entirely, and there is no competition – the McMahon's are billionaires again and if you want to watch any wrestling show that has top-level talent and good production you have to watch the WWE – the move towards an entirely SE-driven show begins in earnest. Whether or not this is what we have in 2002, or only becomes dominant once Paul Heyman is removed from his creative position on Smackdown, is, of course, a matter of degree and of debate.

    And if the decline in the audience was exclusively an exodus of people like me, who started watching before the great shift, and left solely that newer crowd, then there'd be no problem. But, of course, it isn't.

    Now, I effectively pulled the plug on the WWE for the second time earlier this year, and unlike the previous return, it is hard to see what is going to bring me back. I mean, it's not like Bret and Shawn can make amends over Montreal again, and that is what it took last time. But in practice, many people with long-standing relationships with the WWE that go back decades, in some cases to the WWWF, keep watching even though they have little-to-no time for the current direction of the product. This is, in part, one of the legacies of wrestling being seen as something of a sport. Very few people will stick with a TV show once it is seen as declining in quality beyond a certain point, but in sport deserting your ‘team' when they are in trouble is seen as a mark of poor fandom. And the WWE has done very well out of creating a ‘team' mentality in their audience in the past – you might say it was even a crucial aspect in them surviving the Monday Night Wars.

    What this means in practice is that you've got a lot of wrestling fans, who are left with one mainstream wrestling company that doesn't really want to provide wrestling. They don't even really like calling what they do wrestling, despite the fact that they have something that looks a lot like wrestling matches in, wrestling rings, surrounded by ropes, and there are a bell and a pinfall and all those other dimensions that really look a lot like wrestling.

    The upshot of this is that it shouldn't be shocking to us that most people are not really that into contemporary WWE. You have a situation in which most of the relationships between WWE fans and the company were established in a time in which they were doing something profoundly different to what they are doing today, while the continued profitability for much of the decades since they steered in that direction has led them to believe that people are actually OK with the direction that has been taken.

    Loyalty, here, has proven to be something of a problem and has led to people feeling justified in taking wrestling still further away from the kind of thing that had brought the audience in back in the first instance. But as long as people take the stance that it doesn't matter how bad the shows get, they will keep watching, then nothing is ever going to happen to the WWE product in regards to a meaningful change. The McMahon personal investment in being something other than wrestling, something that will allow him to hold his head up with the other billionaires, is far too strong for him to change without severe pecuniary pressure.

    You want the proof? It wasn't long before they started taking the water coolers out of Titan Towers to save money that Vince thought he could get Rick Bogner and Glen Jacobs to play Razor and Diesel, because ‘they are our characters and we can just recast them'. The thinking was not that these were wrestling stars, but that they were characters like any other in the entertainment business, who could be played by any other actor. That attitude (NPI) only changed when it became obvious that they'd inevitably go out of business without the pivot.

    I guess all this boils down to one simple point. Like wrestling? Tired of the WWE looking down on you for the fact you like wrestling? Want them to be ‘more' wrestling? You'd better stop watching, and quit giving them your money. Revolutionary concept, I know.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    The Brain
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    Interesting stuff as always, Pete. Definitely agree that Vince's background has informed his life more than is usually discussed, in a myriad of ways. And of course it's hard to deny that WWE prefers to distance itself at all times from traditional wrestling, they've as much as said so many times. As you yourself referenced I do think there's something in that shift that is much larger than wrestling, it's simply the way the world has gone, but it's still a point worthy of discussion. I look forward to hearing more about anything you dig up to watch from the era you love best, or if anything outside of the WWE catches your eye. Happy new year, my friend!

  3. #3
    Member #25 SirSam's Avatar
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    Amazing way to end the year PT.

    The tale of pro wrestling changing into 'sports entertainment' is sadly not a new tale at all. In a marketplace capitalism has little room for sentimentality, you only need to look at the music industry to see waves genres going from the sounds of the street, protest or working fields to a completely un-ironic commercialised parody of itself every 50 years or so and there is no doubt that the modern WWE is a much more attractive proposition for big money sponsors and investors.

    As you said it has lost its roots as it has tried to aim up class wise however the modern WWE has all the class of a Trump Tower and all the authenticity of a Mumford and Sons song.

    I think one thing that may give a glimmer of hope is Triple H who prefers a decidedly stripped down presentation, in NXT and Evolution the padded walls are replaced with fences and the lighting blacks out the audience, focusing on the in-ring action. Of course this is superficial but it is a start and paired with his love of the more old school style of wrestling and wrestling booking really does give hope that there is a future for proper wrestling when it comes to the biggest stage.



    @Sir_Samuel

  4. #4
    Great point. I started watching WWE here and there in 2001, and then consistently at the beginning of 2002, and I agree with you that I'd consider myself much more a fan of sports entertainment than wrestling. Mostly based on the presentation of the content. I mean, I love TLC matches and that kind of stuff. Absolutely love it. But I also dig matches like Benoit/Regal from No Mercy '06, which is as "wrestling" as it gets, with hardly a shred of sports entertainment. So it's not exclusively one thing...but yeah, I definitely am largely leaned toward sports entertainment. Definitely agree with your point!

    Nice read, Prime.

  5. #5
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    I started watching when Sports Entertainment was in full effect so that is all I know. However, to me personally, not even the greatest storyline ever can be as engaging as a hotly contested back and forth match.

    I think it is safe to assume that Vince is ashamed of pro wrestling and he does not want go down in the history books as the mogul of a fake sport with major drug issues causing death and murder. He wants to be known for more than that which is why he expanded the WWE brand to movie studio, etc.

    That's one of the many reasons why NXT is so adored. It dumbs down the sports entertainment aspects and focuses on more traditional wrestling methods.

    I love your point about the team mentality. WWE should count their lucky stars that it actually exists. For example, I've been a Man Utd fan since day one of my football viewing and even after Sir Alex Ferguson left the club and the red devils couldn't recover in 6 years I still stuck with them because they are my team and I'll be loyal to them even if the got relegated. The same can be said for WWE. I've watched them since day one so no matter how much shitty sports entertainment they throw at me I'll always be around. So fans with that team mentality are definitely a blessing to WWE.

  6. #6
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Apologies for the delay in the F2F here...

    Mizfan: There's definitely a degree to which this is the direction the world has gone, to be sure. I think the bit I want to get rid of is the idea of it being 'simply' the way the world has gone, and to reinstate the idea that these things are connected to all kinds of issues, including the ones that I raise here. There's so such thing as a genuinely neutral action, and the cultural land grab that has gone on in wrestling is something that I think we should pay more attention to, personally. But glad you liked the read and I'll keep you informed.

    Sam: Hunter might well put enough of the older style back in that it can sort of sit in a kind of hinterland, doing some of what it used to do and some of what it does now. The question is, I suppose, how much damage will have been done by then? Quite possibly too much - we've literally redrawn the boundaries of what a healthy wrestling business looks like when we talk about it's health now, and that's a worrying precedent. There's a part of me that feels another boom might not even be possible anymore, but there we are. But you're right about the march of capital into other areas of life, for sure. It's not a new deal, it's just wrestling has this particularly marked class distinction, and it's driven so much by one man in the first instance, and a kind of attitude that is out there in the second, that's it's just worthy of comment.

    Skul: Yeah, that's it absolutely. The funny thing is, I've always felt that going after the sports entertainment market over the wrestling market is a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face, because as you point out someone like yourself is happy to watch a Regal/Benoit match or something with that kind of presentation - but wrestling fans generally don't want to watch something that strays too far from sport. Going into that territory (or at least too far into that territory) is a conscious decision to make your audience smaller on a point of principle, which is a strange thing to do.

    Don: You can get into the difference between sports entertainment and wrestling even in comparing matches, I think. Like, there was a match between Rollins and Ambrose a couple of years back and looked at as a wrestling match, it just looked so fucking phony. You couldn't buy it as a contest at all, it was just too placed, too staged. As a wrestling fan, I found myself using the dreaded word while I watched it: FAKE. But a lot of people really rate that match, and I can only presume that a) they either don't know what fake looks like, or b) and this is more likely, they just don't care.

    I don't know if I'd say NXT dumbs down sports entertainment so much as it's got the balance closer to being right. It's still very much a sports entertainment product rather than a sporting one, but they've got a lot more freedom - and they also don't have to have the same people wrestling every week, which is a huge advantage and stops people getting overexposed. But that's another point for another column. But I do agree with the ratio being a lot better there. Glad you liked the point about the team mentality too - can't disagree with anything in your example which makes the point very well.


    OK thanks to everyone who has read and replied to this.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

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