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WWE pins hopes on '04
By TJ MADIGAN -- Calgary Sun


"We're no longer in a decline," announced WWE CEO Linda McMahon in an interview with the Stamford Advocate last week, heralding the start of WWE's next rise to public prominence and ratings dominance. Well, maybe Linda was sugar-coating things just a little to ease concerns of edgy stockholders but, after a two-week holiday break, WWE bosses are optimistic 2004 will be the year things finally turn around for the greatest grappling show on earth.

The McMahon family will kick off the new year by dropping some dead weight from the WWE roster. Several members of the lower, mid-card talent pool are expected to be released from their contracts as part of the longer-term, cost-cutting measures announced at the last investors conference.

Next on the agenda is the brand extension, which WWE is going to continue to push, despite soft ratings.

Vince McMahon is willing to take the short-term financial hit so he can have the infrastructure in place to double his earning potential when wrestling inevitably rebounds to its next boom period.

As for pay-per-views, WWE will still be running eight brand-exclusive events this year, with Raw and Smackdown sharing the big four -- Wrestlemania, Summer Slam, Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble. The possibility of adding another four single-brand PPVs to the calendar won't be considered until 2005.

The main focus this year is on Wrestlemania XX March 14, which is being promoted as the biggest wrestling pay-per-view of all time. Since this year's 'Mania is being held in the comparatively small Madison Square Garden, look for a later event (maybe Summer Slam) to be converted into a big stadium show to make up lost gate and merchandise revenue.

Unfortunately, plans to hold a pay-per-view in Alberta apparently have been dropped. WWE sources had originally told the Sun to expect a big show in Edmonton in early 2004, with TV tapings going down in Calgary the same week. It looks like WWE won't be headed our way until much later in the year, if it makes the trip at all.

On the storyline front, the company seems to be building around Randy Orton and John Cena as the breakout stars of 2004.

The original plan was for Orton to turn on Evolution leader Triple H next month, then develop a new heel stable of cocky young upstarts to feud with a babyface HHH at Wrestlemania.

That plan seems to have been nixed, with Orton now setting up for a match with Mick Foley at 'Mania. Insiders are also suggesting Orton could be in line to hold his first world title in the near future.

As for Cena, the hip-hop-wannabe gimmick has taken off beyond anyone's expectations but his longevity in 2004 will be a good gauge of whether he's the heir to The Rock's crossover throne or a flash in the pan.

Speaking of The Rock, he'll be back in action early next month for the Royal Rumble, then off to Hollywood to work on his latest movie project with John Travolta, then returning to the ring again for Wrestlemania. After his Walking Tall remake is released in April, he'll probably be out of the grappling game for the rest of the year.

Brock Lesnar is still on the sidelines recovering from arthroscopic knee and elbow surgery but look for WWE to promote him as a key player in 2004.

The Undertaker is scheduled to return to the ring in February and revive his feud with his on-screen brother, Kane. Despite 'Taker's denials, there's still heavy speculation he'll be returning as the Grim Reaper.

Kurt Angle has been tagged with retirement rumours for several months but, in an interview with WWE.com last week, he vowed to continue his career.

Booker T, on the other hand, is definitely set to hang up his boots.