February 28, 2004
WrestleMania Rewind: WWF using hard sell
By STEVE SIMMONS - Toronto Sun
It is a sure sign the World Wrestling Federation is slipping: Vince McMahon is giving interviews.
Not to everyone, mind you. But to those who matter most. Sports Illustrated. National television networks. Anyone who can further sell today's version of WrestleMania, which isn't selling the way WrestleMania have sold in the past, is welcome.
This has not been the best of years for the WWF, which has had only winning seasons previously. Attendance dropped this year. Television ratings went down.
Today's show, originally scheduled for the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum, has been moved to the 16,000-seat Sports Arena. The WWF says the move was made for security reasons. The real reason is they couldn't sell sufficient tickets for the Coliseum.
Which is why McMahon, the autocrat and press recluse who runs the WWF, is now talking. For the first time ever, he needs the publicity. In the past, he was able to create his own publicity.
For the first time ever, there is an unanswered question: has McMahon's version of pro wrestling, his brilliant combination of soap opera and sport, finally peaked?
This past year was a survival test - and the marks are still not in. Hulk Hogan was removed as champion last April at the SkyDome, partly because he wanted a break and partly because the WWF wanted to see what kind of business it could do without him.
The Ultimate Warrior, crowned champion in Toronto, did not do similar box-office business. Neither did any of the new people McMahon introduced to his character list, which stereotypes society. The Warrior's failure to carry the load resulted in the most desperate of McMahon's promotions.
His exploitation of the Gulf crisis, which resulted in taking Sgt. Slaughter out of wrestling's retirement home, turning him anti-American and supplying him with an Iraqi manager, further demonstrated what a difficult year this has been for the WWF.
The WWF was actually founded on such a premise. Its national prominence grew during the Iran Hostage crisis a number of years back, when American hero Hulk Hogan beat up on the the nefarious Iran villain, the Iron Sheik.
It worked once. It didn't work a second time.
For the first time, one of McMahon's promotions proved embarrassing. Once public sentiment was found, McMahon began toning down Sgt. Slaughter's act. He began running promotional ads indicating the WWF's backing of the allied troops in the Gulf. Anything to get back lost credibility.
The WWF has had an unprecedented run of success. It has taken professional wrestling - formerly a small-time, localized schlock sport - and brought it to the mainstream of American life, through cable television and non-ending salesmanship.
Vince McMahon didn't need anyone's help before. He was smart enough, and just ruthless enough, to control every aspect of his organization, to allow television to be the tool that sold his product.
But on this WrestleMania Sunday, Vince McMahon must be wondering. Are there still millions to be made selling theatre and calling it sport?
The big pay-per-view ads are seen in most American newspapers. In other years, even they weren't necessary. WrestleMania sold because it was a good product. Good products sell.
This year, no one is that confident. Vince McMahon has broken his public silence. That is message enough.