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WWF still on the top rope


By ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

 There aren't many companies that can get away with telling paying customers to "Suck It."

 Then again, there aren't many companies like the World Wrestling Federation.

 Enjoying unprecedented success on TV and at the box office, the world's most popular wrestling loop has combined sweat, swearing and slams with sex and sensationalism to turn wrestling into one of the planet's most popular forms of entertainment.

 And although grappling has long attracted the attention of the working-man's crowd, more and more white-collar types are tuning in, and logging on, to WWF properties for a peak at what's going on.

 "Our shows are basically a soap opera with a crowd," said Carl DeMarco, president of WWF Entertainment Canada Inc.

 "We've gotten this big by delivering what the fans want and they want to be entertained. After all, it's the fans who write the cheques. Yes, nowadays there's quite a large contingent of closet white-collar fans out there. The business community now keeps an eye on the WWF."

 Part of that has to do with the public listing of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment on the New York Stock Exchange. Intrigued by president Vince McMahon's ingenious marketing abilities, investors almost doubled the stock price with the recent announcement NBC had signed on as a partner with the WWF's latest venture, the Xtreme Football League.

 Describing WWF events as having a rock concert-type atmosphere, DeMarco says the core of every crowd continues to be males aged 18-34.

 However, with expanded business ventures in the CD, video, action figure and apparel industries, the WWF has managed to appeal to a wider audience.

 "We actually see a growing female audience due to (WWF personalities) like Edge and Christian," said DeMarco.

 "They also relate to Chyna because she stands up to any man in the ring and doesn't take any crap."

 Unfortunately, part of that expanded audience includes young children intrigued by the violence and lewdness that has drawn so much criticism of late.

 "If someone doesn't like what they're seeing, turn the channel," said DeMarco, pointing out RAW includes a disclaimer warning children not to tune in without parental permission.

 "I believe in the Canadian constitution and the freedom of choice. I also think parents should spend time teaching kids what's right and what's wrong. I don't know why everyone wants to blame the WWF for being too graphic when every little detail of the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton affair was on TV every day and night."

 One of the most recent criticisms aimed at the WWF was the handling of Owen Hart's death. To the WWF, there's no such thing as bad publicity though.

 "You get your good stories and your bad stories, but every time something happens it boosts business," said DeMarco. "All the coverage we get keeps us on top of the mind. It's better than us begging for coverage."

 When asked to explain the attraction to his product, DeMarco has a quick reply.

 "I think they like the charisma of our superstars, their athletic ability, the story lines and the packaging of the TV shows as a TV action series," he said. "Also, our events are still affordable compared to other sporting events."

 Returning to Calgary for the first time in two years, the Saddledome congregation at tonight's show is expected to set a record for attendance. Edmonton's show tomorrow is a sellout and Monday Night's Raw is War show in Vancouver sold out in 25 minutes. It has the added bonus of having Kid Rock perform for a show beamed live across Canada.

 Further proof the WWF is more mainstream than ever comes in the form of TV ratings that are second to none on TSN. A recent guest host appearance by The Rock on Saturday Night Live garnered the show's largest audience in years. So lucrative are rights to the WWF, a huge legal battle is being fought between USA Network and Viacom over exclusivity.

 A former businessman who, amongst other things, used to manage Bret Hart, DeMarco signed on full time with the WWF five years ago. He says it was three years ago the WWF skyrocketed to today's popularity levels.

 "I think Vince McMahon becoming a heel character and becoming part of the story line had a dramatic impact as did the dominance of Steve Austin," said DeMarco. "All that combined to take it to a new level."