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Who's Getting It Now? 

February 26, 2004

by Rick Scaia  
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


[NOTE FROM THE PRESENT DAY: Warning.  This is one of those times when it turns out I was right, and I'm gonna rub your faces in it.  If you don't like smug sons of bitches, then maybe this week's flashback is not for you.

1999 was THE Banner Year of wrestling's RAW vs. Nitro boom period.  1998 was the year the WWF finally got off its ass and got in the game.  2000 was the year when the wheels officially fell off for WCW.  But 1999: those were heady times.  WCW was still competitive, and the WWF had such mainstream acceptance that they were buying ads on the Super Bowl and doing half-time promotions during the game.  The Super Bowl, for chrissakes!  And HALFTIME, by gawd! The stage so grand that ALMOST showing a nipple can enrage an entire nation, and the Fed was RIGHT THERE!

But in the wake of that huge exposure for the launch of the Fed's "Get It?" campaign, at least one online jack-ass thought he glimpsed the end of the tunnel for wrestling's boom phase and the WWF's mainstream relevance.  And that jack-ass was me.  Writing in the wake of the Mission-Statement-disguised-as-a-Title-Match that was "Halftime Heat," I voiced some misgivings about the WWF's direction, and made some only half-joking apocalyptic predictions...

Given where wrestling's at today versus where it was almost exactly five years ago when I said these things, I can't help but feel vindicated.  I still remember the e-mail I got after I wrote this: everybody thought I was over-reacting to one stupid little match.  Well, maybe I used that one match as the trigger, but I was talking about some bigger issues...  and it looks like I was right.  Neener neener neener!  

OK, so maybe there was more to it than just the topics I touched on here...  I grant that.  But it's still kinda neat to look back to this discussion about the end of wrestling's popularity at a time when wrestling's popularity was off the charts.  I hope you enjoy...]

"OO: Mankind the Champ Again, and Other Thoughts"
Originally Published by WrestleManiacs.com on January 31, 1999

For the second time in about a month, the worst kept secret in wrestling was that Mick Foley was slated to regain the WWF Title on a taped television show.  The switch -- which saw Mankind defeat the Rock in an Empty Arena match -- took place during halftime of the Super Bowl on the USA Network.

The full results of the "Halftime Heat" special (which ran about an hour and fifteen minutes, instead of the usual allotted one hour) will be posted on the WM Main Page in the next day.

But for now, the big news is the start of Mankind's second reign as WWF World Champ.  He "pinned" the Rock under a forklift to win the match, which was contested all throughout the arena complex, with falls counting anywhere.  Billed as even more brutal than the Royal Rumble I Quit Match between the two, this instead came off as camp, as the match degenerated into a sometimes silly (albeit sometimes entertaining) extended food fight with other props.

Underscoring the absurdity was Vince McMahon on commentary, who made a rare play-by-play appearance, and promptly deviated from calling the match to turn the halftime segment into a 20 minute long Mission Statement for the new WWF, making constant reference to the WWF being about "action adventure" and having elements of soap opera and cartoons.  Combined with the flood of WWF hype on FOX during the Super Bowl (where the WWF's "Attitude: Get It?" ad ran, and where FOX themselves was running an ad for next week's edition of "That 70's Show" which features WWF stars), the overall effect on Sunday was one of the WWF telling us they were officially re-positioning themselves as something other than a wrestling company.

And for the first time since the pro wrestling boom that started in late 1995 and hasn't stopped since, I think we're in danger of seeing a drop off in interest if things continue along these lines.

I said about a week ago that chances were I'd wind up being a hypocrite and doing my big, long "what is appropriate content for wrestling?" spiel before too long... well, after last night, I'm gonna do it right now.  Congrats to Mick Foley becoming the WWF champ again... I don't mean to belittle that development or take anything away from Mick once again holding the gold.  But for me, the real conversation-worthy development of last night was the continued push for "entertainment" ahead of sport, a push so misguided that the friends I watched the game with (mostly casual-at-best wrestling fans) were asking me "What the hell is this?" as they watched the halftime show.

There's any number of ways to attack this...  But to start off, I'll state the obvious:  about a decade ago, the WWF braintrust sprouted a hard-on for ultra "creative" ideas that focused more on the entertainment in "sports entertainment."  The result -- combined with a couple other things that happened in the industry -- was a period of dwindling popular appeal that bottomed out in 1994.  Things only turned around when WCW brought a serious threat to the WWF's #1 position, forcing both companies to put better talent and better matches on TV.  There have been stories and entertainment in wrestling all along, but the popularity of wrestling only started growing again after both companies started to realize that things like Papa Shango and Dungeon of Doom mini-movies just plain DIDN'T WORK within wrestling's framework.

Now, I'm not saying that we've seen anything as retarded as midgets under the mind control of Vader blowing up Sting's boat... YET.  But the latest Undertaker shenanigans and the Rock and Mankind being asked to go out and have a campy foodfight with a cheesy, trying-too-hard-to-be-clever, forklift-assisted finish (when they should have taken advantage of the Super Bowl halftime stage and put on a blow away match that fans would remember fondly months from now) are "gateway drugs" to more ludicrous things.  Things which history has proven will send wrestling's popular appeal into the toilet.

I'm not saying that being more entertainment-minded is bad.  I like the fact that I can count on DX, the Rock, and Steve Austin to deliver 10 minute interviews on Monday nights.  I like knowing that there will be cogent storylines developed each time I watch a WWF broadcast.  I don't need a pre-requisite number of 20 minute-long five star matches to enjoy a show.  But dammit, for the last 15 years, I've been a wrestling fan, and that's ultimately what I tune in to see.  I'm willing to be way more lenient in how I define "wrestling," but there's still an umbrella limiting what should be part of a WWF telecast.

It's GOOD to "think outside the box," as the buzzwords tell us.  But any company that's ever taken on the mindset that their business can do ANYTHING it wants usually fails in the end.  Thinking outside the box is good.  Be creative, test to see what innovations the market can handle.  But don't forget that you got here because people decided to buy THIS BOX, and that you can't stray too far from it.  You can't just forget the box and go thinking in a whole other room on the other side of the house.  What you're really doing is coming out with a whole new box, then, one people might not like. That's every bit as dangerous a thing to do as stagnating by restricting your thinking to what's inside the box.

That's what the braintrust seems to have lost sight of.  And what's worse, they've insulated themselves from criticisms of that direction by erecting this "Get It?" campaign.  They can just say anyone who doesn't like what they're doing doesn't "get it."  Bang, instantly, without a debate, they are right and I am wrong.  That's piss poor logic.  It's obvious to anyone who is open minded enough that the market is asking for a more entertainment driven product; I mean, there's a reason why RAW is kicking ass in the ratings, and judging by the dearth of 20 minute workrate classics, it AIN'T non-stop pure wrestlingI'm fine with that.  But it's asinine to think that you can control what the market is asking for, and that's what we seem to have:  the WWF deciding what they feel like doing, telling us "this is what you like," and then if we complain about something, then we are marginalized because we simply "don't get it."   

And what about those in the company that do take pride in the in-ring part of the product?  Jim Ross obviously "gets it," but he's also a guy who understands the importance of the in-ring product, and said as much in WWF Hotline updates after Titan strayed from that kind of action last autumn.  He's also gone on record lambasting the silly WCW skits of years past (making me wonder what he thinks about things that have been happening in the WWF during his absence).  There are guys on the roster who obviously take a lot of pride in having good matches, and understand what it takes to get there.   So what is the company saying to them?  That their skills aren't necessary, and that they'd better focus on coming up with their next catch-phrase or heavy-machinery-assisted stunt instead?

Why suddenly decide to repeat the mistakes of the late 80's now?  At that time, Vince McMahon started going around saying that he wasn't competing with WCW... he was competing with Disney.  Business dropped off immensely almost immediately afterwards, and continued a steady decline as the WWF fumbled with variations on the "we aren't a wrestling company" themeBut then, WCW decided to step up their efforts in 1995, and pretty soon, the WWF had to admit they WERE competing against another wrestling company.  Before too long, their business and business as a whole was through the roof.
Now the WWF is dominating the other wrestling company, and is getting cocky.  They want to compete with "Melrose Place" instead of with WCW.  Will history repeat itself?  I fear the answer will be yes if restraint isn't practiced.   You see, I don't watch "Melrose Place."  Because it sucks.  From what I gather, a lot of people feel the same way.

Look, there's a difference between "cool" and "fashionable."   The former means you'll always be accessible to a wide audience because you're doing what you do the best; a little makeover here and there may be helpful, but people tune in because they appreciate the core of what you're about.  The latter usually means you're trying fit in and be relevant and appealing to as many people as possible, no matter what the cost; you want to be this year's "hot"... which more than likely leaves you out in the cold as next year's "not."  

A handful of "Melrose Place" wannabes come and go every season, because the American public can only be tricked into making one substance-free crap-a-thon famous at a time.  To hear the WWF talking about competing in that realm is every bit as mind-boggling as knowing that somebody out there is actually wasting their time looking for the next Spice Girls or Backstreet Boys when, really, they should be looking for something that won't be a one-hit-wonder and that might actually be sustainable.  Something that's "cool" and not "fashionable."   Something more like the next Tom Petty or Rolling Stones.

Why risk undoing years of audience-building and hard work by redefining yourself as a half-assed, fad-driven "entertainment" company, when you can be a 100% full-time, sustainable WRESTLING company?  Redefine what the public will accept as WRESTLING, if it'll make you more comfortable.... hell, it's a job that's already done.  I don't know anybody who says, "Hey, you gonna be watching that Sports Entertainment PPV on Sunday?".  They say "wrestling," but they know that means a mix of in-ring action and other stuff.  Why the WWF insists on making things difficult for themselves boggles my mind.  Just embrace what you are: that's a hell of a lot easier for me to swallow as a fan (and a hell of a lot easier for them to implement, too) than being told that I'm gonna get treated to a complete recreation of a concept that I'd already bought into.  And that if I don't like it, any more, then I don't "get it."

For the record:  for the last six months or so, I've really liked where the WWF is at in terms of mixing stories and in-ring action.  In the last couple weeks, though, I think I'm justified in getting a bit nervous that things are slated to change a lot more in the near future as whoever is championing this idea tries to see it through to a complete recreation of the WWF product.  My discomfort is partly from a fan standpoint (I know what I like, and I don't want to see it go away in favor of something that I don't like), and also from an intelligent-guy-who's-got-his-business-degree standpoint (who thinks he has a decent understanding of the market and is honestly confused by the business elements of these apparent decisions).  

Are things bad, now?  No, of course not.  Wrestling's never been more popular, and I'm still finding stuff I enjoy every single week on RAW.  But if the WWF keeps trying to reinvent the wheel, then I do have some concerns that in the near future, we may see a few things happen: (1) the door will be opened for WCW to make a dent in the WWF's domination if they simply (for once) resist the urge to imitate the Fed and focus on putting on good wrestling shows, and (2) the industry as a whole will be exposed as a fad and will experience negative growth.  Sorta like   Spice-Girls-in-1996-versus-Spice-Girls-Today negative growth.  

But that's only if things continue along this line...  just click it back a couple notches to where things were last summer, and I'm cool with everything and confident that business will continue to boom.


Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.

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