By Tony Cline, Staff Writer
There is often much consternation over whether to call this business professional wrestling or sports entertainment. The old-school purists cling to “professional wrestling” as if wielding the term itself will ward off the horrible excesses of the current age. They seem to believe that professional wrestling describes a particular form of the business, one that does its best to appear to be authentic, protects kayfabe to some extent, and overall just hearkens back to a bygone era where gymnasts were the exception, not the norm, and the show was about wrestling matches with some promos and extras tossed in rather than about promos and extras with a little wrestling tossed in from time to time. On the other hand, some, notably WWE chairman of the board of directors and chief executive officer Vincent Kennedy McMahon, have embraced the term “sports entertainment” to indicate a greater emphasis on the entertainment aspects of the business than on the actual wrestling. McMahon has used gimmicks such as putting his hair on the line against Donald Trump’s, bra and panties matches, encouraging steroid use among his performers in order to promote the entertainment aspect over the wrestling aspect. For purists, these gimmicks are anathema to the business they love and detract from the serious nature of the “sport.” To Vince, they are just a conduit to make more money, and those people who would ever treat the business as anything serious and respectable are just idiots who became marks for their own gimmicks.
So, who’s right? Is this business a serious, though worked, sport of professional wrestling or is it just sports entertainment? Well, both actually. First, let’s knock a little dirt off the words “sports entertainment.” Let’s recognize that we live in a world where all sports classify as sports entertainment. I mean this not only from the angle that sports are entertaining, but also in light of the fact that every sport is highly concerned with the entertainment aspect of their games, sometimes seemingly more so than with the sporting integrity of their respective leagues. Let’s look at the National Football League, by far the most popular sports league in the United States. The NFL, starting in 1932, has made a multitude of rules changes to benefit the passing game and increase scoring in the belief that this would make the game more entertaining for fans. They have changed where passes can be thrown from, who is allowed to catch them, and increasingly hindered defenses from being able to effectively defend these plays because the fans find them, and the increased scoring they precipitate, more entertaining. The NBA has made similar changes, including the introduction of the three-point line and the elimination of the hand-check, to increase scoring and attract fans. The NFL and NBA have seen great success from these changes as their leagues have both boomed to record ratings in recent years. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, respects the integrity of its game too much to make such constant changes to its rule set…and it has been losing fans in droves.
So, for the WWE and other wrestling promotions to allow entertainment value to enter into their calculations is not inherently bad or even that different from other major sports. The difference, of course, is how far they have taken it. Would fans like to see NFL cheerleaders rip each others’ clothes off at halftime? I’d imagine a fair amount would, but the NFL has drawn a line at such measures. Would the Philadelphia 76ers fill the stadium one night if they allowed Justin Beiber to play point guard? Probably (if only with preteen girls), but they, too, have set limits for what they will do to draw in fans. Why? Perhaps because they realize that the momentary boost in income would eventually evaporate, and the steadfast fans who supported the sport all along might drift away as well.
This is where Mr. McMahon has made his miscalculations, and they have hurt the business and his company. He created bra and panties matches, he brought in celebrities like Donald Trump, and he basically sucked the reality of the wrestling business. Unfortunately for the business, Mr. McMahon’s changes did not work so well as the NFL’s and NBA’s. In 2000, Raw was pulling in around 7 million viewers each week; this year that number is around 3 million. Yes, the WWE has skyrocketed in value due to Vince’s business acumen. He has created the WWE Network, destroyed all opposition, and leveraged licenses and merchandising better than perhaps anyone else ever involved in the industry could have. What he has also done is destroy the fan base for professional wrestling. Fans crave a realistic product with great stories to entertain and engage them. Other fun stuff to attract casual fans will be tolerated on a limited basis as long as it does not affect the product in the ring. Unfortunately, the WWE has allowed the quality of its sports presentation decline while continually trying to ramp up the “entertainment” factor. This is where they have lost the fans, over 50% of whom have left in the last two decades. Professional wrestling IS sports entertainment, just as the NFL and NBA are. Sport without entertainment becomes unprofitable and wastes away. Entertainment that detracts from the sports presentation will eventually lose the fans that were there for the sport.
The key is to have both, and to have them in the right measures to attract and entertain casual fans while not driving away the hardcore fans that love the sporting aspect.