Most fans are familiar with the story of World Championship Wrestling- from its origins as a southern-based territory to its rise to the top of the wrestling mountaintop to its sudden fall, being eventually purchased by the WWE and essentially put out of business. The biggest criticism of WCW and the usual go-to explanation for its demise, with the benefit of hindsight as well, is paraphrased that WCW “was a TV company that had a wrestling show.” The WWF, on the other hand, “was a wrestling company with a TV show.” Vince McMahon owned and operated the WWE, using his own money to do so. WCW was operated by executive directors and presidents, while being financed by Ted Turner. Turner wanted to own a wrestling company because, well, he liked wrestling and wanted it on his television networks. It didn’t pay the bills, and for most of its existence WCW ran in the red, but Turner was a fan and enjoyed having wrestling in his portfolio. The WWE, on the other hand, WAS McMahon’s portfolio. It was and is his life blood. It’s his job. It’s his legacy. It’s his everything. And most feel that this is exactly why Vince ultimately won “the war.” He had no other choice but to win.
But we are now seventeen years removed from WWE buying its competition. There was no “war” to fight anymore. So naturally the way the WWE did business was bound to change and evolve eventually.
There is an accepted sentiment in wrestling that nothing is truly original. Everything has been done before. Every character storyline, and match finish is derivative of something we have seen previously, usually multiple times over multiple eras and decades. The same holds true today. Despite what hardcore fans, internet “experts” or even TV ratings might suggest, the WWE as a company is seeing success on a scale never achieved before. While I’m not discounting some of the legitimate gripes that some of the fan base rightfully has, the bottom line is that revenue streams, from TV network deals, advertising, and stock prices, are soaring at all-time highs. However, the strategy with which this has been done has, like most things in wrestling, been seen before. The WWE has made a mint utilizing, and perhaps perfecting, the principles once executed against them by its chief rival- WCW.
The Monday Night War really came to be because of the number one directive that WCW began to operate under- get the highest TV ratings you can. This has been confirmed by the man in charge of executing that directive at the time, Eric Bischoff, on his latest podcast. This was the reason we got matches such as Hogan vs Goldberg on free TV. It was in order to pop a big rating on television for Turner broadcasting. Nitro turned the tide in their favor in the mid 90’s by putting things usually reserved only for paying customers- main event matches, high profile feud blow offs, storyline progression or culmination- on broadcast cable television for all to see and enjoy. Remember, they were a TV company with a wrestling show. Nitro was a cog in the Turner machine. The purpose of Monday Night Nitro, and then later further evidenced by the creation of Thunder as well, was to supply content for TNT (and later TBS) that would score a large Nielson rating, thus attracting more eyeballs, advertisers, and exposure to the Turner network. Pay-per-view buys, merchandise sales, even house show attendance, was secondary. Icing on the cake.
Are we not seeing the same business model from the WWE right now?
Look at what is being given away on free TV on the regular. First time, “money” matches- AJ Styles vs Daniel Bryan for just one recent example. Titles are changing hands. Superstars debut or make triumphant, surprise returns. Why? Well, the FOX Network just gave them two billion reasons why, and NBC/USA a billion more.
Furthermore, this is what happens when the “wrestling company with a TV show” becomes its own TV company. When is the last time you even heard the term “pay per view” uttered on Raw or Smackdown? “Call your local cable company” has been replaced with “Get you first month of the WWE Network for free!” They don’t need to pay licensing fees for their big events to be promoted, carried and broadcast. They can do that themselves. Monthly pay-per-view events are now reduced to basically WWE Network Specials, and are usually filled with a card of matches that we’ve already seen on Raw or Smackdown in the previous weeks, save for maybe a special stipulation here or there. Feuds rarely come to a close. Storylines rarely meet a conclusion. Why give away the best stuff for ten dollars a month? More eyes will be watching the payoff on television than they would on the Network anyway. And those that do pay each month for the Network? Just icing on the cake.
House shows? Icing.
The WWE has changed the landscape of the wrestling business several times over. It took wresting national. Then it bought its competition- all of its competition. And now, though no one would ever admit it, WWE is using the same principles that once almost put them out of business to their ultimate benefit. The emphasis is being placed on television now more than ever, even more so than during the Monday Night War. The ratings aren’t as high, but the content is much more lucrative.
The biggest difference is that the WWE owns its own production and then sells its product to the masses. WCW had to cater its content to the TV company that owned them, for better or worse. But give credit where credit is due- the decision by WCW to focus on delivering its best efforts on television as opposed to pay-per-view or other mediums was great foresight, and forced the WWE to change course and ultimately is what brought them to the position they are in today. When all is said and done, maybe the true legacy of WCW, even for all its faults, is that it was actually a bit ahead of its time.
WWE is no doubt blazing the trail in the wrestling industry today. But maybe the WWE owes WCW just a bit of credit for lighting the way.