Money in Wrestling is the Root of All Evil
‘A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.’ (Henry Ford).
Two things made me think about money recently. One was writing about JBL last week and how much I like the ‘rich man’ gimmick, but secondly, WWE’s first quarter results. I often thought the real world approach to ‘money’ and the ‘scripted’ world have many parallels and, ironically could learn from each other. Look at how Vince McMahon took the ‘evil boss’ character into the stratosphere during the Attitude era. Look at Ted DiBiasie’s creation of his own belt, or, indeed JBL ‘hiring’ HBK. Look at how those three ‘financially diabolical’ decisions blew up in their faces. And why? Hubris. An arrogance and high belief in their own abilities based, in this case, on money.
Let’s look at the cold, hard facts. The more money you make the more successful and popular you are. Aren’t you? Wrestling is a business and business is about money. We don’t like the three hour RAW? Tough. The advertisers do. We want an upgrade of quality in the three hour RAW? Tough. They have to promote the PPV’s. That means at least an hour and a half promos, recaps and adverts (both internal and external) that we have to sift through. In a way, we have to swallow this. If we want wrestling to be popular, if we want to be able to talk about it, to write about it, to argue about it, we have to accept this.
The PPV structure is sometimes hard to take from a customer point of view too. Wrestlemania 29 prices were the highest they’ve been (£17.99 in the UK/$69.95 for the HD in US & Canada). There were three ‘main’ events with four part-timers. Mid-carders were almost refused entry (no Battle Royal, no Money in the Bank, no large-scale tag-team match) and this was because promo and match time was given to the six men brought in to make up the money (or, indeed, the numbers). It worked. Early WWE corporate figures suggest a box-office of over $72 million with, for the second year running, 1 million global PPV buys. Who can argue with this? Was I looking forward to the PPV? Bar Taker v. Punk, no. Did I buy it? Yes. Often, to make money, to be the rich man, you have to be the bad guy. When it comes to the big events, WWE wants to be all things to all people. In my ‘Top Trumps’ column (http://tjrwrestling.com/articles/the-part-time-players-or-how-top-trumps-saved-a-column--2) I stated that the Rock and Brock connection was there to get a mainstream audience in and an MMA audience in. They weren’t there for the WWE fans. Wrestlemania is an event. It’s the Oscars of the wrestling world. They want a huge audience to show off their glitzy product. What did the wrestling fans get that night? The true WWE fans? Taker v Punk. Pretty good substitute but did we really pay out that amount of money for one match? Sure did.
The problem comes to the episodes of RAW/Smackdown and to the PPV’s that are for us. Us. The fans that stick with the product for the rest of the year, not just January to April (or whenever Rock and Brock return). The post-Wrestlemania of Raw was so special this year because the fans told WWE what they wanted. They didn’t want to be screwed around by stupid twitter votes (just so they get a social media trend) or by Randy and Sheamus – the two most horrible, bullying faces perhaps in the history of wrestling. They wanted the mid-card. They wanted Ziggler. They wanted Fandango. They wanted to be treated as the fans they are. The fans that care.
How many PPV’s enter the final day of build with half a card these days? ‘December to Dismember’ might have been the start of the trend, and Paul Heyman paid for it, but it didn’t stop the creative department following this through over half the PPV’s every year. Products we’re expected to buy. The reason the big names keep getting brought back is because there is no trust or build in the mid-card. Punk is injured? Cena potentially? Bring back Taker. No other big names? Brock/HHH III. Yes, it’s bloody exciting seeing the big names return but, with the possible exception of Batista, who’s left? They need to build some of the mid-card into main-eventers quickly or else, all joking aside, who will they bring back in fifteen years when the product is suffering again? Zack Ryder?
Look at the big corporations that have put money above the customer. ENRON? Sold fake shares to its employees instead of paying them and became one of the biggest corporate frauds in history. Allen Stanford? Promised world cricket millions of dollars. Flew into Lords in a diamond encrusted helicopter and bounced the cricket-player’s wives on his knees. Everyone thought he was great. Bringing big money to the cricket game. Turned out to be a corporate fraudster. Even Facebook is losing millions of members every month due to it’s addiction to advertising and change.
Am I comparing WWE to corporate fraud? Of course not. However, ENRON and Stanford started as legitimate entities. Money got in the way though. Facebook is a thing millions of people love but the amount of adverts all over the screen are off-putting to a terrible degree and isn’t this last point a similar one to RAW? Yes, the company needs the money but also, they have to weight up the money to the fans they might lose. The fans that might come to the live events and buy the merchandise online. Interestingly, at just the time that WWE announces that they have over 100 million Facebook fans is just the time when Facebook announces millions are leaving. Are the two arcs about to intersect?
This leads me into the hubris of the rich man. The arrogance that comes with wealth. I love WWE. Have done for years and although I’m concerned with some of the issues mentioned above, I’ll stick with it. I’m a realist. In these harsh economic times, a company has to do almost anything to make money. I understand why they are persisting with the three hour RAW I just wish they’d care more about the product they’re putting out there. Reading the press releases and listening to the talk of money, and growth and gross profit, however, always makes me feel that a fall is coming. Almost like Timon in Shakespeare’s ‘Timon of Athens’ who will be there to support the big rich man if all has fallen to dust and ‘we have seen better days’?
This tale of hubris is a morality tale through the ages, and what is a morality tale but a story from which we should learn. Have companies learnt from ENRON? One would hope so. We see the fall from grace and we consider our own mortality in its wake. This tale of hubris and wealth is a popular one in wrestling. There was Ted DiBiase and the Million Dollar Championship. Here was a millionaire ‘character’ who had a bodyguard, his own belt and his catchphrase ‘everyone has a price.’ He bought people and threw them away at will. He was one of the heels of the eighties. He tried to buy the ‘WWF’ Championship from Hogan and when that didn’t work, he hired Andre the Giant to get it for him. The build up of the man who abused those around him came to a head when Virgil eventually beat his rich ‘boss’ for the Million Dollar Championship. The millionaire, who only thought of money, hadn’t considered the one man who might have been his friend.
Carry this on through to JBL and Evolution. Again, I mentioned these two ‘entities’ last week, but their arrival at approximately the same time, and subsequent control over the product, were all based around money, abuse of power and not looking after those closest to you. At one point, JBL had a cabinet consisting of Orlando Jordan, Amy Weber and the Bashams. He had dollar bills printed with his face on. He was ‘money’. When he lost the title to Cena, however, he was alone. He’d not looked after those closest. This played out in a shorter fashion when JBL ‘bought’ HBK and treated him in true ‘evil boss’ fashion so that, by the end, HBK’s wife slapping JBL was the ultimate humiliation for the rich Texan.
Evolution is the tried and tested story of one man’s hubris. The vignettes played of all four members in limos, drinking champagne and kissing ‘lovely ladies’. It was all based around Timon though or, in this case, Triple H. He only cared about Flair, Orton and Batista if they looked up to him. When they were eye-to-eye it was time for the thumbs to be downturned. Again, when Batista destroyed Triple H at Wrestlemania, there was no-one there for the save. He was alone.
Even ‘quirkier’ elements from wrestling show this same hubris. There was Vince McMahon, week after week, showing his extravagant wealth during the Million Dollar Giveaway. Boring audiences both live and at home, he didn’t care. He was giving one person a tiny percentage of what he had. A sniff of what it was like to be him. How was the rich man punished here? Well, in the bizarre fashion that a steel girder landed on his head. We could only wish that would have happened to Allen Stanford.
In recent months we’ve seen a slight change to the story though in Alberto Del Rio. Here was, well, let’s be honest here, a Mexican JBL. He was extravagant with money and had a different car every week. He had the announcer/supporter who he treated badly. He had it all. Then something changed. Yes, you could say it was the creative department desperately needing a new face to take the title off Big Show. I like to think that, in true Christmas spirit, he learnt a lesson when he ran over Santa Claus and John Cena beat the hell out of him for it (I can’t even believe I wrote that sentence!). Either way, Alberto realised the error of his ways and he realised that the one person who had supported him through his life, the one person who had taken all that abuse from him, was the one person who would always be there for him. His friend. His fan. His supporter. Ricardo.
This is almost the Shakespeare story but there Timon rejects his servant Flavius’ help and dies alone in the wilderness. A morality tale for the corporate world perhaps? Reject the help of those that support you for the big monied friends and a lonely future beckons.
Maybe, in this respect, as WWE fans, we want to be Ricardo’s. We want the company to realise that we love it. That when it does things right, it does them great - but don’t forget us. Don’t treat us terribly with poor TV and PPV’s. The company has a duty to the young wrestlers coming up to build them for the future. It has a duty to fans to do this so we keep buying the ‘product’. If this happens then WWE shareholders will be happy for years to come but, at the end of the day, we’ll all be happy because the business of making money is to make the people who hand over their money happy to do it. WWE should pay attention to the morality tales it tells every week because there lies the true route to business success. Let’s be honest, we all want to be a Ricardo, ‘respected by the big man’ rather than a Virgil who ‘took it to the man.’
‘A good reputation is more valuable than money’. (Publilius Syrus).
Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.