Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Road to Wrestlemania Countdown for XXIX/NY/NJ. In the coming months, we're going to take an in-depth look at the three categories - financials, performances, and intangibles - necessary to determine a definitive "Best Wrestlemania," from 28 to 1.
Doctor's Orders: The Road to Wrestlemania (Business Rankings Part 2)
By The Doc
Feb 10, 2013 - 9:30:00 AM
You can go directly to today's post by clicking the appropriately titled link below. Or you can follow the Wrestlemania list (yellow indicates posted entries). I encourage you to be active with discussion, bringing up any point that you so desire. The great thing about these Countdowns has been the conversations that they've generated.
QUESTION OF THE DAY (19): With wrestling at its historically financial worst with guys Bret Hart and HBK's size at the helm, what do you think it would take for CM Punk, a man of similar stature, to become "The Man" and the WWE hold its fiscal position?
Follow me @TheDocLOP on Twitter for wrestling/sports discussion or friend me on Facebook (TheDocLOP)
25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania
(Doc's Note - Business Rankings were determined via extensive and multi-source PPV buyrate and buy number research. Because the percentage of people with PPV access has changed so much over the years, both rate and number were given their own, separate category. Attendance was the third piece of data considered)
We wouldn’t be sitting here writing, reading, or discussing anything Wrestlemania related if it weren’t for the success of the original. Triple H once commented that the first Wrestlemania was the event that he most remembered of all the years that Mania has been in existence and that he used that show as the motivation to drive him toward being a part of it. Well, that was the original idea behind the concept. Vince McMahon wanted to have something like the Super Bowl for wrestling; something that generations of superstars wanted to be involved with and that millions of fans would want to go out of their way to see. That all started with Vince putting most of his money into the first Mania. He went out and got Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper, Mohammad Ali, Liberace, and Billy Martin to be on the show and he put together a classic rock and wrestling connection that saw Hulk Hogan initially coming to Lauper’s aid to fend off the attacks of Roddy Piper. That event spawned the War to Settle the Score on MTV, which garnered the WWE a ton of attention for the Hogan vs. Piper match. Paul Orndorff helped Piper, so Mr. T came to Hogan’s defense and set-up the huge tag team match to be the main-event of the first Mania.
The success of the main-event was unquestionable. Madison Square Garden in New York City was packed to the rafters. It remains the fourteenth highest attendance in Wrestlemania history. It was quite a spectacle. Go back and watch it right now and tell me it isn’t still a spectacle. Wrestlemania reportedly grossed $12 million – a smashing success thirty years ago. Between the live gate and the people that packed movie theaters around the country to watch on closed-circuit television, McMahon’s investment paid off. Hogan was the one doing the media circuit, helping to promote the event for several months. He also had the responsibility of keeping his former co-star in Rocky III in check. There were numerous occasions when Mr. T thought about bailing out of participating. They were banking on him being there to wrestle, but he was aloof and threatened to bring down the whole thing if he no-showed. In the end, Hulk got him to hold up his end of the bargain. He deserves a lion’s share of the credit and he was rewarded by being the only wrestler in the history of the sport to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Believe it or not, the second biggest match of the show was the women’s title match. Lauper had become a manager to help out Wendi Richter in her quest to win the title from Leilani Kai, managed by the Fabulous Moolah. It was actually Lauper that started the Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection when she happened to encounter Captain Lou Albano on a plane. He appeared in a few of her music videos and the relationship blossomed from there. It was one of the shining moments in women’s wrestling history to have Lauper bring her star power to that division and give it a massive mainstream rub. It helped Richter become a Hall of Famer and actually brought in a lot of viewers. Without that match and Lauper’s role in it, Mania may not have been quite as successful. In fact, without Lauper, the show may not have happened at all.
The rest of the card was a ragtag mix and match of the top names on the roster. Andre was in a prominent match with John Studd, Junkyard Dog challenged for the Intercontinental Championship, and Nikolai Volkoff and Iron Sheik defeated the U.S. Express to win the tag team titles. It all came down to the celebrities mixing with the WWE superstars, though. That was the draw; that was the allure. The whole idea was to put celebrities with the wrestlers and create something new and different that would garner mainstream attention and make one huge promotion. It worked like a charm and laid the foundation for what we see and get excited about every year.
Unfortunately, since the event was not seen on PPV, it has been very difficult to rank it amongst the other shows. However, with all the data that I’ve gathered, I have discovered a number that I did manage to verify through at least one other source. Almost four hundred thousand people went to watch the event on closed-circuit TV. Combined with the attendance figure, Mania 1 still does pretty well in comparison to the rest of the lot.
I had some preconceived notions about certain Wrestlemanias when I started writing these columns. One of the events that I assumed would do pretty well would be Mania VIII. I thought that it would rank very high in the attendance figures….and I was wrong; it was not even in the top ten despite over 60,000 fans packing the Hoosier Dome. I also thought that it would have both a strong buyrate and a solid number of buys, but I was wrong on both accounts. The buyrate ranked in the bottom half, despite the changes in buyrates having changed tremendously over the last twenty years. Those numbers are usually skewed toward the original Manias because the percentage of people who had access to PPV was considerably fewer. That did not help Mania VIII. It also had the 5th lowest actual number of buys. So, let’s explore why…
It begins with the downturn in wrestling’s popularity. The original wrestling boom was coming to an end for two years and this was the “Mania 19” of that generation – the Show of Shows that produced so poorly compared to its boom period predecessors that it seemed like the wheels had fallen off the pro-wrestling luxury sedan. Hulk Hogan was beyond a tired act and everyone knew it, even if some weren’t ready to accept it. Not even what should have been the ultimate dream match of the era – Hogan vs. Ric Flair – could put the butts in the seats necessary to give Mania one more year in the sun before having to change gears. While Hogan vs. Flair was the original plan, its failure to draw at house shows kept the WWE from pulling the trigger. I think that was a mistake. I believe that Wrestlemania, itself, had enough of a name that the recipe of mixing it and Hogan-Flair would have been enough to do well at the PPV box office, despite the general malaise toward anything Hulkamania-related at regular live events. The rest of the card probably would have done better had they stuck to their guns. Hogan vs. Flair, flanked by Ultimate Warrior vs. Undertaker and the conclusion of the lengthy feud between Jake Roberts and Randy Savage would have done better buys, I think.
Savage and Sid Justice stepped in to create a “double main-event,” but it just didn’t work that well, financially. Bringing in Sid went back to the old Hogan formula of finding a physically imposing beast to oppose the “giant slayer.” There was no question that Sid had, perhaps, the most awesome stature of any of Hogan’s opponents of that era. They went a step further by suggesting that it might be Hogan’s retirement match – and I think it might have been meant to be, but the way that it ended just tainted an otherwise good edition of Mania. There was no way that Hogan’s career could end with a DQ victory that was not supposed to be a DQ victory, by most accounts. Ultimate Warrior was supposed to make his triumphant return and have the torch passed to him, but things just didn’t work out that way. One could argue that fate intervened.
The Macho Man was the choice to challenge then-WWE Champion Ric Flair and they put together a heated rivalry in a hurry. I think it speaks to the quality of their story that Mania even did as well as it did. The crowd literally exploded when Macho Man’s music hit that night. EXPLODED. Go back and listen to that pop. Those people came to see Flair vs. Savage, if that reaction was any indication. I wonder if this show would’ve done even the numbers that it registered without that match. Their story, combined with Hogan-Sid, was pretty much the only reason to watch Mania VIII. The only other match with much of a back story was Undertaker vs. Jake Roberts. Bret Hart vs. Roddy Piper for the IC title, which is remembered as one of the most memorable matches on the card, had virtually no pre-event angle. They did a great job with their pre-match interview to build heat for the bout, but nothing went into it prior to.
Mania VIII will go down in financial history as the event that thrust the Wrestlemania brand into a multi-year slump. Its saving grace was the attendance, but I think that it will serve the WWE well to learn its lesson from this card – it’s not a good idea to call an audible to reshape the core structure of the card unless it is absolutely necessary; and it was not absolutely necessary to do so in 1992. Too much emphasis was placed on what the New York market thought back then. Flair vs. Hogan might not have drawn the big gate at Madison Square Garden, but it probably still would have done well throughout the southeast on PPV. The northeast was not Flair’s target area. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think the WWE learned from that event.
Long before Vince McMahon’s steroid trial, the WWE was getting blitzed for the widespread use of the performance-enhancer by its superstars. Bret Hart, in his book, tells of the day that Vince walked into the locker room and basically said, “Alright, everybody off that stuff, pronto.” For years, McMahon had turned a blind eye to it, even allegedly using himself, but back then nobody really cared. The WWE was a land of titans and to succeed there a wrestler needed a certain physique. When the decision was made that steroids needed to be stopped completely, it was as if the world of the behemoths suddenly shrunk. Hulk Hogan quite literally shrunk. He’d been this huge physical specimen, but then he disappeared for several months and came back with a third less size. It’s amazing to look at 1989 Hulk vs. 1993 Hulk; like night and day.
Needless to say, when it came time for Mania IX, the WWE was in a bit of a transition. It was not just because of shrunken stars, but also because of the natural turnover of talent that simply happens with time. 1992 had seen Bret rise the ranks and main-event both Summerslam and Survivor Series, as WWE Champion in the latter. He was quickly becoming the face of the company in the “steroid free” movement and brought something quite different to the table than his late eighties and early nineties predecessors. The most comparable champion to Bret in WWE history was Bob Backlund, but the WWE was long removed from the era where a guy like Backlund could reign supreme. Nevertheless, it was the Hitman carrying the torch into the first outdoor Mania at the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. A young doc ordered his very first PPV (and, thus, watched his very first live Mania) to see his hero, Bret Hart, tackle the mighty challenge known as Yokozuna. The WWE attempted to recreate their popular hero vs. hoss formula that had worked so well for Hulkamania. They pushed Yoko to the moon, having him mow through the competition in short order upon his late 1992 debut, capped off by a victory in the very first Royal Rumble match with the “title shot” stipulation added. There’s no denying that the two future Hall of Famers had an interesting challenge on their hands, as neither one was much for verbal promotion.
Along with Bret and Yoko, a slew of other new stars were thrust into the spotlight. Razor Ramon, who had challenged Bret for the title at the Rumble, faced the returning Backlund; Shawn Michaels, the Intercontinental Champion, showcased his show-stealing potential as a singles star; Lex Luger (certainly not new in the general sense but to WWE) faced off against Mr. Perfect. Perhaps the most prominent headliner outside of the two guys in the main-event was the Undertaker. For the first time, his match was one of the selling points of the card. He basically took over the old Hogan feuds, taking on the biggest guys that they could find to see if anyone could topple the “Deadman.”
The WWE also made a huge deal out of the venue. Other arenas and stadiums had been hyped, but they were never made out to be reasons to watch the shows. In this circumstance, though, they needed a little bit of an added touch to entice buyers. Thus, the fact that Mania IX was outside and being held in Las Vegas was considered a bonus. What happened if it rained? Or a sandstorm? Or something else a little zany that no one had to think about with prior Manias?
Hulk Hogan was brought back to factor in prominently to promoting the event. While you cannot blame the WWE for going with the crutch that had been the foundation for the first eight versions of their biggest show of the year, it was ultimately a bit of a missed opportunity for them to allow Hogan’s sideshow act renewal of his old rivalry with Ted Dibiase (as a member of Money, Inc.) to overshadow the new stars like Bret and Taker that were going to have to carry the load in the future. Hogan’s feud was pushed to the top like always and everything took a backseat.
People did make the purchase, as Mania IX actually did pretty good business. It’s buyrate was down from the previous two years, but the increased number of potential PPV buyers actually made the number of buys the best that it would be over the five year period between 1992 and 1997. They did a great job with the set at Caesar’s and, while the card was awful, it did showcase a lot of young talent. Unfortunately, Hogan’s role on the card didn’t end after his tag match and the infamous unadvertised second WWE title match took place once Bret lost to Yokozuna. You have to wonder if things might’ve been at all different had Hogan’s shine at Mania IX simply enhanced, rather than overtook, the spotlight on the newer stars.
The mid-90s were the weakest business point for the WWE in the Wrestlemania era. The three consecutive years from 1995-1997 produced the three least financially successful Manias of all-time. Mania XII chose my least favorite venue for the host. I strongly word this on purpose: the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim is one of the worst pro-wrestling arenas to have ever hosted a major PPV. The crowds for the two Manias held there stunk to high Heaven, especially for the main-event of Mania XII. I will never understand why they went to that place twice. There are plenty of other arenas to sell out, but they’ve chosen that one for the biggest show of the year on two occasions.
In 1996, the WWE picked an interesting gimmick upon which to sell Wrestlemania to the masses. 60-minutes and the most falls in that hour wins: the Ironman match. Bret Hart was the WWE Champion and, despite not being whom the marketing campaign was built around, was also the face of the WWE’s “New Generation,” as history recalls it. He was “The Man” back then. They tried very hard to find someone more marketable that could bring business closer to what it had been in the boom period of the late eighties, but they always came back to Bret. He was as steady a presence as the WWE had ever seen, but it was pretty clear that Vince McMahon constantly kept his eye out for the next guy. One of the wrestlers that had really made a name for himself since 1994 had been Shawn Michaels. He became a headliner with the ladder match at Mania X and never looked back, but he had predominantly been a heel for much of his time as a singles wrestler. Summerslam 1995’s ladder rematch showed that the Heartbreak Kid might be ready to be the babyface of the company as opposed to its lead antagonist.
The WWE has, with the exception of the Triple H era after the Attitude ended, been a company built around the top babyface. From Bruno Sammartino to Bob Backlund to Hulk Hogan to Bret Hart to Steve Austin to The Rock to John Cena, the entire WWE product is built on the good guy who sells the most merchandise, gets the biggest pops from the fans, and can go do the media blitz. Anyone in the business that wants to make it to the very highest peak in the WWE has to realize that fact. I’m sure that Shawn Michaels realized it, at some point, as the fact of the matter was that if HBK wanted to be “The Man,” he was going to have to do it as the protagonist. Luckily for him, fans of all ages could respect just how good HBK had become within the confines of the squared circle. Only Bret could challenge HBK circa the mid-90s as an in-ring performer, so when HBK won the Royal Rumble in ’96 and earned the right to face Bret, it was seen as the battle of the two best performers in the industry.
It was just the second time, at that point, that the WWE had gone with a babyface vs. babyface match as the main-event of Wrestlemania. With Bret and HBK, you didn’t have two larger than life personalities that captivated the imaginations of millions like you had with Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior six years prior. The WWE tried to play to the strengths of what people expected from a Bret vs. HBK match by suggesting that they go an hour. Something like the Ironman match was a foreign concept in the WWE. The longest PPV match than I can recall before that from the time that Hogan won the title onward was about 35-minutes, outside of something like the Royal Rumble or maybe a Survivor Series match. WWE fans were not conditioned to matches of considerable length like NWA/WCW fans were, so it was a gamble to put HBK vs. Bret in that situation. The Anaheim crowd basically sat on their hands, unfortunately.
Without question, it captured my imagination. I had gone on hiatus after Bret lost the title at Mania IX only for Hogan to win it moments later. HBK vs. Bret brought me back into the fold. My two all-time favorites clashing for the gold. It did not, however, translate to a massive success, in the business sense. Diesel vs. Undertaker and the controversial angle with Goldust were not enough to even overtake the previous year’s PPV numbers and allow wrestling to stand on its own without celebrity involvement. Mania XII garnered the second worst buyrate and number of buys in the history of the “Show of Shows.”
Oh, the problems that come with success…
Several years ago, the WWE probably would’ve killed for almost 900,000 buys. If 885,000 turned out to be the number of buys for a PPV that cost between $54.95-64.95 ($54 million in gross PPV money), then I’d bet that they would not have been upset. Yet, with the Wrestlemania brand getting to the point that it has since 2005, expectations have risen. Every year the goal is a million buys or more and, any year that does not accomplish it, is viewed in a dimmer light. Mania XXVI was the only “Granddaddy” since Mania XX to fail to achieve 900K. By modern standards, it was the least successful. Nevertheless, it still owns 9th place on the all-time number of buys list, which when combined with its 6th place rank on the attendance list makes it a home run historically.
I think Mania XXVI went to show that having a celebrity presence is important right now. The Rock is a celebrity, so he’s given them the best of both worlds in the last two years, but 2010 failed to bring in a major celebrity appearance for the first time since 2007. They may have thought that bringing back Bret Hart would draw back many of the old fans from the New Generation and that it would take the place of a celebrity. Alas, that was not the case and the show did underwhelming numbers that the WWE was not as happy about as they’d been in the recent years. That’s one theory, anyway.
Admittedly, I was surprised at the buyrate, which ranks a paltry 19th overall. The card was stacked as can be and featured very good build-up throughout. I remember thinking that it would be a good test for people that clamored for a straight wrestling card without a big name celeb. For once, the wrestlers would have to draw based on their own merits. Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels II was the main-event and, perhaps, a bit of surprise to many when it was first rumored and hinted at. Their excellent match from the year before was not thought possible to top, but they did set up a nice storyline that ultimately became the fairly obvious retirement situation for HBK. Streak vs. Career had a nice ring to it, one that many assumed would do well financially. #2 on the card was Batista defending the WWE title against John Cena in a battle of the post-Attitude era’s two biggest stars. They had a nice feud with a couple of memorable interactions, but the waste of their initial encounter two years prior at Summerslam may have taken away some of its effectiveness in drawing money. Bret Hart’s return would likely be thought of as the #3 selling point, as it was 13 years in the making to see him get his hands on Vince McMahon for retribution on the Montreal Screwjob. The WWE might have overestimated the interest that people had in seeing it and, in my opinion, the execution of the match itself was significantly mishandled. Nevertheless, seeing Bret back in a WWE ring was worth it. Edge coming back from injury to win the Royal Rumble and challenge Chris Jericho for the World Championship rounded out the top matches. On paper, it certainly had the look of a great show (and it was quite good), but it did not keep up with its recent Wrestlemania brethren at the box office.
Also to be taken into account was the increase in PPV prices that started at the beginning of 2010. A raise of $5 per event in the midst of an economic downturn that was still relatively fresh in people’s minds was a risky move that may also have contributed to the decrease in buys that year. Odds are, as with everything else in the life, that the Mania 26 business drop was a result of the combination of several factors, some discussed here and others unknown to those of us not in the WWE. I go back to the lack of celebrity involvement as the most obvious culprit. The WWE did a nice job of putting WM26 together using only their superstars and it should probably be considered a success that they did that well without some outside source drawing added interest to the stacked card. Plus, I will always think that the WWE made a mistake in basically giving their first Cena-Batista match to Summerslam ’08 without even bothering to come up with an epic storyline for it. That match, in my opinion, would have drawn a ton of money at Mania if it had not already happened at a major PPV.