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 1)
By The Doc
Feb 5, 2013 - 7:54:34 AM
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QUESTION OF THE DAY (14): What do you think was the reasoning behind Mania XIX's poor showing at the box office?
Today’s Wrestlemania Rankings Entry
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25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania
How can a card that features Shawn Michaels, The Rock, Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan, Triple H, Undertaker, and Brock Lesnar be ranked so low on this list? How is that possible?
To this day, the only explanation is that the fan base just fell off the face of the earth in 2003. If ever there was a moment when the WWE probably started to breath heavily about their business moving forward after the Attitude era, it was likely the day that they got the buyrate data back for Wrestlemania XIX. 540,000 buys and a 1.4 buyrate is horrible by modern PPV era standards. There are some Summerslams that have almost equaled those numbers in the last ten years. The only thing keeping it from being a complete and utter financial disappointment was that it was a stadium show, packing 54,000 plus into Seattle’s Safeco Field. Many of you probably wanted to see this event near the top of the overall rankings, but you can bet that its poor showing at the box office will drag it down a few notches, unfortunately. Quality wise, it’s my favorite Mania of all-time, but the numbers do not lie on the business rankings.
The WWE was in major transition mode back then. The was the first Mania of the brand split era and the WWE was seeing if it was actually possible to create two fan bases similar to what wrestling had when WWE and WCW were at their respective peaks. That was probably unrealistic to think that it would go down that way, but the shows certainly were different in their presentation. Paul Heyman booked a simple, straightforward show on Smackdown featuring a lot of great wrestlers. Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle were at the top of the ladder on the blue brand and were flanked by several notable top talents such as Taker and Hogan, along with an awesome mid-card featuring Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, and Matt Hardy. Taker teamed up with giant newcomer Nathan Jones in an intriguing match (my college roommate really liked Jones) against Big Show and A-Train. Show and Taker had been feuding for quite some time. Hogan and McMahon proceeded to battle over who was the main one responsible for the success of Wrestlemania.
I think the WWE put themselves between a rock and hard place, though, because SD was so much better than Raw, the flagship show. I don’t think they anticipated that when they split the rosters. Back then, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Angle vs. Lesnar would main-event Mania after the lengthy story they set up in the months prior and Lesnar’s stature via victories over Undertaker and The Rock. Raw seemed to struggle to find its post-split identity. Triple H was there steering the ship, but the show had some major misses in the storyline department – I say that with a straight face even though they did well with the HBK, Stone Cold, and Rock returns. Booker T was thrust into the main-event and was a refreshing new, talented addition to the scene, but it came across as rather random given that he’d been tagging with Goldust for the better part of the previous nine months – not exactly a glowing resume for someone stepping up to the big time. Triple H vs. Book took center stage with the World title on the line in a feud that skirted racial lines, while Rock and Austin reengaged for their third Mania dance. The Rock was excellent in his role, shining as brightly as a heel as he ever had before. HBK and Y2J had a fantastic feud, as well, starting all the way back in December and carrying through to the end of March.
Something was assuredly missing, though. Fans either did not buy into Book as a threat to the World title or did not want to see the third chapter of the grand stage Rock-Austin rivalry or did not care for Lesnar and Angle as the top acts or Hogan taking on McMahon in a match 20 years in the making. I cannot imagine why they wouldn’t have gotten into Y2J vs. HBK, but that’s the mark for both talking. I don’t know. I just don’t know. It was as stacked a Wrestlemania card as there has ever been, but fans just didn’t buy it. I can’t help but blame the Raw creative side. Perhaps the people had had enough with Katie Vick followed by the Scott Steiner fiasco. I guess we’ll never know until someone that lived it can explain it to us.
How can a Wrestlemania held in something called a “Plaza” that could put no more than 20,000 people in the seats, ensuring that it ranked in the bottom half of all Manias in attendance, still crack the top ten overall in the business chart?
Four words: “The Mega Powers Explode!”
Before there was a Rock vs. Cena that announced one year in advance a match at Wrestlemania that rewrote the number of buys record, there was a fairly obvious match on the horizon between the biggest star of the 80s, Hulk Hogan, and the iconic second biggest WWE star of the same period, “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Why obvious? Well, Savage had long been a heel before 1987 saw him somewhat abruptly turn face and surprisingly gain a ton of momentum in a feud with the Honky Tonk Man over the Intercontinental Championship. By Mania IV, it was time for the WWE to crown a new World Champion via a 14-man tournament and it was Macho that was chosen for the honor. Even though a new hero was the champion, the Hulkster was far too popular to be taken out of his spot as “The Man,” so the WWE rightfully decided to pair Savage with Hogan so that the Macho Man could get some of Hulkamania’s shine.
Now, I wasn’t old enough to remember the details, but I remember watching all these events play out on video tape in 1992. It seemed like a no-brainer that, after watching Savage as the best (albeit not the top) heel at Mania III make a turn toward the good to win the title at Mania IV, he would eventually become jealous of Hulkamania and turn on its leader. Hogan and Savage were destined to feud. The WWE just found a cool way to make the fans that much more into it than they ever would have been had it just been Savage emerging as a heel World Champion. To have him team with the hero, become one himself, and then turn back to the dark side was a stroke of creative genius that one could see coming from a mile away, but that which was akin to a glorious disaster – like a tornado – that you cannot stop watching. From the moment that Savage won the title, thanks to a little bit of help from Hulk, at Wrestlemania IV, the clock was ticking until the next year’s Wrestlemania. Anticipation built from event to event; from Summerslam to Survivor Series to Saturday Night’s Main-Event to Wrestlemania V.
6% of the potential pay-per-viewing audience in the spring of 1989 decided that they had to see Hogan vs. Savage. Part of the reason that the decision was made to do rankings for both buyrates and number of buys is to help give perspective to each era of PPV, as 6% of the potential viewing audience did not produce a massive number of buys compared to the million plus that we’ve seen numerous times in the last decade. In fact, the actual number of buys for Mania V was only 14th on this list (still impressive given how much the PPV audience has grown in the last twenty-five years). So, it was with events like Mania V in mind that buyrate was taken into account, knowing that the early years were going to skew the data. 6% is incredible! If you were to take the percentage of buys that said percentage would garner in modern times, it would equate to roughly 2.4 million! Thus, both buyrates and buys must be taken into account. It’s not fair to favor one over the other. They carry equal weight in these rankings. Mania V had the fourth highest buyrate of all-time.
The only financial statistic holding Mania V back is its venue’s limited capacity. However, here’s a little bit of further evaluation to put the number it did draw into better perspective. In 1988, the Trump Plaza was barely able to seat 19,000. That place was not that big, so it had people sitting in every available spot. In 1989, they found a way to squeeze in 500 more – somehow.
Hogan vs. Savage is one of the top drawing matches of all-time. Mania V had a few other matches, though, to advance its economic cause. The second biggest match was the Ultimate Warrior defending the IC title against Rick Rude in the Ravishing One’s biggest Mania match in his career. The tag team titles took center stage, as well, with Demolition in their most high profile title match against the Powers of Pain and former manager, Mr. Fuji. Jake Roberts vs. Andre the Giant, with Royal Rumble winner Big John Studd as the special guest referee, rounded out the top matches on the show.
Injuries at inopportune times have a way of throwing plans into disarray. We see it all the time with sports teams looking to make championship runs being derailed by a star player’s knee, arm, or otherwise. Why, oh, why, did it have to happen right at that particular time? That’s life. In professional wrestling, the larger-than-life personalities are often viewed as bulletproof both by the fans and the promoters that bank on them being healthy. Why else would see arguably the most dangerous matches in the business taking place 6 weeks, four months, and six months prior to the WWE’s biggest show of the year? Shouldn’t those take place in the six months immediately following Wrestlemania? Yet, that is the way that it is and there does not appear to be any major change on the horizon. There won’t be until one of the top players needed to roll in the dough in a top flight match goes down in TLC or Elimination Chamber.
The WWE has, thus far, been very lucky when it comes to the health of their elite superstars in the months prior to the Show of Shows. History does give one example, though, of an injury at the wrong time that threw plans up in the air and led to the worst Wrestlemania buyrate of all-time. Shawn Michaels was the WWE Champion when he was told by doctors that his knee was so messed up that he would need to retire. All the wrong details have been the focus of HBK’s knee in the last sixteen years. People wondered if he was telling the truth or if he was lying to get out of a particular match with a certain heated real life rival. Who cares? If Tom Brady goes down right before the NFL Playoffs, do we look for the person to blame for it or are we speculating immediately on how that will affect the New England Patriots? When HBK went down, the wrestler that had been the face of the WWE for the previous year was taken off the depth chart for the most important time of the year, going up against the stiffest competition that the WWE had ever faced.
Plans for what would’ve been a potentially thrilling all-around storyline rematch between Michaels and Bret Hart for the WWE Championship had to be scrapped. Stone Cold Steve Austin was slated to face Bret instead and the two were faced with the task of trying to get extra life out of a feud that had run its course. Bret had to accentuate aspects of his character to a place that ultimately lead to his demise in order to make something interesting happen for Mania, as there wasn’t anything else going on that was all that interesting. Undertaker was named #1 contender to Sycho Sid’s WWE title, but their feud was so lacking in memorable moments that I cannot, sitting here writing this right now, remember from it a single talking point. The third top match was another rehash of a long-standing issue between the unproven Ahmed Johnson and the Nation of Domination. A Chicago Street Fight might have appealed to those in upper Illinois, but it didn’t make for a big drawing point for the rest of the world.
Michaels went down and the hopes of Wrestlemania being worthy of its name went away with it. He may not have been the strongest champion, business-wise, of all-time, but he was the franchise player and the “team” needed him. Without him, the “team” struggled to find their way before Wrestlemania. Bret’s antics were as entertaining as anything we’d see in 1997, but they’d have been much more engaging had they precluded a WWE title return match with HBK. It all worked out as it needed to, as it gave Stone Cold the breath of babyface life needed to take over the wrestling industry and turn the tide for the WWE, but in the immediacy, Mania 13 had the lowest number of PPV buys and the lowest buyrate in “Granddaddy” lore. WCW’s Starrcade later in the year featuring Sting vs. Hollywood Hogan more than doubled the Mania 13 buyrate. Even the WWE’s second and fourth biggest PPVs, Summerslam and Survivor Series, outdrew Wrestlemania.
0.77…good for less than 250,000 buyers. Do a Google search for WWE PPV buyrate history and marvel at the sheer number of second-rate events outside the “Big Four” that did better than that. The Rosemont Horizon is not a big place, either, so the revenue earned from Mania 13 was quite ordinary for an event that we’ve come to view as anything but. To think it all started with an injury…
One of the Manias that flies under the radar, Wrestlemania 22 will always be a middle of the road event, in terms of its financial ranking, because its host was so small. I was a member of the 17,200 person crowd and it was an awesome atmosphere that should host major PPVs at least once per year…at least. The All State Arena, formerly the Rosemont Horizon, is the best arena that features the best crowds in wrestling, taking the lead over Madison Square Garden in recent years as the WWE’s best venue. At the same time, it’s never going to be big.
Where I think Mania 22 will shine throughout history is its impressive number of buys, good for 8th on the current all-time list. Triple H vs. John Cena was the match at the top of the marquee and for good reason. I don’t think that history has yet put that bout into proper historical perspective, but I hope it will someday. The internet is basically the wrestling’s media and it has shaped public opinion for both men in a less than flattering manner. In reality, Triple H was the superstar that kept the WWE machine going during a difficult transition out of the Attitude era. In internet lore, he was simultaneously type cast as the villain that held everyone down. In reality, John Cena has been the superstar that brought the WWE to new heights in some key ways, most notably growing the global identity of the brand and being at the top while Wrestlemania has grown into the Super Bowl of wrestling that it always hoped to be. In internet lore, he has simultaneously become the most hated man in the business.
When Cena was first drafted to Raw, I immediately saw him as the babyface foil to Triple H’s heel character. Somewhere along the way, after Mania 22, it became clear that my thought was sound, in theory, but not in actuality. They turned out to be very similar, with the only key difference being that one portrayed “good” and the other “bad.” The Game was the antagonist that got under the collective skin of the entire fan base in some way, be it with his rumored political maneuvering that drove the IWC insane or the dominance over the babyface roster that prompted him to get the loudest boos of his era. Cena has been the protagonist that has somehow managed to redefine the babyface-heel dynamic because of his polarizing personality and the WWE’s willingness to let him be the face of the company despite such mixed reactions from its core audience. It’s a fascinating thing to write about.
I think that people, whether they cared to admit it then or now, saw something special in a match between the leaders from two eras. Cena vs. Trips was not a main-event supported by the appearance of iconic financial titans of the industry like Stone Cold or Hogan, as was the case the year prior, nor was it boosted by the presence of a major celebrity like Donald Trump, as was the case a year later. Wrestlemania 22’s biggest match had to go it alone and it did quite well at the box office.
The supporting cast was strong, but this was an event sold on the merits of the 2006 roster…and Mick Foley. Edge was coming on super strong and was the odd man out of the WWE title scene given the previously established plans on Raw. He needed someone to work with and in walked Foley to put him over strong and advance his cause to be the next top heel. You also had Vince McMahon entering the fray against Shawn Michaels, giving the Heartbreak Kid a change of pace and endearing him to a younger fan base that needed to see him vulnerable to “the man.” The sympathy gained from that angle catapulted Michaels to a new level as a draw from then on in his career. Smackdown’s major contribution to the paying audience was a tribute to the memory of Eddie Guerrero that saw his friend, Rey Mysterio, climb up and break the glass ceiling with forty pounds of the World Heavyweight Championship belt. It’s difficult to state just how much impact that the situation had on the Mania buyrate, but it was a top storyline. The original plan had Batista defending against Randy Orton, which would have likely drawn some extra attention than did the replacement match that came about due to Batista’s injury. It made it all the more important that people understand what they were getting from Triple H and John Cena.
Floyd Mayweather is considered to be the biggest PPV draw of any sport. He has more than cashed in on boxing’s recent craze with smaller, faster fighters. So, it was a wise choice for the WWE to try to do business with him. It has been said that Shane McMahon led the effort to sign him for Wrestlemania XXIV, so kudos to him for making a good decision. Mania XXIV offered a little something for everyone, presenting one the best-rounded cards in Mania history. There was Mayweather taking on the massive Big Show, two big-time heavyweight championship matches, the retirement match for one of the all-time greats in the industry, and a little added flavor to the Divas division with the presence of Snoop Dogg. It drew a huge crowd and eclipsed the one million buy mark, plus brought a ton of revenue to the city of Orlando that had actually sought out the WWE to bring the event to the Citrus Bowl.
I had the privilege of attending the outdoor event with my father. They did an amazing job turning the dilapidated home of college football’s Capital One Bowl into a sparkling, one-night-renovated spectacular place to be. Part of the grandeur of the event, of course, revolved around the fact that Mayweather was bringing mainstream sports attention with him for his match against Show, who was looking great at the time after over a year off from wrestling. Their confrontation at No Way Out, which saw Floyd legitimately break Show’s nose, garnered a lot of television time from the press. It was an important piece of the financial success of this event because the product did not seem to be firing on all its creative cylinders otherwise.
John Cena had made an unexpected comeback from major surgery much sooner than originally thought, but there was no real marquee match waiting from him upon his return. Triple H was the one primarily pegged to be the challenger for Randy Orton’s WWE Championship, so Cena being reinserted into the fold more or less muddied the previously clear waters. The three-way dance felt a little bit forced, as some wanted to see Trips vs. Cena II and others wanted to see Cena get revenge on Orton. The WWE was in a precarious situation because they had Orton in the best, most credible position that he’d been in since 2004; they had Cena back to represent them as the soon-to-be unquestionable new face of the company; and they had Triple H during that era where he was almost expected to be in a championship match. It ended up adding a high profile triple threat to a stacked card, but it was not an ideal scenario. Past versions of the gimmick had seemed to be OK, but this one felt like they were taking the easy way out.
The other main-event was seemingly buried on Smackdown during the last year where brand identity mattered. Edge was the top guy on Smackdown, the reigning World Heavyweight Champion involved in a nearly yearlong feud with the Deadman that had started back in May ’07. Much like Orton, Edge was in his first big Mania test. It’s one thing to be in a headlining match, but quite another to be in the position that is expected to draw the house and the bulk of the PPV buys. I think it has to be the spot that every guy aspiring to be the best wants to be given. He was up to the challenge and, for his efforts, his match with Taker went on last. Mania ended with the Deadman posing with the World title.
I’ve always been curious and I’m unsure that I’ll ever find out how much of the buyrate was attributable to Ric Flair’s sendoff. His retirement storyline was OK, but we all knew the payoff would be tremendous. The only question was, “How good will it be?” On the surface, one would think that the biggest PPV draw in the world (Mayweather) would be given the bulk of the credit and certainly, if not him, then one of the World title participants. Yet, when you’ve got a guy that wrestling fans from so many eras just adore, in the Nature Boy, then you have to wonder how many people ponied up and bought Mania to see his last (important) match. I think you can make a legitimate argument that his match was a significant reason to hit the order button. How often do you get to see a legendary figure wrestle their last match or play their final game? So much in sport is uncertain when it comes to those situations, so you have to take advantage of it when you can.
As mentioned, it was a well-rounded card. In addition to the four main-event caliber matches, there was a Money in the Bank ladder match full of young, hungry talents, the conclusion of the Hornswoggle storyline, the aforesaid Snoop Dogg involvement, and a rare (for the time) Raw vs. Smackdown match between Batista and Umaga. On paper, it was enough for the third highest number of PPV buys in Mania history and the fourth largest crowd.