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 4)
By The Doc
Feb 20, 2013 - 7:34:48 AM
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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)
I think you’ll be surprised with the Wrestlemania 2 business ranking, but the numbers are what they are. First and foremost, the event was the first of its kind on the national PPV market and, in an era when the WWE was garnering a lot of mainstream attention through major celebrity involvement from the first Wrestlemania, they had a unique spotlight on them. The Pay-Per-Viewing audience was relatively small at the time, so the buyrate (the percentage of potential buyers who watched) was the second highest of all-time at an impressive 7.0. Naturally, that skews the data in Mania 2’s favor. The ranking was also helped by a better-than-expected attendance figure. Rather than take the average of the three venues, I decided to combine them, putting overall audience number above forty-thousand. With a figure that high, only the stadium shows outperformed the Mania 2 attendance.
It was a gutsy move to try to sell out three venues from coast-to-coast. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles all hosted a piece of Mania 2, meaning that each individual card had to have a strong enough card to draw in the people. L.A. had it knocked – the WWE knew that they had whatever building that hosted Hulk Hogan’s title defense in the bag. Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy in a cage after the build-up on Saturday Night’s Main-Event was the key selling point for the PPV market. The NBC network show was such a huge coup for pro-wrestling, stemming from the success of Mania 1 in 1985. Two months later, the WWE was boosting its profile in what were essentially the precursors to the more frequent PPV events. The WWE learned to book its major monthly events by hyping SNME. Hogan was the catalyst, but as proven by the well-performing venues in the Midwest and east coast, respectively, the WWE was developing a deep roster full of characters that a national fan base cared about.
Mania 2 did largely depend on celebrities to carry it, though. It was not until a year later that the wrestling roster alone could stand on its own. Chicago relied on the combination of wrestling stars and NFL football players in their off-seasons. The Bear's superstar, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, was the headliner, getting involved in a scuffle with Big John Studd (Fridge became a WWE Hall of Famer because of it). Andre the Giant was the biggest wrestling star involved and ended up winning. Believe it or not, it was actually a tag team title match that was the main-event of that part of the show. I think people forget how much Vince McMahon dug the British Bulldogs. God Save the Queen, those guys were very popular. They captured the tag championships that night in dramatic fashion. I’d venture to state that it was the most significant tag team match in Wrestlemania history, outside of the TLC matches in 2000 and 2001.
New York (specifically the Nassau Coliseum) featured an IC title match between champion, Randy Savage, and challenger, George Steele. The Macho Man was a star rising quickly and it was becoming apparent by the spring of ’86 that he would one day have a Mania or two (or three) built around his character. NY was Roddy Piper’s spot, though. His feud with Mr. T carried over from the original Mania and led to a boxing match. The amusing thing was that neither of these guys liked the other. Boxing was perfect, allowing them to legitimately knock each other around. Commercially, it was another successful stint for Mr. T – a sure fire celebrity Hall of Famer whenever the WWE gets around to it. He was hugely important to the first two years of Mania, just a step below the importance of the top wrestlers that he interacted with, in terms of building up the identity of wrestling’s Super Bowl.
You’d have to say that the 3-venue gamble worked. If it can hold up in a discussion of business stats, however skewed the data may be, almost thirty years later, then I don’t see how it could not have been considered a success.
I think it’s fascinating to observe the dichotomy of which avenue to making money was most important during specific eras in wrestling history. I would venture to state that Wrestlemania has become such a big event for the late first or early second quarter of the business calendar in recent years that there is no question that PPV is king at the moment. Without mainstream wrestling competition, the need to get excellent ratings is not as great as it once was. As long as the WWE brings in a sizeable audience, it will continue to find sponsors and still be one of the kings of cable television. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Yet, isn’t interesting to look back roughly ten years ago to what was considered a big success, financially, in Wrestlemania 2000? It garnered just the 14th highest buyrate and 12th highest number of buys in Mania lore, but it was definitely a major hit at the box office. Oddly enough, it was not expected to carry business for several months, like a modern Mania. Instead, ratings were so high back then that TV revenue was the be-all, end-all. Mania performing well on PPV was great and certainly important, but not nearly like it has become in the last several years.
The period surrounding Mania 2000 drew some of the highest cable TV ratings in history and it did so without Stone Cold Steve Austin. Had the venue been bigger than the Arrowhead Pond, then Mania 2000 might be a lot higher on this list and be right up there with Mania X-Seven as the most successful event of the Attitude era. It was based on the McMahon family saga, coupled with the rivalries involving Triple H and his two greatest foes: The Rock and Mick Foley. As one of my readers pointed out in a back-and-forth email saga several months ago, Triple H was who the product was being built around – not The Rock (a good point that speaks to Triple H’s drawing power in those days). Though Rock was the face of the company, unquestionably, he shares the credit for the success of the year 2000 with the Game. Of course, Trips would not have been on that level without Foley, who put the Game over as strong as anyone ever has (for anyone) at the 2000 Royal Rumble Street Fight and 2000 No Way Out Hell in a Cell. The goal was clear in the Foley-Trips matches: make Hunter the equal to anyone in the business.
1998 and 1999 were dominated by Mr. McMahon and The Rock as the top heels and they absolutely needed something fresh to keep the company moving forward. With The Rock virtually pigeonholed into being a babyface given his marketable off-camera personality and immensely popular in-ring schtick, they had to find someone. Triple H was magic that year. He became fully dedicated to being exactly what they needed. Hitting the gym and adding the extra muscle, going above and beyond in the matches with Foley, and taking his game to the ultimate level in the feud with Rock. Somewhere along the line, all the McMahons got involved and turned this into a four corner elimination match featuring Trips defending the title against Rock, Foley, and Big Show. You can’t argue with the success from the financial side of things – ratings were huge and the buyrate was excellent. The WWE made an all-day affair out of Mania 2000 and sold the card predominantly on the Fatal Fourway. I won’t lie and state that I wasn’t ridiculously excited to see that match. Triple threats, for you more modern fans, have become so commonplace that they don’t have much appeal anymore. I don’t feel the same about the Fatal Fourway. To me, the 4-way – as long as its elimination – is still one of the more credible gimmick matches for making money (when, obviously, done properly).
The tag team titles took center stage that year, as well. Edge and Christian, the Hardys, and Dudleys were arguably the match with the second highest billing, even though they’re position on the card might suggest to some that it was not that big of a deal. Historical perspective is key in such situations, as the triangle ladder match was placed in a position that would give the main-event the best chance to follow it. As we’d find out, it couldn’t be followed. It was too hardcore, too innovative, and too eye-popping for anything else to outshine it. Nevertheless, it had to be done. The WWE knew, by that point, what they had in their tag team division. The Hardys vs. E&C and the Dudleys (on separate occasions at No Mercy ’99 and the ’00 Rumble) had already displayed the proclivity for stealing the show. It was not a foregone conclusion that the 3-way ladder soiree would do the same, especially when considering three of the talents involved in the main-event for the WWE Championship; but they must have had an inkling of what would happen.
The rest of the card was a mix and match of the rest of the big names from the year 2000 not named Austin or Taker, with perhaps only the hope of seeing “The Cat” naked or Kirk Angel, Mr. Roboto, and the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rollah squaring off for the Eurocontinental title being PPV “buy” worthy.
Sometimes, all the stars align to create for a wrestling event that is destined to be a pacesetter for years to come…
Steve Austin was the face of the WWE from the time he won the WWE Championship at Wrestlemania XIV in 1998 until he was forced out for nearly a year with a longstanding neck injury that finally needed to be addressed. During his initial run at the top, he became the biggest drawing star in history. When he was gone, there were two guys that combined to take his place. To everyone’s surprise, they actually increased business and did not allow any drop off. The Rock, in particular, became the face of the company and his star power expanded the image of professional wrestling into other entertainment avenues. He brought things to the table that Austin did not, even though he lacked the everyman, anti-hero qualities that made Stone Cold legendary in a different way. Rock’s great rival while Austin was away? Triple H. The Game emerged as a top heel right before Austin left and rounded into one of the best in the business by the time he came back. His Degeneration X roots laid the foundation for him to ascend to the top and he made sure to get the world’s critical stamp of approval once he got there. Trips got the first crack at Stone Cold upon his return to the ring in the fall of 2000, but it was clearly The Rock waiting for Austin in Houston, Texas, site of Wrestlemania X-Seven.
The Astrodome was the first football stadium venue for Mania since 1992. The WWE finally felt like they had the main-events to get back to selling out 60,000 plus. The Rock captured the WWE title at No Way Out in February and Austin won the Royal Rumble in January, putting the two icons on a collision course. As Chris Jericho once said, the Attitude era had two huge drawing stars as opposed to the usual one, so it was natural that those two would eventually face at Mania again. It was only right that, when The Rock had reached his peak powers, he would be given another shot at Austin on the grand stage. The rest, as they say, is history. Mania 17 garnered the highest number of North American buyers of all-time and packed almost 68,000 people into the home of the MLB’s Houston franchise, good for the ninth highest attendance in Mania history.
It was not just Rock vs. Austin, though. Triple H, who had defeated Stone Cold at February’s No Way Out, challenged the Undertaker in one of the first instances of the Deadman’s match being the defacto co-main-event (without the title). Bret Hart once wrote that Vince McMahon was looking for a “Babe Ruth” of the WWE back at the end of the initial boom period. He had hoped that Hogan or Savage would play the part, but neither of them panned out. As the second boom period was coming to a close, it was Undertaker who ended up being that guy and, in my opinion, he was initially put on display in that role at Mania 17. He was the longest tenured WWE Superstar at the time and had a sparkling resume, along with being the most respected man in the locker room. Triple H was the young and hungry lion set to go into the Taker’s “yard” and take him out. It made for an excellent second main-event.
On top of Taker vs. Trips and Austin vs. Rock, you had the battle between Shane and Vince McMahon. What an incredible way to “go home” with the Raw right before Mania to have the end of WCW air live on WWE TV? Shane’s announcement that he had “bought” WCW was used to fan the flames of his storyline with his dad, effectively spraying the fire with lighter fluid. It was quite interesting that McMahon family drama. It featured Linda having a stroke, Vince having an affair with Trish Stratus and making her bark like a dog, and Shane coming to the rescue to challenge his dad to a street fight at Mania. Their match had been a couple of years in the making.
Add to that the second official Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match (TLC II) and Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit and you had one of the most well-hyped cards of all-time. The second golden age of tag team wrestling in the WWE came to an end that night, but the Hardys, Dudleys, Edge & Christian had been battling for a long time. They had headlined Wrestlemania and Summerslam 2000 and this was their swan song in a major setting. Then, you had Angle coming off a four month reign as the WWE Champion. He had become one of the biggest stars in the WWE during the previous year and was just a month away from main-eventing Wrestlemania.
The overall card was stacked and the star power well distributed. It was a fitting end to a glorious financial period in the WWE.
If you look at the talent on this card, then you’d never guess that it garnered only the 16th highest number of buys and the 23rd highest buyrate. The Rock vs. Hollywood Hulk Hogan may be one of the most famous matches in Wrestlemania history, but it was not the box office smash that it should have been. Well, maybe it was. Perhaps the majority of the buys should be attributed to it. Chris Jericho, as Undisputed Champion, certainly cannot be given much of the credit given the horrid nature of his booking as the titleholder. Triple H’s chase for the title took a backseat to his dog, some skin cream that he gave his wife, and a fake pregnancy that led to the on-screen break-up of his eventual real-life marriage. While his MSG return from his first quad injury and subsequent victory in the ’02 Rumble made it seem as if he would be one of the major draws for the card, you have to wonder if he and Jericho’s lame storyline prompted people to throw their hands in the air at the foolishness and find something else to do with their money.
Of course, there were several silly feuds at Mania X-8, so Jericho vs. Trips should not shoulder all of the blame – they were just the most high profile. Steve Austin kidnapped Scott Hall and provided several moments that made you realize that the Stone Cold character had simply run its course. The Rock was thrown in an ambulance and run over by Hogan’s Mack truck, only to return shortly thereafter unscathed (it wasn’t so much “N.W.O.” style as WCW). You also had Ric Flair starting his feud with the Undertaker by hitting him with a pipe in a match that he had no previous reason to get involved in. “He was just being a man.” OK? Edge and Booker T feuded over a shampoo commercial, prompting one of the greatest signs ever at a wrestling event (“They’re fighting over shampoo!”).
I think that the WWE reached a creative plateau in 2001 and when the Invasion angle bombed as bad as it did, critically (and with sinking ratings to reflect it), the focus turned to what they could do after Wrestlemania with the draft instead of placing that emphasis on Wrestlemania. I can only surmise that they assumed New World Order vs. WWE might be the hook for viewers that WCW vs. WWE failed to be, in some ways. They had the major players that started the Monday Night War and even the guy (in Flair) that had kept WCW alive in the late 80s so that a war could even be possible. If there had been nothing more than a bland promo or two and a whole lot of paper advertising that simply said, “Hey, wrestling’s top star of the past is going to take on its potential biggest star for the future; and, there’s also going to be one of the most star studded rosters in history filling out the rest of the card,” then I think that they could have gotten away with the lack of creative effort. Unfortunately, they did an absolutely God-awful job of hyping the show. Instead of paint-by-the-numbers, it was as if they asked, “How can we make this the worst written group of storylines in history?”
I remember getting the USA Today the Friday before Mania X-8 and there was this huge, one-page ad featuring Hall vs. Austin, Hogan vs. Rock, and Jericho vs. Triple H. Looking back on that, I feel like it might have been a desperate ploy by a company that knew that it was just not going to be doing as big of business as it should have been. That could be totally off-base on my part, but I just don’t recall having seen many USA Today ads for Mania over the years. My clinic will often host events that we’ll promote through word-of-mouth. That’s always what you hope for because it’s free advertising. So, in my experience, you either take out a big print ad because you did a poor job of promoting on your own or because you want to enhance what you expect via word-of-mouth. I got the impression that Mania X-8 was one of the former situations rather than the latter.
Mania X-8 was met with marginal acclaim, critically, but given the names involved on the card, it has to go down as one of the most downright disappointing events, financially, in wrestling history. Of course, there are some that will say that there was a match that should have been done that would’ve cured all the ills: Hulk Hogan vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin. Maybe. I doubt it, though. The core issue was poor creative decisions and a series of poor judgment calls.
With the fourth highest number of buys and the seventh largest attendance, Wrestlemania XXVII probably surprises some people and sneaks into the top 5 in the business rankings. I think it destined to always surprise fans that this event did so well at the box office considering that it was a transition year, of sorts, in the WWE and that four of the top five matches featured guys that had never been prominently placed on a Mania card before. The Miz was on last defending the WWE Championship and his only previous Mania experience had been in a short tag team match the previous year. Alberto Del Rio made his Mania debut challenging for the World Heavyweight Championship. Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler left the announce table and had a match against each other in their own debuts on the grand stage. CM Punk rounded out the group in one of the most anticipated matches of the night against established headliner, Randy Orton; Punk had done some good things at Mania, but the bout with Orton was his first shot at a lengthy singles match where he had the chance to steal the show. Cody Rhodes, Wade Barrett, Dolph Ziggler, and John Morrison were other new talents on the card in their most prominent Mania spots to date. So, there’s no question that Mania 27 had some fearing a major drop in the buyrates. If Mania 26, with its loaded card full of history’s finest, couldn’t draw 900K buys, then surely Mania 27’s comparably weaker card was going to do considerably worse, right?
Luckily, The Rock finally came back…
If ever there was doubt as to Rock’s drawing power, it should have been erased after the buyrate came in for Mania 27. The roster as of April 2011 consisted of mostly all the same top names from the previous year, minus Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels and future Hall of Famer Batista, plus a bunch of newbies. The only difference was The Rock. His return to WWE television in February drew ratings and brought the stock price up nearly $5/share. The interactions he had with John Cena created a buzz that made Mania a must-see event. Yet, all he was slated to do was be the guest host. What we knew that we’d get from Rock was a whole bunch of classic segments and some face time with a few of his old rivals, but what we didn’t know was how his beef with Cena would play out on that night. It’s not every day that generational icons verbally spar with a hint of physical altercation, so you just felt like you had to find out what was going to happen. I was already committed to going to Atlanta for the show, but never in a million years did I expect to see The Rock’s return to that stage. It was quite cool; a memorable experience that made the better part of 250,000 extra purchasers tune in for Mania.
I believe that most of the credit goes to The Rock, but I also don’t think you can count out the contribution of Triple H vs. Undertaker. Maybe a 70-30 split would be warranted? It’s impossible to say, but as much as the internet rags on Trips, he has one of the most decorated resumes of any performer in history. While Taker’s Streak is unbelievable and a defacto main-event every year nowadays, Triple H has a long run of WWE and World Heavyweight Championship matches at Wrestlemania that is unique to every other superstar, in and of itself. Eight times Trips has competed for World title gold at Mania, which is one more than Cena and two more than Hogan. He’s the alpha male in that statistical category. What do you get when you put the number one guys from two huge stat lines against each other? Something special that people will pay to see.
I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Snooki, who did bring some added mainstream attention. The Miz, to his credit, should also be commended for his handling of the main-event spotlight and his use of the media circuit to more than adequately draw attention to the WWE using his former reality-star credentials.
I’ve been saying in recent years that Wrestlemania has become a brand. That’s why I believe that even amidst continually declining ratings, Mania can easily do massive amounts of business. I don’t think there’s ever been a more gleaming example of that than Mania 27. A lot of those matches were better fits for a lesser show, but Mania made them all seem so much bigger. You can give The Rock and Trips vs. Taker a ton of credit, but it all comes back to the Mania brand becoming almost self-sustaining. There’s a huge audience for it every year now and, if the WWE puts together anything halfway interesting, then the buyrates will soar. When you consider the modern price tag to watch it on PPV, especially in high definition, it’s actually incredible to sit back and think of how much of a cash cow Mania has become.