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 3)
By The Doc
Feb 15, 2013 - 1:00:17 PM
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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)
It’s a testament to the overall impact of Wrestlemania III that it can still be considered amongst the most financially successful events in wrestling history. Take inflation into account for a moment and this would still be the top drawing card in North American wrestling lore. It maintains the attendance record, though some have disputed that it wasn’t that big of a crowd. I don’t buy it. You look at the aerial shot of the Pontiac Silverdome, with no entrance stage or elaborate dressings, and tell me you’ve seen a football stadium packed with more people than that. It had an 82,000 maximum capacity for football. You could have easily fit an extra 10,000 onto the field. 78,000 my rear end, haters. There was not a seat to be filled in that place and it was a sea of extra thousands on the usual playing surface. The combined attendance for the other four of the first five Wrestlemanias was only 5,000 more than at Mania III alone. Unbelievable. The only venue where we could ever possibly see that many people again for Wrestlemania would be at Jerry’s World in Dallas, as the sets would take up a ton of space at any other venue.
Mania III also still holds the PPV buyrate record. Looking simply at the buyrate alone, Mania III amassed a 10.2. What that means is that 10% of the PPV capable audience purchased Wrestlemania that year. The record in the modern era is 3.25%. TEN PERCENT of the people that could buy, did buy. That’s incredible! Of course, that amounted to less than a million people back then, but you cannot deny the awesomeness of that statistic. Various sources have pegged the number as being between 650-850 thousand buyers.
Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant was the biggest drawing match of all-time, everything being equal. I think Mania III was the first true supercard for the WWE, in terms of the quality of the stories from the top of the card to the bottom, but it was Hogan vs. Andre that put all those butts in the seats. Anything else, like Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage, was an added bonus – like going to the Super Bowl and seeing a really good halftime show that overshadowed the game itself. Hogan had developed quite the mainstream appeal throughout the eighties, but especially since the success of the original Wrestlemania. Gorilla Monsoon aptly described him as the “unstoppable force.” Hulk was the WWE Champion for three years by then. He was all over the place. For the younger fans reading that are accustomed to reading reports of John Cena hitting the talk show circuit, that was pioneered by the Hulkster. There has never been a more recognizable figure in the wrestling industry than him.
The “immovable object” was Andre. When people paid money to see Hogan on a card, they got to see many things. Bret Hart often described the tag team matches of that era stealing the show on a nightly basis and leaving those that saw Hogan wrestle speechless at the athleticism by comparison. They also got to see Andre – all 7’4” and 530 pounds of him. He was a naturally compelling sight, putting Big Show to shame. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it was like seeing something from the circus. Paying viewers had seen Andre win the “Body Slam Challenge” and an NFL vs. WWE Battle Royal, so the WWE playing up that Andre hadn’t lost a match in 15 years wasn’t really a stretch of the imagination. Who would dare dispute such a claim? You took one look at him and just assumed that nobody could beat him.
Then again, we’d never seen Hogan lose either. You have to remember that Hogan was often battling giants, but none of them ever really made you think that Hulk was small. In every instance until Andre, Hogan’s massive physique was just as physically imposing as that of his opponent. Remember him in Rocky III, towering over Stallone? Remember him standing toe-to-toe with King Kong Bundy? Hogan was three inches taller in his heyday. So, part of the allure of Hogan vs. Andre was the sheer size involved. Of course, there was also the question as to whether or not the Hulkster could body slam the Giant. Something simply had to give when those two gargantuan grapplers stepped in the ring with each other…and a record number of people paid to see it both live and on PPV. I honestly believe that we could do another special like this for Mania 50 and we’ll still end up with Mania III in the top 5.
Mania III remains one of the best PPVs in history for numerous reasons, which we’ll discuss in detail next month, but its greatest enduring quality is what it did for business. For all of those Hogan haters out there, your reasons may be justified, but don’t forget that we might not even be talking about wrestling this extensively on either the internet or otherwise if it were not for the success that he helped create with Andre on March 29, 1987.
All press is good press?
When the WWE took their long-time American hero from the early eighties, Sgt. Slaughter, who had once been featured on the G.I. Joe cartoon and who was immortalized with an action figure, and turned him into the Iraqi-sympathizing turncoat who came *this* close to burning the American flag on national television, the WWE took that old saying to the limit. It’s a wonder that ‘ol Sarge didn’t get himself killed. It was, after all, war time. The U.S.A. was involved in the Persian Gulf War and Operation: Desert Storm. I’ve always looked back at that time period and wondered, “OK, so if I’m working for the government and I see all these clearly roided up wrestlers on television, all I would need is an excuse to go after that organization…and seeing an American who pretends to be a former member of the armed forces casting aside his patriotism in favor of treasonous conspiring with Saddam Hussein, that would be a pretty damn good reason for me to start looking a little harder at the World Wrestling Federation.”
Sometimes, it’s just not good to push the envelope that much. Though Mania VII retains one of the highest buyrates, it was definitely a turnoff to live paying customers. Originally slated to take place in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home of the 1984 summer Olympics and the USC Trojan football team, Mania VII couldn’t sell many tickets. The WWE will tell you that it was because of bomb threats scaring the people away and perhaps that was true, but it could also be that people took a look at that storyline and said, “I’m not watching that.” I have no ratings data from back then, so I’m not sure, but the number of PPV buys ranks at the bottom despite the on-air claims by Bobby Heenan of it being the most watched PPV ever. It also ranks dead last in attendance, as the event was moved to the LA Sports Arena. I’ll give credit to that crowd, though, as they were uncharacteristically hot for a southern California bunch.
Hulkamania truly ran wild one last time that night, getting back to the top of the mountain to take down the dastardly villain. Hogan apparently asked to have Sarge come back to work with him. To the WWE’s credit, the angle that they chose certainly gave them good reason for a heated match. Hero vs. Hero in that case probably wouldn’t have worked; their protagonist personas were too similar. They needed something different and different is what they got, plus the World title. In order for their match to be for the WWE Championship, Slaughter had to take it from the Ultimate Warrior, whose nine month reign came to an end at the 1991 Royal Rumble. Hogan won the title from Slaughter at Mania. Meanwhile, Warrior went on to have the second biggest match on the card with Randy Savage, who had cost him the championship.
Warrior vs. Savage was a classic. Their “Career” match was the first of its kind on WWE PPV and had been building since the fall of 1990. Macho had repeatedly asked for a title match, but Warrior never would grant him a shot. So, finally, he took matters into his own hands and made sure the title no longer made its residence around Warrior’s waist. It was one of those simply booked feuds that quite easily captured the imagination of the fans. Both had big names already, so it could be argued that their match made anyone turned off by the Slaughter scenario reconsider their decision not to order the show. For those that made the call to go ahead and watch, they got their money’s worth with that match.
Also featured on the card was a “Blindfold” match between Jake Roberts and Rick Martel. The long-time headliner, Jake the Snake, was blinded by The Model’s fragrance called “Arrogance” in late 1990. Jake was always good for a top tier secondary storyline for a major card like this. He’d developed a big name for having star-studded matches with a variety of opponents in that role. There were also numerous matches featuring young talent that made splashes at future Manias, as the likes of the Hart Foundation, The Rockers, the British Bulldog, and the Undertaker all found themselves in prominent spots throughout the evening.
I think it’s safe to say that Wrestlemania realized that its honeymoon was over with Mania VII. Perhaps it was the controversial Iraqi angle or maybe it was just the fact that the Hulkamania schtick had run its course and the fans that had grown up watching the first six editions were ready for something new, but the fact of the matter was that Mania VII did not produce. Its buyrate was more a reflection of the times and, while it should still get credit for it, the other two numbers (# of buys and attendance) reflect that people did not have the same interest in 1991’s Mania that they had between 1985 and 1990.
The most compelling conglomeration of stories ever put together for one Wrestlemania might have been for Wrestlemania XV in 1999. The WWE was on an incredible role, as not only did Steve Austin emerge as one of the greatest stars of all-time, but The Rock did, too. For that matter, so did Triple H as the leader of Degeneration X. You also had the rest of DX, you had the Undertaker and his Ministry of Darkness with their epically bad ass entrance music, and you had the McMahons and the rest of the Corporation and all that it entailed. As of that Mania, it seemed like just about everyone was watching wrestling. Suddenly, the yearly tradition that I’d had for a long time became a popular thing to do. Gone were the times when you had to hide being a wrestling fan. There was even a kid at my high school that gave himself a tattoo of the Undertaker’s symbol. Though I do not view it as the greatest time in the world to be a fan like so many do, I will not deny how flat out entertaining it was to watch wrestling back in those days.
Surprisingly, though, the Mania XV buyrate and number of buys was at the upper end of the middle of the pack and the attendance, with the event being held in Philadelphia’s basketball arena, ranked very low on the list. Even though the television ratings leading up to it were never higher (and may never be that high again) and even though the PPV was definitely successful, it was not one of the most financially successful Wrestlemanias compared to the rest.
It’s actually a fascinating event to look at, historically. Despite the statistical analysis in the previous paragraph, if you go back and look at how it did for its era, then it was one of four consecutive Manias to earn a 2.0 buyrate or better, which came on the heels of the infamously awful 0.77 buyrate for Mania 13. In fact, the number of buys for Mania XV nearly quadrupled that of 1997’s event. What a difference a couple of years can make.
I think it’s also very interesting to look at how much focus was placed back then on winning the television ratings battle. So much was given away on free TV on WCW that they often forgot to save something for the PPV. The WWE did a better job of ensuring that there was something worth shelling out money for, but they still gave quite a bit away on TV, themselves. This was the time when more people were watching wrestling on television – be it Raw or Nitro – than ever before or since. When you’re dominating the cable TV market and able to attract sponsors left and right, then a lot of money is going to be made through that avenue to the point that your PPV business does not need to be as strong. Nevertheless, the numbers for Mania XV taken into overall context tend to make it seem like it was a PPV that did poor business, but please don’t mistake my historical analysis that is geared toward properly ranking the Manias in order from best to worst as an indictment of Mania XV. 1999’s ratings, merchandise sales, and PPV buys for Mania were probably good for the most profitable combo of all-time, but there’s no financial data on what kind of money the ratings and the merchandise brought in. What we do know is that the WWE went public, becoming traded on the stock exchange, later that year, offering shares for $17/apiece.
This was Steve Austin’s Wrestlemania to shine. Never was he more popular than he was in the lead-up to Mania XV and never did he have two better rivals opposing him at the same time in Vince McMahon and The Rock. The Corporation vs. Stone Cold was arguably the greatest storyline ever created by the WWE and it was the driving force behind all those ratings victories and the immense fanfare that professional wrestling was developing on the WWE side. Vince’s stable was such a big part of that Wrestlemania, as not only was it engaged in the clash with Austin that culminated in the main-event for the WWE Championship, but it was also the focal point of every other top feud on the card. The Undertaker’s quest to own the WWE came at Vince’s expense and it was Corporation member, Big Bossman, sent to deny him in a Hell in a Cell match – a fast developing draw in and of itself. You also had the highest profile feud in X-Pac’s career against Shane McMahon, who had basically stolen his European title earlier that year. Pac’s story as a member of DX ended up weaving into the drama between Kane, Chyna, and Triple H. Chyna had been recruited over to the Corporation and she backed fellow Corporate follower, Kane, in a match against DX’s leader. Yet, an elaborate ruse took place that eventually saw Trips join the Corporation by the end of Mania XV.
Classic stuff, folks…
Coming off the major disappointment, financially, that was Wrestlemania XIX, the WWE really needed to get back on track with Mania XX. To their credit, they did a great job of marketing it, combining a number of major matches with a nostalgic feel that felt almost like a homecoming, of sorts, with the event returning to Madison Square Garden for the third time. With nearly twenty years of history to draw from, the WWE put together a near constant reminder of all the great memories that we’d gained from their signature event over the course of the previous two decades. To continue with the reflective theme, they planted the seeds at the 2003 Survivor Series for the biker version of the Undertaker to return to his Deadman roots, something that I’d been clamoring for since a return from a personal wrestling hiatus saw the once mythical character reduced to a "real person" without the mystique. Using Kane to help this matter along was a nice touch that the situation benefitted from in the long run. Seeing the druids and hearing the gong gave me chills for the first year of DVD replays.
Also at the aforementioned November ’03 PPV, Goldberg was approached by Brock Lesnar in a backstage segment. Lesnar had followed a similar pattern to success as the former WCW star, making a match between the two not necessarily a dream match, but more like a mid-afternoon nap match (I mean that to be flattering, just not over complimentary). Certainly, it was one of the main reasons to watch Mania XX, despite the rather lackluster build-up that featured very little interaction between the two after the Royal Rumble in January, during which Lesnar attacked and helped eliminate Goldberg. Lesnar and Goldberg were both leaving after Mania, though, and the smarks found out about it long enough in advance to make what should have been memorable for the right reasons memorable for the wrong ones.
The two World Championship matches featured long-time “helluva hand” types getting to bask in the spotlight. Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit were world-renowned for their in-ring abilities, but it never translated to ultimate success until a, looking back on it, rather random initiative took place in the early part of 2004 to reward guys like them for numerous years of excellent performance. It, by and large, put the growing internet wrestling community in the spotlight, as well. The smarks were challenged to open their wallets for a five hour show with a record price tag – to put their money where their mouths had been for so long and pony up the dough to see their heroes make it to the top. With Benoit winning the Royal Rumble and Guerrero beating Lesnar to win the WWE title in February, the duo was well positioned to capture the hearts of the rest of the viewing audience, as well. I cannot claim to have been the biggest fan of either star prior to 2004 (I missed a lot of WCW late nineties), but their build-up during the lead-in to Mania XX certainly won me over and made me a huge fan of both (especially Eddie).
You kind of wish that Shawn Michaels had been in, perhaps, 2005 or 2007 form for Mania XX, as a character. I think his inclusion in the Triple H vs. Benoit main-event would have been much more successful that way. As it stood, the triple threat provided for three (in my mind) Hall of Fame talents tangling in one epic match, though the storyline behind the bout was pretty lousy. Kurt Angle, meanwhile, was the perfect choice to fight opposite Guerrero, channeling America’s stereotype against Latinos into a heated feud that showed range for the once (mostly) goofy heel character.
The four major matches were complimented by the rise of Randy Orton to prominence as a cocky, soon-to-be World Champion targeting Mick Foley. The Rock and Sock Connection provided a little extra zest to a card built partially on memories. Seeing Rock interact with Ric Flair was a treat, as was the Mania debuts for Orton and Batista. John Cena began his Mania resume that evening, as well, in a solid mid-card contest against Big Show that had been hyped for several months. Chris Jericho, Christian, and Trish Stratus added the finishing touch in a well-conceived, well-written drama that played out from as far back as the fall of 2003.
All in all, Mania XX was a success. One could argue that the reflective tone created the basis for the current success of Wrestlemania as a brand that stands on its own despite an inconsistent product. It ranks four spots above its predecessor, which is very impressive given that Mania XIX had such a solid attendance ranking and loads more star power.
I think Wrestlemania 23 just about worked as perfectly as it could have, from the standpoint of dollars and cents. Triple H going down with an injury in January had the potential to derail things for the WWE's Mania plans for his rematch with John Cena, but Shawn Michaels stepped right in and the event was better for it. HBK had been back long enough from his retirement that he'd become one of Wrestlemania's hottest commodities, whether in title matches or no. When you're just awesome at what you do, and when you're particularly awesome at it on the biggest stage possible, then people are going to flock to you. Michael Jordan kept building his reputation of excellence in the NBA Finals to the point where you felt like you were missing something if you didn't watch him write the next chapter of his legacy. HBK became the same for Wrestlemania.
Meanwhile, you had the Undertaker, another long-time veteran like Michaels, sculpting a similar "must see" tradition in his quest to extend "The Streak." I'm not sure what finally prompted the WWE to start building the Undertaker's Mania storylines around his undefeated record, but it was a smart decision that ultimately made his matches at Mania as big or bigger than the World Championships. He guaranteed them a third main-event, assuming that he wasn't wrestling for a championship.
So, you had these two storied superstars in HBK and Taker with all that their accolades at Wrestlemania that they brought to the table and, right at that same time, you had dominant champions of the newer generation rounding into form with young, but still impressive resumes of their own. John Cena (WWE Champion) and Batista (World Heavyweight Champion) each had signature victories in main-events of the two preceding year's Wrestlemanias. They were each past the stage of being new to the headlining status, each established as champions that overcame major obstacles from Hall of Fame competition. To see those two defending their titles against two of Wrestlemania's all-time greats, best known for their "Granddaddy" feats, was a natural recipe for excitement…and, as we later came to know once the official numbers were released, financial success.
Donald Trump was also around to put the spotlight on the WWE, but celebrities - in my opinion - boost Mania profiles, add outside interest, and maybe sway a few thousand buyers...I don't think that they can be given a lion's share of the credit for a great buyrate. At the same time, I don’t think you can deny the impact that his presence had on the general interest for Wrestlemania. After Mania 17’s extraordinary business victory, the biggest show of the year had to somewhat redefine itself. Not even dream matches between generational icons or stacked cards full of future Hall of Famers could push Mania to X-Seven heights or anywhere close to them. Things finally seemed to pick back up with Cena and Batista’s big victories at Mania 21. So, I think that those two deserve the biggest portion of the credit for being interesting characters that people would want to see face legendary figures like HBK and Taker in championship matches.
There’s always going to be that question of how much the Trump-McMahon situation added to the buyrate, which produced a then-record number of PPV buyers. I look at it this way, though – Mania 21 drew just shy of 1 million buys with Batista and Cena having their big nights. If you add two years of seasoning to both of them and then put them against Mr. Wrestlemania and The Streak, respectively, then surely that adds another couple hundred thousand buyers to the fold. Therefore, you could argue that Trump got the lights shining brighter toward the WWE and made unique viewers think long and hard about ordering, but it was the two title matches that sealed the deal. It’s tough to say, but I think history should spread the wealth predominantly between the four world title combatants, without in any way diminishing Trump's impact.
To think that a show that featured just three must-see matches on the marquee and had to rely on the Money in the Bank ladder match to produce the usual fourth big match on the card actually managed the #2 spot in the business rankings. Mania 23 turned out to be a lot more historically significant than I think anyone realized on the day of the event. It packed 80K into Ford Field, marking the 2nd biggest crowd in Wrestlemania history. Between that gargantuan attendance number and the massive amounts of money made by the PPV buys, Mania drew over $50 million in economic stimuli to the Detroit area and made the event something that cities are now bidding for on an almost annual basis. Without a doubt, it has become the yearly festival that it was always intended to be.