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THE DEATH OF WCW
WrestleCrap and Figure Four Weekly Present
By R.D. REYNOLDS, BRYAN ALVAREZ, Emma McKay
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2004 ecw press Ltd.
All rights reserved.
1988-1996: Mr. Turner's Baby Boy
"Ted called me up and said, 'Hey, Vince, guess what? I'm in the rasslin' business now!'"
— Vince McMahon, Owner, World Wrestling Federation
While many believed World Championship Wrestling could never die and were stunned in 2001 when it actually did, an even larger group believed the company probably should have died countless times before then, since it had consistently lost so much money. The misconception that WCW was a huge money-loser in its formative years should be dispelled right off the bat. In truth, WCW lost around $6 million per year in the first five years of its existence — not a horrible figure at all, considering what they were giving Turner: four hours of excellent ratings every single week of the year. Some within the Turner organization squawked at the losses, but Ted Turner himself didn't. In fact, Turner was such a cheerleader for the company that when a board of directors suggested shutting WCW down in 1992, he told them that wrestling built the Superstation, and as long as he was in charge, it would always have a home there. He also told them never to bring the idea up again. They didn't.
Since Turner was so strongly behind WCW, it seemed that regardless of what happened or how much money the company lost, it would always be around. No matter what, no matter how bad things could get, many within the company were unafraid. This sense of security often led those in charge to bad decisions. They could throw away money, alienate their employees, and even their fans — Ted Turner would always be there to bail them out of a jam.
For all the reasons why the company could have and arguably should have died, it did have history on its side. After all, this was a company that had been around almost 100 years ... or at least that's one of the myths rabid WCW supporters would have you believe. The truth is a bit different.
When promoter "Big" Jim Crockett died in 1973, he passed his assets — including Jim Crockett Promotions, which ran pro-wrestling shows — on to his son, Jim Jr. For decades, the Crocketts, like other National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) promoters nationwide, tried to bring prestige to their organization by claiming that their main title, the World Heavyweight Championship, dated back to 1905. Their champ, they claimed, wore a belt with a lineage that could be traced to such turn-of-the-century legends as George Hackenschmidt and Frank A. Gotch.
Truth be told, the NWA that helped form WCW has roots in 1905 about as much as the rap group NWA does. The confusion stems from the fact that there were two different NWAs: the turn-of-the-century National Wrestling Association, and the modern-day National Wrestling Alliance. Today's NWA was formed in 1948 by six promoters at a meeting in Waterloo, Iowa. They named Des Moines promoter Pinky George the first president and Kansas City promoter Orville Brown the first champion. Lou Thesz won the title in 1949, then won the National Wrestling Association title in 1950. Because the group controlled all the major titles, the NWA Championship became the most prominent belt in the world for almost forty years. In April of 1984, it was one of three "big" titles in the U.S., along with the world titles of the AWA, promoted by Verne Gagne, and the WWF, promoted by another junior, Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
The original Vince McMahon — Vincent James McMahon, to be precise — was the son of boxing and wrestling promoter Jess McMahon. Vince Sr. had promoted the World Wide Wrestling Federation (they dropped a "W" in 1979) since 1963, running throughout the Northeast. The highly successful promotion, based in Madison Square Garden, was built around such legendary stars as Bruno Sammartino, Superstar Billy Graham, and Bob Back-lund. But Vince Sr. was getting old, and his son — the handsome, fast-talking announcer on his wrestling shows — was eager to make a serious impact.
Vince Sr. wasn't so sure about his son. He never wanted him to be a wrestler, and probably didn't want him to be involved much with the business at all. Plus, the young McMahon seemed to have some pretty grandiose ideas. Wrestling had always been a territorial business, with different groups promoting cards exclusively in "their" areas of the country. There was Roy Welch in Alabama; Nick Gulas in Nashville; Leroy McGuirk in Oklahoma; and Sam Muchnick in St. Louis, among over two dozen others. While promoters would sometimes venture into opposing territories, no one had ever attempted to do what Vince Jr. was planning on such a massive scale. Vince Jr. wanted to promote wrestling wherever he pleased.
Contrary to what most believe, Vince Jr. wasn't the first wrestling promoter to "go national." His father's Madison Square Garden cards aired on the MSG Network in the early '70s. When Ted Turner's Atlanta WTCG UHF station went up on satellite as the Superstation in 1976, it took Jim Barnett's Georgia-based promotion nationwide, airing two shows on the weekends: Georgia Championship Wrestling on Saturday nights, and Best of Georgia Championship Wrestling the following evening. The station quickly grew to serve 15 million people, and the wrestling show was the first program to draw over 1 million viewers on cable. The NWA promoters were leery of this, but Vince Sr. argued that it would be ridiculous for him to stop promoting in the Garden, and Barnett simply said that no matter what, his show still featured just Georgia wrestlers. Several years later, however, Turner requested that the name be modified to something less regional in scope, and therefore the show was changed from Georgia Championship Wrestling to World Championship Wrestling, which just so happened to be the name of a promotion Barnett had run in Australia. Cable, Barnett would later say, could not be stopped. And he was right.
In 1982, Vince Sr. finally caved and sold the World Wrestling Federation to his son. The deal, though, was that if Vince Jr. missed even one of his quarterly payments he'd lose the promotion back to Vince Sr.'s three original partners: Bob "Gorilla Monsoon" Marella (who eventually got a lifetime announcing gig out of it), Phil Zacko, and Arnold Skaaland. While many believe that Vince Sr. was never aware of his son's lofty plans, some feel otherwise. The sense was that even if Vince Sr. did know, he didn't believe that his son could pull it off. Shortly after selling the company, Vince Sr. was diagnosed with cancer, and he died a few months later.
Those who doubted Vince Jr. couldn't have been more wrong. Not only did he take the WWF national, he created a near monopoly for himself within five years of doing so. One of his first major offensive moves was to offer lucrative contracts to stars (and sometimes guys nobody in their right mind would consider star material) from other territories, most notably Verne Gagne's AWA. Vince had already offered to buy Gagne's promotion outright, but he'd been shot down. His next step, therefore, was to buy up all Gagne's talent, including his hottest star of all: a young, bleached-blonde muscleman named Hulk Hogan. Hogan ended up being the chosen one, and McMahon quickly moved his WWF title from his father's long-term champion Bob Backlund to the dastardly Iron Sheik. On January 23, 1984, Hogan beat Sheik in Madison Square Garden with his dreaded Legdrop of Doom, and Hulkamania took off.
Widespread TV was the next major step. In those days, many wrestling promoters got along swimmingly with their local TV affiliates. In many territories, the television people would air the programming for free and make money off the advertising. The wrestling people, meanwhile, would write shows to compel fans to go to the local arena and pay for tickets. In some territories — Memphis, for Jerry Jarrett, would be a good example — the TV stations would actually pay the promoters for the programming. Vince went from territory to territory and not only offered the station managers his slick TV tapes in place of their current, often poorly filmed local wrestling shows, but also offered to pay to get them on the air.
Further into his expansion, McMahon purchased Georgia Championship Wrestling for $750,000. As part of the deal, he got the coveted Saturday and Sunday 6:05 P.M. timeslots on TBS, where his plan, obviously, was to replace tapes of the Georgia wrestlers with tapes of his WWF superstars. The problem with this plan was that there was a vast in-ring difference between the two products: the Georgia show featured an emphasis on in-ring action with talented workers, and the WWF show featured a bunch of one-sided "squash" matches that had already aired on the USA Network. When the switchover took place on "Black Saturday," July 14, 1985, over 1,000 fans angrily complained to the Superstation. Turner's response was to give Ole Anderson a 7:00 A.M. timeslot so that he could open up Championship Wrestling from Georgia, Inc. (which didn't last long). Then, the following year, he gave Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling a one-hour timeslot on Sunday, and agreed to finance him so that he could compete nationally against McMahon. Vince, who thought his purchase of GCW would give him an exclusive on TBS, was outraged. Turner, of course, disagreed, feeling that Vince had reneged on a stipulation in the contract that required him to produce a separate weekly program from an Atlanta studio. If Vince wasn't going to do it, well, someone else would. Thus began the two-decade war between McMahon and Turner.
What made things worse for Vince was that Mid-South, a tremendously well-booked and entertaining show, immediately started to destroy all of his programs in the ratings. Turner, who had promised to bankroll Watts, was ready to kick Vince off the station when Jim Barnett, a longtime promoter and a personal friend of Turner's, stepped in. Barnett negotiated a deal between Vince and Crockett Jr. that enabled Crockett to purchase the TBS slots for $1 million. Turner was ecstatic: not only was he rid of Vince, but he had also regained popular wrestling stars like Dusty Rhodes and the Four Horsemen. Vince was probably pleased to have made several hundred thousand dollars on the deal. Watts agreed to step aside, and on the final episode of Mid-South Wrestling, he put over Crockett's performers and said fans would get to see great NWA action from now on.
Heading up the top two promotions in the country, McMahon and Crockett continued to feud over the next few years. The smaller territories couldn't compete with the level of TV exposure these companies had, and subsequently, most died off. Among the promoters who didn't make it was Watts, who tried to go national but couldn't afford it in the end. He finally sold to Crockett for $4 million, although he only ended up with $1.2 million when all was said and done because Crockett, as it turned out, couldn't afford to go national either.
Crockett had many brilliant ideas, none of which would ever be learned from. He signed guys to huge guaranteed deals he couldn't possibly afford. He snubbed loyal fans by moving Starrcade (the NWA equivalent to Wrestlemania) out of the South for the first time ever, and did it in Chicago instead. He flew himself and the top stars around in an expensive private jet. And he allowed Dusty Rhodes to book the company into oblivion with cheap finishes that outraged fans. In fact, Dusty's penchant for having a babyface (or good guy) win a belt or match and then later reversing it on television became commonly known within the industry as a "Dusty Finish." Another Crockett moment of genius saw mid-carder Ron Garvin beat perennial champ Ric Flair for the world title. Although Garvin was a babyface, fans didn't see him as a man who should be beating the Nature Boy, and ratings plummeted from the 4.0 range to a 2.8 — the fastest drop in history.
In late 1987, Crockett announced that the annual Thanksgiving-night Starrcade show would be broadcast for the first time on PPV on November 26. Like McMahon did with the first Wrestlemania, Crockett was betting his company's existence on this show's success, having run up some huge debts with all his crazy spending. McMahon, knowing the stakes were high for Jim Crockett Promotions, announced that he was going to be running a Thanksgiving-night pay-per-view as well: the first annual Survivor Series. Crockett didn't want to run head-to-head with McMahon, who was doing great pay-per-view numbers at the time, so he offered to move the Starrcade show to Thanksgiving afternoon. The cable companies were thrilled to hear this, since they expected wrestling fans to buy both shows and basically sit in front of their TVs watching wrestling all day. But Vince had other ideas. He announced that any company that aired Crockett's PPV would not be allowed to air Survivor Series or the next Wrestlemania. Since he was the established king of wrestling PPV at the time, and since Mania III had been such a huge financial success that it basically made the genre, all but five companies across the country chose to air the Survivor Series over Starrcade. Crockett was dead in the water before his show even aired.
Struggling to keep his company alive, Crockett planned his revenge. He booked his next PPV, the Bunkhouse Stampede, at the Nassau Coliseum, a building right in the middle of McMahon's home territory. Nobody is quite sure why he thought this was such a great idea, because his product had absolutely no history in the area, and it inevitably bombed at the gate, drawing just 6,000 fans and $80,000. But it got worse. McMahon had a plan of his own: to air the first-ever Royal Rumble (a modified battle royal in which new men enter the match at two-minute intervals) live from Hamilton, Ontario, on the USA Network, head-to-head with Crockett's PPV. The Rumble ended up doing an 8.2 rating, the highest number for any wrestling show in history on that network — and that includes the Monday Night Wars. And, if all of that wasn't bad enough for Crockett, the Rumble was widely regarded as the superior show since Crockett's PPV, headlined by Flair versus Road Warrior Hawk, had yet another hackneyed Dusty Finish.
But Crockett was not yet done. His next idea was to run a free Clash of the Champions on TBS on March 27, 1988, head-to-head with Wrestlemania IV. This time, his plan was somewhat a success, as the Clash did a 5.8, and the Flair versus Sting main event ended up being the most-watched match in the history of cable television, peaking at a 7.8. Wrestlemania IV, on the other hand, was a miserable show headlined by Randy Savage, who beat Ted DiBiase to win the vacant WWF title.
Despite Vince having done exactly the same thing with the Royal Rumble, the cable industry was irate with Crockett and Turner for having the audacity to air a free show opposite Wrestlemania, despite the fact that Mania did 585,000 buys — the most in history. The problem was that the universe for PPV had doubled that year, and even though they set a purchase record, the feeling was that the show would have done substantially better without the competition. Wrestling companies were starting to make the bulk of their money through PPVs, and cable companies were also getting a nice slice of the pie (to the tune of approximately 60 percent of the gross!). Turner was told never to allow something like that to happen again.
Despite the Clash's huge success, Crockett was informed shortly thereafter that his company was going broke. Despite his disastrous year, and despite the huge-money contracts he was paying off, and despite all his jet flying and limousine riding and kiss stealing and wheeling and dealing, Crockett was shocked by this revelation. He'd figured he would make huge money on PPV and through national advertising. Unfortunately, Vince had stomped all over his PPVs, and advertisers (just like today) thought only inbreds watched Southern pro wrestling and weren't willing to pay much for commercial time.
Excerpted from THE DEATH OF WCW by R.D. REYNOLDS, BRYAN ALVAREZ, Emma McKay. Copyright © 2004 ecw press Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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