In the mid-'80s, Vince McMahon transformed the World Wrestling Federation from a regional northeast promotion into a national force. He did so by raiding talent from other regional promoters, putting his programs on national cable outlets and exploiting the then-nascent medium known as pay-per-view. (Legend has it McMahon was issued death threats when he violated the time-honored tradition of not running WWF shows in other promoters' territories.) He also created a little thing called Wrestlemania.
The card wasn't the first wrestling event to garner national media attention (Frank Gotch vs. George Hackenshmidt from 1908 can claim that honor), and closed-circuit wrestling events were hardly new. But Wrestlemania was different. It wasn't just about wrestling; it was about Hollywood and MTV. McMahon put his top star, Hulk Hogan, in the company of '80s pop icons Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper in the hopes of giving the blond behemoth the celebrity rub. MTV declared wrestling was now chic and promoted Wrestlemania and the "rock and wrestling connection" relentlessly. Lauper and T were given major roles in and around the ring along with everyone from Ali to Liberace, in an attempt to draw attention.
"We spent hours in meetings on that son of a gun," former booker/scriptwriter George Scott told an underground wrestling newsletter. "I didn't think it was a gamble, because we were so powerful. The business we were doing was ungodly real from San Francisco to Canada and everywhere else grossing over $1 million on a weekend."
Wrestlemania made a profit but was not the monster success McMahon has always claimed. Indeed, in some cities the show reportedly bombed outright. His real fortune would be made by entering the ground floor of the pay-per-view business. While Wrestlemania II was shaky, Wrestlemania III was a success beyond anyone's wildest expectations, setting an indoor attendance record at the Pontiac Silverdome with more than 78,000 fans (although the WWF claims it was more than 90,000). It also generated $10.3 million in pay-per-view revenue.
"It was one of Vince's absolute aces of production," former WWF announcer Lord Alfred Hayes told the same newsletter. "[He] worked that match up, and it was really tremendous. The atmosphere was like electric."
Wrestling had changed forever. The arena business, in many ways, became ancillary as pay-per-view events and television increased in significance. Today the WWF is the largest pay-pay-view player, producing about a dozen events a year. World Championship Wrestling, the WWF's main competitor (which may be out of business by the time you read this), also has lived and died by the pay-per-view sword.
With Hogan long gone from the WWF, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock are now the major draws. Wrestlemania remains the most highly publicized wrestling event of the year, as it should. It's the goose that laid the golden pay-per-view egg. So forget about the XFL, please. It's time to focus on what McMahon knows how to promote: pro wrestling.