The Business and Psychology Lessons Learned From Watching Professional Wrestling
Growing up in a middle class family household entailed the traditional hobbies of watching soccer and wrestling. Life was much simpler in the 1990s and there were just things that you did. My cousin and I would watch professional wrestling on television every Saturday night and absorb every wrestling trivia, tidbit, and promo that was associated with wrestling. We would learn the names of the wrestling moves, the way wrestlers produced captivating dialogues, and the way that each wrestler had their own unique characteristics.
Wrestling would take on a life of its own as one of the biggest industries in the United States, Japan, Mexico, and even Great Britain among many nations. It has become a big business due to the amount of toys, video games, merchandise, books, and many other events associated with it. While growing up I was not privy to the details of business and psychology that are so important in the world of professional wrestling, I was absorbing information from the get go.
Wrestling began way back in the early 20th century in Mexico with the use of colorful masks and amazing wrestlers. In the 1930’s the US also had professional wrestling events occurring although the styles were very distinct. Wrestlers would grapple and strike differently than the Mexican version of wrestling which involved more high flying maneuvers. As time passed on and professional wrestling absorbed the attention of fans, wrestling became bigger. The US began having wrestling territories which were owned by very different companies and individuals. These promotions would keep their territories separate and make sure to respect other territories’ places.
This was true for most of the 1980s until an individual by the name of Vince McMahon decided to buy out and centralize the territories under one company. This led to tensions between promotions and territories, but ultimately led to the development of a new company that would change the way that wrestling businesses operated. The World Wrestling Federation would be built and slowly but surely began to absorb a big amount of wrestling market. While it was growing it would meet with a rival promotion owned by Ted Turner of the Time Warner Cable group which would be named World Championship Wrestling.
These two promotions would rival each other in attempting to win over new wrestling fans and loyal fans. Both CEO’s attempted to make their best effort to outdo each other in the best way they could. WCW bought many of WWF’s top seasoned talent from under the noses of WWF by paying top dollar. WWF would then have to scramble to develop talent from what they had. Talented wrestlers like Bret Hart, Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, and many others jumped ship and start a new life with the new promotion. WWF was left attempting to find a solution amid the new problem.
How does a company hire talent or make new talent out of a niche market? How do you create a new star? These wrestlers were all known to every wrestling fan. How do you turn an unknown wrestler to essentially eclipse talent of the likes of Ric Flair or Randy Savage and increase the ratings.
Quick side track note concerning ratings. Both companies had contracts with two different television companies. Both companies had wrestling shows on Monday Night. The term used to describe the Monday Night rivalry was the Monday Night Wars concerning ratings numbers. Initially, WCW was beating WWE in the ratings war due to the buyout of the top talent along with the formation of a new stable called the NWO. This new stable was formed from three tall and imposing figures: Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall. None of the above wrestlers was below 6’6’’. Talk about a power group. The storyline’s focused on Hulk Hogan’s changed behavior from being a good guy (“babyface”) to becoming a bad guy (“heel”). This move was simple yet effective.
While WCW solidified their consolidation of the fan’s attention, WWF was figuring out how to make a better product or at least one that was watched by more fans than WCW. With time being of the essence, WWF decided to give the spotlight to relatively obscure talent. The supposed A+ players were already at WCW and now it was time to improvise. WCW kept the traditional wrestling content with singles matches and a standard in ring psychology. WWF would flip this around and introduce components of low brow culture to stimulate and attract the attention of many individuals including me.
WWF would start by flipping the traditional formula of avoiding the traditional good vs. bad guy story telling. There were no good guys or bad guys. There were only guys. Guys who wanted to be the best and there were essentially no rules. The hero was an anti-hero. WWF was the Game of Thrones before the official Game of Thrones. No one deserved anything and everyone went on a melee to assert their dominance and nothing else. Wrestlers would be nihilistic, filled with debauchery, and improvised on the spot. Legends in the form of Stone Cold Steve Austin rose to the top not only for their in ring performances, but also by the promo skills demonstrated on the microphone.
Stone Cold Steve Austin was the man who would flip the boss and go on and have fun while bring down the whole house. He was neither good or bad, but rather a relatable individual of the frustrated person who dreams about doing naughty things when things do not go according to plan. Dwayne Johnson would rival Stone Cold and provide quick wit that both learned to master. Each one tried to outdo the other and brought a new meaning to collaborative competition.
Meanwhile, the head start that WCW had accumulated early was turning out to be less than ideal. Top talent did not perform up to standard and some injuries caused wrestlers to leave the company. At the same time, matches were bland with weird story twists that never made any sense. Double, triple, quadruple, quintuple turns made the product feel like there was no logic or counseling involved in major decision making processes. Some of the most talented wrestlers were not allowed to perform at a higher level due to illogical reason, and such talent was not highlighted. Top talent like Rey Mysterio, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho and many more were relegated to under-card status albeit being the show stoppers and being able to steal the show night after night.
Fans caught on and the ratings war turned to WWF’s favor. Top talent was witty, rambunctious, and unstable, yet interesting to watch. Wrestlers had different matches added to increase the effect of a championship match and brutal bouts of fortitude were seen. Matches like Ladder Matches, Table Matches, Hardcore Matches, and the Cage Matches were used to add an element of surprise. Each time the envelope was being pushed further in many respects.
Wrestlers had creative and artistic liberty to improvise ad lib during promo’s leading to great work. Meanwhile, in WCW the script was repeated over and over again, and what once was interesting became boring. The NWO had recruited everyone and their grandmother’s for the stable and with constant turns, it felt like a mess keeping up with who was with who or what their motivation was.
As wrestling continued to evolve and WWF was winning the ratings war, WCW did very little to change or challenge the WWF. Instead of attempting changes or identifying strategies, it continued with the same old. It did not look to see what fans wanted or attempt to appeal to wrestling fans. They had the top talent of the time, yet did not know what to do with them. Goldberg, Sting, DDP, Scott Steiner were impressive wrestlers with great talent that were not utilized to their potential. Similarly the under-card was also not used to their potential.
WWF was giving time to new talent and new wrestlers. They began to show that they wanted to give fans the excitement they were looking for in the form of professional wrestling. Dives from the top the ladder from Jeff Hardy, dives from the top of the cage from Shane McMahon, and a catapulted Mick Foley falling onto the ring from the top of a cage structure were brutal displays of capturing the attention of fans through viral moments. While there may be several ethical or moral objections to the content, in the business aspect of this, it demonstrated that the WWF was going to acquire the goal regardless of the previous era’s wrestling beliefs.
Content was edgy and non-sanitized. Matches were difficult to watch at times, but it challenged your beliefs of wrestling. What wrestling should or should not be? When was wrestling being taken too far? Why would I enjoy watching this? It allowed me to question by enjoyment of wrestling at times and made me more conscientious and empathetic towards the life of wrestlers.
WWF would win the Monday Night Wars through multiple strategies and buy out WCW’s assets. To the victor belong the spoils and WWF made sure to show it in their product. Top WCW talent was used in WWF, but they were made to feel that WWF had won and were used accordingly. Business is a full contact sport that requires patience but also understanding and the wrestling promotion war allowed me to understand how multiple factors may affect the outcome of a business. It may not necessarily about who has the talent, but it can be how that talent is used.