For some unknown reason, I recently received a review copy of The Death of WCW: 10th Anniversary Edition of the Bestselling Classic by R .D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez. That’s World Championship “Wrestling”, the counterfeit but once-popular version of the world’s oldest sport which used to air on TBS and TNT. 2015 will mark 20 years since I stopped covering that bloody, staged spectacle (to spend too much time covering the bloody, usually real spectacles of MMA and boxing). But skipping towards the end of this lengthy tome, I did know I would find a valuable lesson for the genuine sport of wrestling.
While the book details all sorts of reasons WCW went out of business, including losing millions of dollars in its last year, the decisive factor, the pin of WCW, if you will, was the view that this show, despite modest ratings success, did not fit the profile of the networks which was desired by the suits representing their owners, AOL-Time Warner (remember them?).
In 2001, on his first week on the job, the newly appointed chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting Systems, Jamie Keller, cancelled this show. The book states, “At the end of the day, the fact was that Jamie Keller simply didn’t like pro wrestling.” (p. 368)
But there is also a telling quote from Jim Weiss, identified as a Turner spokesperson: “WCW is not a core business for Turner Broadcasting. We’ve decided professional wrestling in its current incarnation just isn’t appropriate for the high-scale, upscale brand that we have built on TNT and TBS Superstation. We’re no longer interested in carrying the product.” (p. 359)
Stripped of the public relations diplomacy, this meant that the new owners regarded it as utter garbage aimed at idiots. And they haven’t looked back since.
While real wrestling flounders in attempts to get widespread television coverage, one related sport has recently succeeded in landing a major TV deal. That sport is arm wrestling.
However you view this sport, as a style of wrestling or not, it has its grassroots following along with numerous events held in it all around the world.
It was announced earlier this month that the World Armwrestling League (WAL) has secured an agreement with ESPN in the U.S. for that network to have exclusive rights to televise the 2014 World Armwrestling League Championship and the 2015 World Armwrestling League season. Their first telecast is scheduled for January 2015, with at least eight shows slated for prime time. While more details will be announced shortly, this is a major breakthrough for professional arm wrestling to have many of its top events shown on the largest sports network in the U.S.
Arm wrestling has always been an easy-to-understand, explosive, and visual sport. But it required the right packaging and positioning to make it appealing to ESPN. Its showcasing earlier this year on AMC’s “Game of Arms” reality show got mixed ratings and mixed reviews. In September, AMC announced that the show was being picked up for a second season, but, like TV networks are prone to do, in October, they announced that “Game of Arms” and almost all unscripted programming would be dropped to focus on their scripted hit shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Men”. (Ironically, one of the reality show projects which AMC cancelled was about pro “wrestling”.)
Arm wrestling was able to rebound so quickly because, unlike WCW, it was not perceived as junk, but was simply on the wrong network at the wrong time (read: budget woes for all networks). Plus, critically, it had sound, professional leadership.
The president and commissioner of the World Armwrestling League is not a ripped puller (that’s what arm wrestlers are called, for the uninitiated), but a business leader with many interests and accomplishments: Steve Kaplan.
In an interview last week on No Holds Barred, he explained why he was attracted to the sport.
“It is controlled aggression. It is intense. It is high testosterone,” he said. “It’s all about the combination of the physical and the psychological. And it’s matching speed, technique, and power, and utilizing them in a short burst of a time frame to really excel in this sport.”
Unlike contact and combat sports, he added, “It allows you to get all that done without the risks of life and limb. And it’s really an impressive thing by that.”
And he used his many years of experience and success in business to help get the WAL its deal with ESPN.
Part of the lesson for the sport of wrestling is that a positive perception of it is essential for it to grow and secure major TV coverage. Pay-per-view TV today is generally a wasteland featuring what many consider to be over-priced boxing and MMA cards, along with junk which no other network would show. For example, Saturday’s Global Wrestling event on iN Demand pay-per-view was sandwiched between two shows called “Ghetto Fights 4: Thug Throwdowns” and a fake “wrestling” show called “Wrestling’s Bloodiest: Violent Behavior,” with a vulgar description which cannot be repeated here. This is not where real wrestling needs to be, nor does it aid its perception. In fact, it merely demonstrates again that no network would show it, and it thus had to cohabitate with the likes of these programs.
It remains to be seen whether or not wrestling can overcome the problems which have been been overcome by arm wrestling. It also remains to be seen just how successful the WAL can be on ESPN. But none of this would be possible without innovative, creative, media-savvy, forward-thinking leadership. You can be the judge if that describes anyone running wrestling today.
If anyone is thinking of calling Steve Kaplan, however, I do have a feeling that he may be pretty busy in 2015.
The entire show with the interview with Steve Kaplan can be played here:
(Eddie Goldman is host and producer of the No Holds Barred podcast, at EddieGoldman.com.)