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Now here's a strange proposition: Pro wrestling needs to be fixed. Suddenly, the game seems as broken as that black-and-white Sylvania that once brought so many fat, sweaty men into our living rooms. Nothing lasts forever, of course, but is this how it ends—not with a 21st-century heir to Gorgeous George, but with a fake gay commitment ceremony and two women wrestlers (where have you gone, O Fabulous Moolah?) kissing in mid-ring while an announcer gushes about "hot lesbian action"?
On the surface that seems impossible. "Since the '30s, wrestling has run in cycles," says entertainment analyst Dennis McAlpine. What goes down must come up and smack you in the head with a folding chair, right? But wrestling has rarely been this sickly. In June the WWE reported that annual revenue was down $31 million, to $425 million, and that first-quarter profits were off 79%. WWE stock has dropped from $24.12 in October 1999 to $8.81 as of Monday. Ratings for the company's Raw and SmackDown! have been falling just as fast, while pay-per-view buys declined by 11% in the past year.
Does Vince McMahon have the answers? This is a man who has beaten a federal steroids rap and who only last week testified in a sexual harassment suit brought by former wrestler Nicole Bass, who claimed that she "was subjected to numerous sexual indignities" by the WWE (which calls her charges a "smear"). Slumped in a conference room at the company's Stamford, Conn., headquarters, the 57-year-old chairman of the WWE poses, instead, a question: "Why is a sports magazine interested in an entertainment story?"
McMahon stopped pretending wrestling was on the level back in the '80s. The admission allowed his business to grow. Ironically, McMahon's biggest problem now is not a showbiz problem, it's a sports problem, one that has dogged baseball, the NFL and, especially, the NBA He needs heroes.
The Rock has gone to Hollywood. Stone Cold Steve Austin has been suspended for failing to show up for work. In their place McMahon has brought back Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, and he's touting Brock Lesnar, a 6'4", 295-pound former NCAA heavy-weight champion, as his Next Big Thing. But those moves have been made, gay and "risqu�" acts have been introduced, and it's not just Steve Austin who's stone cold.
At least one observer isn't surprised. "If you've got good story lines and characters, you don't need to go down that road," says Mike Mooneyham, co-author of a book on the WWE, Sex, Lies and Head-locks. "I see some desperation."
McMahon, though, seems calm. "Wrestling has been on television since the advent of television," he says. "We're woven into the fabric of Americana. I don't think we're going anywhere." Like a lot of people, he's just waiting for a hero.
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