The young Vince admired the elder McMahons, too. Says Vincent K.: "In a game full of misinformation, my grandfather always told the truth. He was college educated and he kept office hours like a banker. He did business with some pretty tough customers, such as Frankie Carbo, but kept his integrity. My father did some boxing, too, and was more or less New York-based, then opened up in Washington and did wrestling and some rock 'n' roll back when that was first starting. He founded the WWF in 1963. My dad was a fabulous human being, fair and warm."
But times have changed and so have the McMahons. Vince went to East Carolina University, then worked for his father as a wrestling commentator on cable TV. In 1979 he bought the Cape Cod Coliseum in Yarmouth, Mass., which included a 5,000-seat hockey rink, where Atlantic Hockey League teams played in winter and rock bands played in summer. Ambitious and smitten with a then radical vision of marrying rock 'n' roll to rasslin', Vince bought out his father's stock in the WWF in 1982. Vincent J. died in 1984, but by that point his only son had declared war on the entire structure of American professional wrestling as it had been nurtured and loved by promoters since the turn of the century. "Had my father known what I was going to do, he never would have sold his stock to me," says Vincent K. "In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge. Each little lord respected the rights of his neighboring little lord. No takeovers or raids were allowed. There were maybe 30 of these tiny kingdoms in the U.S. and if I hadn't bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them, fragmented and struggling. I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords."
In 1982, McMahon launched his first massive attack—not with a slogging ground war to capture live audiences from enemy arenas but with the cold, airborne eye of television. "My major step was television on a local basis," he says. "We already had our network in the Northeast and we started selling these shows to stations in other fiefdoms. In Chicago, in Los Angeles, the WWF brand of wrestling was something new. We had better athletes—more upscale and more charisma. The local guys were lazy. They weren't listening to the marketplace. We were so consumer-oriented. We never lifted our ears from the ground. We gave the public what it wanted. We broke the mold."
McMahon's brilliant application of TV in all its forms—broadcast, cable, pay-per-view—was exemplary and ruthless. To place his shows regularly on important local stations in enemy territory, he used wads of money for ammunition, paying stations to carry WWF events, sometimes as much as $100,000 a year. It was expensive and risky, but once McMahon bought his way onto the local tube, the public began to respond to the WWF's jazzy shows. Today, TitanSports has 300 television affiliates across North America, which amounts to the largest syndicated TV network in the world. Some 20 million viewers watch regularly. WWF's weekly syndicated shows—
WWF Superstars of Wrestling, WWF Wrestling Challenge, and
WWF Wrestling Spotlight—rank third in audience draw behind Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. TitanSports does 185 localized versions of each of those syndicated shows, which are dubbed in seven languages and sent to 40 countries. An NBC late-night show, Saturday Night's Main Event, is broadcast six times per season and is favored by fraternity men and yuppies.
WWF's use over recent years of pay-per-view television for its quarterly extravaganzas—the WrestleManias, Royal Rumbles, SummerSlams and Survivor Series—is the envy of the TV sports world. Those four shows have consistently succeeded better than all other pay-per-view programs, with the rare exception of superstar boxing matches with Sugar Ray Leonard or Mike Tyson. In 1989, four of the top eight pay-per-view shows in the U.S. were Titan productions, and last year Titan had four of the top five. In the decade or so that U.S. pay-per-view programming has been available, no single program has ever been sold to a million homes. But Wrestle-Mania IV (at $19.95 per view) drew 909,000 homes and WM V (at $24.95) drew 915,000, while WM VI (at $29.95) drew 825,000. Lesser WWF extravaganzas for the past three years have averaged over 500,000 (at $19) per show. Recently, however, there have been signs that the frenetic fascination with pro wrestling is fading. Still, with prices per home at an average of $23, the payoff on even the lowest-priced, least-popular WWF event has been well over $8 million. The take from each WWF pay-per-view program is split among the local cable outlets and the WWF, which ends up with 50% of the pot.
Pay-per-view is potentially the richest TV treasure chest ever. Television people see it as the great money machine that might be able to finance big-time American sports in the coming years, after the networks' sports divisions have gone broke paying billion-dollar rights fees. Sports columnists have predicted for years that each of the 40 million houses tuned in to the Super Bowl will have to pay $50, and the NFL will reap $2 billion in one afternoon. The arithmetic is there, all right, but so far, the politics are not. Nor is all the technology. Nor is there a public willingness to pay big bucks for what has so long been free.
Even as his TV empire was growing fatter with every match, McMahon was also running a complex national network of nightly live events. With a peripatetic troupe of some 60 wrestlers, eight referees and 10 publicists, the WWF put on in 1990 alone a total of 663 separate live events, spread over 191 different cities ranging from Yuma, Ariz., to Lake Charles, La., to Duluth, Minn.
To add another dimension to this logistical labyrinth, the WWF also uses its syndicated national TV shows to promote its local live events by inserting individualized promos into the tapes of the syndicated shows. This means that whenever a syndicated
WWF Superstars of Wrestling show appears on Utica's Channel 33, it contains promos touting whatever WWF live card is coming to Utica next. Some 1,000 such tapes are sent out each month from the WWF's state-of-the-art TV production facility in Stamford.
Basil DeVito Jr., senior vice-president of marketing for Titan, says, "We are a hybrid—national in scope, but local in impact. The same TV stars you see on the tube come right to your hometown. Vanna White doesn't come to Peoria. The NFL doesn't come to Peoria. But Hulk Hogan comes to Peoria, in person! And unlike big league stars, WWF wrestlers are never in an off-season. Those guys are performing 350 nights a year."
The WWF's relentless warfare has all but destroyed its serious competition. Ted Turner has continued to operate the National Wrestling Alliance in Atlanta, to help fill time on his superstation WTBS. McMahon speaks of Turner's operation with undisguised condescension: "Ted has trouble with the wrestling genre. This is a highly specialized product—unique—requiring skills not available in normal marketing situations. Our competition is not from Ted, it is from the National Basketball Association, from big rock concerts, from Disney."