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WRESTLING With Success
William Oscar Johnson
March 25, 1991
Vince McMahon has transformed pro wrestling from a sleazy pseudosport to booming family fun
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March 25, 1991

Wrestling With Success

Vince McMahon has transformed pro wrestling from a sleazy pseudosport to booming family fun

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So attractive is the WWF approach that last year Luukko whipped up a formal—and very flattering—bid to convince McMahon that WrestleMania VII should come to the Coliseum. "We told him that we considered WrestleMania, the Olympics and the Super Bowl as equally great events," says Luukko. "And it wasn't just a sales pitch, we meant it."

Moving the big show from the Coliseum into the L.A. Sports Arena was a great disappointment. Luukko says that 16,000 tickets had been sold two months before the event: "That was an outstanding sale at that point. Now we are really in a bind, because the whole world wants tickets and we were just able to squeeze in the ones we had already sold for the Coliseum." At the time McMahon made the decision to move into the bunkerlike Arena, the gulf war was scarcely two weeks old and fears of terrorism were much sharper then than they are now. Also, the press was heavily critical of the WWF's current villain-champion, Sergeant Slaughter, who used to wave an Iraqi flag in the ring and employed an ostensible Iraqi loyalist, one General Adnan, as his manager. Some writers thought that Sergeant Slaughter's flagrantly unpatriotic behavior might create a dangerous atmosphere at WrestleMania VII, where he was slated to meet Hulk Hogan, the consummate American flag-waver.

Well, no one knows. But, as we have said, what goes on in Los Angeles this Sunday will be actually but a small portion. of McMahon's vast enterprise. WWF realizes $200 million in annual sales of its own merchandise plus licenses. It has over 80 videocassettes on the market, and they have produced more than two million sales over the last five years; six cassettes have gone platinum (meaning 120,000 sales). Nonvideo items include WWF lunch boxes (licensed to Thermos); ice cream bars (Gold Bond); children's vitamins (Solaris Marketing Group, Inc.); and a great variety of video and board games and toys, including Wrestling Buddies (Tonka), which was the third-best-selling toy of the 1990 Christmas season. The WWF Magazine, a slick monthly publication given over entirely to hype, has a paid circulation of 350,000.

And there is more to come. McMahon is moving into bodybuilding. He has formed the World Bodybuilding Federation, the newest subsidiary to TitanSports, and he is prepared to move in with typical flair and grandeur. "We are defining bodybuilding in a much broader way," he says. "If you run or exercise or if you simply take a vitamin every day, that is bodybuilding. This is the market we are focusing on, and it is a big one. Also, the formal competitions are quite dull, and we intend to do them on a much grander, much more glamorous scale. TV and marketing are the keys."

Nevertheless, whatever flamboyant upheaval McMahon may visit on the hitherto arcane sport of bodybuilding, it is wrestling that he knows best. Having conquered the U.S. on almost every front, he is now eyeing the rest of the globe. The WWF has sent its various hulks, warriors and earthquakes on a number of successful foreign tours, and the time could be right for a major international expansion. "Anyone in any country can understand wrestling," says McMahon. "There is no rule book to master. It's not like hockey or soccer. It is as comprehensible in China as it is in Canada. Children love it. Our guys are role models for kids everywhere. These are guys you can take home to mom, even mama-san in Japan or mumsie in England."

Barthes concluded in his famous essay that there was a quasidivine quality to the grip-and-get-gripped set. "In the ring," he wrote, "wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible."

Vince McMahon would certainly agree that wrestlers are universal symbols. Indeed, his vision of the future does not even stop at the boundaries of the planet. "Who knows?" he says. "Someday we may hold WrestleMania on the moon. Full moon, full house. I can see it now."

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