Unlike the oldtime promoters, who aired wrestling on TV stations each Saturday morning simply to sell more arena seats on Saturday night, Vince McMahon Jr. has developed an aggressive—some would say ruthless—strategy. He has tried to blanket cable TV with the WWF, thereby establishing national demand for the likes of the Hulk and Rowdy Roddy. He has syndicated his glitzy style of wrestling in every major TV market in America, hoping to lure national sponsors and striking at the very base of his competitors' business. In some cities—St. Louis and San Francisco among them—he paid stations more than $100,000 a year to put him on the air. McMahon says he has been warned more than once that he'll wind up at the bottom of a river if he persists in playing hardball on his competitors' turf. "They're mad at me, because now they have to work for a living," he says.
In TV terms, McMahon's empire consists of the following: three shows a week on the USA Network, including the fourth-and seventh-highest-rated in all of cable; two shows per week on WOR-TV, the New York super-station that can be picked up around the country; a weekly nationally syndicated program on 124 stations; occasional special-event shows on MTV, on pay-per-view cable services and in closed-circuit theaters; a 90-minute show that will substitute for NBC's Saturday Night Live once a month beginning May 11, giving wrestling a network legitimacy; and a Hulk Hogan cartoon series on CBS that will make its debut in September. McMahon says he is not out to establish a monopoly in the arenas or on the tube. Nevertheless, a number of angry promoters met at a summit conference at a hotel near Chicago's O'Hare Airport last June and formed a stop-McMahon coalition called Pro Wrestling USA. The group, led by Midwest promoter Verne Gagne, has as its TV "consultant" Chicago White Sox coowner Eddie Einhorn. A shrewd TV operator and former network exec, Einhorn helped put together a syndicated show, Pro Wrestling USA, for a weekend morning slot on WPIX-TV, another New York superstation. The WPIX time is costing a steep $440,000 a year.
But Gagne and his cohorts appear to be too disorganized to cause McMahon much trouble, and he dismisses them with contempt. "The first meeting they had, all they could agree on was that they hate me and that they're going to do everything possible to put us out of business," he says. "The second meeting, they couldn't even agree on ordering lunch." Indeed, Einhorn says the group's best hope is that McMahon will tap out while compensating stations for airtime.
One chink in McMahon's armor may have been revealed March 31 when he was forced off Ted Turner's WTBS superstation. He had produced two taped shows a week for Turner, World Championship Wrestling and The Best of World Championship Wrestling, which had a combined audience of 3.5 million homes and ranked second and third among cable-TV series. The rub was that Turner—who last fall, McMahon says, was looking to buy the WWF instead of CBS—couldn't abide the fact that cable viewers could see almost identical McMahon shows on the USA Network, a direct competitor. "Ted just couldn't handle it. It ate him up," McMahon says. In the end, McMahon reportedly turned a $500,000 profit with a complex deal in which, essentially, he sold his time on WTBS to Jim Crockett (major star: Dusty Rhodes), a North Carolina promoter who is now Turner's resident wrestling guru.
Where do the TV wars go from here?
For one thing, ESPN is considering a prime-time wrestling show. Because McMahon is at USA and Crockett is at WTBS, either Cowboy Bill Watts of Mid-South wrestling (who has Kamala), Dallas promoter Fritz Von Erich (the Von Erich boys, the Freebirds) or the Gagne-Einhorn group (Sgt. Slaughter, Bob Backlund) probably will land at ESPN. Meanwhile, nobody should expect McMahon and his entourage to tap out tomorrow. By McMahon's own estimate, his WrestleMania extravaganza grossed $12 million on the live, pay-per-view and closed-circuit gate as well as on the sale of T shirts, caps, posters and the like. He will get a reported $450,000 per show for his Saturday Night Live productions and a royalty in six figures for the cartoon series.