Birmingham News – August 2, 2000
By Clyde Bolton
The press conference announcing that Birmingham would have a team in his XFL had ended, and Vince McMahon, resident of Greenwich, Conn., remembered when he was a boy living in Havelock, N.C.
He delights in the laid-back, friendly Southern way, he said, obviously having experienced heaping helpings of it during his visit to the Magic City.
“The people are affable. They say hello,” McMahon offered. “I wish that mood would spread to the Northeast.”
But then he mentioned a North Carolina Marine installation, and he doubled his fists and struck a boxer’s pose and said, “I used to love to take on the Marines on Saturday night.”
His daughter, Stephanie, looked on admiringly. “He’s not kidding you,” she said.
So much for affable.
McMahon isn’t easily explained, readily compartmentalized. He has become perhaps the best known, most recognizable sports executive in America-if you will extend the umbrella of sports to pro wrestling. His success involved a complete abandonment of the customs of wrestling, in the ring and in the office.
A profile in Newsweek magazine last February said:
“… McMahon has set new standards of sleaze, outraging some parents and embarrassing many of the genre’s legends. Cardboard good guys and bad guys were replaced with pimps, porn stars and sociopaths.”
Newsweek said McMahon “has transformed a modest family company into a media machine of surprising scale and synergy — a louder, raunchier version of the Disney kingdom.
“To the uninitiated or unconvinced, pro wrestling may seem like a dopey spectacle in which really big guys put on silly tights and pretend to beat each other up. And OK, it is that, but it is also a very big business, and has become an addiction for a broad cross section of young America.
“The WWF’s Raw is War, watched by about 5 million households weekly, is the highest rated show on cable; SmackDown!, seen in another 5 million, is the top-rated show on UPN.
“These are just the wheels of the machine, though. The WWF’s home videos routinely rank No. 1 in sports, its action figures outsell Pokemon’s and its Web site is one of the first outlets to turn steaming video into profits (other than porn sites, of course – and some would argue the distinction is subtle).
“The autobiographies of two WWF wrestlers, Mankind (Mick Foley) and the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) are currently Nos. 1 and 3 on The New York Times best-seller list. Add in revenue from live ticket sales, pay per-views, platinum-selling CDs and a new theme restaurant, all in turn promoting the shows and each other.”
The article continued: “The company is projecting sales of $340 million for this year, up from $250 million in 1999. The stock market values the company, 83 percent of which is owned by the family, at more than $1 billion.”
Vincent Kennedy McMahon was born on Aug. 24, 1945, as his parents headed toward divorce. He was raised in rural North Carolina by his mother and stepfather. He met his father, a wrestling promoter, when he was 12 and became fascinated by the game.
In those days promoters controlled territories and didn’t infringe on each other. As Vince grew in the business, he urged his father to branch out, but to the old man that was apostasy.
Vince bought his dad’s business in 1982 and began promoting shows in other territories, making enemies in the process. “He took 37 of my people, including my announcer,” promoter Vern Gagne said. “Then he came into my territory and used them against me.”
But there was no holding back McMahon. He seized on the possibilities of cable and pay per-view TV, and WWF wrestling became as familiar as The Andy Griffith Show to couch potatoes.
NBC and the WWF are 50-50 partners in the XFL. Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, said: “The absolute key to the success of this league lies in the incredible success Vince McMahon has had throughout his career in reaching the most elusive audience in television — young males.
“For example, in weekly head to-head competition with Monday Night Football over 17 weeks in 1999, McMahon’s live event programming outdrew Monday Night Football among adult males, ages 12-24, by 47 percent. That is an incredible triumph of marketing and promotion by the McMahon organization.”
It also reflects a disinclination to care how it’s done. Half-naked women, sexism, profanity and lurid plots are staples. The old baby face-vs.-heel script is as outdated as a Model-T.
The WWF even admits wrestling is fake, calling it sports entertainment. But that was because state athletic commissions wanted to tax pay-per-views.
The WWF is no mere TV production. It draws huge in-person crowds. At Tuesday’s press conference, McMahon said Birmingham’s football franchise would have to draw 20,000 per game to break even. “But that’s not anything we’d be satisfied with.”
Will 20,000 attend games in a city that’s been repeatedly burned on pro sports?
Even with Vince McMahon promoting? That is the question.