On March 26, 2001, Vince McMahon began that week’s episode of Monday Night Raw with the announcement that he bought Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. The announcement came after a rivalry the previous five years for weekly ratings in the “Monday Night War.” The head-to-head competition fueled the biggest boom in the history of the industry with record-setting ratings and pay-per-view buys.
The war was five years in the making, but that night in March of 2001 changed the business forever.
The closure of World Championship Wrestling saw the conclusion of a history that extended as far back as the lengthy accolades of the National Wrestling Alliance. When Jim Crockett Promotions spent itself too far in debt in an attempt to keep pace with Vince McMahon’s national expansion, Ted Turner, the owner of the TBS network that aired NWA programming, bought the organization to keep wrestling on his channel. Pro wrestling was a staple of Turner’s media umbrella and a cornerstone of TBS when cable television became a national entity. Turner actually provided the genre with its first national TV platform when Georgia Championship Wrestling was broadcast on the network in the mid-70s.
Professional wrestling was good to Turner and he kept it on his network when Crockett was near bankruptcy in 1988. The Turner purchase that year led to the creation of World Championship Wrestling as an organization that replaced the letters NWA. The post-Crockett era was rather lean for both WCW and the business as a whole. The early 90s saw a lack of direction with a revolving door of authority figures, including Bill Watts and Jim Herd for brief stints in the office. Watts was too far behind the times to realize his 80s style of booking wouldn’t get over with the audience or the roster in the 90s. Herd was so clueless that he should’ve stayed at Pizza Hut to sell bread sticks. The WWF steroid scandal of that era that caused a slump for the entire sport didn’t help either.
In the first five years that Ted Turner owned the wrestling league, it didn’t make a profit and was kept on the air simply because Turner wanted to keep the sport on his channel. By 1994, there was an initiative for the group to make money and it led to a new direction. Eric Bischoff, a former AWA announcer that became a third-tier WCW interviewer, was named the new executive vice president of World Championship Wrestling. Bischoff was smart enough to realize he needed legitimate stars to draw viewers to his product and a plan to garner a piece of the market from McMahon.
Hulk Hogan, the former top star for McMahon, left the WWF in 1993 following the steroid scandal to pursue an unsuccessful acting career. When “Pastamania” and a “Thunder blender” didn’t take off either, Hogan listened when Bischoff approached him in 1994 about another stint in the ring. Randy Savage was phrased from the squared circle in favor of the broadcast desk in the WWF, but still wanted to wrestle so opted to sign a Turner deal as well. Other WWF mainstays like Bobby Hennan and Gene Okerlund decided the lighter WCW schedule suited them better in their latter career. Eventually, when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, a pair of WWF stars in the prime, were lured away for more money with less required appearances in 1996, the sports entertainment tide shifted for the first time in history.
The perception of the “Outsiders” invading WCW territory for a hostile takeover created intriguing TV. In many ways, it was a refreshing change in comparison to the cartoonish era previously. The Yeti and Mantaur made people shake their heads and change the channel. Hall and Nash were cutting edge and made viewers tune in to see what happened next. Hogan turned heel to form the New World Order at Bash of the Beach that year and rejuvenated his career for a fresh run. The concept of wrestling’s all-time hero as a heel made the general public take notice. The cool heels of The Outsiders kept them watching Nitro. At the same time, the WWF was on the ropes, finishing in the red for 1996 and the future of the company was very much in doubt in 1997. Basically, Nitro was current and much more contemporary than Raw at the time.
Vince McMahon knew he needed a drastic change if he wanted to maintain his sports entertainment empire and that ushered in the Attitude Era. As I’ve written before, you can’t plan or book a boom period in the industry. The right opportunities have to present themselves at the right place at the right time. Steve Austin was set to become the biggest star in the industry around the same time that Vince McMahon became the top villain in the business after the Montreal incident. You couldn’t plan that or the situation around it.
While WCW was cutting edge for a period of time, McMahon knew that Nitro had strict guidelines because it was a Turner product. Essentially, the WWF became more shocking and pushed the envelope further than Nitro could with its Turner group limitations. In retrospect, some of the Attitude Era content was probably too lewd for sports entertainment, but it suited much of the pop culture of the late-90s. Howard Stern was arguably at his peak with millions of listeners on a national radio show while music and TV were also more edgy at the time. Quite simply, the WWF became current and relevant again.
The combination of the popularity of the WWF and WCW created the previously mentioned weekly ratings competition. That competition, similar to most business, generated the best product possible from both companies. Every week, each organization tried to produce compelling television to keep viewers from changing the channel to the other show. Extreme Championship Wrestling provided more variety for fans, and more booking concepts for the bigger promotions. Let’s not forget that the rosters had depth. Each group had a cast of popular mid-carders as well. The lucha libre and cruiser weight stars gave Nitro something unique to promote and in many ways provided substances to go along with the sizzle that the older stars gave the product.
The story about the shift of the wrestling war is well-documented. Vince McMahon was smart enough to create a new group of stars and allowed business, not a political agenda to dictate the direction of his product. Mick Foley was everything that a typical “superstar” wasn’t, but he connected with the audience so he was elevated to a main event level. On the flip side, WCW tanked because politics, not fan demand, determined the product that was booked. The New World Order had a good two-year run before it became a stale act. Fans already watched the stable do everything from 1996-1998. Bill Goldberg was a lucrative commodity, but was booked terribly and it led to another stale act. The biggest star for the Turner group in 1998 was a repetitive segment by 1999. Again, politics and inflated contracts decided the direction of WCW, which ultimately led to the down slide. Plus, those talented mid-carders on Nitro were stuck at that level and not booked further up the card to evolve the organization as the new millennium approached.
While the WWF rode the momentum of 1998 through a rather lackluster 1999 until the fresh tag division became tremendously popular in 2000, the Turner organization took a much different path. When Vince Russo, the former magazine writer that eventually wrote WCW into bankruptcy, jumped ship to the Turner group in late-1999, the wave of popularity that Nitro had previously declined exponentially. There are many theories about what caused the demise of WCW, but it was undoubtedly a combination of several things. Some claimed the AOL/Time Warner merger was the deciding factor, but the bottom line is, if the company made a profit in the year 2000 then it wouldn’t have been sold. The fact that the promotion lost $60 million that year is why it closed.
Ultimately, the night of March 26, 2001 saw the end of an era as well as the consolidation of the industry, similar to the conclusion of the previous boom in business.
Eric Bischoff, the same executive that put McMahon on the ropes, attempted to buy the WCW franchise with plans to relaunch the brand in May of that year. But, the TBS suits were soured on sports entertainment from the dive that Nitro took in the final year of the organization and they didn’t want to air pro wrestling again. Without the TV time slot, the Bischoff group cancelled the deal. As a result, Vince McMahon bought the promotion, including the video library and trademarks for pennies on the dollar. For around just $2 million, Vince owned the competition that was the biggest threat to his business just a few years earlier.
With many of WCW’s biggest stars under contract to the Turner organization, not the wrestling company, most of them opted to stay home to collect the money of their guaranteed deals. Without the top stars, the invasion flopped, and when WCW closed, much of its audience simply stopped watching professional wrestling. After the “super bowl of professional wrestling” fell so flat, sports entertainment wasn’t must see TV. Similar to the post-boom period of previous eras, there was a decline in business in the mid-2000s.
A monopoly developed in the years that followed, a monopoly that still affects the industry today. The WCW purchase was the start of the collection of the video libraries of nearly every major promotion that existed in the history of the genre in the United States. It’s a harsh reality, but WWE paid the owners of the territory footage much more than they could’ve made trying to distribute themselves so it was a smart move to take the deal. The acquisition of historic footage was the foundation of the network that distributes pay-per-views today. But, the monopoly of the WWE as the example of the sport in America extends beyond just the assets they bought after the Monday night war.
As cliché as it sounds, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Remember the scenario where corporate agenda, not fan demand, dictated the direction of Nitro? It sounds very similar to the forced push often used in WWE today. How about those underutilized mid-carders that weren’t elevated to the main event in WCW? How many great talents flounder on the roster in WWE now? Is that to say that WWE will implode? Absolutely not, but without the competition to push management to put the best product on TV, a certain level of complacency has developed with the current product.
So, the ripple effect of the events around March of 2001 set the stage for the consolidation of the industry and the expansion of the WWE as the only major main stream sports entertainment company. This was further proven when TNA failed to become any legitimate competition during its original run. Today, the WWE uses its reach as the only major sports entertainment option in America as a way to continuously expand, both with distribution and new demographics. The fact that World Wrestling Entertainment is so far ahead of any other option has allowed them to sign almost all of the top talent of the current generation.
AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode, Eric Young, Adam Cole, Chris Hero, War Machine, Nakamura, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and many others signed WWE deals after they made a name for themselves elsewhere. Quite simply, when the WWE offers a deal, most decide it’s the right move for their careers. On the flip side, that same monopoly is why it’s extremely important that New Japan provide an alternative for wrestlers and fans so that there are options. In many ways, New Japan isn’t necessarily competition to the WWE, but rather compliments the sports entertainment genre with a different style.
Still, the industry arrived to where it is now because of the events of March 2001. If WCW didn’t close, CM Punk could’ve walked out of Raw and onto Nitro, the audience wouldn’t have to revolt to get Daniel Bryan a main event spot, and maybe an anointed champion wouldn’t get a forced pushed four years in a row at the biggest event of the year.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
E mail firstname.lastname@example.org | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta
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