Sunday, October 5, 2014

Cable killed the territory star?

In Assael and Mooneyham's Sex, Lies and Headlocks, the authors address Vince McMahon's strategy of taking the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) national against the entrenched territory system. While quite a bit has been made about McMahon poaching talent from other promotions, the role of cable television arguably provided the catalyst to end the territory era of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). Nor was McMahon the only one to see the value of the cable and satellite market, as evident in Ted Turner or World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) under Fritz Von Erich.  Even Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association (AWA) saw the value of cable through ESPN after a reported deal with CBS failed to materialize.

The move to a cable audience brought new challenges to the territories. For the first time, fans had easy access to multiple promotions and the slicker production values of cable shows undermined the appeal of territory TV shows still largely filmed in small studios. Promotions that relied too heavily on wrestlers past their prime would look bush league compared to promotions with a younger stable. As the WWF poached regional stars, these same stars could appear the next week on television locally. Thus, by the time the WWF ran local arena shows in a territory, fans were already conditioned to the product.

The bigger question for me still remains why didn't other promotions follow McMahon's lead. Most territory promoters, while distrustful of each other, benefited from a system that discouraged competition and probably assumed the WWF threat was a phase. Yet even by 1986-1987, most surviving territories must have seen the writing on the wall. 


Gary said...

In answer to your bigger question, Tim, I believe this was brought out in the movie, "The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA," which we saw on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I know you could not attend that evening.

The AWA, Memphis, and other territories met and held inter-regional titles and put on shows. In other words, they tried to compete. They even tried pay-per-view with this. It was not a big success for them, and by this point, the WWF had already signed Hulk Hogan, and then 30 other top wrestlers of Gagne's area had left to go with Hogan and the WWF. Even Mean Gene the announcer went over. So the AWA did not have any top wrestlers left, and no matter what marketing strategy they tried, their fans dwindled.

Timothy S. Rich said...

I remember a few interpromotional attempts in the late 80s, but they were usually weakly devised and abandoned quickly. I can understand that most promoters didn't fully trust one another, but I would think various arrangements could have worked better than individually being put out of business.

Then again, the more I read about the territory days, the more respect I have for Jerry Jarrett keeping Memphis alive when the other territories died.

Sam Ford said...

Memphis, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Oregon held out the longest...with Memphis wining that prize overall...Meanwhile, you have the interesting examples of Smoky Mountain and ECW popping up regionally in the 1990s and thriving for some time alongside Memphis...but accepting a different kind of regionally. These days, some of the small indie leagues have so local TV, but it's few and far between.

We definitely saw AWA and World Class make attempts to go national in their own ways, including expanding their geographic territories and getting syndication or cable deals. We know that WWF would have been somewhat exposed at first from a quality standpoint, as we saw with what happened with Georgia wrestling and the subpar show that they put on. But the truth is that Vince was willing to pursue it aggressively while the others were still hooked enough on their current model that they weren't willing to risk current profit for potential future profit, in a way that Vince was...and, as we saw from his background...he didn't mind gambling his livelihood on risks, and they hadn't panned out much in the past...