What’s scarier than being locked in a cage match with the WWF’s Stone Cold Steve Austin and WCW’s Goldberg? Try competing for the brand loyalty of the millions of young North American males who religiously watch the two wrestlers and their confrères duke it out in their respective leagues on TV, and who have helped to catapult sales of licensed WWF and WCW wrestling merchandise into a US$1-billion business.
That’s the challenge facing Steve Karel, managing director and licensing czar for Extreme Championship Wrestling. The latest upstart wrestling body to climb into the ring started strutting its brand of gonzo wrestling on country cable net The Nashville Network in late August. Unlike the WWF and WCW, ECW’s wrestling product, says Karel, is more focused on hard-nosed, in-the-ring action than it is on developing the character subplots and prematch theatrics that have come to define modern wrestling.
But as far as mounting a licensing program goes, ECW isn’t exactly acting or talking tough, at least not initially. So far, it has only eight licensees on board, including deals with Original San Francisco Toy Makers (action figures) and American Pop (sports hats and T-shirts). Products derived from both deals hit stores earlier this summer. The Philadelphia-based league also recently struck deals with cyberco Acclaim, which will create an ECW video game title for all three major consoles to be released for Christmas 2000, and with Pioneer Videos, which will start putting out ECW videos DVDs beginning in Q1 2000.
ECW will likely stick with its decidedly low-key licensing approach for the next six months, or until the league can attract a sizable TV following, says Karel. In this regard, Karel et al. certainly have their work cut out for them. In its debut broadcast on August 27, ECW grabbed a meager 0.9 rating, well below WWF’s Raw is War and WCW’s WCW Monday Nitro Live!, which pulled in a 5.2 and 2.9 rating respectively during the same week. But Karel is confident that the North American market’s seemingly insatiable appetite for wrestling will eventually draw viewers to ECW. ‘The typical wrestling fan does not watch one type of wrestling to the exclusion of all others. He or she may like one kind of wrestling, but they’re constantly sampling,’ says Karel.
Analysts aren’t nearly as optimistic about ECW’s prospects for grabbing a larger television audience, nor its ability to cut into the WWF and WCW stranglehold on licensed merch sales. Ed Roth, president of the leisure activities business unit of the NPD Group, projects sales of wrestling toys and video games-two of the highest-selling categories-to grow by 25% to 30% in 2000, but he doesn’t envision ECW’s current 1% share of wrestling toy sales to increase in that time.
‘WCW and WWF are very entrenched in the North American marketplace. For any other league to break through, it would have to have a totally new angle to their programming, or some of the major established wrestlers would need to defect to this new league in order for it to get on the screen in a big way,’ says Roth.