Here’s the deal: Wrestling isn’t a sport any more, it’s an episodic soap opera for males, and while some would argue that the release of the two largest franchises from the confines of sportsmanship has just made them bizarre, it has also made them more popular.
Titan Sports’ Stamford, Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation (WWF) boasts the highest-rated show in Thursday prime time among male teens ages 12 to 17 in the U.S., with its WWF Smackdown! beating out such popular shows as ER and Frasier. Turner’s Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling (WCW) franchise, while trailing WWF in the ratings, has a strong national following as well, and over 11% of it is teens ages 12 to 17.
Jim Rothschild, New York-based senior VP of North American sales at WWF, says the teen appeal of his franchise lies in simply serving up what teens want. ‘Teenagers today demand a very entertaining environment, and that consists of story lines, character development and extensive character angles. We are very much a soap opera for teenagers.’
Casey Collins, director of licensing at the WCW goes a step further: ‘The teenagers seem to like what we call hard-core matches,’ he says. ‘Those are the matches that almost take place outside the ring, that incorporate foreign objects, such as a chair, garbage can, something like that. The stuff that’s a little more violent in nature, they tend to like to watch.’
Suggestions that such an environment would only attract marketers of edgy fringe brands are hotly disputed. Rothschild says that ‘five years ago, the brands that worked with the WWF might have been a little more limited, but we’re now very much mainstream.’
A look through the over 100 sponsors the WWF has brought on-board to date seems to bear this out. Burger King, America Online, Artisan, Chef Boyardee, DreamWorks, Hasbro, Quaker, Sega, Sony Music, Tiger Electronics, Trendmasters, Universal, Warner Bros., Wendy’s and even the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board run the gamut of teen-targeting brands rather than clinging to the in-yer-face edges.
Casey agrees, saying that WCW wrestlers are suited to pitch ‘anything, from sporting goods to any kind of entertainment goods, from videos to music CDs,’ adding that ‘guys like Goldberg and Sting are household names, not just with the kids, but often with the parents also.’
When choosing the right man for your brand, Casey says it really comes down to popularity: The wrestlers with the highest Q scores are your best bet. ‘Right now, I think that Goldberg and Sting are really our two top guys,’ he says, ‘followed by the New World Order, which is kind of a renegade group of bad guys.’
Rothschild says that clients don’t have to worry about picking the best ‘superstar’ for their brand at the WWF, because the franchise has a turn-key environment set up to choose the best pitchmen for you. Sales execs will also line up TV spots during broadcasts, place ads in one or both WWF publications, set up an Internet sweepstakes, arrange talent appearances, offer ringside product sampling-even shoot the commercials. And if the marketer doesn’t like the ‘superstars’ in the ring? ‘We also create characters,’ says Rothschild. ‘That’s one thing that the WWF does better than anyone else in entertainment. We create characters that appeal to teenagers and, of course, many other demographics.’
Still, with characters such as Edge, who is about to star in a summer-long campaign for Royal Crown’s new RC Edge cola, many marketers are finding existing ‘superstars’ to meet their needs. This campaign will include TV spots, live events, pay-per-view, publishing, sampling, retail point-of-sale, posters and 100 million packages of Edge cola sporting the WWF logo, and Rothschild stresses that the Edge character wasn’t created for the campaign. Other existing muscle-bound hell-raisers have already built up their own cache of appearances and pitchwork making them ripe to be plucked for teen-targeting promos:
The Rock (WWF)
Perhaps best known for his 1999 Gettin’ Chefy Wit’ It music video and related print ads for Chef Boyardee’s Overstuffed Beef Ravioli, The Rock reached new heights when his autobiography recently climbed to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. His trademarks include expensive silk shirts, dark sunglasses, a Rolex watch and a permanently cocked right eyebrow. He is currently appearing in a ‘Got Milk?’ free poster giveaway tie-in with the WWF. He weighs 275 pounds, is six-and-a-half feet tall, and was a former football star at the University of Miami.
Stone Cold Steve Austin (WWF)
One of the most famous faces in the WWF, this wrestler spawned a sea of Austin 3:16 T-shirts and hats after beating the Bible-referencing Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and pronouncing: ‘Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!’ He was featured in a ‘Got Milk?’ commercial and a 1-800 Collect spot. He also appeared at both the MTV Music Video Awards and the Emmy Awards. Austin is also known as the Texas Rattlesnake.
‘Sting is more the mysterious type. He’s kind of like the character from The Crow, in the black-and-white makeup and the long trench coat,’ says Collins. Despite being eclipsed in fame by the former Police frontman, the wrestler, rather than the singer, owns the copyright to the name. He has appeared in indie film The Real Reason and on Hulk Hogan’s TV series Thunder in Paradise, and will show up in an upcoming TNT Original Movie called Shutter Speed. His video biography, Sting: Unmasked, was number one on the recreational sport video list, and Collins says that among the younger WCW fans, Sting is ‘by far the most popular wrestler we have.’
‘Goldberg is the silent type,’ says Collins. ‘He basically dismembers his opponents in the ring. His matches don’t last very long and he just destroys his opponents one by one.’ He has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, POV, People, Spin, Rolling Stone, Gear, USA Today and Jerusalem Report. He appeared in an episode of The Love Boat and the movie Universal Soldier II with Jean Claude Van Damme, and will also be seen in upcoming Warner Bros. feature Ready to Rumble, slated for an April 14, 2000 release.