By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 17, 2004
World Wrestling Entertainment recently returned from one of the most successful overseas tours in the history of the company. With most of its shows selling out on the one-week European jaunt and the company grossing nearly $6 million, one might surmise that business is picking up.
That assumption, however, would be far from the truth. While international business remains strong, other key indicators such as pay-per-view buy rates and television ratings are stagnant, and considerably below the numbers attained during the boom period of the late ’90s. Of even more concern is the creative rut the company finds itself in.
The changing – and uncertain – direction of the wrestling juggernaut took center stage recently with the announcement that Pat Patterson, one of WWE’s most powerful men behind the scenes for the past two decades, had resigned.
Patterson, who had cut back his duties in recent years, wielded considerable influence and was regarded as one of WWE owner Vince McMahon’s most trusted advisers. But it was no secret that Patterson had strong reservations about the direction of the company and had been one of the very few in power to confront McMahon.
Patterson spent one of his final weeks with WWE on the road in an attempt to critique house shows, the bread and butter of the company, which have experienced a disturbing decline in attendance and popularity over the past year. Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 5, he gave notice. His last date with the company will be at this week’s Tabboo Tuesday pay-per-view.Sources report that a longstanding disagreement over Triple H’s top spot on the roster contributed to Patterson’s decision to leave. Patterson, godfather to McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, had argued that the company built too much of its television time around McMahon’s son-in-law and stymied the elevation of other potential stars.
For better or worse, there has been a distinct leaning toward a new guard with new ideas, and the 63-year-old Patterson didn’t appear to fit into that mold. Patterson isn’t the only old-guard member whose scope of influence has diminished. John Laurinaitis (former wrestler Johnny Ace) has assumed many of senior executive Jim Ross’ former duties in the talent department, and longtime hands such as Tom Prichard have been shown the door. The hipper but less effective Tazz and Michael Cole represent a distinct departure from Ross and veteran sidekick Jerry Lawler on the broadcasting side of the spectrum, and the company continues to hire announcers based more on their grasp of today’s culture than their ability to understand the intricacies of the business.
Patterson’s resignation, though, is just part of a bigger problem that WWE is facing. Morale among a number of performers on both rosters is said to be low, and many are being asked to take pay cuts when contract renewals come due. Wrestlers and management are carrying short fuses, as exemplified by recent backstage outbursts involving four of the most respected and powerful men in the company, Vince McMahon and Ric Flair at Raw, Kurt Angle and Eddie Guerrero at Smackdown.
The recent Raw at Madison Square Garden drew an estimated 7,500, a very low figure for the company’s most famous venue, and that show followed a disappointing paid crowd of 10,000 for a Smackdown pay-per-view at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.
There’s also uncertainty about the future of the company’s perennially strong television programming. The Hollywood Reporter reported last week that McMahon is shopping around for a possible new cable distributor for Raw, with the USA, Turner and Fox networks involved in negotiations. Spike TV, whose deal with WWE expires next year, currently pays a $28 million annual license fee for Raw and other WWE programming. WWE reportedly is seeking a $40 million annual license for the renewal.
WWE is “desperate to get out of there,” said an unnamed executive source. With an average weekly audience of 3.5 million viewers, Raw has been cable’s most consistent top draw since the program’s inception in 1993. But since switching from USA Network in 2000, the median age of its viewership base has grown by seven years to 34, and the aggregate ratings for all of Spike’s wrestling shows are less than half of what they were four years ago. Spike TV’s median age for the quarter, 39.7, has increased by more than two years.
No matter how you slice it, the signs are not encouraging. The loss of Patterson could have far-reaching ramifications. A keen scout of talent and one who knew all facets of the business, Patterson was responsible for booking some of the company’s greatest matches, including the heralded Hulk Hogan-Ultimate Warrior and Hogan-Rock bouts at Wrestlemania. Patterson played an integral role in the development of The Rock during one of the company’s most lucrative periods, and reportedly believed that Triple H had attempted to undercut him.
Patterson, who retired from the ring in 1981, was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame in 1996. The Montreal native was one of pro wrestling’s top performers during the ’60s and ’70s, and even headlined into the early ’80s as a star for the late Vince McMahon Sr. Patterson, the company’s first Intercontinental champion, is still remembered by longtime fans for his bloody series of Boot Camp matches with Sgt. Slaughter at Madison Square Garden in 1981.
– John Bradshaw Layfield (with Orlando Jordan) will defend his WWE title against The Undertaker in the main event of a Smackdown event Nov. 27 at the North Charleston Coliseum. Also tentatively scheduled: Big Show vs. Kurt Angle; Eddie Guerrero, Rob Van Dam and Rey Mysterio vs. Booker T, Luther Reigns and Mark Jindrak; Chavo Guerrero vs. Carlito Caribbean Cool in a U.S. title match; Rico and Charlie Haas (with Miss Jackie) vs. Rene Dupree and Kenzo Suzuki (with Hiroko); John Heidenrich vs. Hardcore Holly; Johnny “The Bull” Stamboli and Nunzio vs. The Dudleys; Spike Dudley vs. Paul London vs. Billy Kidman in a three-way match for the WWE cruiserweight title; and Funaki and Scotty Too Hotty vs. The Basham Brothers. Smackdown general manager Theodore Long and Torrie Wilson also will appear.
Ticket prices are $41, $31, $26 and $21 (plus applicable fees). Tickets are available at the North Charleston Coliseum box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, charge-by-phone at 554-6060 or on-line at ticketmaster.com.
– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Tabboo Tuesday pay-per-view at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Cover charge is $5.
– Matthews Sports Bar and Grill, 613 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., also will air Tabboo Tuesday at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Cover charge is $5. Carolina Pro Wrestling will hold a meet-and-greet at 6 p.m.