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WrestleMania in Connecticut

Having built a billion-dollar sports business is Linda McMahon’s calling card in the Senate race—it’s also her Achilles’ heel.

Jul 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 41 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The renamed World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was already gobbling up its competitors when the McMahons discovered cable. As the cable revolution was spreading through middle America, the McMahons found that hungry new cable stations were desperate for product to fill airtime. They signed a deal with the USA network, which quickly became a cash-cow. By 1985, their USA show had brought them enough visibility to entice NBC to air a series of wrestling specials in their Saturday late-night slot. The WWF had gone from carnival attraction to network programming.

In 1985, the McMahons made another discovery. They staged a yearly wrestling mega-show—“Wrestle-Mania”—and were trying to find a way to milk ancillary dollars from the event. By WrestleMania III, a new technology appeared which allowed people with cable TV to buy a special hook-up to see individual shows. It was called Pay Per View and the McMahons were the first promoters to embrace it. The McMahons sold $1.6 million worth of tickets to WrestleMania III, but $10 million worth of PPV hook-ups. From there it was off to the races, with the WWF soon putting on a dozen PPV events a year. It would not be much of a stretch to say that the entire modern cable on-demand structure dates from WrestleMania III. In 1999 the McMahons took their company public and became instant billionaires.

It is impossible to fully understand the division of labor within the company. Vince McMahon has always been its public face and is largely believed to be the big-picture visionary. Linda McMahon’s roles—as president, chief operating officer, and finally chief executive officer—have been mostly behind the scenes. In 1989, for instance, she lobbied the New Jersey legislature to move the WWF from the category of “sport” to “entertainment”—an admission that wrestling is staged. This canny maneuver exempted the company from a 10 percent tax on tickets to legitimate sporting events.

Among those who care about professional wrestling—such people exist—there is much debate over whether the McMahons have been good or bad for wrestling. But that question is a little like asking if P.T. Barnum was good for the circus. At some point the McMahons—particularly Vince—became professional wrestling, and it is no longer possible to imagine what the industry would have been like without them.

This is not to say that the McMahons turn everything they touch to gold. There were plenty of missteps through the years, from money-losing wrestling movies to a still-born WWF perfume to a failed World BodyBuilding Federation. Their most high-profile failure was an attempt to create a rival to the National Football League; the XFL folded after 10 games in 2001.

But the McMahons have always rebounded from their setbacks. And Linda McMahon is on the rise in Connecticut. In January, polls had Blumenthal as much as +41 against McMahon. By May, Blumenthal’s lead was in the 20s. In June, both camps released internal polls showing his lead in the mid-teens.

Politically, McMahon is a good fit for Connecticut. She’s moderate, being both pro-choice and pro-TARP, and no one will confuse her with a Tea Party candidate. She’s positioning her campaign to focus on unemployment and fiscal discipline, two areas where she can legitimately claim expertise, since she ran a company which created thousands of jobs over the years, but always with an eye toward tight budgets. In these respects, today’s WWE should serve her well.

But if the WWE is McMahon’s calling card, it’s also her chief weakness. The WWE may be a billion-dollar company, but the success is accompanied by some unpleasant history, ranging from charges of drug use and sexual misconduct to complaints of business double-dealing. The scandals are numerous and have been heavily detailed in investigative articles and books, though they are hotly disputed by the McMahons. Linda McMahon’s biggest concern, however, isn’t wrestling world gossip. It’s steroids.

Wrestling in general, and the WWE in particular, has a long history with steroids. In court testimony, Hulk Hogan once estimated that as many as 80 percent of wrestlers used steroids during the 1980s. In 1991, Bruno Sammartino quipped, “There was a joke: If you did not test positive for steroids, you were fired.”

Steroids were not always illegal. It wasn’t until 1988 that steroid distribution was criminalized, and 1991 that steroids were reclassified as controlled substances. Even after these changes in the law, however, wrestlers found doctors to prescribe them. One of these was a Pennsylvania physician named George Zahorian.

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