Back in the 80s Vince McMahon broke the carefully maintained status quo of North American wrestling when he systematically invaded and raided the territories of the continent, forcing them out of business one by one. By offering more money than his rivals could muster to established stars McMahon was able to gain a monopoly on the business. The WWF’s initial talent raids and promotional flare carried the promotion into the mid-90s before trouble hit in the form of World Championship Wrestling, headed by Eric Bischoff and backed by a man with deeper pockets than Vince, Ted Turner.
Bischoff used the same tactics McMahon had several years earlier: he enticed away the big names with lucrative contracts and made his TV shows look better than the competition’s. Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Lex Luger, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were amongst the names who entered WCW having initially gained notoriety in McMahonland, leaving a void in their roster of their former employer’s roster and helping to establish WCW as the hot company.
Unable to outbid his rival, Vince used a combination of innovative booking and his original approach to gradually beat WCW. By pushing loyal, home grown talent like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and The Rock, the company managed to survive. As time passed disgruntled former WCW employees bearing grudges against Easy E, such as Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit, helped Vince finally turn the tide.
But it wasn’t just clever booking and Bischoff’s knack for rubbing people up the wrong way that helped Vince. There was the original approach I mentioned too. That came in the form of Vince raiding ECW. With the old territory system out of business the Philadelphia promotion was the quickest, easiest way of providing fresh blood for the WWF roster.
People involved with either company at the time are quick to point out that the WWF “gave back” to ECW by having WWF contracted performers appear on ECW cards. In actuality this is a lie. In exchange for signing away popular acts like Taz, the Dudley Boys, Brian Pillman, Steve Austin and Mick Foley, Paul Heyman (the man in charge of ECW) was granted access to the likes of Al Snow and TAKA Michinoku. The WWF wasn’t going to provide anybody who could be a replacement in terms of star power, and that was what ECW needed.
When WCW and ECW went under within months of each other at the beginning of 2001 it provided Vince with a large enough influx of potential stars which would for years to come. This was good news because there were no major promotions left to raid. Perhaps realising this, a developmental system had been set up. For the first half of the decade the system produced names such as John Cena, Batista, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, The Miz and John Morrison. It was shown that the WWF could still produce its own stars.
Times are once again becoming tough. The developmental system under John Laurinaitis (WWE’s head of talent relations) has faltered, resulting in fewer viable candidates for promotion to the main roster. There are no territories left to steal from. The competition (if it can be called that) either uses wrestlers WWE considers too small (pretty much the entire independent wrestling scene) or stars formerly employed by WWE that failed, for one reason or another, to get over (TNA).
In the long term I believe Vince McMahon, Triple H and the rest of the decision makers in WWE can and will be able to take stars from the developmental system and turn them into genuine main event attractions. The company’s done it before and will can do it again, if only because it has to.
But that will take time and they want, and need, a quick fix. The solution they seem to have decided on has been to look abroad. Several men in prominent positions on WWE’s main rosters are from Britain and Ireland, because there’s no language gap to overcome when signing people from these countries. Sin Cara received over a month of hype before debuting. Alberto Del Rio wrestled in one of the promotion’s top matches at WrestleMania, the biggest WWE event of the year, and is expected to win the World Heavyweight championship at Extreme Rules on May 1st. I imagine there will be an increased drive to sign Mexican talent this year, and the company will likely to start looking towards Japan as well. Brazil is also a possible area Vince will want to look at: it’s predicted to become a major world power in the next few decades, has a large population, and WWE has just signed a TV deal there on a terrestrial station, meaning anyone with a TV set in Brazil can watch WWE.
It’s both positive and negative. Positive because it creates more opportunities for a wider number of workers, indicates WWE is prepared to make concessions to the style its wrestlers use, and let fans experience something different. Negative because it means Vince and company may be preparing to try and do to the successful Japanese and Mexican markets what they did to the territories.
Let’s hope it doesn’t get that far. If it doesn’t go beyond a touring in Mexico, Japan and Europe and signing the occasional wrestler there won’t be a problem. The business could survive that, and WWE could survive on it. Sadly, history’s not on the business’s side.