This series will look at events that have occurred in the world of business, marketing, and all that other stuff that goes on in the world every so often. I hope these are useful to any business owner, either by providing a new perspective or enabling stealthy procrastination. I’m struggling to write a succinct introduction to this first piece, so this sentence is going to end now.
The Billionaire vs. The Millionaire
WWE Vs WCW – 1995-2001
The Monday Night Wars
This is a story about a fascinating battle between two companies who were willing to “fight to the death”. There would never be a ceasefire or peace treaty.
Under the leadership of Vince McMahon, the World Wrestling Federation turned professional wrestling into a global business with annual revenues of over $500million.
They were the number one brand for their unique form of entertainment. This status was unchallenged for over a decade.
That was until the early 90s when Ted Turner decided he quite liked wrestling and wanted to see if he could compete with McMahon. While McMahon was not exactly poor himself, Turner was a bonafide billionaire, owning a massive broadcast network. He was willing to use this advantage to defeat McMahon and become the new undisputed king of the wrestling business, and he was successful, for a time.
Turner created a new show called WCW Monday Nitro and put the show on head to head against WWF’s Monday Night Raw. He hired a young executive producer called Eric Bischoff to modernise the show and “have it compete with Vince’s product”.
Bischoff made many changes, but let’s focus on the most critical ones. Bischoff offered generous contracts to the most famous wrestlers that McMahon had helped make into superstars, including Hulk Hogan, the most famous wrestler of all time.
Bischoff then offered guaranteed contracts to two of WWF’s most popular new stars, knowing McMahon couldn’t afford to match the offer. He had wrestlers use real names over cartoony characters and created edgy, more realistic storylines.
In comparison, WWF’s events often felt like pantomimes. The creative team invented characters using the same formula that had always been successful. There are too many to mention, but these included several clowns, a garbage man, a plumber, and a dentist who had bad teeth. The audience was bored. The formula had stopped working.
Audiences switched channels. They wanted the edgy, exciting and more realistic WCW Monday Nitro.
For over 80 straight weeks, Ted Turner’s WCW Monday Nitro defeated WWF Monday Night Raw in the ratings. The business McMahon’s father started in 1960 was perilously close to being out for the count. He got one shoulder up and fought his way back.
How did the WWE find a way to win?
While McMahon had overall control, he listened to the wrestlers who interacted the audience almost every day. They told him what the problems were. He listened. McMahon personally went on television and told viewers they wouldn’t have their intelligence insulted anymore and to expect a much different show in future. He gave the talent creative license to be daring and develop new characters. Over the period of a year, the product was unrecognisable from its former self. Monday Night Raw was provocative, offensive, sexual, vulgar, bloody, violent and a times, downright fucking weird. New stars blossomed. Consumers we’re being entertained again.
Meanwhile, WCW were still parading around the same aging wrestlers from the 80s. WCW couldn’t copy WWE’s new format as Ted Turner’s organisation has ‘standards and practices’ that wouldn’t allow them to feature the demonstrably popular format. I believe we call these brand guidelines in our world.
The WWF had to rebrand to WWE due to a lawsuit from an animal charity also called WWF. However, this was of little importance. WWE’s daring new format and WCW’s lack of further innovation and inability to develop new stars of their own led to the company falling into serious decline. They could no longer poach talent from the WWE, as few wrestlers wanted to join a sinking ship.
It took time, patience, hardships, and brass balls, but the plan eventually worked. WWE’s Ratings increased as WCW’s declined. Once again, McMahon’s WWE was the biggest professional wrestling business in the world. The years that followed (from 1997-2001) became known as “The Attitude Era.” Wrestlers, fans, and critics agree it was the most creative, daring, entertaining and financially successful period in the company’s 35 year history.
In 2001, McMahon bought WCW for just $1million. The war was over. The winner was clear.
What can we learn from this?
1. You can get repositioned by a new brand at any time – and they may genuinely have a better offering or be in a stronger position than you – including being cash rich. Hopefully, Ted Turner won’t be invading your niche soon.
2. You can’t always play it safe. Dave Trott once said in an LSE lecture that his favourite clients were those in peril, as they had to be daring.
WWE stayed with their model of ‘gimmicky’ characters but got lazy. Shock horror, the garbage man wrestler never became a superstar and didn’t sell much merchandise.
3. Not everyone will survive these genuinely terrifying moments. Someone has to lose. However, these moments should force you to experiment and rather than merely surviving, you may excel. It could by your ‘tipping point.’
4. WCW possessing almost unlimited funds was clearly a strong part of their arsenal that hurt their competitor. Another part of their arsenal had the opposite effect. This was their “standards and practices document”, a marzipan shield that attempted to protect their brand from negative feedback. It prevented WCW from even trying to give consumers what they clearly desired.
I’m sure these standards came from the very top of the organisation that owned and funded WCW. They only allowed creativity within certain confines. A gigantic budget is pointless if you’re only allowed to create crap that nobody wants.
5. You don’t have to go toe to toe with a giant, in this case, Ted Turner’s seemingly endless pockets. WCW’s strategy was to steal talent away from WWE. WWE couldn’t win that battle. Instead, they thought laterally and changed the fight to one they could win. They dramatically changed their product and aimed it at an older audience with mature, risque content. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off, and McMahon reigned supreme once again.
Thanks for reading! We will be back with more “Business Adventures” in the coming days, weeks and months and … that’s as far as I can see forward right now.
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