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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Linda 2010: Wrestling's Biggest Botched Move

Forget Evan Bourne, John Morrison, or Tyson Kidd. This election season, the highest risk maneuver was executed by the McMahon family itself.

Indeed WWE attempted the biggest high spot of all—the equivalent of a shooting star press onto a ringside table from the top rung of a ladder while it was balanced on the ropes. They had their longtime CEO run for U.S. Senate.

And, like in wrestling, the wisdom of that maneuver was ultimately judged by its success. Hit that moonsault flush, and you look like a hero. Miss it, and you look like a fool. But, alas, Linda McMahon last night connected with nothing but an empty mat. And so the McMahon family’s decision to run for Senate can now officially be looked at as not much more than a colossal miscalculation.

And this is not a case of 20/20 hindsight. Most anybody who has closely followed Vince and Linda McMahon over the 30 years that they’ve run WWE realized how ludicrous it was to have Linda run for public office with a track record of doing not much more than being chief executive officer of a corporation that most Americans consider silly or sleazy or both.

And, yet, somehow the McMahons seem to be taken off-guard by how poorly their political gamble turned out. And what an expensive gamble it was. Linda McMahon reportedly spent $50-million of her own money—that is to say money the McMahon family has earned running WWE—to finance her election. For that huge sum, WWE bought itself some of the worst publicity it has ever received, and that’s saying a lot.

Fair or unfair, the mainstream media typically ignores the pro wrestling industry, unless a big celebrity makes a crossover appearance or a high-profile wrestler drops dead. And while the McMahons may have over the years resented the fact that the “elitist” media’s neglect has meant that some of WWE’s impressive accomplishments have gone ignored by the general public (dominant cable ratings, live attendance records, recognition from charitable groups), they should count their blessings that many of the negative stories coming from WWE have also gone under reported.

But that all changes when you have one of your top executives run for national office. As would be expected, Linda McMahon’s candidacy led to both reporters and political adversaries trying to turn over every stone to uncover the dirt on her. And they didn’t have to look too far.

Appalling WWE storylines involving misogyny, incest, and even necrophilia gained a national spotlight. New attention was drawn to the spate of premature deaths among ex-WWE wrestlers, and the drug abuse behind many of those deaths. Connecticut authorities even began looking into the questionable classification of WWE performers as independent contractors. Skeleton after skeleton after skeleton was unearthed from the McMahons' family closet.

The McMahons may have thought the kind of scrutiny they received was unfair—and maybe some of it was—but they should have expected it. The truth is that neither Richard Blumenthal’s operatives nor the mainstream media scratched the surface of the myriad bad calls that WWE made while Linda McMahon was at the helm. (I saw no mention anywhere of the single most tasteless WWE angle I ever witnessed—Muhammad Hassan’s simulated terrorist beheading of The Undertaker, which aired on TV on the same day as the 2005 London train bombings.)

But, instead, the McMahons appeared shocked—and even indignant—over the criticism they were receiving in the mainstream media. WWE responded by launching another potentially expensive media campaign, this one drawing attention to all the good work WWE does and casting anyone who questions WWE’s benevolence as a mean bully.

It’s worth noting that WWE really does do a lot of good things. Although I could do without all the self-aggrandizing, I’ve never doubted WWE’s motives in visiting American troops or granting the wishes of sick children. They are selfless and honorable deeds, and WWE won’t let you forget them. Beyond that, it’s true that WWE generally brings a lot of happiness to the lives of its fans, and that many a family comes together to enjoy WWE entertainment.

But as much as it has tried to reinvent itself and hide from that dirty “wrestling” label, in the end, WWE should be well aware of its bad reputation, and not put itself in a situation to make many more people aware of it.

Even while trying to discredit their detractors, the McMahons only gave them ammunition in recent weeks with some of the most embarrassing antics they’ve ever attempted: A heavy-handed “Stand Up For WWE” campaign. A lawsuit against the state for not allowing voters to wear John Cena T-Shirts. A vow to give away free WWE merchandise outside polling locations. A “fan appreciation night” in Connecticut four days before the election in which WWE deeply discounted tickets in a thinly veiled attempt to buy votes. Another WWE event in a Connecticut arena on Election Day itself.

And then there was that disgrace of a segment on this past Monday’s Raw featuring WWE Chairman Vince McMahon presumably moving his bowels on a Blumenthal campaign sign. How dare anyone question the tactfulness of WWE!

And so, after the last vote was counted, Linda and Vince McMahon's baby, World Wrestling Entertainment, is left with an even worse mainstream reputation than it had before the race. And Vince and Linda themselves are $50-million poorer.

And so maybe the McMahons are finally ready to return their focus to running the family business. With pay-per-view buy rates and TV ratings the lowest they’ve been in years, it couldn’t come too soon.

All that said, there is a silver lining in the fiasco that was “Linda 2010.” The fact is that WWE may have inadvertently benefited from McMahon’s campaign in ways it may not realize today.

Even while defending themselves from the various criticisms they have faced over the last several months, the previously oblivious McMahons must have had their eyes opened to their company’s perception outside the bubble of the WWE Universe. The reality is that the fun, fantasy world of WWE has a lot of real world problems to address.

Only good things can come from that kind of self-awareness—and some already have. The issue of whether WWE superstars should be classified as employees, and therefore receive benefits including health insurance, is being given more consideration than it ever has. During the campaign, WWE banned any use of the lethal prescription drug Soma, took further measures to protect performers from dangerous concussions—including by banning unprotected chair shots to the head—and toned down some of the needless gore and salaciousness in its TV product.

While the motives in making those moves may have been less than pure, they nevertheless got done.

And maybe, along the way, you even got some cheap WWE tickets as well.

Al Castle

Pro Wrestling Illustrated Senior Writer


Pro Wrestling Illustrated said...

Nice column, Al. And to think, all that WWE baggage and she still lost by little more than 100,000 votes.

Mike Bessler said...

This is one of the most insightful pieces on wrestling and politics I've read anywhere, ever. A great read.

Pro Wrestling Illustrated said... reported that Linda and Hubby spent $46.1-million on the campaign, which means they spent $100.07 for each vote Linda received.

Linda has said in her concession speech that she and her people sent a message to Washington and that there are no regrets on her part.

For all the bad publicity that Al spoke of, I have to think Linda was enriched by the experience and that the financial hit won't impact the McMahons' lifestyle one iota.

Stu Saks

Pro Wrestling Illustrated said...

I agree that the McMahons won't be missing any meals after spending $50 million, but I don't know about the experience being enriching. I really think that the McMahons were somewhat oblivious to their public perception, and may have thought twice about running for elected office if they realized how much the family business would be dragged through the mud.
-Al Castle