I recently took my 2-year-old son to a WWE house show at Madison Square Garden. As we walked up the steps from Penn Station up to the Garden, we came upon what appeared to be a homeless man.
He saw my son decked out in his purple and yellow John Cena gear and he asked, “You going to see wrestling?”
I responded “yes,” but I also immediately thought in my mind, “Don’t let Vince McMahon hear you say that.”
You see, for years WWE officials have been trying to convince the public—and themselves—that they are not, in fact, in the professional wrestling business. I’ve even been reprimanded by WWE public relations staffers time and again for the use of the dirty “W” word in my stories.
And, just earlier this week, WWE made it official. It took “wrestling” out of its name for good. It is no longer World Wrestling Entertainment, but rather, just WWE. What do those letters stand for? Well, presumably nothing. They’re just WWE.
The best comparison I’ve heard drawn is when Kentucky Fried Chicken years ago officially changed its name to KFC.
Another example is when, back in the mid-1990s, boy band pioneers the New Kids on the Block, in an effort to be taken more seriously, officially changed their name to NKOTB.
In all these cases, the motivation in getting rid of the words that the acronym stands for was the same: The desire to hide from something perceived as shameful, whether it’s fried chicken, the term “kids,” or wrestling.
And, for all the corporate branding mumbo jumbo, the strategy never works. KFC is once again Kentucky Fried Chicken. And, NKOTB are the New Kids once again, even though some of the group’s members are in their 40’s.
In both those cases, the groups eventually realized the obvious: It doesn’t matter what you call yourself, you can’t escape from what you are, and how your followers perceive you. And trying in vein to continue such a ruse only serves to insult your audience.
There have been few greater exercises in futility than WWE’s desperate attempt to rebrand themselves as something other than a wrestling company. WWE’s corporate web site calls the company “an integrated media organization and recognized leader in global entertainment.”
Next time you go to a WWE show, ask any fan in the building, regardless of age, what it is they’re watching. Some will say WWE. I’d bet many more would say “wrestling.” But I can assure you, without a shadow of a doubt, not a single one will use the terms “integrated media” or “global entertainment.”
Now, I get where WWE is coming from. The truth is that they really are so much more than just a wrestling promotion, by the traditional sense of the term. WWE is a $100 million publicly traded a company that also produces live television, films, a reality show, music, books, and more. Certainly, compared to the typical business model of a pro wrestling promotion over the years—and even compared to its nearest competitor, TNA—WWE is in a league of its own. That much was evidenced by the unmatched production values of last week’s WrestleMania.
But, at the end of the day, WWE’s main product is pro wrestling. For four hours a week on live TV, on pay per view, and at arena shows, fans come to watch trained professional wrestlers stand in a wrestling ring and either wrestle a match, or promote a forthcoming wrestling match.
Watching WWE and its employees try to avoid using the “W” word like the plague can be both absurd and highly amusing. On last week’s Raw, Jim Ross remarked about Jerry Lawler wearing his “grappling” gear at the announce desk. In career retrospective DVDs, WWE performers talk about how they grew up dreaming of wanting to be “entertainers.” Why don’t I believe that?
Making matters more confusing is how inconsistent WWE can be. As I mentioned before, I was scolded by a WWE employee for using the term “wrestlers” in a Newsday story about Snooki taking part in WrestleMania. And yet, the WWE-issued press release that I was working off of included the headline “Snooki to Wrestle at WrestleMania.”
In his show-opening promo on last Monday’s Raw, Triple-H spoke of “wrestling” the Undertaker the night before. On the WWE-produced premier of Tough Enough that immediately followed Raw, the word was used all over the place. A couple days later, in its press release announcing its new business plan, WWE spoke of a new talent recruitment initiative that would scour the world for new acts. And where exactly will they be looking for these performers other than in wrestling companies?
I don’t mind WWE trying to brand its performers as “Superstars” and “Divas,” and even to educate the public that they do a lot more than just promote wrestling matches. But the exhaustive effort to avoid using the term “wrestling”—even when it’s only word that fits— is a just a complete waste of time and energy and will never catch on.
The ironic part is that the company that wants to deny being a wrestling company is the one that has traditionally done the best job of promoting wrestling in the U.S.
On the other hand, if TNA said it wasn’t a wrestling company, I wouldn’t argue.