Savage sportsmen are wrestling for fans Main event: World Championship Wrestling gains a toehold as it grapples with the long-dominant World Wrestling Federation.

UP FRONT

February 15, 1996|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Not even a steel-cage match could settle the hottest feud in professional wrestling today.

Wrestling's top two organizations -- the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling -- are engaged in a quarrel that has gotten nastier than a Texas death match.

This wrasslin' war is being waged in living rooms across the country. Every Monday at 9 p.m., fans must decide whether to watch the WWF's "Monday Night Raw" on the USA Network or WCW's "Monday Nitro" on TNT. This Saturday, World Championship Wrestling is coming to the Baltimore Arena, where fans can judge its lineup in person.

In the quest for prime-time ratings supremacy, WCW continually denigrates the WWF on its show, while the WWF has countered with satirical skits demeaning its competitor's top stars and WCW owner Ted Turner.

What has surprised many is that WCW has a slight edge in the Monday television ratings over the WWF, the organization that had been synonymous with professional wrestling for more than a decade.

After $30 million in losses the previous six years, WCW last year had its first profit, said WCW senior vice president Eric Bischoff, although he would not disclose precise figures.

WCW's success is largely attributed to its luring of Hulk Hogan and Randy "Macho Man" Savage, two of the centerpieces when the WWF reached new heights of wrestling popularity in the mid- to late 1980s.

Mr. Savage will headline WCW's show at the Baltimore Arena on Saturday when he faces world champion "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.

For wrestling aficionados, Mr. Hogan's defection to WCW from the WWF in 1994 would be equivalent to Cal Ripken's abandoning the orange and black of the Orioles for Yankee pin stripes.

"The tide started to turn when Hogan came on board because when that happened, all of a sudden, advertisers looked at us differently," said Mr. Bischoff, who orchestrated the deal to sign Mr. Hogan. "And when the advertisers started coming, the revenue started following. Pay-per-view rates increased when Hulk Hogan came on board.

"All of the sudden it became easier to attract top-level talent because Hulk Hogan was here. Hulk Hogan was the first domino that started the chain reaction of success."

Mr. Savage entered WCW several months later.

Even with "The Hulkster" and "The Macho Man," however, WCW continues to have an identity problem. When Mr. Hogan or Mr. Savage appear on a talk show or make a personal appearance, they often are announced as "WWF superstars."

"One of the things the WWF has done well over the past 10 years is brand itself," said Mr. Bischoff, who has been running WCW for a little over a year. "It's kind of like Xerox copiers.

"I've tried really hard over the past 12 to 18 months to begin to brand WCW, so that when people think about wrestling, they also think about WCW. And that's something that's slowly beginning to happen, but branding is an effort that takes a long time."

That effort is aided by WCW's substantial television exposure. WCW programming is available on 192 stations covering 94 percent of the country. WCW's "Clash of Champions" telecast on TBS last month was the second-highest-rated show on cable for that week (behind O. J. Simpson's interview on BET).

Mr. Bischoff said he is developing projects using WCW characters outside of wrestling, including an animated series and a children's live-action game show. He also said he is negotiating with Disney and Universal Studios to have a WCW theme-park attraction.

The WWF, in response to the defection of its top stars, has turned the spotlight on its younger wrestlers, which it refers to as "The New Generation." The inference that Mr. Hogan and Mr. Savage (both in their mid-40s) are past their primes was about as subtle as one of Mr. Hogan's flying leg drops.

The battle escalated last September when Mr. Bischoff created the live, prime-time "Monday Nitro" to oppose the WWF's popular "Monday Night Raw."

Mr. Bischoff, who also serves as an announcer on "Monday Nitro," said the success of his show is due in part to the unpredictability of doing a live broadcast every week, whereas "Monday Night Raw" is live once every three weeks. The timing of WCW's matches allows Mr. Bischoff sometimes to divulge the results of taped WWF matches on the air.

"We're far more unpredictable, I guarantee you, because half the time when I show up on Monday morning to a production meeting, I'm not sure where we're going, so there's no way anyone else could know," Mr. Bischoff said.

Last month, the WWF changed its policy of not even acknowledging WCW's existence when it began airing its anti-WCW parodies (although never referring to WCW by name).

The message in the skits is that WCW stole the WWF's talent and is attempting to put the WWF out of business.

"We're not trying to put them out of business. We're just trying to increase our market share," Mr. Bischoff said. "I really don't think about, nor care, what the WWF does, as long as we continue to grow and achieve success."

With the success of the Monday shows and the revenue generated from pay-per-view broadcasts, the trend has been for both groups to concentrate on television and decrease the number of nontelevised local house shows per year.

WCW, which once had monthly shows at venues such as the Baltimore Arena, is making its first appearance here in a year.

With an advance sale of about 5,000 tickets for Saturday's show, Mr. Bischoff said it probably won't be another year before WCW returns.

"If things continue to go for us the way they're going in Baltimore, meaning the level of interest and the results in ticket sales, then I want to be back, but I don't want to come back so often that we burn ourselves out," he said. "If the circus came to town every week, people wouldn't go to the circus."

The facts

What: World Championship Wrestling

Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $9-$16

Call: (410) 481-SEAT for tickets, (410) 727-7811 for accessible seating information

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