The great escape

Claiming to clean up its steroids act, the industry rebounds strongly after Benoit's grisly murder-suicide

May 02, 2008|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

When wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son and hanged himself last summer, some wondered if his former employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, would face congressional scrutiny or even financial peril.

Dozens of Benoit's peers, including several WWE headliners, had already died young, with many of their passings linked to steroid abuse, painkiller addiction and other stresses associated with grueling travel and performance schedules. But the grisly Benoit episode, with its ties to steroids, concussions and other hot-button issues, dragged the WWE into mainstream headlines like never before.

Could the company continue to thrive as it had after past tragedies?

Ten months later, the WWE sold out Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena on Sunday for its Backlash pay-per-view show. The sellout wasn't a fluke. Business is good.

The WWE overcame television ratings dips after the Benoit killings and a general decline in pay-per-view buys to earn a record $485.7 million in gross revenue in 2007. Expanded overseas viewership and DVD sales have fortified the company.

On March 30, the WWE drew 74,635 fans to Orlando's Citrus Bowl for its Wrestlemania XXIV extravaganza. Early indicators suggest that more than 1 million people paid $55 to $70 each to watch on television around the world. Mainstream stars such as rapper Snoop Dogg, singer John Legend and boxer Floyd Mayweather seemed happy to appear with wrestling stalwarts John Cena and Triple H.

Two weeks ago, the three major presidential candidates appeared in taped segments on WWE's RAW program to ask for votes from wrestling fans.

"Can anything happen that would be bad enough to hurt the industry long-term with the public?" said Dave Meltzer, who has covered the business for more than 25 years in his Wrestling Observer newsletter. "I think this told us no. As long as you can come back and present an entertaining product, that's what fans care about."

The company wasn't sure how the Benoit tragedy would impact business, spokesman Gary Davis said, but followed a simple formula to confront the issue.

"We continued to focus on our business fundamentals and to be responsive to legitimate concerns and questions posed to us about the issues," he said.

Skeptics wonder if the WWE has gotten back to business as usual and escaped the Benoit scandal a little too unscathed.

"Every time something terrible happens, you hear the claims that they're going to clean up," said the WWE's greatest early star, Bruno Sammartino. "But the fact is that after things quiet down and they maybe release a few nobodies to show they mean business, they go back to their old ways. In my opinion, I still see physiques that you just can't get by doing it the natural way."

The WWE says it has implemented and enforced one of the strictest testing policies for steroids and recreational drugs in sports or entertainment. Two months after the Benoit incident, the company suspended 10 wrestlers, including Adam Copeland (Edge), Ken Anderson (Mr. Kennedy) and Edward Fatu (Umaga), for their connections to a federal steroids investigation. WWE suspended another star, Jeff Hardy, just before Wrestlemania.

The company also offered to pay for drug treatment for any of its former wrestlers and now requires annual physicals and cardiac tests for all performers.

Moves like that, along with a heightened awareness of other health concerns such as concussions, show that the company is moving in a better direction, said Marc Mero, a former WWE wrestler who sharply criticized the company in the wake of Benoit's death.

"They have been making strides to change the business," said Mero, who used steroids and recreational drugs during his career. "Can more be done? Well sure, always. My main thing is to make sure the progress doesn't go away."

Meltzer agreed that the Benoit tragedy spurred positive change. "No one believes it's 100 percent clean," he said. "But has it made a difference? Yes."

Davis said he'd like fans to understand "that WWE is committed to doing everything it can to help WWE performers of today lead healthier lives than pro wrestlers of past generations."

The WWE has so far avoided congressional hearings (Congress did request testing records from the company, and chairman Vince McMahon was invited to a recent session featuring other sports commissioners but declined to attend because his attorney couldn't break away from another case).

Placed in a broader sports context, the WWE's resilience is hardly shocking. Baseball just posted a record revenue year despite steroid scandals that have dragged its commissioner before Congress and scarred the reputations of its greatest players. The NFL is the nation's most popular league despite the poor behavior of some players and a cheating scandal around its most glamorous team.

But the wrestling industry's history with drugs and premature death is bleaker.

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