(Photo courtesy of the WWE,…)
Pro wrestling star John Cena made a grand entrance last Sunday to a sold-out crowd filled with cheering young fans. Packed into Washington's Verizon Center, kids stood on their feet waving foam fingers and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the defiant yet wholesome slogan "Never Give Up."
Over the course of the three-hour World Wrestling Entertainment show, heroes and villains battled it out in the ring, and parents didn't feel compelled to shield their kids' eyes from the action.
What a difference a few years makes. It wasn't all that long ago that wrestlers were waving their middle fingers and fans were wearing Cena T-shirts with a vulgar catchphrase printed across the front. The shapely women wrestled in their underwear - sometimes in pudding - and wrestlers occasionally got so bloody they looked as if they came off the set of a horror movie.
Once a parental nightmare, WWE is now selling itself as family-friendly entertainment. The sexual content, foul language and gory violence that helped build wrestling impresario Vince McMahon's empire has made way for a cleaner product.
"I have fun memories of going to the Arena with my daughter, but when all the sexual stuff started, it became too much for an 8-year-old to see, so I had to quit taking her," said Chris Dolan, a longtime wrestling fan from Dundalk. "Now, I have a 6-year-old stepson who loves wrestling, and the current direction of WWE allows me to take him to the shows."
The new approach cuts across all of WWE's properties, but it's most evident on WWE's flagship television show, "Monday Night Raw." On the USA Network, the show became infamous a decade ago for its raunchy content, but since last summer the program has morphed into a combination pro wrestling/variety show, complete with weekly guest hosts such as Bob Barker and Shaquille O'Neal.
Verne Troyer, best known as Mini-Me in the "Austin Powers" movies, is slated to host "Raw" when it comes to 1st Mariner Arena on Monday.
"It's really allowed us to bring in people that were always following us ... but in the old days may have been just a little bit afraid of our content," WWE Chief Operating Officer Donna Goldsmith said. "Once we changed it, we were able to get these blue-chip sponsors to join."
Besides gaining more sponsors, "Monday Night Raw" has also seen its rating rise as it switched from a TV-14 rating to the tamer TV- PG. And Goldsmith has seen that there has been an increase in female viewers in every age category over the past year.
"I do think that's part of the whole PG thing," she said. "I think they're watching with their families."
What they're no longer seeing when tuning in to the scripted athletic contest/soap opera, is WWE's female characters being portrayed mainly as sex objects. For much of the past decade, the "WWE Divas" were relegated to participating in bra and panties matches and salacious story lines, and a number of them posed nude for Playboy.
These days, WWE promotes the "Divas" as "smart, sexy and powerful." Not only has the company severed its business relationship with Playboy, but WWE now requires its female performers to dress less provocatively in the ring.
"I think the long-term goal in the company right now is to get past the negative stigma of wrestling," said Dave Meltzer, writer of The Wrestling Observer, the industry's leading insider publication. "A lot of the people Vince [McMahon] has hired from organizations outside of wrestling, when they first come in they say, 'You know, compared to tennis, we can't get any sponsors.' "
Despite producing a less offensive product, however, WWE continues to battle public perception among non-wrestling fans. Just ask Linda McMahon, Vince's wife and the former chief executive officer of WWE.
She stepped down from her post in September when she announced her candidacy in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd. It didn't take long for her detractors to use WWE's racier moments against her.
Some critics have even questioned whether WWE's decision to clean up its act was due in part to the fact that Linda McMahon was planning to seek office.
"It's a fair question to ask, but the answer is no," Goldsmith said. "We started changing direction before Linda put her hat in, so that had nothing to do with it."
WWE is just changing with the times, Goldsmith says, much like it did over a decade ago when the product became more risque. Prior to that, WWE programming was like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. Hulk Hogan - who told kids to "train, say your prayers and take your vitamins" - played the role of a jacked-up, patriotic superhero who vanquished all the villains who dared to challenge him.