Professional Wrestling and its Fans

A Sociological Study
of the Sport of Pro-Wrestling

In this article, Alex Kreit explores the history of pro-wrestling and its relationship with its fans. It was originally written as a paper for his "Sports and Society" class at Amherst College and represents a scholarly examination of our favorite Sports Entertainment. It is presented here complete with footnotes which are accessed by clicking on the number links scattered throughout the text. Return links are provided in the footnotes section to take you back to where you left off in the narrative.

by Alex Kreit

A Phenomenon Examined

When the owner of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) "disclosed that their terrifying towers in spandex tights [were] really no more dangerous to one another than Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy,"(1) it made the front page of the New York Times. Two years earlier, when a crowd of 93,000 came out to see WWF's Wrestlemania III, setting a new attendance record for an indoor event, it was not covered in the Times. Did anyone really have any misconceptions that wrestling was real prior to the WWF's admission to the New Jersey Senate in 1989?

Professional wrestling matches have been fixed since the 1910's and 20's and the fact has been reported many times before, only never in such an official manner. Although the media have reported that wrestling matched are fixed since the 1930's, the opportunity to confirm the news that "millions of grown men and women just don't want to know"(2) was one that the Times could not pass up.

While the news might not have been shocking to most Americans, it did seem to present a "new" question that had been addressed before only by a handful of intellectuals and an unknown number of fans: If not a sport, then what exactly is professional wrestling?

Unfortunately, many did not think to answer the "new" question, seeing the article as an answer to an old one and the ultimate reason to dismiss a multi-million dollar, world-wide phenomenon. The question of whether professional wrestling is real has hindered serious discussion of the "sport" subject since its beginning. It seems as though many thought that every fan must be a fool; if they knew it were fake then why would they watch it? However, this attitude is preposterous because few, if any, adults actually do believe that there is a man named The Undertaker who has risen from the dead and decided to appear each Monday night on cable television.

Does Titan Sports, the parent company of the WWF, intend for anyone over the age of ten to believe that he is witnessing pure competition? The response of Ricky Giri, owner of a prominent professional-wrestling oriented web site and long-time fan, is typical of many who follow wrestling today. "People constantly talk bad about wrestling because it's 'fake.' When did wrestling ever claim to be real? It's really annoying when wrestlers go on talk shows and are asked if it is fake. Do people ask Jerry Seinfeld if 'Seinfeld' is fake on a consistent basis? It's entertainment, just like any other television program."(3)

Certainly, "if we think of wrestling as fake, we're judging it for something that it's not trying to be."(4)

In fact, much of what is interesting about professional wrestling lies in the fact that, in the context of sport, it is fake. "We can easily see why wrestling makes an interesting subject: everybody knows or at least suspects it's not on the level. At the same time, however, not only does it have a core of die-hard fans who watch it week after week but it manages to exercise a mystique over those who doubt it."(5)

The French intellectual Roland Barthes was one of the first to explore wrestling as more than just a fake sport, in print, with his essay "The World of Wrestling." His conclusion is one that is shared by many of today's fans and, at least to some degree, by subsequent authors. "Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque."(6)

While Barthes' essay was groundbreaking it was focused on semiotics and, consequently, failed to address one of the aspects of professional wrestling that makes it most peculiar. It would not be difficult to read Barthes' analysis and view wrestling as no different from many other forms of drama.

It is true that the essence of wrestling is the morality play, but it can not be removed from sports entirely. The biggest difference between wrestling and other televised scripted drama is that there are not many people who would think to call their favorite television character by their screen name when meeting them in person. In wrestling, however, "if you shake hands with Ric Flair, you're shaking hands with the Ric Flair that's going to be in the ring...the actors and characters are the same."(7)

This could be because many fans don't know most wrestlers' real names but there is more to it than that, most wrestlers and others in the business keep up their act in public. "All participants, including fans, present others with at least a bit of "kayfabe," a term which is taken from nineteenth-century carnival, medicine show, and sideshow practice and simply refers to a con or deception... A kayfabian, then, is a con artist; most wrestlers are proud to be called kayfabians because it means they're in on the (con) game."(8)

Furthermore, kayfabians walk a thin line between calling wrestling "fake" and calling it "real."

For instance, a wrestler might say that " bothers me to this day when people ask me the question: 'Is professional wrestling real or fake?' I get upset with that question because of the use of the word fake. To me, fake gives the impression that the job of a wrestler is easy. Believe me, it's far from easy. Wrestling is a sport and it's theater as well."(9)

However, when asked if matches are predetermined, people in the business will usually say, "If you don't know I am not going to tell you."(10)

Wrestlers do not keep "kayfabe" to fool the ignorant. In part, they are giving a silly answer to a silly question; the question has been answered and the only reasons one would ask it again is to mock wrestling or because he had a hard time understanding the first time.

More importantly, however, it adds to the drama and the mystery. Sure, fans know that wrestling is scripted but do they know who's in charge of developing the story lines? They know that the outcomes of matches are predetermined; but are they completely choreographed or is there room for some improvisation between the performers? Do the wrestlers do their own choreographing or does someone else do it? These questions add new levels of intrigue for many fans. "They don't so much suspend disbelief as they sustain it while looking for moments in which to believe. They look to see the fake and to see through the fake to the real. They scrutinize performances, examining each punch for its impact or non impact and matches for the logic of the exchanges as they evaluate story lines and angles offered on the basis of believability in relation to the real world.

The pleasure peculiar to wrestling is in the way it engages its audiences directly in its play, in affirming and challenging cultural norms and in believing and disbelieving in what it sees at the same time."(11)

In order to study a cultural phenomenon like professional wrestling, one must understand what it is. It is clearly unlike other activities that are in the category of sports; baseball and boxing, at least in theory, are pure contests. However, it would not take more than one Super Bowl to realize that modern sports are also, at least to some degree, theatrical events. Cheerleaders, pyrotechnics, announcers, and half-time shows are not essential to the contest; but they are staples in today's sporting events. (Even high school football teams have cheerleaders.) These elements are clearly meant only to add to the drama and, as a result, to the ratings and ticket sales.

Although theatrics are a part of both professional wrestling and many of today's legitimate sports, the dramatic element is much more important to wrestling. "...wrestling is an inversion of competitive sports. Most sports begin as games that the press and public then overlay with their own wish-fulfillment in order to turn the game into a melodrama. Wrestling begins with the situations and characters of melodrama and then, through its own devices, turns them into a game."(12)

This is probably the best definition of professional wrestling in relation to sports that one can give.

However, professional wrestling is more than just a fixed sport, "professional wrestling is an athletic performance practice that is constructed around the display of the male body and a tradition of cooperative rather than competitive exchanges between men... what is important is not winning or losing per se. Rather it is, literally, how the game is played... What [most studies] have in common is their presentation of wrestling underlying social and moral ethos as a model of lower-class expressions of the desire for a non ambiguous moral order where virtue may not always prevail, but it is easily recognizable and always worth cheering."(13)

Professional Wrestling: A Working Class Sport

The types of sports and other leisure activities in which a person participates is often related to his or her economic status or "class." "In much of the capitalist world one can continue to place a person socioeconomically by his or her participating and spectator sports."(14) Moreover, one can also assert his affiliation with a certain economic class by participating in certain sports.

For instance, an affluent factory owner might want to attend a monster truck rally in order to appear less removed from his workers, or an elected official may want to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game to identify himself and "one of the guys." A number of sporting events, such as car racing, are seen as working class sports and most of them have at least a few things in common. "Prole sports...have several characteristics that make them 'grand spectacles': (1) speed and power rather than agility, grace, or finesse; (2) artifacts that are derived from prole culture such as motorcycles; (3) identification with the "players" or participants; and, (4) the fact that spectators often become participants."(15) Among the sports that have these attributes is professional wrestling. But the connection between wrestling and the working class is much older than any professional wrestling organization.

Wrestling, in some form or another, has been a part of more societies than any other sport, except possibly running; because neither of the two sports requires any equipment, they were easily adapted by primitive and modern societies alike. This is also one of the reasons that wrestling has been primarily a prole sport throughout its history. "Wrestling has always been a sport of the people... in three regards.

First, it has always been found as a scheduled activity or impromptu game when common people in many cultures gather on festive occasions. Second, the participants have regularly come from the common folk rather than from the aristocratic classes. And third, the audience it draws is composed predominantly of ordinary people; its appeal is not exclusive or limited to an initiated elite."(16) All three of these statements have held true for wrestling since its beginning and were not lost in the transformation from wrestling to rasslin.

Professional wrestling as we know it today did not appear one day as a high paced "fake" version of "legitimate" wrestling. In fact, professional wrestling began as pure contest.

Americans have been participating in wrestling since as early as 1680. A number of important American figures including George Washington and Abe Lincoln participated in wrestling. "Lincoln typified early rural American wrestling in which an out of town challenger took on a local strongman."(17)

During this time there were three distinct styles of wrestling, collar and elbow, Greco-Roman, and "catch-as-catch-can."

Although catch-as-catch-can was by far the most popular of the three, collar and elbow has the most influence over both the professional and amateur wrestling that exists today. The collar and elbow style was brought to America by Irish immigrants and was most popular in the farming areas of Vermont. The name came from the stance the wrestlers took at the start of each match. The participants started by facing each other with one hand on his opponent's shoulder and the other on his elbow. The match proceeded from this point, with the wrestlers kicking or running at each other. The wrestlers stayed in this stance until one was able to push the other to the mat. Once on the mat, the wrestling continued until one was able to pin the other's shoulders and hips down for the count of three. Particularly because of the long opening "lock-up," collar and elbow matches often lasted more than an hour without a single break.

The collar and elbow style began to spread to other parts of America during the Civil War. The officers chose wrestling as the sport to train soldiers because, since it required no equipment, it was the most cost effective. The Vermont wrestlers faired quite well and their style began to catch on among the rest of the troops. It spread quickly throughout the Union Army during the war and was making big money by the 1880's. It was a legitimate sport and was covered in local newspapers regularly; but, even in those early days, professional wrestling was not well respected by the mainstream and associated with the working class. "The ideal was amateurism.

In contrast, individualistic activities such as prize fighting and wrestling were at the time early spectator sports that led to professionalism and attracted the gambling set, the unruly crowd. While the papers reported bare knuckle fights, they also condemned them."(18)

Despite the negative press, wrestling was very popular and filled a need for America's growing love of spectator sports during a time without many professional leagues. As with any sport, wrestling needed business men in order to become professional.

In baseball, business men owned teams and one man's team would play another's. In wrestling, however, the business man became a promoter. His job was to provide the location, front the money, and promote the match. In return he would usually get a large share of the profits. The first promoters were saloon owners who decided to add stage halls into their establishments, transforming them into "sports bars." They would hold both wrestling matches and fist fights and charge their customers a fee to witness the events. Eventually some of the matches became too big for bars and, in 1880, the first truly big wrestling event was held in the first Madison Square Gardens, Gillmore's Gardens.

The bout pitted William Muldoon against Thiebaud Bauer in front of a crowd of 3,000, which was quite decent for those days. The match was Greco-Roman style; but it is nevertheless mentioned in today's' popular professional wrestling publications as an important date in the evolution of the sport. Indeed, this match, although not of the collar and elbow style, helped lead to the astounding popularity professional wrestling enjoyed in the late 1890's and early 1900's.

Muldoon emerged from the match victorious and walked away with the Greco-Roman championship. It was a challenge from a catch-as-catch-can wrestler during his title reign that led promoters to consider exactly what standard form of wrestling should be employed.

Pro-Wrestling Goes International

By the late 1880's, American professional wrestlers were traveling to other countries, demonstrating their athletic ability and helping to make professional wrestling somewhat of an international sport. However, professional wrestling was not a well respected sport. Aside from the tendency to gamble that often went on, professional wrestling was not formed into one league like baseball, consequently opening the way for each promoter to proclaim his own "world's champion." "Wrestling... grew on the fringe of respectable society...

The very independence of the sport left it open to all the controversy, conflicting championships and suspect contests still found in boxing today."(19) However, the occasional suspect bout of the late 1800's, where one wrestler would be paid to take a dive, was a long ways from a fixed match where the loser wasn't paid off, but rather worked cooperatively with his in ring "opponent."

While not entirely well thought of, professional wrestling was becoming quite popular, especially overseas and "by the early 1900's professional wrestling was an established international sport."(20)

The controversial and profitable title matches of 1908 and 1911 involving Russian George Hackenschmidt are proof that American professional wrestling had spread to many places around the world.

In the matches, challenger and Iowan Frank Gotch faced Hackenschmidt, who had won a match against Tom Jenkins four years earlier to become the first widely recognized "world champion." The championship was recognized by a loose organization of promoters known as the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA); by the end of the 1908 bout, the belt was around Gotch's waist. His win was not particularly admirable, as Hackenschmidt quit two hours into the match complaining that Gotch had oiled his body to help him escape from holds. The 1911 rematch was held at Chomiskey Park in Chicago and was attended by 40,000 spectators who paid a record $90,000.

Although the match was a huge financial success, it was another sporting failure. Hackenschmidt wrestled the match with an injured leg, supposedly caused by a training partner who had been paid by Gotch. Gotch won in a matter of minutes and the crowd was quite unsatisfied. Together the two matches caused professional wrestling to lose much of its popularity.

"The failure of these two matches to satisfy audiences, and the accusations of fraud marked a temporary decline in the popularity of wrestling that lasted until the late 1920's."(21) The matches between Gotch and Hackenschmidt presented huge problems for professional wrestling. The first match, like almost all matches at the time, was much too long for fans to enjoy. Furthermore, it was incredibly slow paced. The second match saw Gotch "work" Hackenschmidt's leg and cause him considerable pain in a demonstration of just how dangerous professional wrestling could be. Additionally, while the brevity of the match was unusual, it reinforced the feeling that the times of matches needed to be controlled.

These concerns ultimately led to professional wrestling's transformation from contest to show. However, fixing the matches didn't exactly fix professional wrestling. By the mid 1920's almost all competition was gone from professional wrestling, causing a minor resurgence in popularity. Unfortunately, it also posed a whole new set of problems. "When the 'fix' was inadvertently discovered fans were outraged (Note: For example, once in 1929 in New York City, a drunken press agent accidentally released all the next night's winners to the newspapers.)...

Professional wrestling was caught between two undesirable extremes. On the one hand, audiences were bored by the bureaucratically controlled ritual, and on the other hand, they were outraged at the deceit of the promoters."(22) By the mid 1930's professional wrestling was something of a laughing stock and its spectators began to be seen not only as low class but also as fools.

By the late 1930's professional wrestling had disappeared from the mainstream; but it was not in danger of extinction. Wrestling remained popular among many working class spectators who watched competitors grapple in small regional promotions, which had replaced larger "national" promotions. "

In 1933, there were six 'world champions'; in 1934, two; but, by 1943, the list had swelled to fifteen."(23) Each regional promoter controlled a "territory" of the United States and the other promoters respected the boundaries. No one in wrestling was making the large sums of money that might have been possible in a national promotion; but everyone was doing decently in an industry almost free of competition.

Aside from respecting territorial boundaries, promotions rarely, if ever, competed for talent and long term contracts were non-existent. "In those days wrestling was very much a regional sport. A guy would come into an area and wrestle there as long as he could before becoming 'overexposed.' When that happened, it was time to move on."(24) Although the wrestling business wasn't poor, it was outside the mainstream.

Most newspapers had already stopped covering it and it didn't lend itself to radio. "Wrestling coverage in the print media and over radio had been dismal... The only mention of wrestling on the sports pages were derogatory remarks from 'real athletes' and sports writers."(25) The situation allowed the ideas of the early 30's to settle and stereotypes of professional wrestling fans as working class and foolish became ingrained in popular opinion. More importantly, the two stereotypes blended together and it became increasingly difficult to separate the foolish fan from the working class fan.

Television Changes Everything

By the 1940's it seemed as though professional wrestling would never find a place in America popular culture; but television changed its course. The 1950's saw the television spread to households across the country and executives were in search of low cost programming that could produce big ratings and fill the air waves. How programmers discovered professional wrestling is a mystery; but by the mid 50's professional wrestling had become a television staple and was enjoying enormous popularity.

The popularity did inspire one or two national wrestling programs; but the vast majority of shows were produced for local stations. The regional arrangement of promotions, however, was one of the few aspects of the business that went unchanged during the second meeting between American popular culture and professional wrestling.

The popularity of wrestling on television carried over to live events; the approximate number of paying spectators rose from fifteen million in 1952 to twenty-four million in 1959.(26) The increase meant that a new type of fan was coming to the arena and presented the media with a problem. Wrestling was no longer just for the working class and a newspaper that belittled professional wrestling might alienate some of its readers. The media responded by redefining professional wrestling as entertainment and acknowledging that the wrestlers possessed athletic ability.

"To begin with, professional wrestling is not a fraud. It is preposterous, if you wish, or ludicrous, but it is not fraudulent, any more than when Abbott and Costello fall into a cement mixer with a baboon... That ghastly thump the audience hears when a wrestler is thrown over another wrestler's head against the mat doesn't kill him, as would seem certain. One the other hand, it isn't exactly a caress... The fact is that if a wrestler picked an untrained man from the audience and hurled him to the floor, maybe that man would get up again, and maybe he wouldn't."(27)

The need to explain professional wrestling as something other than a sport for working class simpletons did not stem from the industry, which changed little before 1950, but from the addition of middle class members to the world of wrestling "fandom." However, shortly after wrestling had settled onto television it became clear that the typical wrestling fan hadn't changed as much as it first appeared. "Although not exclusively a sport of the proletariat, it can safely be stated that the largest appeal during this time was for lower-class."(28)

Overall, the effect television had on the class breakdown of wrestling fans may not have been substantial. However, it did have a significant effect on the development of characters and story lines. "The concentrated small-screen television set of the day stimulated wrestlers toward greater exaggeration, showmanship, historonics and acrobatics."(29) Interviews were added, as were characters like Gorgeous George, a feminine wrestler who demanded that his valet dust him off after when he was touched by the referee.

In short, television led the professional wrestling industry to create characters and situations based on stereotypes. The plots often seemed to be catered to the white, lower class viewer, which is ironic considering that a smaller percentage of fans were working class than had been in the 30's and most of the 40's.

Although America's fascination with the professional wrestling television program was relatively short lived, wrestling had won itself a place in television.

The Doldrums

Wrestling was not nearly as popular in the 1960's and 70's as it had been in the 50's; but local stations continued to air wrestling and promoters continued to depend upon their television shows to draw crowds to the stadium.

The exaggerated characters and story lines of the 1950's had also become a necessity. While television had become an important part of professional wrestling, it had not effected the basic regional set up. "Today, the area in which any given wrestling league is popular is determined almost wholly by the exposure of the area to televised wrestling...

One of the major decisions to be made in any region is the allocation of time to the televising of wrestling matches."(30) However, there was still the potential for the friendly agreement between promotions to disintegrate. "If wrestling were more popular as a national TV attraction, and advertisers sought to sponsor it, a "battle of the leagues" could develop.

Instead of engaging their respective 'world champions' in frequent decisive combat, the war would be waged by sending canned matches into rival territories."(31) Wrestling Moves to the Suburbs Until the 1980's professional wrestling fans had been almost exclusively working class adults.

Wrestlings' periods of popularity during the turn of the century and the early 1950's temporarily added a few members of the middle class to the fan base. However, neither made a noticeable difference in the long run. In the 1960's and 70's, wrestling was a part of local programming; but it wasn't part of the mainstream and, by 1980, the stereotype of the professional wrestling fan as a lower class fool was as strong as ever.

The Rise of the WWF

In addition to being unable to gain a middle class audience, professional wrestling had never had a national organization in the true sense of the word. Many of the larger regional organizations were known to wrestling fans around the world because of wrestling magazines; but none had a national television show.

The closest thing to a national wrestling organization was the NWA, who was nothing more than a loose organization of regional promoters.

However, Vince McMahon Jr. and his promotion, the WWF, went against the business traditions of the industry and permanently changed professional wrestling.

The WWF, which was known as the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) until April 5,1979(32), had been one of the bigger promotions in the industry for some time. During the 1970's they were one of the four major promotions, but only operated in their territory, centered in New York.

The company's owner, Vince McMahon Sr., was satisfied with being the major player in his territory and never intended to turn the WWF into a national promotion. When he sold the promotion to his son, Vince McMahon Jr., in June of 1982, he had no idea what would happen over the next two years. "If my dad knew what I was planning on doing with the business, he never would have sold it to me."(33)

Vince McMahon began implementing his plan almost immediately, contacting wrestlers from other major regional promotions and asking them to come to work for the WWF. He also contacted local television stations and cable companies to set up WWF programming outside of their territory. The strategy started to pay off in July of 1984, when the WWF took over the NWA's air time on Atlanta SuperStation WTBS. The NWA's show, "World Championship Wrestling" had been broadcast on the station for a number of years; but, more importantly, Atlanta was NWA territory. The new WWF show upset long time fans and the station received a number of complaints asking for the NWA show to be reinstated.(34)

The NWA retained its spot on Saturday mornings and the WWF continued to spread across the country. Although the NWA did return to its original Saturday evening time slot eventually, the WWF didn't need it by that time. Fans were not the only ones who disagreed with the WWF's actions; many wrestlers felt that the WWF was ruining the business.

The ones who were offered high paying jobs by the WWF, however, were quick to change their tune. "Like most other non-WWF wrestlers, I initially felt that Vince was destroying wrestling with his ideas. To me, it appeared to reduce the sport to a more slapstick form. But all of us had to admit that Vince was a marketing genius. It wasn't long before the World Wrestling Federation was the hottest ticket in town."(35)

The WWF truly turned into a national promotion in 1985 when "The War to Settle the Score" was broadcast live on the popular cable channel MTV. Despite alienating almost all long time wrestling fans with their business practices and story lines, the WWF was making professional wrestling more popular than ever before. The WWF was not adding new middle class fans to their working class fan base, they were abandoning their working class fans and creating an entirely new type of wrestling fan.

The air time on national cable stations provided them with the opportunity to reach their future fans; but the changes in story lines and cosmetic features are what helped the WWF make the opportunity a successful one. "The face of wrestling was changing rapidly, thanks most specifically to the World Wrestling Federation under the capable direction of Vince McMahon. He began cleaning up the image of wrestling by making several key changes: making it less violent, taking away the blood and gore, introducing wilder [and] more cartoon like characters, dressing the wrestlers in brightly colored spandex outfits, [and] generally making it more suitable for... kids."(36)

A New Audience

Kids were the WWF's target, and families were their new "fans." Children were more likely than adults to purchase products like tee-shirts, posters, and action figures and might associate professional wrestling with child-like innocence. Furthermore, since children could not attend events by themselves, their parents would accompany them, increasing sales and creating the image of a new family oriented professional wrestling fan.

The WWF ran into some unexpected problems in turning professional wrestling into entertainment for middle class youth. Although the WWF had eliminated many violent elements from their product, they could not deny that professional wrestling matches are ("fixed") fights. The idea that professional wrestling was inappropriate for children gained enough momentum to warrant a "Senate Task Force on Professional Wrestling" in the New York state senate.

In October of 1985, five months after "Wrestlemania I" was broadcast over closed circuit television to approximately 400,000 viewers, the task force held hearings on professional wrestling. The hearings were prompted by Senator Abraham Berstein's bill to ban professional wrestling in New York. The hearing time was divided between two subjects: how professional wrestling influences children and whether or not professional wrestling is real. Most wrestlers made light of the fact that the "Is it real?" question took up such a large portion of the hearings. "A wrestler who looked in for a few minutes and who insisted his legal name was Manfred the Maniac, said he would not testify because he might become angered by the line of questioning and decide to body-slam some senators and put Senator Bernstein in a hold called the double-arm bar. 'Maybe a figure-four leg lock too,' said Mr. Maniac."(37)

Despite the claims of the wrestlers, the psychologists who testified maintained that the matches were fixed. The Senators echoed this opinion, although Senator Bernstein seemed to have difficulty separating professional wrestling from reality. "Senator Bernstein said that seeing wrestling fans cheer eye-gouging reminded him of when a crowd yelled, 'Jump! Jump!', when a man threatened to jump off the top of the DeWitt Clinton Hotel in Albany. 'Why would people do that?' he asked."(38)

When all was said and done, the bill did not pass, and Vince McMahon continued his makeover of professional wrestling. By 1986, mainstream media was reporting news of the new wrestling fan and the WWF's transformation into a national promotion was complete. Blue collar fans certainly still existed but they continued to support regional promotions instead of the WWF and were now in the minority.

In order for the middle class to truly accept professional wrestling, a distinction had to be made between the lower class, foolish wrestling fan and the middle class, sophisticated one. "Noisy and irreverent, the new fan is the key to the boom in wrestling, an activity which used to draw crowds of tattooed men with criminal records and bleached-blond women with missing teeth. Once, the standard joke among wrestlers on the circuit was: 'What has 14 teeth and an IQ of 50? The first 10 rows at a wrestling match.' But that low-class image is a thing of the past... wrestling has suddenly crossed its old social boundaries.

Ontario Premier David Peterson takes his nine-year-old son, Benjamin, to wrestling matches at the Gardens... Indeed, it only took 12 months to turn Yvonne Williams, a 36-year-old single mother, into a boisterous fan--even if the action appears more phony than real."(39)

By 1986, professional wrestling was a form of family entertainment, phony for parents but real for many children. When the average professional wrestling fan was lower class, wrestling's phoniness was part of what made it so terrible; but since, presumably unlike the lower class adult, the new middle class adult knew wrestling was fixed, the phoniness became part of its charm.

Losing Steam?

The WWF continued its success through the end of the 80's, reaching its climax in 1987 with "Wrestlemania III." As its popularity diminished, professional wrestling started to be mocked again by the mainstream media. Furthermore, the distinction between the blue collar fan and the middle class fan started to become somewhat blurry.

While the two images never crossed one another, the press stopped seeing the blue collar fan entirely as a thing of the past. The middle class fan remained respectable and intact; but professional wrestling's image was suffering. Aside from being unable to completely severe its ties to the blue collar fan, the WWF's cartoon characters were beginning to back fire both with the press and the fans.

"'They've got a cartoon going there," [former professional wrestler Verne Gagne] said, "I never heard of needing a dog bone or a safety pin to wrestle. The guys there even paint their faces. It's a circus... All this boils down to one disheartening fact: for most pro wrestlers, alas, there is greater risk of damage in their home than in the wrestling ring."(40)

The belief that professional wrestling had become far too removed from athleticism avoided judging both middle class fans or the predetermined nature of the matches. Wrestlers were no longer athletic enough to be believable or entertaining. The problem was not that it was fake; but that it was "too fake". That professional wrestling had become "too fake" not only led to media criticism; it caused the WWF to lose a number of fans in the early 90's.

By 1990, most of the children who had watched Vince McMahon's television shows in the 80's were becoming teenagers and began disliking to same cartoon-like characters that made the WWF so successful. "In two years, the WWF went from selling out the SkyDome to not even being able to sell tickets to fill half the Hoosier Dome. Something happened in there... five years ago, I don't think [realism in wrestling] was very important at all. They had a guy who was supposedly a voodoo priest or whatever in PPV main event caliber feuds.... But either the feds have found that the kiddie market has dried up, or they've found that kids aren't buying the same stuff or whatever, because they have started to move away from that, and with that move has come higher and higher ratings."(41)

The Comeback Trail

After a five year period, during which time the WWF lost fans faster than they had gained them, the professional wrestling industry began to make a dramatic comeback. This time, however, the WWF was sharing both the spotlight and the market with World Championship Wrestling (WCW.)

In 1991, the NWA, which had been purchased by Ted Turner in November, 1988, was repackaged into the WCW and began to compete for the WWF's audience. However, the WCW had even more trouble attracting viewers than the WWF in the early 80's.

"Turner has been working on more characters engaging to children, though not always with success. Earlier this year, a new team appeared called the Ding Dongs; they wore bells and liked to wave to youngsters. At arena after arena, they were roundly booed by older fans until they were finally dropped."(42) In addition to the lack of interest in wrestling among children, WCW's viewers were still predominantly the "old" blue collar fan.

Eventually both WCW and WWF realized that they were going to have to look for a new market. Ironically, the new fans that professional wrestling started to attract were the ones from the 80's. By the time 1996 rolled around professional wrestling was undergoing another big change. They still wanted to attract middle class viewers and continued to rely on the same cable stations they had in the 80's; but children were not the fans they were after.

Another New Audience

The new target audience was college students. That the college students were the same people who, as children, watched wrestling in the 80's was not a coincidence. The newest incarnation of professional wrestling demonstrated its break with the 80's by introducing more intricate story lines in which wrestlers renounced their old personas.

Hulk Hogan had embodied professional wrestling in the 80's, encouraging youth to say their prayers and take their vitamins. "...the Hulk maintains that he does what he says because, 'It proves to all the little Hulksters out there that if you work hard and get to bed early, you can accomplish anything.'"(43)

Hogan was unquestionably the most widely recognized professional wrestler of the 80's, as well as the most popular, always wrestling in the main event of the card.

In July of 1996, the WCW symbolically killed 80's wrestling when one of their story lines had Hulk Hogan join "the New World Order," a new group of wrestlers who wore all black, mocked fans and whose mantra was "tradition bites." The tremendous success of wrestling web sites is the most striking example of the popularity of professional wrestling among college students. It is not uncommon for professional wrestling web sites to receive over 100,000 different visitors each month. Wrestling web sites offer a behind the scenes look at professional wrestling geared to the mature and educated wrestling fan.

Rick Scaia, a graduate research assistant at the University of Dayton who runs the popular web site "Online Onslaught," had stopped watching professional wrestling in the early 90's before regaining interest after discovering fans discussing wrestling on the internet.

"What brought me all the way back was the internet. My freshman year roommate had a PC and a modem, and it wasn't long before I stumbled across intelligent wrestling fans still having a good time with the sport on the Usenet news group"(44)

While the web sites offer news and rumors, is a forum for fans with a college education to discuss professional wrestling. The popularity of the news groups and web sites, like the ratings of wrestling television shows, are growing as more and more young adults rediscover professional wrestling.

Today professional wrestling is as almost as popular as it was in 1987. Monday Nitro, the WCW's featured show, and Monday Night RAW, the WWF's features show, almost always share the top two slots on the weekly list of highest rated cable programs. During the week of week of April 6th, 1998, for instance, professional wrestling programs held six of the top seven slots.(45)

"Advertisers are taking note. They say wrestling beats 'Mad About You' and 'Entertainment Tonight' for targeting teens and young adult males, a popular demographic group... WCW says advertising rates have jumped 70% in the past two years."(46)

Wrestlings' ratings success is especially impressive because both company's major television programs air opposite one another. WCW's president Eric Bischoff, attributes professional wrestling's success to breaking away from the cartoon characters of the 80's. "We've kind of re-created the industry in the last two years by producing more realistic story lines."(47) Vince McMahon and WWF wrestler Sean Waltman also agree that their product is geared towards young adults.

"'Our fans today are sophisticated,' McMahon said. 'Our fans know sports entertainment, they appreciate performances and story lines. It's the closest thing to a live athletic sports soap opera you'll find.'... Sean 'X-Pac' Waltman, back in the WWF after an acrimonious parting with WCW, adds: 'It's good trying to promote family entertainment, but having an adult slant is the way to go. We (Sean, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall) told him two years ago before we left (for WCW) we think the product needs to be more edgy.'"(48)

Colleges around the nation, including Harvard, have started professional wrestling fan clubs and WCW held an "On the Road to Spring Break" tour that had wrestlers spend time signing autographs and hanging out on a number of college campuses, culminating with a televised show held in Panama City, Florida during spring break.

To hold the interest of college fans, story lines are becoming more and more involved. A lot of story lines are based on real incidents that have occurred behind the scenes. For instance, when wrestler Sean Waltman was fired from the WCW because of a slow recovery from a knee injury, he signed to the WWF and gave an interview condemning WCW for firing him.

These types of story lines give fans the opportunity to discuss the real life struggles in professional wrestling in addition to the fictional ones, which especially appeals to college students. "As [Nicholas] Stolar, 22, an English major at Harvard puts it, 'We can all watch the fighting, but you can also get into the politics of it. That's very appealing to most guys."(49)

The story lines become more realistic and involved with each show, and one can only speculate as to where the renewed fan interest will take professional wrestling.


Wrestling and professional wrestling have had strong ties to the proletariat throughout history. Originally the connection between professional wrestling and the working class was non judgmental; but, after the outcomes of matches became predetermined, this changed.

Wrestling fans were considered both blue collar and gullible and, by the 1950's, the two stereotypes were inseparable. There have been few, if any, studies on the class of wrestling fans and, consequently, observations about class and professional wrestling must be based on anecdotal evidence.

However, the evidence that the average wrestling fan changed from lower to middle class in the 1980's, while not empirical, is strong. The production of a cartoon television show featuring animated drawings of professional wrestlers, and characters like Hulk Hogan, who referred to his fans as "little Hulkamaniacs," demonstrate that the WWF's product was produced for children.

The new type characters and story lines alienated many traditional, lower class, wrestling fans and drove them away from the WWF. The high cost ticket prices and the airing of television programming essential to story lines exclusively on cable also pushed working class fans away from the WWF. The working class fans did not stop watching wrestling but most of them chose to support regional promotions, rather than the WWF.

"Whatever relationship there once was is probably evaporating... pro wrestling WAS targeted towards the blue collar working class up until the 80's, when the WWF single-handedly redefined pro wrestling as "family entertainment," and aimed it at kids. And now, that target has changed again, as young adults (college age and up) are the main target."(50)

Professional wrestling's shift from a child oriented product to an adult oriented one was less intentional than Vince McMahon's plan in the 1980's. After it had become obvious that cartoon characters were no longer successful, the logical choice for the WWF and WCW was to try something different. Targeting young adults was safe because, if it did not attract college students, at least it might lure the lower class fan to start watching the bigger promotions. However, college students and other middle class youth started watching wrestling in large numbers and became the most common type of professional wrestling fan.

Most working class fans watch the WWF and WCW more today than they did in the 80's, but their involvement in the two big federations is usually limited to the less expensive, untelevised, shows. "At the local/regional level, there is still a lot of pro wrestling aimed at the working class. A typical audience at a non-televised WWF or WCW show will include a lot of that blue collar flavor. But wrestling as a TV phenomenon has re-exploded because of young, educated adults."(51)

Wrestling articles that focused on the changing demographics of professional wrestling fans in the early 80's and in 1998 sought to portray professional wrestling in a new light. These reports also perpetuated the belief that the foolish professional wrestling fan and the working class professional wrestling fan were inseparable. The media reported that the WWF was intelligent, middle class fans and not foolish, lower class ones. The idea of intelligent, lower class fans was not discussed.

"Titan stresses family entertainment-Hulk Hogan, for instance, is always good about urging children to say their prayers and take their vitamins-which doesn't play with many of the blue-collar, whiskey-loving wrestling fans of old."(52) These types of articles made professional wrestling more appealing to the middle class, but at the expense of blue collar workers. The association between blue collar workers and drunks is classist, to put it mildly, and implies that the middle and upper classes have a monopoly on "moral" entertainment.

The anecdotal evidence suggests that empirical studies on the opinions people have of professional wrestling might be an interesting way to study class prejudices in the United States. In order to properly study class issues in professional wrestling, empirical data must be gathered and anecdotal evidence implies that such studies would be worthwhile. One thing that remains true for the fan at Harvard, as well as the fan who works at a factory, is that the driving force behind their love of professional wrestling is its dramatic nature.

While the demographic of wrestling fans has changed, it is because the drama has changed. Middle class families in the 1980's could relate to the characters and stories in the WWF, and that, above all else, is why they could enjoy professional wrestling. "To me, wrestling is as legitimate as Shakespeare and serves much the same function. At its heart, it's a morality play which allows the fans to find characters much like themselves with whom to identify and which somewhat mirrors the conflicts which occur in real life."(53)


Copyright 1998 - Jump City Productions - this material may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever without the expressed written consent of the author.