Originally created 08/13/02

On the ropes



Aiken teen William Knight isn't a little kid anymore.

At 16, he's given up the tiny action figures and mini video games. And he's given up watching wrestling, too.

"It just got really boring," William said. "It got to the point that I could tell it was really fake, and that's when I stopped watching it."

Memo to Vince McMahon: Worry.

As young viewers like William drop off, so goes the fortune of pro wrestling, which these days begins and ends with Mr. McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (formerly World Wrestling Federation). TV ratings for the UPN network's weekly franchise, Smackdown!, swooned to all-time lows in May and June. Attendance at WWE's arena shows has plummeted an average of 25 percent. In the meantime, shares of Mr. McMahon's company have lost almost half their value since they were first sold to the public in October 1999.

Ratings are down in the Augusta area as well. According to Henry Hanks, an account executive with WBEK-TV (Channel 67), the ratings for the show saw a dip last quarter.

"In the younger age groups (12-17) the show is getting a 2," he said. "In cable ratings, a 10 is the best most networks can hope for, unless there's some type of special event. A 2 rating is substantial but not what we would normally get (for the show)."

The show was receiving ratings of 3 and 4 in February, but since the departure of notable characters like The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the numbers have been in a landslide.

That's what did it for William.

"My favorite character, a long time ago, was Sting," he said. "When they (WWF and World Championship Wrestling) combined, he was nowhere to be found."

In 1999, wrestling was threatening to devour not only TV but popular culture. There were three professional circuits, two highly rated cable network series (WWF's Raw and rival WCW's Monday Nitro). Wrestler autobiographies dotted the best-seller lists. Big stars like Mr. Austin (real name Steve Williams) and the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) reportedly commanded as much as $8 million a year in salary and merchandising fees.

But the WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling circuits have since disappeared, and so has the WWF. In May, the organization lost a long-running trademark tussle with another WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, and agreed to change its name.

How did wrestling tumble so quickly from reigning male soap opera to noisy sideshow?

One obvious problem is the WWE's waning star power. The Rock - wrestling's biggest draw - has edged away from the ring, going from mat to matinee idol (The Mummy, The Scorpion King). Mr. Austin, who personified wrestling's surge during the '90s, left the WWE in a huff last month after not showing up for two events. He was subsequently arrested in San Antonio for allegedly assaulting his wife (WWE spokesman Gary Davis says Mr. Austin is officially "suspended," but isn't expected back).

Without its two biggest attractions, WWE matches have lately featured golden oldies Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, who were stars in the 1980s, before many of today's fans were born.

But WWE executives acknowledge that wrestling's malaise may go deeper than the absence of a couple of marquee names. "When you produce 52 weeks of original programming a year, like we do, sometimes you're better at storytelling than at others," says Linda McMahon, the company's chief executive and chairman Vince's wife. "Our success depends on the creativity of our story lines. We've recently had to ask ourselves if we're doing it as well as we can."

Such comments are an implicit swipe at Ms. McMahon's own family. Her daughter, Stephanie, supervises the WWE's writing staff (and plays a character herself); Mr. McMahon approves all the scripts and wrestles, too.

"They put too much faith in the same old formula," says Wade Keller, the editor of wrestling Web site ProWrestlingTorch.com. "It's 20/20 hindsight now, but they needed to bring in a more diverse group of writers who weren't indoctrinated in telling Vince McMahon what he wanted to hear."

In case anyone has any illusions left, WWE matches are scripted and carefully orchestrated. Writers create "angles" - twists and turns in rivalries and alliances - for the wrestlers, who supply the acting and potentially bone-shattering stunt violence.

While the weekly WWE Raw lost only 6 percent of its total audience on cable's TNN channel over the past season, almost one in five viewers age 12 to 17 stopped watching the show, according to Nielsen Media Research. Smackdown! on UPN has lost nearly 40 percent of that age group since its 1999-2000 season.

If there's a lesson here, it's about the fickleness of young people, in everything from hairstyles to clothes to music to TV shows. Wrestling seems to have followed the same arc as other fleeting passions of youth, such as South Park, Ren and Stimpy, Tom Green or Beavis and Butt-head.

The thing is, teenage boys don't stay that way for long. As Mr. Dykes puts it, "When I was 14, (wrestling) seemed really exciting. Now I see fake fighting and I think, 'This is stupid."'

Such attitudes don't surprise Rob Callender, "trend manager" at Teen Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill., company that studies the youth market. Teens, he says, "worship at the altar of the new. It's very frustrating to marketers because (young people) can have such a voracious appetite for something. But once they get enough of it, they drop you faster than anything."

Younger viewers have had plenty of alternatives to the WWE's mayhem in recent months, such as reality game shows like NBC's Dog Eat Dog and Fear Factor, and new reality sitcoms like MTV's The Osbournes, which last season supplanted wrestling atop cable's Nielsen rankings.

As an entertainment form, professional wrestling has survived in some form for more than a hundred years, first as a carnival spectacle and later as a TV spectacular. As a company, WWE has weathered its own share of crises, from Mr. McMahon's prosecution on charges of steroid trafficking in 1994 (he was acquitted) to the accidental death of wrestler Owen Hart in 1999 to its promotion of the disastrous XFL football league early last year.

"You look back on our history, we've had peaks and valleys," Mr. McMahon said recently on WWE's weekly Web cast, called Byte This. "But when you look at it on an ongoing basis over the last 20 years, there's a steady growth."

In other words, wrestling will be back.

Staff Writer Jennifer Hilliard contributed to this report.