Editor’s note: David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker (Grantland’s wrestling guru) and Bill Simmons (35-year wrestling fan) spent the past 10 days digesting the new WWE Network, which launched on February 24 and caused a multimedia riot in the wrestling community. Is this one of the great moments in WWE history? Could you say Vince McMahon stumbled into a blueprint for a new and improved media rights model, as well as a more sophisticated way for the sport to reach its fans? Our boys decided to break it down.
Q: What did you guys THINK this network was going to be?
Simmons: I always imagined the WWE Network becoming available on DirecTV and/or cable, then flicking over to Channel 259 (or whatever) and being delighted to find some random 1980 Texas Death Match between Bob Backlund and Ken Patera. I also assumed it would feature every new pay-per-view, the Raw/Smackdown pregame and postgame shows, reruns of every show WWE has produced and pay-per-views from the past 40 years, and maybe three or four “new” shows that would definitely suck. By the way … what I just described would have been an AWESOME channel. I never saw the Internet-only thing coming.
Shoemaker: Considering it was initially supposed to be an over-the-air broadcast network, I thought it was going to be sort of insufferable. A never-ending stream of mediocre reality television to try to attract mainstream attention with old pay-per-views on late night and hype packages for the current product infiltrating everything — I mean, my life is already full enough of wrestling as it is.
Simmons: The key wrinkle: Wrestling fans were spending about $650 yearly for every pay-per-view (12 in all). That’s a humiliating number for anyone over 30 with a legally sanctioned marriage. I was ordering only the three biggies and that’s it: WrestleMania, SummerSlam and Money in the Bank (the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open of wrestling). But when my son suddenly became a wrestling fanatic last summer, the Simmons House morphed into a 12-PPV family. (I’m not complaining. Guilt-free PPV purchases!) So when the WWE Network announced they were carrying every PPV, I remember being excited to save money there. My expectations for everything else? Definitely low. Not as low as the chances of a good Batista–Triple H match … but low.
Shoemaker: The network seemed too good to be true, and with WWE, we had good reason to suspect it was because they were going to under-deliver. They did not.
Q: Be honest — did you ever think the channel was going to actually happen?
Shoemaker: I have to admit that, no, I didn’t. Or if it did, it would be another flash-in-the-pan Vince McMahon special like the XFL. Or The Wrestling Album. Or No Holds Barred, where his ambition to be more than an ordinary wrestling promoter leads him into a misbegotten punch line.
Simmons: I gave up. When WCW and ECW folded and McMahon bought their wrestling libraries, I thought the WWE Channel was definitely coming. Instead, they started releasing DVD after DVD after DVD after DVD. For years. I actually landed on the distribution list for a while. Every few weeks, suddenly something like The Greatest Steel Cage Matches Ever or Hulkamania: The Complete Collection would arrive in the mail, then my pissed-off wife would hand over the DVD with one of those “I really thought when we got married the whole wrestling thing would go away” frowns. AU CONTRAIRE!
But after watching them crank out the DVD/PPV/Raw/Smackdown routine for years, without ever taking a bigger swing, I just assumed a 24-hour wrestling network was too ambitious, even for Vince. Whoops. I should have known better. He’s the same guy who spent $97 million so his wife could lose two Senate races.
Shoemaker: Never underestimate Vince’s ambition. The way I hear it, he tried to buy G4, then either Speed or Fuel before they became Fox Sports 1 and 2. WWE couldn’t make either one happen. But you’re right about the success of its DVDs, especially when WWE put those same shows on Netflix and had even more success. And their shows were getting traction on Hulu as well. Once that happened, I think they realized a web-based network was a no-brainer.
Simmons: I’m still a little peeved that it took this long. I mean, we have 900 freaking channels at this point. We couldn’t have one wrestling channel? Seriously, how many “I wish there was a WWE channel” conversations did you have with buddies over the years? 100? 200? 500? When Oprah got a channel before Vince, that’s when I started to lose hope.
Shoemaker: I was watching the network today, checking out an old episode of Monday Night Raw — the one with the Ric Flair–Mr. Perfect “Loser Leaves the WWF” match, which is incredibly awesome. (And an amazing throwback. If Randy Orton decided to leave WWE for TNA, they’d have him lose some crappy matches to, like, Santino, and then keep him off TV altogether for two months to kill his momentum.) The best part, though, was before the match, when there was a cutaway to “Mean” Gene Okerlund in a studio setting, going over the results of the previous night’s Royal Rumble, SportsCenter-style. He was wearing a blue sportscoat with a WWF logo sewn on the pocket and he was tanned (or made-up) so darkly that he literally looked like he was in blackface. He closed his segment by saying “Stay tuned to the WWF Network for more updates!”
But there was no WWF Network! It was just a thing Mean Gene said to make everything seem more legit! This was 1993, and now, 21 years later, Vince McMahon’s imaginary wrestling network has finally come to life. Somewhere, Black Mean Gene is proud.