At first glance the National Football League and pro wrestling appear to operate in different universes. The NFL averaged 17.6 million viewers per game in 2014. Last year nearly 115 million people tuned into Super Bowl XLIX, making it the most watched program in television history – at least until Super Bowl 50 airs this Sunday. Conversely, approximately 5 million Americans tune into some form of pro wrestling on a weekly basis, the majority of which (between 3-4 million) are primarily WWE viewers. During the Monday Night War (the apex of pro wrestling’s greatest television ratings) 12 million viewers tuned in every week; impressive but still somewhat inconsequential in terms of a head-to-head comparison.
The NFL owns a day of the week (while leasing two others) and the game of football has long since surpassed baseball as America’s national game. Americans display their loyalty to their favorite teams loud and proud. Pro wrestling is a niche product; you either love it or hate it.
No amount of concussion controversies, player arrests or orchestrated parody within the league has proven capable of loosening the NFL’s vise grip on professional athletics; the NFL brand is stronger in 2016 than it has ever been before. Pro wrestling promotions, on the other hand, are forced to operate while walking a public relations tight rope without the luxury of a safety net. Promoters, whether Vince McMahon or the proprietor of a regional indie promotion, are but one scandal away from a litany of disproportionate negative publicity and the risk of losing precious few advertisers always looking for a reason to disassociate themselves with the product.
This is the way of the world; it may not be fair but it’s certainly accurate.
In the wake of the NFL’s success a billion-dollar media industry emerged to provide blanket coverage of the product: ESPN and its family of networks, NFL Network, Fox Sports 1, CBS Sports and NBC Sports Network just to name a few. In the two weeks between the conference championship games and Super Bowl Sunday these networks and others will have provided hundreds of hours of original content that most Americans can affordably access within the basic package provided by their cable company of choice.
With such an astronomical amount of content available on a variety of platforms it would make sense that the collective football IQ of Americans is above average. Listen to any sports talk radio station around the country and that expertise is regularly showcased; enthusiastic callers imparting their wisdom on the players, coaches and front office personal of their favorite team. Clearly the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers have been listening.
I know, you need a knife to cut through such thick sarcasm.
The truth of the matter is that most fans, when pressed, could not accurately identify the differences between the West Coast Offense and the Read-Option Offense; the pros and cons of zone-blocking as opposed to more traditional run-blocking techniques; when a defensive back should use bump and run as opposed to a softer coverage and why. Sure, they know the inside terminology but, like most wrestling fans, that is the extent of their inside knowledge. Lacking a substantive understanding of the game certainly doesn’t take away one’s ability to be a fan. It does, however, raise an interesting question.
How can so much football content be consumed while so few consumers possess an above average understanding of the game?
The answer is actually quite simple; the intricacies of football are rarely discussed at great length on programs about football. In fact, producers of most programs go out of their way to limit the amount of X’s and O’s dissected on any given show. The vast majority of football-related programs are not in the football business at all, but rather the storytelling business.
This is where pro wrestling comes into the picture.
Pro wrestling is a great many things, but at its core it is simply a form of storytelling. Over the last century pro wrestling promoters have fine-tuned the kinds of stories and character-types that work best within their medium; the devices that allow their stories to progress; the themes that connect the most with the audience. Those same stories, character-types, devices and themes have penetrated into the NFL spectrum over the past two decades, creating a much closer parallel between pro football and pro wrestling than most NFL fans would probably like to admit.
Take the story Tom Brady, for example.
In 2001 Brady was a wholesome American kid who loved God, his country and football- or as those characters are called in pro wrestling, a white meat babyface; someone universally loved by the viewing audience. Brady became the ultimate underdog story almost overnight, a rookie forced into a starting role by circumstance only to march his team, the Patriots, to the first Super Bowl post 9/11.
Talk about strong booking. All you needed was Hulk Hogan’s Real American theme song playing in the background and you’ve got a WrestleMania ending McMahon would likely sacrifice one of his extremities for.
Brady went on to lead New England to three Lombardi trophies in four years, allowing the franchise to cement its standing as the first dynasty of the new millennium. No longer the ultimate underdog, Brady became the NFL’s standard bearer. He married a famous super model, changed his look and became one of the wealthiest players to have ever played the game. Couple that with the shocking spy-gate story and the less wicked but equally controversial deflate-gate story and you have what is effectively known in pro wrestling as a heel turn. A good guy turning into a bad guy.
The motivation for a heel turn is singular in nature…money. Fans will only pay to see their hero succeed for so long. When interest in a babyface begins to erode, a heel turn is the perfect mechanism to reinvigorate the audience’s willingness to reach into their wallets. Using basic psychology, a promoter can easily manipulate his audience; when they don’t want to pay to see a character succeed you make them want to pay to see that same character fail. The more the heel succeeds, the more invested the audience becomes in witnessing his ultimate downfall.
Starting to sound familiar yet? The comparisons go far beyond just Brady and the Patriots.
The heel authority figure has been a focal point of pro wrestling storytelling since the Mr. McMahon/Steve Austin storyline first unfolded in 1998. Since then everyone from Eric Bischoff in WCW, Paul Heyman in ECW and Dixie Carter in TNA has created a version of the device.
In the NFL the heel authority figure is Roger Goodell, a character the entire audience loves to hate. Ask a New England fan about Goodell and they are likely to tell you that his failed attempt to suspend Brady was designed to undermine the Patriot’s success in order to maintain parody throughout the league; ask a Saints fan about Goodell and they’re likely to tell you that his unjust bounty-gate punishment cost the franchise the chance to play for multiple championships; ask insert fan of any NFL franchise here and they’ll tell you why Goodell is the worst person in the history of mankind and then some. Rather than running from the persona Goodell seems to embrace it, enjoy it even, as he never misses an opportunity to allow the fans to vigorously boo him, after all it’s a heel’s job to create heat.
Compelling pro wrestling stories are always centered on strong characters. As the NFL became more story oriented the focal point shifted away from the 32 respective teams and more toward the individual players within those teams. Before long a complete roster of babyfaces and heels was manufactured to compete against each other every week on national television. Players like Peyton Manning, Drew Breese, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer and J.J. Watt fit the role of traditional babyface characters. Johnny Manziel, Richard Sherman, Greg Hardy, Ray Rice and Ndamukong Suh are the heels. Each week these characters are highlighted based upon the way the schedule unfolds (booking at its finest by the way) until ultimately a greater story can be told, like this year’s AFC title game which was not the New England Patriots vs. the Denver Broncos but rather Brady vs. Manning.
Stories like these are used as a ratings ploy by most every football program in America with tremendous success. Hosts like Chris Berman and Rich Eisen, along with those who actually broadcast the games themselves, play the role of a traditional pro wrestling broadcaster, setting the table for the audience, emphasizing what is important and ignoring what could be potentially distracting. These storytelling essentials are worked out days prior to the game in production meetings that bear a striking resemblance to a writer’s room.
Each week multiple subplots are assigned to every game on television in order to build drama and intrigue, often manufactured based on character-types assigned to the individual players involved. Wins and losses, like in pro wrestling, are not nearly as important as the greater narrative is being sold. This concept was masterfully executed in Week 15, when the hyped match-up between Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman resulted in multiple brawls and a storm of post-game controversy.
The most significant correlation between pro wrestling and the NFL is the importance placed on witnessing a once in a lifetime type of moment (or potentially missing one by not tuning in). Pro wrestling storytelling is designed around carefully positioned moments that continue to build before ultimately climaxing with a magical moment the audience will never forget (at least that’s the idea anyway). These moments take place on a grand stage, complete with elaborate set designs, pyrotechnics and meaningful soundtracks designed to stimulate each one of the audience’s senses along the way.
A certain magnificence resonates throughout these events, allowing the audience to feel as though it’s part of something truly special. Hogan slamming Andre ‘The Giant’ at WrestleMania III or locked in an epic stare down with The Rock at WrestleMania XVIII. Austin hoisting the championship above his head for the first time at WrestleMania XIV or Daniel Bryan finally receiving his just due at WrestleMania XXX. Jimmy Snuka perched atop the steel cage inside Madison Square Garden. Dusty Rhodes being hoisted onto the shoulders of his contemporaries having finally earned redemption over Ric Flair. These are the moments that serve as the foundation of the pro wrestling industry. Their significance only grows with each passing year as the participants involved become immortalized by time.
Today the NFL is about much more than rooting on your local team. It’s more than just a game. It’s about witnessing modern gladiators compete against one another in modern versions of the Roman Coliseum strategically placed around the country. Everything from uniform designs and player introductions to sideline interviews and the actual plays executed on the field are heavily produced and carefully presented to the audience. Moments in time are referenced using the exact language first exploited in pro wrestling; players immortalized with the same fulsome verbiage pro wrestling fans are used to hearing on a weekly basis.
The majority of pro wrestling’s most vocal detractors refuse to accept the fact that the matches in the ring and the stories that make them relevant are predetermined, using words like fake to dismiss compelling performance art. The NFL, so the argument goes, is real. But in 2016 that argument no longer carries weight. In fact, the only thing not predetermined in the NFL is the final outcome of the games which, ironically, is what matters least of all.