Why the WWE is the NFL
September 7, 2015
By: Josh Boutwell of WrestleView.com
I know the majority of people that read this are going to see that “title” and roll their eyes, but just bear with me for a few minutes. I’m not comparing the WWE and NFL as sports leagues or “competitions.” No, I’m talking about monopolies: one on the football field and the other in the wrestling ring. There are other sports monopolies you can look at (the NBA, MLB, etc.) but none that parallel with the WWE quite like the NFL. Hell, the NFL has even been sued (and lost) for being a monopoly in the 1980’s. The NFL didn’t create pro football just like the WWE didn’t create pro wrestling, but when you think of pro football you still think of the NFL and when you think of pro wrestling you think of WWE. Let me try to explain why I’m making this comparison.
Before the NFL there were countless pro football leagues that attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the growing football craze in America, but these leagues were primarily regional with no national leagues. The first National Football League (not the one that you are more familiar with) was formed in the early 1900’s and quickly died out, though it was attempted to be restarted again in 1917, to be followed by other leagues like the AFPA or the American Professional Football Association, the precursor to what would eventually become the NFL, four different incarnations of the AFL (American Football League), AAFC (All American Football Conference), and others. Eventually the AFPA became the NFL that we know now and was wildly successful eventually becoming the only true pro football league in the country. Then, the fourth attempt at an AFL began in the 60’s with a group of rich owners that had been shut out from buying NFL franchises. These owners had the money to compete with NFL franchises for the best college players in the country and at that point the NFL’s first true competition was born. The AFL was able to draw fans and even compete with the NFL on the grid iron in the “Super Bowl” games that were held between the champions of each league. The AFL’s success led to the eventual merger between the two leagues and with it the NFL continued on as a monopoly all the way to this day in the pro football world.
And in a similar way before the WWE became the worldwide phenom it is now pro wrestling was a bunch of regional promotions all across the country. Eventually the NWA came along as a parent umbrella of all those various promotions before promotions like the AWA and eventually WWF broke away. Vince McMahon Jr. would end buying his father’s promotion, the WWF, with a vision of taking over pro wrestling in America not just his father’s region. Vince would begin raiding other territories and even buying territories just to get their talent. Another promotion based in the Carolina’s, Jim Crocket Promotions, would do similar things in buying talent and even buying out territories leading to what would become the WWF’s biggest competition: the WCW. Eventually the competition between the WWE and WCW would come to a head with what us fans remember as the “Monday Night Wars.” While the NFL and AFL merged together, the WWE would end up buying out WCW after kicking their asses for several years in pretty much every category (whether it be ticket sales, PPV buys, ratings, merchandise sales, match quality, etc.). Since that moment in 2001 when WWE bought WCW there have been countless promotions that have attempted to compete with the WWE but none have ever reached that level and very few have even come remotely close.
In pro football there have been a few instances of smaller leagues popping up and by offering something very different than the NFL to make a go of it. The biggest opportunity that leagues have found is in the spring as unlike the WWE the NFL has an off season. So while WWE runs year long the NFL is off for several months after January which made it possible for a league like the United States Football League (USFL) to make a run. In the 80’s this league was able to use a spring format along with new rules that were exciting (like instilling a two point conversion, instant replay, no celebration penalties, etc.) to become very successful in its first couple of years. The USFL was able to tap into regions in the country where the NFL didn’t have teams (and some that did but were poor NFL franchises) and even had rich enough owners that were willing to dish out the money to bring in huge college stars like Hershel Walker, Reggie White, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, and Doug Flutie along with former NFL stars to draw in the crowds. Eventually the USFL committed suicide when it decided to move to a fall schedule, pushed by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump (it was been speculated that he simply wanted to force an AFL like merger so that he could finally have the NFL franchise he has always wanted), and in that move the league lost all of the TV deals it had secured from ESPN and ABC because of their relationship with the NFL. In response the USFL would sue the NFL for being a monopoly and not allowing them to prosper because of their connections with TV networks among other things. In the end the USFL would actually win the lawsuit but were awarded just $1 by the jury. That coupled with the loss of the TV deals crippled the league and killed it.
Over the years other spring leagues would pop up, included the Vince McMahon/WWE owned XFL and the Canadian Football League even created several American franchises for a short time, but none of them managed to gain the success or momentum that the USFL had managed. Eventually a football league called the AFL (Arena Football League) would pop up with a different brand of football, indoor football with completely different rules and just a 50 yard field, and used small time college players and ex NFL stars to put together an exciting and fast paced football league. The promotion has had ups and downs from times when it was pretty popular to times when the league actually folded a few years ago. The AFL is back again and has TV deals with ESPN and CBS which helps it financially as well as a few very loyal fan bases but still it is more a niche product (much like you could consider a Lucha Underground or even ROH to an extent).
Promotions like TNA, Ring of Honor, and the countess others that have come and gone have attempted to make a run at WWE but WWE has such a global foothold on the wrestling business in America that at this point, much like the NFL and pro football, I don’t know that anyone could ever gain on WWE in the way that WCW was able to. It is a different world and a different wrestling business as well. The only hope for promotions is to be that AFL or USFL style promotion that can bring something different and can make a run on their own as a WWE alternative. The minute that a promotion attempts to do what WWE does and face the WWE it might as well be committing suicide at this point.
One thing that both the WWE and NFL has attempted which the WWE is succeeding at and the NFL has failed miserably is creating a feeder league. The NFL has attempted countless developmental leagues from NFL Europe to the UFL with none able to last or even create many stars (with the exception of a few). The WWE on the other hand had a very successful developmental territory in the OVW and then FCW for years before the creation of NXT. Now, the WWE has created possibly its only true competition in wrestling and it is its own creation.
I don’t know if it has been done by design but the WWE has been able to tap into the section of wrestling fans that have grown very frustrated by WWE’s weekly product that has in years past turned to promotions like ROH or New Japan for their wrestling fix. Now NXT is catering to those “pure wrestling” fans that want more action and less soap opera and NXT is selling out basketball arenas in response. It is almost genius at this point. WWE is even signing stars like Samoa Joe who may never even be brought up to the main roster but is massively popular with the fan base that they want to connect with as a part of NXT. This could eventually lead to WWE attempting to bring many of those wrestling fans, some that have not watched WWE for years, back to the WWE product through NXT.
So in a sense WWE has used its massive monopoly on pro wrestling in America to create an alternative to further cement that monopoly. Whether that is good for pro wrestling and pro wrestling fans is yet to be seen but it certainly is a great thing for the WWE.
Follow me on Twitter: @BamaBoyJosh