Purists will argue it is nothing more than investing in a Broadway play or first-run movie; true collectors can claim it is not really sports memorabilia but junk from a staged act. Others will insist it's made-for-television schlock and doesn't compare to going after a Mark McGwire autograph, a John Elway rookie card or a Michael Jordan jersey.
Face it, folks, wrestling is here and it's big. Big for collectors, big for fans, big for television executives and it's growing. True, it's like a virus that you hope will go away on its own, but there seems to be no medicine to cure the fever that has transcended all social and economic groups.
Ask your kids who is the starting goalie for the Detroit Red Wings, and they will give you that puzzled look. Ask them who Goldberg is, and they will smile in recognition. Ask some young executive in his 20s which rookie is having the best season thus far in baseball and whose card is growing in value and they will shake their head; ask them how Ric Flair did in Wrestlemania XII and they will recite chapter and verse. Still not convinced? Ask the voters in Minnesota last year who had the better name recognition in the vote for governor. Sure wasn't Hubert Humphrey III whose dad was nearly president of the U.S. It was Jesse "formerly the body and now the mind" Ventura, whose "career" has been made into a made-for-TV movie airing later this month. Heck, his whole career is a made-for-TV event.
Pro wrestling is a joke, and sports fans and collectors alike know it. It's rehearsed - even promoters of the two main groups, WWF and WCW will all but admit to it. Still, it is here with us, and whether we're talking about toy action figures, cards or simple autographs, wrestling memorabilia is a hot item. And there is every indication in a time of labor uncertainty, trades, injuries and retirements in the other rival “sports” (using that term sports very loosely), pro wrestling is a sea of tranquillity.
One Chicago-area dealer reports that pro wrestling action figures, cards and autographs have been hot sellers for years, outdistancing the "legitimate sports" such as hockey, basketball, baseball and football. The collectibles are particularly attractive to the very young collector – those at the teen and pre-teen level, where much of wrestling's appeal lies in the 90s. The most popular names for collectors: the aforementioned Goldberg, Stone Cold Steve Austin (seen in a nationwide telephone commercial), "The Rock" (aka Dwayne Johnson), and of course the seemingly ageless Hulk Hogan, who might have been the trigger for the wrestling resurgence in the mid 80s.
The reasons for this current bearish market are two fold: adept marketing and strong use of television. Unlike hockey, which couldn't cash in on basketball labor problems during the past season, wrestling promoters spent wisely in marketing their product for everything from the pay-per-view wrestlemanias to local promotions of mega-events at sold out stadiums. Can't get close enough to get your favorite baseball player to sign that treasured card? Wrestlers go to specialized public events just to sign anything fans want, knowing the bigger they get, the more likely they are to be presented in the financially lucrative main events.
But the real reason for this wrestling mania is television. Pro wrestling has been in bed with television since TV's inception. Back in the late 1940s, the three networks (CBS, NBC and the now-defunct DuMont) were looking for cheap fare to fill the airwaves. Wrestling was a match made in heaven. It didn't require extra cameras, you knew exactly how long a fixed match would take, and wrestlers could dress up like Gorgeous George and draw as big numbers as Milton Berle. Check out ESPN's Classic Sports Network, and you will also see those grainy black-and-white telecasts in the 1960s from the Chicago Amphitheater with sold out crowds.
Wrestling did dip in the 1970s and might have gone away completely – much to the joy of those of us who find this nonsense puzzling – but then around 1980s another white knight rode to the rescue: cable television.
Hungry for cheap programming again, cable injected new life into the "sport" (sorry, but quotes are always going to be used whenever that word is mentioned in the same sentence with wrestling). Ted Turner was a leader in this area and saw that wrestling could push his WTBS into a superstation and get others to start watching his new TNT network. USA Cable logged on later in the 1980s, and the fledgling pay-per-view market was ideal for boosting Wrestlemanias each year. Turner was so enthralled, he formed his own wrestling circuit, the WCW, which is more tame than the outlaw WWF. Nowadays, the WWF is more known for "athletes" hitting each other over the head with chairs and garbage cans than any half-nelsons or sleeper holds.
True, it's not much different than Road Runner belting Wiley Coyote or Bugs Bunny torturing Elmer Fudd on the Cartoon Network, but people are watching, and the media has taken notice. Of the top 20 cable shows in April, 8 were wrestling shows. Of the top 10 pay- per-view events in 1998, nine were wrestling shows. The New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal have all written features on the sport, and even a "respected" paper like the Chicago Sun-Times has a weekly pro wrestling column. Pro wrestling is a well-oiled public relations machine, with huge television ratings and fans raging from young kids to senior citizens.
Wrestling even seems to have a teflon existence. The recent tragic death of a member of one of the wrestling Harts didn't seem to slow wrestling's popularity, even though promoter McMahon continued the evening's matches on that tragic night.
Crazy? Insane? Ludicrous? You bet those adjectives all apply to wrestling. But you better add one more when considering your next investment: lucrative.
Randy Minkoff is a former reporter, writer, editor and author, with more than three decades of journalism experience and a unique combination of both print and broadcasting. Minkoff is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, and Crain's Chicago Business. He has been syndicated nationally as a radio/TV critic and has also written a weekly column for the Daily Herald. He is the author of Ron Santo; For Love of Ivy, the biography of the former Cub third baseman and his battle against diabetes. A native of St. Louis, Mo., he is a graduate of Drake University School of Journalism.