It really depends on location of the viewer.
If you grew up in the south in the late 80s and early 90s, WCW was basically your only exposure to wrestling. And TBS was built of the success of WCW. I remember Power Hour at about 9:05 Saturday mornings, with WCW Saturday Night airing that evening and Main Event Sunday evening and occasional Clash Of The Champions supercards 3-4 times a year.
The success of Starrcade and The Great American Bash tours really built WCW up in the mid 80s but once the Crocketts purchased UWF & Championship Wrestling from Florida, this took WCW beyond the Carolinas, Virginias and Georgia, as now, they where featured heavily in Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri & Kansas, among other markets. This lead to WCW being syndicated in more markets.
Some people may not realize that Vince actually purchased WCW's Saturday Morning timeslot in 1984. But, the ratings were horrible. At that time, nobody in the south gave a damn about WWF. And Vince saw WCW as a threat, hence him somewhat sabotaging Starrcade 1987, which was WCW's first PPV.
What Vince has done the past 10 years, WCW had already did in the 80s. They merged with various territories, had the backing of the powerful NWA and was the flagship promotion of NWA. The Crocketts didn't do business right and spent more than they had, while Turner didn't mind to spend at all. And his investment in WCW did wonders for him, for without WCW being successful, we wouldn't have TBS, TNT, CNN, HLN or Tru TV.
So again, it all depends on where you're from. I expect people in the northeast or bigger cities to view WWF as the top promotion in those times but for people in the south, WCW was the only way to go and the only thing they knew. They didn't want WWF in the mid 80s, they wanted actual wrestling, which is what WCW was all about.
EL Chapo, excellent post as usual. The only thing I might change would be the first paragraph. Not to quibble, but in the south during the 80's we did have cable tlevision
. Wrestling fans down here were exposed to the WWF due to All-American Wrestling on USA, and the a couple of syndicated shows, plus we got the WOR MSG cards from time to time. I would say about 1984 was when there was wide spread exposure to the WWF product.
If you were a casual fan in the south you may have still thought of the NWA as the main orginazation but that changed quickly. The more dedicated wrestling fans knew change was in the air.
Just to add to your history and great answer, the NWA product which did not become WCW till the later was not really comparable to the ABA or WHA because like you said many people, and not just southerners...don't forget the midwestern fans of the NWA and AWA, never felt like the WWF was like the NBA, or NHL. If anything they thought of the WWF as the upstart company.
When WCW formed outside of the NWA fans still identified the WTBS product as NWA even though the relationship was terminated. So it still carried the same weight with all the stars fans were used to seeing on Saturday nights.
I cannot stress this one fact enough, it was not until 1982 at the earliest when the WWF was not seen as the third ranked "national" company, behind NWA and AWA. The WWE holds all the cards to history now and has really warped what really happened. Sure everyone wanted to work in New York at the Garden at some point in their career but the popular fan opinion was that the WWF was a glorified regional territory until the early 80's.
In addition to this the product was so much different. All three organizations had unique styles. Southern, and Midwestern fans were hesitant to accept the "slower paced" production heavy WWF until Hulkamania over-whelmed pop culture.