May 6, 1991
What could wind up being one of the biggest stories of the year, or wind up being a non-story, is the end result of the current "poker game" of sorts going on between World Championship Wrestling, Titan Sports and, several municipally-owned buildings and the nation's largest building management company.
This story could end in any one of a number of ways, but ultimately it's final result will either solidify WCW as a minor league promotion with no hopes of being competition to the WWF, or a loss to the WWF in that its attempts at keeping WCW out of buildings will be ultimately broken.
When WCW was purchased by Turner Broadcasting two-and-a-half years ago, it was seemingly inevitable that this battle was in the cards. But this battle can only be fought once. The timing is all-important, and while it is a battle that WCW needed to eventually fight, one questions if this is the opportune time to start.
This is both a market-by-market battle, but also in many ways a national battle because the management of the various arenas will be looking at the initial results and the initial results will probably cause the "herd (no relation to Jim) mentality" prevalent in that industry to bend to whichever side successfully exerted the most pressure in the previous battles.
Exclusive access to buildings has been a part of pro wrestling since long before this current promotional war. Dating back to the early 1960s, rivals of Vince McMahon Sr. had unsuccessfully attempted to book shows in Madison Square Garden. In the mid-1970s, when Eddie Einhorn formed the outlaw IWA as competition to the NWA (which at the time had a working affiliation with both the WWF and AWA) using Mil Mascaras as his top drawing card, he found himself unable to book shows in the traditional wrestling buildings, and ended up running in secondary arenas and eventually the group went out of business.
In the early part of this wrestling war which began in 1984 with many different promotions involved and has now wound down to two big offices, one of which is a lot bigger than the other, the WWF had a hard time initially booking key arenas because the successful regional promotion (and despite how some have tried to rewrite wrestling history years later, back in 1983-84, most of the regional groups were extremely successful) had longstanding success and relations with the management of the buildings in their region. Initially in cities that had strong regional offices, the WWF was forced into the secondary buildings or even had trouble getting into markets. As the WWF achieved more prominence and gained a track record as being able to draw, those barriers one-by-one fell down like dominos and in many cases, it was the formerly successful regional promotion that was even kicked out of buildings. At the same time, in various attempts by the NWA and later Pro Wrestling USA (initially a consortium of the different major promotions remaining and later Jim Crockett and Verne Gagne) to book Madison Square Garden in New York and other key Northeastern buildings like the Spectrum, Capital Centre and Boston Garden were always rebuffed.
There is some question whether exclusivity of this nature is actually legal, but nobody has gone to court to test it. Eventually WCW was either going to have to test the legality of these exclusives, or be doomed to forever holding shows in secondary buildings in the major markets.
According to several different lawyers, the most likely result if these cases went to court is that in a privately-owned building, particularly in a market that has a secondary facility, there is a good chance that exclusivity wouldn't be construed as restraint of trade. There are cases, although none having to do with wrestling, that are similar and if the promoter have a facility in the market adequate for the event, the locking out of the specific facility, being that it is a private facility and has the right to make its own decisions, doesn't constitute a restraint of trade. In a publicly-owned building, particularly one that has open dates, the question is more debateable and certainly if the complaining by the party left out in the cold is loud enough, the municipality will have a hard time defending its position in that a building technically supported by taxpayers has open dates and a prospective client with a track record of paying its bills is interested in that open date, but isn't allowed in because of an ultimatum from another client booking the same basic entertainment form (remember, there are plenty of buildings around the country that have no interest in booking pro wrestling).
In a publicly-owned building that is the only building in the market, trying to lock a competitor out of the building, thus out of the market, seemingly is cut-and-dried restraint of trade. The only defense buildings would have is if they were booked so solid there was simply no room on their schedule (a rarity today as most buildings are empty more often than they were designed to be) or if the promoter has a track record of not paying its bills. WCW doesn't have a great track record in drawing fans, but it has a great track record when it comes to paying bills.
There are several examples, a few in the past and a few that are current, that apply to this situation. Several years back, when Jim Crockett Promotions began expanding into new markets at the same time Titan was running booming house show business, Titan established a policy that was not a secret and written about in various journals of pulling out of facilities that opened themselves up to competing wrestling promotions. While this locked Crockett out of many buildings, it also caused Titan to run a limited amount of dates and even pull out of a few arenas (The Baltimore Arena comes to mind) that booked Crockett shows. In January, Titan threatened to pull out of the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. if it continued to give WCW future dates, which in effect, would basically lock WCW out of the biggest market in the country because WWF had an exclusive at Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum had no interest in WCW as a client after its 1988 run in the facility. The building called Titan's bluff and in this case, Titan pulled out of the building and WCW was given eight dates in 1991 in the building. Some see this as a strategic withdrawal, because the WCW events are averaging about 5,400 paid attendance thus far on this run and each show has drawn less money than the previous one. The WWF had averaged nearly 9,000 the previous year in the same building. In some buildings (Pittsburgh Civic Arena and Capital Centre), while the circumstances leading up to Titan's leaving the building and WCW getting dates weren't the same, the end result was that the buildings were unhappy with WCW's performance, eventually went back to Titan, and WCW was back in its original position. In addition, there was already concern within the Titan offices that trying to run three facilities on a regular basis in the New York market was too many to begin with.
As has been rumored for some time, the big test market here is St. Louis, which in wrestling in many ways has a lot more significance than just being the No. 18 market in the country. Old-style wrestling, particularly '70s style, had a rich heritage and within the profession, St. Louis was at one point considered the wrestling capital of the United States. This past Saturday night was the final wrestling card at Kiel Auditorium (in fact, the final event of any kind) which is scheduled to be taken down in May. A new Kiel Center is set for construction, but won't be ready until 1994 at the earliest. This leaves the St. Louis market with one building, the Arena, municipally owned, and operated by Spectacor Management out of Philadelphia. The Arena has an exclusive with the WWF. Spectacor, which originally began as the building management company of the Spectrum and grew to being the largest building management company in the country has a long-standing relationship with the WWF. Several years ago, when Crockett was doing big business in Richmond, Va., when Spectacor got the management contract, they attempted to kick Crockett out of the building (Crockett threatened a lawsuit and the building backed down at the time). Eventually WWF pulled out of the Richmond Coliseum if it would allow WCW in. When WCW crowds diminished, the Coliseum asked WWF to return. While I don't believe WCW is technically locked out of the building, the company has found it very difficult to get dates. St. Louis is also Jim Herd's home city, which adds the "personal ego" on both sides of the fence to this battle. Don't think for a second the idea that Titan can lock Jim Herd's company out of Jim Herd's home city isn't a factor, because it is. And don't think St. Louis being Jim Herd's home city is a factor in it becoming the first test case.
What happened is James Oshust, who handles scheduling and booking buildings for WCW, wrote letters threatening legal action against the Arena and Spectacor if WCW wasn't allowed in the building. The Arena wasn't the only building Oshust apparently wrote to. Jim Herd said that WCW has targeted 25 municipally-owned buildings that the company has threatened legal action against should they be blocked from appearing. The Arena relented, gave WCW a June 14 date, but refused to give them a second Great American Bash date citing it was giving the WWF four weeks both before and after its events grace period. In other words, WWF, has the primary tenant, could basically lock up the building with six strategically booked dates per year, at least in theory, although in fact the Arena might still give WCW two or three dates per year (less than WCW would want) strictly to avoid legal headaches. Sources inside wrestling and also in St. Louis indicate that the WWF has threatened to pull out of the Arena is they rent to WCW. The threat has even included pulling out of other Spectacor buildings if WCW is allowed in the Arena. Herd, on his part, has said that if WCW is locked out of the arena, aside from the possibility of legal action, that he'd consider pulling out of Spectacor buildings as well. One has to realize that when it comes to major arenas, pro wrestling is not exactly the world's highest priority. WCW is not exactly doing booming business, and while WWF can do business in arenas, in major markets it has nowhere near the arena drawing power of legitimate sports or mainline music and entertainment acts. To Spectacor and some of these arenas, it probably wouldn't be a bad analogy to describe this mess as a high school basketball coach having a fight between a sixth man, who gets some playing time but isn't really a big factor overall in the team, and a bench warmer who almost never plays, and both threatening to quit if the other isn't kicked off the team. In sports, the coach would probably just cut both of them to rid himself of the headache, but in arena business, and in the business-world, decisions have to be made more politically.
One of the buildings in the Oakland Coliseum Arena, a 15,500-seat county-owned facility in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is different from St. Louis in that there are many adequate facilities, including the Cow Palace (14,700 seats for wrestling) in San Francisco, two 6,000 seat buildings (Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland and San Francisco Civic) a 4,500 seat building (SUREC Arena in San Jose) and a 2,700 seat arena (San Jose Civic), all of which will book pro wrestling. Titan runs ten shows a year in the market, alternating between the Coliseum and the Cow Palace. WCW's rare appearances have been in either the Kaiser Center or Civic, both considered minor league buildings and less familiarity as far as directions and the like to out-of-towners. However, WCW managed to book the Oakland Coliseum Arena on July 27 for a Great American Bash date. While Titan has yet to officially cancel any Oakland Coliseum Arena dates, those close to this situation here admit the idea of pulling out of Oakland has been talked about and privately hope it's only a bluff. Although the size of the crowds in this market are more dependent upon whether Hulk Hogan is on the card or not, rather than which building, the Coliseum is the most desirable building.
If Herd and WCW have their way, there are approximately two-dozen other markets where this same game is about to be played in. The end result of these battles will no doubt determine the fate in privately owned buildings as well due to the so-called "herd mentality" in the building industry.
"If Vince (McMahon) can't live with the free enterprise system, that's tough," said Herd. "His mistake is that he might have been able to break all the regional promotions, but there is no way he can break Turner Broadcasting. It's inconceivable for him to even think he can. But apparently he doesn't understand that."
While nobody from Titan can talk on the record to the Observer for obvious reasons, one source said, "This is a war and they'd better realize that when it's over, we're going to win."
Words notwithstanding, this is certainly a major battle and it's even more a poker game. Everyone is talking big, but here are the real key factors.
*Will WCW sue. It's very easy to write a threatening letter. It's altogether different to file a lawsuit. A lawsuit is a headache, costs lots of money, and if it actually goes to trial rather than being settled out of court, will take forever since the result can be appealed. However, the first building that doesn't back down to WCW's threat, and if WCW doesn't sue, everyone will know the threat is empty and the situation will quickly return to the status quo
*Will Titan Sports really pull out of buildings. Since right now, the building game is limited to the Meadowlands, St. Louis and Oakland, it's easy for Titan to pull out and present an image to the buildings as not backing down on its position. St. Louis is the only market where they'd have a tough time running shows, since the other two have other buildings they can go to. However if this situation plays out in another two-dozen cities, pulling out of that many buildings becomes a very serious concern. If they don't back up the threat to pull out, then the rest of the building industry will see it as an empty threat. At that point even the privately owned buildings may start renting to WCW even if they had previous exclusives with Titan, because they'll see threatened pull-outs in response as an empty threat.
*How will WCW perform once it gets into these new buildings. This may be the most important factor of all. WCW is getting into buildings by threatening legal action. That isn't the way to bring about initially pleasant building relations. If WCW can make money for the facilities with its shows, the initial problems will quickly disappear because the name of the game is money. But WCW's timing in its moves has to be impeccable. This game can only be played once and if WCW is in the wrestling business for the long haul, the game does have to be played. If WCW can get into these buildings, and screws up in some ways (and if it doesn't draw and the arenas see Titan on the outside with the power to draw, they will be looking for mistakes) such as no-shows (a constant WCW problem) or what they determine to be bad promoting, they'll lose the building and the building will have a past history as a defense in case this game is played in the future. WCW literally has to be able to draw at least adequate crowds in buildings like the Meadowlands, St. Louis and Oakland or whatever gains they've made of late will be quickly lost. That means they have to be able to get their shows in those buildings over to the fans as being something special, something WCW hasn't been nearly as good as Titan Sports at being able to do. I do know that the advertising budget for the first St. Louis show has been heavily increased, but the reality of wrestling is that advertising on television and radio is basically wasting money unless the angles, personalities and matches being presented interest the viewer of the syndicated television show. The market can be bombarded with ads, but if it isn't backed up by a strong card, it's a waste of money. I'm certain Titan considers pulling out of any of these buildings as nothing more than strategic and temporary retreats, with the idea that over the long haul, WCW won't draw (and recent history indicates that doesn't seem to be incorrect analysis) and they'll be asked back on their terms. But there is the small risk. What if WCW draws? It seems unlikely, but if WCW makes a big move right now in terms of a talent raid (which Herd insists isn't going to happen) and gets the ball rolling, Titan's strategy may backfire, although that is a longshot. Indeed, within Titan there are those who believe pulling out is the wrong strategy if only because Titan's presence in those buildings head-to-head will theoretically hurt WCW's live crowds in comparison to WCW having the building all to itself. If WCW's crowds dwindle to where the building can economically justify not renting to them, and the faster they do, the better off Titan is, and Titan's presence in the building will speed that up, then Titan wins. And when they win, they also maintain good relations with the buildings. If Titan pulls out on the buildings that rent to WCW (and aside from ethical considerations, no building wants to get sued in the first place when it can avoid it, let alone get sued with the strong possibility of losing that suit), there relationship with the buildings will never be the same even if they win. Also, by not pulling out, there is virtually no possibility of Titan really "losing" (as in losing the major buildings over the long haul) because even if WCW can outdraw Titan, which really isn't going to happen but let's just say things change and it does, it's doubtful any of these buildings will lock Titan out because Titan can just as easily play the threatening game. The only way Titan can "lose," is if pulls out of these buildings as it threatens. Ironically, the decision seems to be leaning in that direction.