Back in April, I was driving in my car listening to the FOX Sports Radio Network, when a certain commercial caught my attention. It was an ad for FOX, marketing some of its various radio and TV offerings, with a lot of noise going on in the background. The announcer then alludes that the noise is two of its premier radio hosts “practicing for WrestleMania.” The spot ended with the tagline “we cover all the sports, even the fake ones.”
Had I just heard that correctly? Did the FOX network, which has made a billion dollar deal with the WWE, just run an ad that openly called its newest acquisition “fake?” And on WrestleMania weekend no less?
Wrestling is certainly not “fake.” Though the WWE is obviously comfortable being “sports entertainment,” it still pushes (and rightfully so) that its superstars are true athletes that put their bodies on the line for the viewers’ sake every time they get in the ring. What they do is just as athletic and physically taxing as any other feat a professional athlete might perform. You may characterize wrestling as “predetermined” or “choreographed,” but it is definitely not fake. Physically, what you see is what you are getting. Of course kayfabe has long been dead in professional wrestling, and I’m not here to give an “it’s still real to me” speech, but the ad I heard was still a little jarring and, as a wrestling fan, gave me cause for concern.
When the news of the FOX network purchasing the rights to SmackDown Live first surfaced, we heard reports that FOX plans to really push WWE programming as a staple on its channels, including a possible studio-based show on FOX Sports Network. Triple H has also gone on record that SmackDown Live will be a “reimagined version” when it hits FOX airwaves. What that exactly means is yet to be determined. There have also been various reports, such as one from our own Brad Shepard, that certain folks at FOX are not impressed with SmackDown’s recent ratings and have had meetings with WWE brass to address their concerns. Additionally, when Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff were named Executive Directors of Raw and SmackDown Live respectively, it was rumored that FOX actually wanted Heyman on the blue brand.
IF that is true, Heyman’s reputation for creativity, having a finger on the pulse of the mainstream, and a penchant for developing intricate storylines would understandably be attractive to a network that is more concerned with the “entertainment” aspect of “sports entertainment” as opposed to pushing the WWE product as true athletic exhibition akin to MMA or any other professional sport.
My worry, as perhaps evidenced by the radio ad I heard in April, is that the FOX network may not know exactly what it wants the WWE to represent for its company, and is only quasi-embracing professional wrestling with a tongue in cheek approach. I could not imagine ESPN, by comparison, running an advertisement like the one I heard on FSN that almost openly mocks the nature of its newest property. And if this is the approach that will be taken, and the WWE plays along, it would be the ultimate disrespect to the wrestling business and the people in it. Not only that, but think of the damage the WWE could do to its own brand by allowing Fox to control its message.
Do you think a Rhonda Rousey or even a Brock Lesnar, athletes that pride themselves on their reputations and accomplishments in other athletic endeavors such as the UFC, would want themselves to be associated with a company that is openly mocked by its TV partners? And ultimately, who has benefited more from these types of celebrity athlete associations- the WWE or the individuals themselves? I would argue the WWE has. A “fake wrestling promotion” has no chance of fostering these types of relationships with athletes in the future if they allow their business to be marginalized for the sake of a network television partner.
Yes, being on FOX might have its benefits. But one would hope that the intent of partnering with a major network television company would be to expand the product, establish its worth, and legitimize it to the masses, not to reduce it back to a weekly punch line for “real sports broadcasters.” Presentation will be the key, and we may not know exactly what that presentation will be until October. At this point, FOX may not know what they want that presentation to be, either.