Once able to draw sponsorship dollars only from such categories as snack foods and automotive products because of its teen and blue-collar fan base, professional wrestling is attracting a suddenly more affluent, mainstream audience -- and the sponsors interested in reaching it.
UPFRONT SALES JUMP
Both the WWF and WCW are boasting dramatic increases in upfront ad sales this year and have cut deals with blue-chip marketers of everything from soft drinks to software.
The recent successes are the result of an image make-over that positions pro wrestling not as violent sport but campy entertainment.
"Over the past three years, we have definitely increased the number of mainstream sponsors," said Jim Rothschild, WWF's senior VP-North American ad sales. "We are proud to say we are mainstream and have the same advertisers as the NBA, MLB or NHL."
Added Joe Uva, president of Turner Entertainment Sales & Marketing, which sells time for WCW: "The demographics have evolved. Wrestling fans are better educated, more affluent and very loyal."
HIGH CABLE RATINGS
While wrestling's core consumers are still young boys and teens, there is a growing group of men who started watching the sport in the 1980s and never stopped. Wrestling ranks among the highest-rated properties on basic cable, often outperforming such hits shows as Comedy Central's "South Park," Nickelodeon's "Rugrats" and even pro basketball telecasts. Ratings for WCW and WWF programs are up a combined 50% over the past year.
Neither the WWF nor WCW will break out ad revenues. According to a study by DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, $55.3 million was spent on advertising in the wrestling groups' broadcasts last year.
Off that relatively small base, Mr. Rothschild said sales for the WWF's USA Network telecasts rose 300% in this year's upfront, and rates jumped 190% compared with the 1997 upfront market.
WWF sponsors for the coming season include Burger King Corp., Hasbro, M&M/Mars, Nintendo of America, Procter & Gamble Co., Western Union, the U.S. Army, MCI WorldCom's 1-800-COLLECT, and movie studios such as Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Pictures Marketing and Warner Bros.
The Ted Turner-owned WCW also claimed a sharp increase in upfront sales, though Mr. Uva would not disclose details. He said WCW's ad revenue has increased tenfold since 1994.
Among WCW's advertisers and promotional partners: Pepsi-Cola Co., Valvoline, Warner-Lambert Co. and Paramount Pictures.
Bill Croasdale, exec VP-national broadcast at Western International Media, Los Angeles, said wrestling has always been an effective vehicle for reaching kids and teens but now is also a good way to get to men 18 to 49 years old.
"There are a number of advertisers that feel it's still quite beneath them. There are others who see it as an excellent media buy, and it is an excellent media buy," Mr. Croasdale said.
HOW DO WWF, WCW DIFFER?
While advertisers are buying into pro wrestling's new entertainment-oriented image, few understand the distinctions between the WWF and WCW.
That alarms WCW President Eric Bischoff, who is aiming to make wrestling even more mainstream using lighter story lines and celebrity guest wrestlers such as Jay Leno and Dennis Rodman. WCW is in the early stages of planning an ad campaign to trumpet its family-friendly positioning.
WWF is positioning itself as edgier, using the tag: "WWF attitude."
That approach will "have a devastating impact on the business and set wrestling back 20 years," said Mr. Bischoff. "[Advertisers] are not watching what [WWF] is doing, because if they did, they would run."
Countered WWF owner Vince McMahon: "What we do is aggressive but not violent. Murder, rape, those are blatant acts of violence."
Mr. McMahon said WWF is extending its business into other media, including movies, TV programming and comic books.
The organization also recently purchased a hotel/casino in Las Vegas.
"We're in the entertainment business, and we'll go anywhere and do anything, from special effects to story lines," Mr. McMahon said.