The Surprising Partnership of ESPN and WWE
ESPN.com – For WWE, each year’s WrestleMania has to be the biggest WrestleMania ever.
This is not the Super Bowl, where ratings can dip based on the matchup and the NFL merely shrugs its shoulders. At WrestleMania, the WWE picks the matchups, and regardless of how it’s booked, the card will be billed as the biggest card WWE has ever put together.
In 2016, this is factually untrue. Sunday’s WrestleMania 32 card, expected to fill AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is not the biggest WrestleMania ever. WWE is in a transitional period with its current roster, and much of that roster is injured. But WWE still has to make WrestleMania an event, and to make it an event the promotion has to find stars to fill the card. WWE can do what it has done so often in the past few years — fill up space with holdovers from the last heyday, the Attitude Era. Or it can build stars from scratch.
The WWE is, at its base, a star-making machine. In the 1980s, it took regional standouts and turned them into MTV and Saturday morning cartoon icons. In the 1990s, it took the castoffs of the Monday Night Wars and on their backs sold millions of T-shirts. In 2013, WWE opened its Performance Center to start building a new era of stars from scratch. The results of these in-house Frankenstein experiments have been mixed — but if WWE is going to construct a bright future for the company, now is the time for its developmental system to show its worth.
As we look at Sunday’s card, WWE’s star-making machine will be locked into an abdominal stretch. How do you build the biggest card of all time when half of your roster is injured, and half of your fan base is still stuck in the 1990s?
Growing up the only time I remember ESPN covering anything WWE was the Vince McMahon steroid trial and Mike Tyson’s appearances on RAW and WrestleMania 14. Now, The Worldwide Leader in Sports is covering the Leader in Sports Entertainment on a regular basis. Wrestling has gone through multiple boom periods without even so much as a mention on SportsCenter, and now WWE Talents are featured weekly.
Perhaps the migration of former WWE on-air Talents to ESPN has helped build the bridge, or maybe ESPN is looking to offer something different in the increasingly competitive Sports Networks market. With all major professional sports leagues having their own networks, along with Fox and NBC diving in as well, ESPN sees this as a chance to snag the WWE Universe.
Whatever the reason, this development is a great one. For the first time ever ESPN SportsCenter will be live at WrestleMania 32 on Sunday. Giving it the live coverage usually reserved for mega-events like the Super Bowl and World Series, ESPN is making WrestleMania more than just a big “wrasslin” event. For 32 years WWE has presented an event that much like the Super Bowl, transcends it’s normal demographics. You may not watch RAW and Smackdown religiously, but if you’ve ever been a fan, odds are you’ll be doing the same thing I am Sunday night.