Winter, 1989 — WWF
It was working.
Slowly & steadily, chugging & churning; it was twisting & morphing into something bigger than it was.
Vince had been right: Andre was a hit with the kids. Children of all ages were enamored with meeting Fezzik. And the press and general media had gone above & beyond (with no bribes) in promoting every little thing Vince was doing. He wasn’t the feature story on the news, but being the human interest footnote was better than nothing.
Already, there were orders for more plush dolls bearing Andre’s likeness than McMahon had in stock and requests for new merchandise was coming in every day through phone calls, letters & the 900 number where Vince had started to hock goods & give mini-updates.
And though it’s wasn’t everything Vince wanted, he wasn’t about to jinx it by complaining. Not one bit. If this is how it was going to go: low-quality VHS tapes of live events, one NBC network special (Vince was still waiting to hear back on the numbers for it), merchandise, one mortgage almost paid off, appearances on morning talk shows around the country and The Tonight Show once a month – where McMahon could hype upcoming events or TV specials (if they were happening) – well then, that’s how it would be.
And it wasn’t just wrestlers Vince was showcasing of course; in the last few months, a new band was warming up the crowd at events, he’d hired 2 new acrobats and clowns, half a dozen new carnival rides were now traveling in the pack and the principle cast of The Princess Bride had even appeared at a special showing of the film to benefit some charity Vince couldn’t remember the name of. HBO had filmed the whole thing as the first of a new documentary series they were airing next summer.
And Andre – as big as he was – seemed to be feeling better. Though he was drinking more, but it hadn’t affected his in-ring performance…noticeably. And honestly, Vince thought to himself: “As long as he doesn’t drink so much that he passes out and collapses on top of some poor kid, then all’s well.”
In addition to all of this (modest) success, the B-Team – the lucha libres – were pulling in profits three times the average when Vince tallied the numbers. Everyone, even Vince to an extent, had underestimated the appeal of the high-flying, vibrantly-colored, masked wrestlers. The merchandising demands for THEIR dolls, lunchboxes, etc., had even convinced Vince to cut the hardworking grapplers in on the profits he was reaping because of them. Yep, 1 whole percent would find its way into their next checks every 2 weeks.
(Vince had learned to pay all of his Mexican wrestlers by check because many of them didn’t have/couldn’t get bank accounts or speak much English and sometimes it would take them more than a month to figure out a way to cash them, creating a nice buffer in case of any unforeseen, financial circumstances.)
Yes, Vince was finally seeing the slightest glimmer of hope that there might still be a future for the company his grandfather had started.
Vince was also now back to planning out long story arcs. Between the VHS tapes, and 900 number, a small but loyal audience was seeking out his product.
Originally, the plan was for Vince & Co. to head down to Mexico and South America in a few months, but 2 Big Name Wrestlers had just left WCCW for (as of yet) unknown reasons.
Vince had no idea how he was going to get the men, but he wanted them. He had a unique idea for these 2 well-known wrestlers that he’d never seen done before. If he could just get them signed quietly, he thought he could bring these outsiders into the fold, creating some confusion because not many people knew the few details he’d managed to obtain. This plan would only work if he could get back on television consistently.
If all went well, maybe the WWF would be profitable enough to be considered a distant 3rd in the wrestling promotion ranks…a position that no one had held for quite a while, at least not in any of the ways that mattered.
Meanwhile – for the better part of a year now – Andre had exactly what Vince had promised him: he was the promotion’s Champion. He had an easy schedule; met with kids; went on the talk shows (occasionally); and every once in a while, he’d wrestle a heel on the roster to “defend” his Championship and rarer, Vince’s traveling circus would visit some Podunk town where a nearly-empty high school gym played host to an Indy show where their champion would get squashed by Andre in less than 5 minutes (a contract stipulation).
And because that little promotion always cared more about wrestling than money, they never understood or cared that Andre destroying their champion with ease only made people turn away from their product. Vince had seen 8 of these Indy promotions go under in Andre’s wake.
Fall, 1989 – NWA-WCCW
“What do you mean, UNDER?” Fritz Von Erich asked repeatedly.
But it didn’t matter how many times or what words his lawyers used to explain it; the problem was that the concept at the very core of the problem hadn’t occurred to the Von Erich patriarch.
And anyone who tried to say different either had their head up their ass or didn’t know the business. Fritz didn’t want to hear that his heart attack angle had hurt the box office, ratings and business in general. And he certainly didn’t care to know or believe that maybe viewers didn’t need to be reminded of his son David’s passing every week (a Memorial Photo started every Saturday Night’s Main Event) and maybe – just maybe – the fans were tuning in & hoping to see some airtime given to The Tag-Team Champs or the Savages instead of week 82 of the Von Erich Show.
“Under. Like over-under, you know?” Nick Bockwinkel queried Fritz. “Sometimes you’re over, sometimes you’re under. It wouldn’t hurt for business to pick up.”
Yes, the Savages feud with Kerry & Kevin Von Erich had been exciting, brutal and a crowd-pleaser, but it should have culminated at a pay-per-view, followed by one of the teams chasing the gold. But it hadn’t and everyone was suffering for it. Merchandise, ratings, house gates; it was all down. And as the NWA took the WCCW further under its wing and it expanded throughout the country, destroying what very little remained of the territories, expenses were growing dramatically.
Every crushed promotion meant 3 or 4 new guys joining the roster.
Fritz had recently put everybody on salary, thinking he’d save money, collecting more of the gate and paying less in the long run, but if he’d been paying attention to his talents’ then-current contracts, he’d have picked a different month to change his pay structure.
75% of the wrestler’s contracts were expiring and (for the most part) they all banded together and held out for substantial raises. Fritz didn’t like the idea of being strong-armed, but he liked the idea of his family and other business associates knowing that it had happened even less. So he gave his men what they wanted.
Now, with few exceptions, the boys were employees, not self-employed contractors. As such, the WCCW had to offer insurance, workman’s comp, the whole shebang. Fritz actually liked the idea of taking care of the men who took care of him and moved forward with this plan without checking with anyone who might have been able to assist the process or set up safeguards.
And in less than 2 years, WCCW had assets of 16 million and debts totaling more than 30 million due to his generosity and his unwillingness to ask for advice, which was akin to being weak in his book.
“We’ll deal with this tomorrow,” Fritz said hastily, waving his hands in the air and shooing all talks of money and failings out of his office. Nick Bockwinkel was the 1st to rise & exit.
As the last of the WCCW brain trust left the room, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Randy Savage entered, taking a seat after Fritz asked them to.
“You boys know I don’t really care what you do in your personal life, right?” Fritz asked.
“Yeah,” Piper & Savage said in near-unison, nodding.
“I was fine with you leaving to film that science fiction movie, yes?” Fritz asked, looking at the Rowdy One in reference to They Live. Piper nodded in agreement.
“And I pay well?” the eldest Von Erich asked.
“Well, yeah,” Piper said.
“Yeah,” Savage agreed in his gravelly voice.
“So, what’s this?” Fritz asked angrily, holding up two unsigned contracts. “Everybody else is on board and re-upped a month or so prior to when their current deal actually expired. What’s the hold-up?”
Piper & Savage glanced at each other.
Randy spoke first: “You know, Fritz, Lanny & I should’ve been wrestling for the tag belts after jobbing to your kids for the better part of a year. We kinda thought that was the deal, so if we can come to terms on that, we’ll be here for a real long time.”
Fritz said nothing, just nodded his head absent-mindedly.
Then Hot Rod spoke: “I’m leaving when my contract is up. I would’ve said something before but I wasn’t sure until a couple days ago,” Piper finished.
“What happened?” Fritz asked. “Where are you going?”
“Home,” Piper answered truthfully. “I mean, I’m probably going to make a few more movies but I just feel done…I’m burned out and I miss my family.”
Fritz was already reaching into his desk and ruffling through papers, finally pulling out a contract. Piper & Savage wondered why Fritz had even bothered to ask them about their plans if he already had something in mind. Fritz flung two pieces of stapled paper at Randy.
“There’s a 10% decrease from last year there, Randy,” Fritz continued. “You’ll have to get with the bookers to find out what their plans are for you. I want you to stay but I can’t give you any more than what’s there on paper.
“We’ve been in a continual expansion process that costs a fortune and I’m going to be tightening my belt and taking a hard look at the bottom line, which means I’ll need people here I can depend on. My boys are going to get the tag belts soon and keep them and Kerry will also hold the Intercontinental Belt indefinitely. Can you live with that?” he asked Randy.
“I’ll let you know in a day or two,” Randy said respectfully.
Fritz shook his head and waved his hands like he was wiping something from his view.
“No,” Fritz said, “You’ll tell me now. You’re in or out. I have to know who’s with me. If you’re leaving, you don’t even have to finish out your contract, you can just walk and take your brother with you.”
Randy rose from his heat (as did Piper). Savage gently set the contract down on Fritz’s desk and extended his hand.
“I’ve been working for a week without a contract, Jack”, Randy said, referring to Fritz by his real name. “I was waiting for you to notice.”
Fritz looked dumbfounded but shook Randy’s hand. Piper shook his head and he & Randy exited the office. Fritz sat back in his chair and felt relief.
Counting Lanny (who was sure to follow his brother) three large payroll expenses had just walked out the door; one of them heading toward retirement. Fritz pressed a button on his phone and spoke loudly when his secretary answered.
“Bring me all the wrestler’s contracts and all the agreements we have with the networks and cable companies and…just bring in everything,” Fritz said gruffly.
And over the next few days, Fritz Von Erich poured over every document related to even the smallest WCCW expense, all by himself, because he didn’t really need anybody’s help.
After all, it was Fritz’s business savvy alone (as far as he was concerned) that helped propel WCCW into the powerhouse it was today. He was even thinking of breaking off from the umbrella of the NWA because they didn’t agree with every decision he wanted to make regarding the future of the company. His company.
A company this big can’t go under, Fritz re-assured himself before calling a meeting with “creative” so they could brainstorm on how to make every feud revolve around or involve his sons…and himself.
January, 1990 – NBC Studios
16 Million. That’s how many people had tuned in to see Vince’s one-off, circus-like TV extravaganza filled with wrestling, live music, acrobats & more. D-list celebrities had even been a part of the festivities; it was like Circus of the Stars.
The Final Act was a display of strength which saw Andre the Giant lift a ship’s anchor (it was “weighed” during the special and purported to be over 900 lbs.) and heave it into a pool ten feet away; the resulting splash soaking a group of 50 kids seated on the other side of the pool and who had never seen a real life Giant.
All went as planned and after the kids were soaked, they screamed and ran toward Andre and the Gentle Giant allowed himself to be pulled into the pool by the kids, who jumped in after him, screaming & giggling & splashing.
Then the special faded to black as the band played generic rock music and a message appeared on-screen that read, NBC & WWF: Family Entertainment for Giants, Kids & Everyone In-Between. Then the WWF’s tour schedule appeared as an announcer asked viewers at home to call or write the network if they’d like to see another special like this one.
Half a million calls and letters had flooded into the studio’s headquarters over the next 7 days and Dick Ebersol (former and once again-NBC President) wanted more. And so did Vince McMahon.
When Vince left Dick’s office later that day, the WWF had a contract for 6 network specials spread over 2 years and 1 hour of wrestling every Saturday morning for the next year.
Now Vince just needed to add at least 20 wrestlers to his ranks.
Over drinks at the Rainbow Room, he signed the 1st two and explained to them how they were going to invade his ring, matches & company every Saturday; creating confusion and a new way of doing things. Randy Savage and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper were going to bring a new kind of order to Vince’s world.