As WrestleMania rolls around, a familiar phrase begins to pop up once again: The Sporting News reported on “the main event for the Super Bowl of professional wrestling;” Forbes, channeling Randy Orton, asserted “WrestleMania is the Super Bowl of wrestling;” and ABC News, in its reporting on SummerSlam’s return to Brooklyn, made sure to differentiate the summer and spring events: “SummerSlam may not be the Super Bowl of wrestling. But…”
Certainly WrestleMania and the Super Bowl are somewhat similar in scale (though the Super Bowl is obviously a much bigger money maker), and both do their best to attract casual fans. In some ways, WrestleMania created a blueprint for other major sporting events to follow: In 1985, the year of the first Mania, featuring the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, Muhammad Ali, Liberace and the Rockettes, the Super Bowl halftime show was…Tops in Blue, a U.S. Air Force performance ensemble. The year before that, it was a marching band.
But, to state the obvious, the NFL is a much different product than pro wrestling, which is why the events aren’t as alike as WWE would want you to believe for its own branding purposes. And that distinction is a good thing for Vince McMahon: Each event is actually tailored to the audience he wants to tailor it to. The NFL can do this only to an extent. Signing Beyoncé to sing during the halftime show is a good step, and the commercials are great for people who tune out during the plays, but the focus of the game is football, and the NFL is restricted by the outcome of a competitive season.
Whether you enjoy it or not, the WWE’s freedom of booking is something legitimate sports would kill for. And this doesn’t just apply to the NFL. Take baseball: In 1998, the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa and the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire helped reinvigorate a tired game with a (juiced) home run race, each vying to be the first to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, and, after that, to see who would finish the season with more home runs. The World Series that year was the Yankees vs. the Padres, the worst-rated Series on record at the time, topped just two years later by the abysmal performance of the Yankees and the Mets. But imagine the 1998 home run race culminating in a playoff berth for the Cardinals, and a National League Championship Series match up between McGwire and Sosa. Or, since we’re fantasy booking anyway, Sosa and McGwire in two separate leagues, facing off in the World Series.
This is the frustrating thing for league owners in professional sports. Picture an NFL in which Roger Goodell could choose the team that sold the most merchandise to stand on the field hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Or a year in which an underdog Giants team beats the Patriots not by chance, but because it was a predetermined outcome meant to tell a great story. That would indeed make the WrestleMania-Super Bowl comparison an apt one. But the Super Bowl is the culmination of a season, with teams going head-to-head to determine real outcomes. If the Patriots or the Steelers don’t reach the playoffs, you can’t just decide they’ll be in the big game to increase casual interest and ad buys.
In reality, WrestleMania is not “the Super Bowl of wrestling.” It’s what the NFL wishes the Super Bowl could be.
Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.