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Slam Bunk

Yeah, we know it's not real, and by acknowledging it, pro wrestling is adding fans and gaining respect

A WARNING for uninitiated social media trawlers: Aug. 20 is WWE's SummerSlam, on pay-per-view. If this seems irrelevant to you, perhaps you can relate to this scenario instead: You're spending yet another evening on Twitter, scrolling away your ennui, when the accounts you follow for sports and news suddenly start posting about superplexes. Soon you realize this is a full-scale invasion of the bodyslammers. You are left scratching your head. Why, you wonder, is my timeline suddenly filled with ... wrestling?

This is not a phenomenon specific to the Twitterverse. In recent years pro wrestling discussion has steadily seeped into mainstream media in unexpected ways, with surprising staying power. now runs weekly wrestling features and interviews while regularly spotlighting viral-worthy in-ring moments. Last August, launched a WWE-focused vertical, almost a year after it began devoting weekly SportsCenter segments to interviews with wrestlers. Other outlets, including The New York Times, are giving more frequent space to the subject as well. Stars like John Cena have gone Hollywood. Suddenly pro wrestling—the scripted pseudo-sport long dismissed by virtually everyone but its fans—is seemingly everywhere. What gives?

Even as one of those timeline-flooders, I agree it's a fair question. After all, this is not necessarily one of the industry's cyclical boom periods, when its product aligns with the zeitgeist (the gaudy gloss of the 1980s, the irreverence of the late '90s) to catalyze crossover appeal. While WWE is financially strong and gleefully touts its social media following—it has 9.34 million Twitter followers, more than either Major League Baseball or the NHL—traditional metrics are in decline. Last Memorial Day its flagship show, USA Network's Monday Night Raw, drew the second-lowest Nielsen rating in its 24-year history, with a 1.75; in 1999, for example, that number regularly topped 6.0.

Still, even on bad nights, Raw typically draws nearly three million viewers, making it one of the most-watched shows on cable. (For comparison, NBA telecasts on TNT averaged 1.5 million in 2016--17.) Yet "sports entertainment"—WWE's self-styled branding—traditionally found itself without a natural media home, outside the purview of media covering either sports (such as SI) or entertainment (such as SI's sister publication, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY). Millions watched, but hardly anyone else noticed.

But with the Web's insatiable thirst for clicks, outlets discovered a well awaiting a tap. Wrestling pieces draw consistent, low-cost traffic as underserved devotees flock to the newfound substance available on the topic. It helps that those who came of age while wrestling experienced previous surges in popularity have grown into positions of editorial influence: A 12-year-old who watched Hulk Hogan slam Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III in 1987 is now 42, while a 16-year-old who idolized the beer-swigging Stone Cold Steve Austin a decade later is now in his or her mid-30s. And with the rise of social media, it is easier (and more socially acceptable) than ever for those who once congregated on obscure message boards to announce their fanaticism in front of everyone, including those who gauge the appetites of the public.

It helps too that the industry has long since dropped the pretense of kayfabe—the internal insistence that the show is nonfiction. Coverage is in turn no longer dogged by questions of legitimacy, nor is fandom as ridiculed by you-know-it's-fake-right? snark. That allows the kind of open appreciation of the form depicted in Netflix's acclaimed new series GLOW, or a recent New York Times short documentary titled "The Aria of Babyface Cauliflower Brown," in which an indie wrestler by that name articulates a convincing argument for wrestling as performance art. Wrestling is now a show that lets the world know it's a show.

This is not to say its cultural incursion is all good news. In May, The New York Times Magazine ran an essay titled "Is Everything Wrestling?" that examined American society's growing resemblance to the form: politicians' and cable TV hosts' embrace of base conflict, the contrived unreality of celebrity gossip, the pervasive "insistence on telling a great story with no regard for the facts."

More recently, basketball's proudest and loudest father, LaVar Ball, reportedly admitted to Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson that his public hubris was an act to build his family brand, reminiscent of how WWE honcho Vince McMahon's on-screen antagonism helped earn his company millions. All of which calls to mind a plea paraphrased from one of wrestling's perpetually hapless referees: Please, everybody, let's keep the performance in the ring.

Even on bad nights Raw typically draws three million viewers, making it one of the most watched shows on cable.



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