Promo moves to put WrestleMania back on top

For nearly a year, Vince McMahon has had one number on his mind: 1 million.

That’s the amount of pay-per-view buys the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment has been unable to generate over the past two years but is intent to reach again with WrestleMania 27, taking place Sunday from Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. To do so, McMahon has pulled veteran WWE stars like Dwayne Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin back into the fold. He’s even harnessed the power of the pouf, “Jersey Shore’s” Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, to drum up interest among non-traditional WWE viewers.

The recession essentially caused consumers to reconsider ponying up $50 for WWE’s version of the Super Bowl, or save money by holding viewing parties, causing PPV buys to drop. Fans also complained storylines were weak leading up to the big four-hour show. Last year’s WrestleMania generated 885,000 orders, down from 960,000 the year earlier.

WWE is aiming to hit the million mark for more than just bragging rights. WrestleMania is the company’s single biggest moneymaker each year. Last year’s PPV earned $19 million; ticket sales to the Phoenix show chalked up another $5.8 million. But that was down from previous years. In 2008, Orlando’s ‘Mania earned nearly $24 million from PPV buys and another $6 million in ticket sales.

As a result, “We took a step back and said, ‘What can we do to engage fans, old fans and prospective fans to come and get involved with WrestleMania this year?” said Robert Zimmerman, WWE’s senior VP of corporate communications.

Knowing WWE needed to drum up some excitement around this year’s show, McMahon turned to some old friends.

In February, he brought back Johnson, who left the ring seven years ago as “The Rock” to pursue a film career. Johnson has spent the last several weeks appearing on WWE’s “Monday Night Raw,” on USA Network, as part of an ongoing storyline, and toplining a series of ads across NBCUniversal’s channels to hype his appearance at ‘Mania as the show’s first guest host.

Timing comes as Johnson is gearing up to promote Universal’s “Fast Five,” out April 29.

“He’s a well-known commodity now; he’s a movie star,” Zimmerman said. “He had a huge following when he was with the company and we’ll get some of the older fans back.”

Joining Johnson will be Austin, another former WWE star-turned thesp (he recently co-starred in “The Expendables”) who will host USA’s first WWE-produced reality show, “Tough Enough,” starting Monday.

WWE even turned to enlist another reality star, Snooki, to involve her in another plotline over the last several weeks on “Raw” that culminates in a match at ‘Mania with former WWE diva Trish Stratus, also back for the first time in years.

“We’re still focusing on the traditional programming we do,” said Zimmerman, referring to WWE’s TV shows, magazines and websites, “but what we wanted to do was get a bigger push via buzz marketing and word-of-mouth. This year we’re trying to get as much mainstream exposure leading up to the PPV than what we did in previous years.”

A press conference from New York City’s Hard Rock Cafe on Wednesday elicited boos from crowds gathered to meet The Rock and on-screen rival John Cena. But that hardly upset McMahon, who bristles if there’s no reaction at all.

WWE realizes that the return of some of its former stars (and still top draws when it comes to recent ratings) is speaking only to the company’s core fanbase.

So to attract a broader audience, it needed to reach out to potential new fans.

“We’re speaking to an audience that wouldn’t normally come to ‘WrestleMania’ with Snooki,” Zimmerman said.

To broaden its reach, WWE also inked an extensive promotional deal with Kmart, locking down the retailer as the exclusive presenting sponsor of all of its live events for the year. TV spots have been featuring one of its more high-profile stars, Randy Orton.

Company also timed the release of its videogame, “WWE All Stars,” from THQ, around ‘Mania.

And while it hasn’t been unusual for WWE’s bigger names to make guest appearances on shows like USA’s “Burn Notice” and “Psych” and talkshows, the company upped that kind of exposure during the weeks leading up to this year’s ‘Mania.

This week alone, WWE’s wrestlers showed up on episodes of MTV’s “Silent Library,” TLC’s “Cake Boss,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” “Access Hollywood Live” and Nickelodeon’s “Kids’ Choice Awards,” after last week’s “Conan” talker on TBS. Chris Jericho is a contestant on the alphabet’s “Dancing with the Stars,” and Johnson guested on “Piers Morgan Tonight” on Thursday.

All the shows target a different demo, with “Cake Boss” and “Dancing,” in particular, trying to speak to women, which make up 40% of WWE’s fanbase.

Wrestlers also cover this month’s Muscle & Fitness and are featured inside Men’s Fitness mags.

Naturally, WWE also has turned to Facebook and Twitter to generate buzz, with Johnson especially looking to promote ‘Mania to his millions of followers through tweets.

All of the activity has already paid off, with the Georgia Dome already sold out. Venue holds more than 71,000.

But “WrestleMania” “does not end on Sunday night,” Zimmerman said.

Event kicks off a new round of storylines that will play out on “Raw” and “Friday Night SmackDown” on Syfy. “Tough Enough” bows on Monday. And planning has already started for “WrestleMania 28,” set to take place April 1, 2012, from Sun Life Stadium, where the Dolphins football team plays.

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