As a WWF-obsessed kid in the 1980s, I was the target audience during pro wrestling’s peak period. But what I didn’t know then was this national explosion of popularity was killing off the last vestiges of rasslin’ as it existed for decades before, and fans of so-called “real” wrestling were mourning its loss.
Television can take much of the credit (or blame, depending on who you are) for this new direction that would change the “sport” forever.
Touching on wrestling’s early days with an emphasis on the mid-70s through the early 90s, Tim Hornbaker’s 2018 book, Death of the Territories, is a fun, informative, superbly researched history of how an occasionally tight-knit association of regional wrestling organizations known collectively as the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) slowly unraveled thanks to the unstoppable promotional efforts of the New York-based World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and its third-generation owner, Vince McMahon, who purchased the promotion from his father in 1982.
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But Drunk TV is a television blog, and Death of the Territories doesn’t disappoint. It explains the key role of TV–both locally and nationally–as a weapon used by promoters brave enough to veer from the NWA’s handshake agreement to not compete in each other’s territories, as McMahon’s WWF and Jim Crockett Promotions (later known as the WCW after its sale to Ted Turner’s TBS) eventually did.
Hornbaker pulls from a wide array of sources, including local newspapers, to illustrate how these companies at first struck agreements with local stations to build anticipation for their live shows, where the real money was being made…then, as cable TV grew and syndication spread, they expanded through TV into each other’s regions. Those with better talent and higher production values did better, but it was easy to see that the battle would always be against the WWF and JCP behemoths.
By the late 80s, Hornbaker explains, it was all about television distribution, advertising and pay-per-view: “The territorial system was a casualty of the wrestling boom.”
By the early 90s, McMahon had amassed around 250 local stations carrying syndicated WWF content along with cable programming on SuperStation WTBS, MTV, USA Network and pay-per-view events. Additionally, NBC broadcast the popular Saturday Night’s Main Event several times a year in place of Saturday Night Live reruns. It was a far cry from the localized territories of decades past.
In this regard, television’s role in the death of the territories was just as important as McMahon’s marketing genius and the collective charisma of the talented grapplers he snatched up over the years from various competitors.
As I write this from my home state of Oregon, it was interesting to read how Don Owen, promoter of the Portland-based Pacific Northwest territory, was the only stateside promoter to stay completely independent (and in business!) until his retirement in the early 90s, perhaps contributing to my fond memories of Portland Wrestling during the mid-80s (despite my young age and the proliferation of WWF programming on TV…and my Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy action figures in my toy box).
Published by ECW Press, Death of the Territories throws a lot of names and events at the reader, and if you’re not at least a casual wrestling fan with an interest in wrestling history, it’s probably not your cup of tea. But if you grew up liking wrestling, even for a short time as a child (I was a “mark” from roughly 1984-1991), and have an interest in how television played a role in its becoming the national phenomenon WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is today, then I recommend checking it out.