Hulk Hogan's Drawing Power - excerpt from Wrestlenomics by Chris Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A STUDY ON ATTENDANCE:
In the modern era of WWE, Live Event Gates, that is attendance at WWE House Shows, WWE TV Tapings and WWE PPVs represent about a fifth of their annual net revenue. While $103 million is a significant amount, it reflects a de-emphasis from thirty years ago.
In the 1980s, as had been the model for ages, wrestling was concentrated with packing arenas with proven wrestling draws. You came to see the top feuds in your local venue. Unsurprisingly, live events represented the majority of WWF’s revenue. The advent of Pay-per-view and cable channel television rights fees certainly transformed the landscape. A New York Times Article (creatively titled, “This is not Real”) quotes Dave Meltzer estimating TitanSports at $150 million by 1989. It was during the 80s that WWF worked hard to diversify their revenue streams. Yet, live event revenues were still the major driver going into the 90s which contrasts heavily with today when almost half of today’s net revenue stream (PPV Revenue, $84M ~17% and TV Rights Fees $139.5M ~29%) aren’t derived from the nightly box office gate.
In the 1980s, it was a war. WWF was like a bull in a china shop, going town to town using their syndicated television model and offering to buy time from the local stations to displace the existing regional wrestling products. But it wasn’t enough to just steal television. The focus was promoting local gates and running a lot of shows – in the 80s, WWF ran almost twice as many shows as WWE does today. However, while today’s revenue model contains complex interactions of domestic & international audiences, television contracts, PPV buys, merchandise sales & licensing, running house shows (non-televised live events) is a significant portion of income, and represents the majority of shows they hold each year.
As it was in the beginning, so it shall be evermore. WWE is still running live events town to town. Yet, today’s show is less and less about individual characters, and more about selling the entire show.
I. HULK HOGAN IS RUNNIN’ WILD.
Let us consider the era of Hulkamania:
In January 1984, Hulk Hogan dethrones the recently crowned Iron Sheik and becomes WWF World Champion. He reigns for four years (1984-1988) until The Main Event angle involving twin Hebners, Andre the Giant, Million Dollar Man and an enormous television audience. The title does eventually move to Randy Savage at Wrestlemania IV and Hogan takes some time off in 1988 to shoot the cinematic masterpiece No Holds Barred. He returns to win the title at Wrestlemania V and finally loses passes the torch to The Ultimate Warrior at Toronto’s Wrestlemania VI. From 1984 to 1990, Hogan was top of the WWF pecking order.
For seven years, Hogan reigned on top. In a televised era, that’s a long time to keep a character fresh, and certainly there were periods of backlash against Hogan. However, to many fans that came of age, until the taint of the steroid trials really ruined the luster of professional wrestling (or “Sports Entertainment”, a phrase that Steve Planamenta, Titan's media coordinator was using in the 80s), Hulk Hogan represented the epitome of the WWF’s vision of what a wrestler should look like and fans gobbled it up.
Average Non-Exceptional Major Show* Attendance with and without Hulk Hogan
This chart is looking at monthly average live WWF event attendance for shows which did and did not have Hulk Hogan wrestling on them. (*) Since there are some major events which “spiked” attendance, those have been removed – so this chart does not include Madison Square Garden, any PPVs (i.e. no Wrestlemanias), State Fairs, joint tours with other companies (i.e. New Japan/WWF in 1985) or exceptional events like Toronto’s aptly named “The Big Event” which drew over 60,000 people to CNE Stadium in August 1986.
There’s was a lot more events than what I’ve tallied here. When WWF was running molten hot in the 80s, they often ran multiple shows throughout the day, sometimes ferrying top talent on private jets so could advertise proven drawing card (like Hogan) in many places at once. For instance, on December 26 1988, WWF ran six shows in a single day – one crew on the West Coast (San Francisco and Sacramento with Bret Hart, Bushwhackers, Dusty Rhodes, Big Bossman, Mr. Perfect and Hulk Hogan), one crew on the East Coast (Landover Maryland and Hershey PA – with Tito Santana, Honkytonk Man, Andre the Giant, Jake Roberts, Ted DiBiase, Demolition, Roddy Piper and Rick Rude) and third crew (Auburn Hills Michigan and Toronto – with Jim Neidhart, the Rockers, Earthquake, Greg Valentine, Randy Savage, Jim Duggan and the Ultimate Warrior). Thanksgiving and Christmastime were enormous touring dates for professional wrestling in the 1980s.
During this national expansion and boom period, WWF held 600-700 cards a year; this dataset is only drawing on about a quarter of the cards which had attendance figures available. To put into perspective, today’s WWE usually runs north of 300 cards a year (utilizing two touring rosters) and in the mid-90s through the Attitude Era, WWF was running only around 250 cards annually.
Here’s a detailed look at the cards with and without Hulk Hogan by month from 1984-1990.
This data strongly suggests that within the sampled events, the wrestling cards with Hulk Hogan performing on them would have twice the attendance of those that did not have him.
Does this imply analysis that Hulk Hogan was effectively responsible for the additional five thousand people per event? Was he that big of a draw – right from the get-go?
WWF could run many shows in a single night, and Hogan was only on some of them. They ran at different times (matinee/evenings), cities of varying sizes, and with different levels of local promotion, historical marketplace establishment (WWF was fighting a promotional war with the NWA and moving into new territories) and many other factors. Does this truly isolate Hulk Hogan’s role in being an effective draw?
Clearly, not every venue or arena is comparable. Consider Western/Central New York:
· Buffalo: War Memorial Auditorium (capacity over 10,000)
· Rochester: War Memorial (capacity 8,000)
· Binghamton: Broome County Arena (capacity 6,500)
· Syracuse: War Memorial (capacity 6,000)
· Utica: Memorial Auditorium (capacity 5,000)
· Poughkeepsie: Mid-Hudson Civic Center (capacity 3,000)
· Ithaca: Ben Light Gymnasium (capacity 1,500)
Throughout the late-80s, the largest venues – Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, Syracuse - all hosted WWF cards that included Hulk Hogan wrestling. Meanwhile, Hogan rarely, if ever, appeared at the smaller venues. Instead, those audiences were treated to main events such as The Rockers versus the Conquistadors (Ithaca – Sept 25, 1988) or Ron Bass against Hillbilly Jim (Utica – August 22, 1988).
In those days, WWF would send out several crews on the road. Each would hit towns of various sizes. Hogan, obviously, worked the A-tour. During this 1984 to 1990 timeframe, Hogan wrestled in the major cities dozens of times - Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Houston. Meanwhile, smaller cities like Scranton (PA), Davenport (Iowa), Struthers (OH), Lansing (Michigan), Bangor (Maine), Colorado Springs (CO), Odessa (TX) had several WWF shows, but were all on the alternate, non-Hogan circuit.
So, given that Hulk Hogan worked the major cities, and the other guys worked in the towns that were left, how much credit does Hogan deserve? It wasn’t an insignificant amount – rather, an impressive increase of nearly 5,000 additional people on average for the shows which he wrestled on. Keep in mind, this five thousand number already excludes pay-per-views or special shows that were jointly promoted.
Let’s look at some of the large cities which had held many WWF shows 1984-1990 (excludes shows such as PPVs, Joint Promoted shows) –shows with attendance numbers available counted:
On average, the difference of having Hulk Hogan wrestling was almost +45%, 3,700 more people. That’s certainly a significant amount.
However, you can see that the impact was not universal – WWF always brought the hot feuds to Madison Square Garden so the occasions where Hulk Hogan didn’t work, attendance didn’t necessarily plummet. In the Midwest in cities like Milwaukee and Minneapolis where Hogan had been a large draw for AWA, Hogan had a huge impact. He did have an stronger impact on West Coast numbers, LA and Oakland. He wasn’t quite as huge in established non-WWF wrestling cities like Houston or Montreal (with their own local heroes and wrestling cultures) or other Midwestern markets like Denver or St. Louis.
In those days Vince McMahon was running a promotional war and Hulk Hogan was the face of that promotional behemoth that was the World Wrestling Federation.