It's a valid exercise: Want to prove someone is a Hall of Famer? Want to show how evidence that a wrestler is capable of moving the needle and making a difference?
However, like many 'wrestlenomic' experiments, a lack of reliable sources that cover enormous swaths of time can be quite a hindrance. Additionally, there's something to be said when you're trying to compare events from different eras. And whenever you're trying to qualify something as top - that implies that you're also capable or establishing who was at the bottom and what's a valid baseline to use. In short, it's difficult just to pick out the "best" unless you can also rank a lot of what is clearly "not the best". And then there's the whole aspect of trying to determine who "drew" the crowd. (Was it the title match? Was it the match that went on last? Was it the match with the "biggest" star involved?)
When you look at all of this, it's a pretty daunting task.
Usually, I try to build things incrementally. I tackle smaller time periods and attempt to expand the range larger and larger until I've covered a decent slice. Yet, I know that my methods are always going to be imperfect and the lens of history gets pretty foggy.
We can start with some internet resources.
Among the resources that I would look at:
- Wrestling Observer Awards (and runner-ups) 1980-2013
- WWF/WWE Feuds by Year (1980-2011)
- Matt Farmer's Research: Top Gates of the 1980s
- Matt Farmer's Research: Top Gates of the 1970s
- ProWrestling History's "Event Info" (PPV buys/buyrates, Large Attendance, Main Events)
- WWF 1980-1992 Draws by Tiers
- WWF/WWE Financials 1994-2013 (including number of events, attendance, PPV buys and revenue by segment)
- Estimates for WCW Buyrates 1987-2001
- Estimates for Domestic & International WWE PPV Buys 2006-2014
- Hulk Hogan's Drawing Power 1984-1990
- WWWF/WWF/WWE Draws 1963-2013
- JCP/WCW Draws 1986-2001
- My Thoughts on Professional Wrestling Analytics
- WCW & WWF House Show Attendance 1991-2001
- Steve Yohe's Project on "Greatest 100 Wrestling Stars"
- Wrestling Observer Issues (subscription required): 7/13/09 (Biggest Draws by Year), 8/5/09 (Greatest draws in Wrestling History), 11/22/10 (WWE Top 50 of all time), 2/27/12 (Biggest Drawing Cards in History), 1/14/13 (Reviews of several wrestling nostalgia/list books)
It's also important that we balance the drawing ability of wrestlers within their time period/territory. For decades, WWWF was focused on the main event at Madison Square Garden. For instance, in the 1980s, it's probably as important to weigh Network Broadcasts such as Saturday Night Main Events alongside PPV events. Also, don't be deceived that Hulk Hogan wasn't in the last match on SNME - he was purposefully placed in the middle of the card due to when the show aired. The WWF was running hundreds and hundreds of wrestling shows (often several in a single night across many towns) in the late 1980s when things were really roaring. There's going to be people on these cards (say a Barry O) who will be on some big drawing shows but it's hard to argue they were the "draw". And there's going to be guys who were sent on the B-tours (and C-tours) that might have had hot feuds, but were being used to headline the smaller towns. And there's going to be guys who were just the "monster of the week" brought in to fight the superstar such as Hogan's opponents like One Man Gang and Kamala. In the 1990s, it's obviously more important to look at PPV events (which eventually move to a monthly format) and the number of house shows goes way down. Instead, we see increasingly more and more content on television and a move away from syndicated programming. Television ratings start to play a substantial role. Merchandise, always a tricky topic to get solid numbers on, also continues to boom. Moving into the modern era, WWE becomes more of a revenue machine that using many different streams to create a well-rounded balance between TV rights, live events, PPV, merchandise & licensing and a host of misc. streams (magazines, movies, digital rights, etc).
How do you qualify "top drawing"? Is it the difference over a baseline? How do you create the baseline? Wrestling has a natural cycle of interest - a steady build from January to Wrestlemania, a slight decrease in the Summertime, a serious dip when American Football comes back.
There's the big feuds that we know were difference makers: The InVasion PPV pitting WCW vs WWFE. Bruno Sammartino - WWWF champion. Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant. Paul Orndorff vs Hulk Hogan. Vince McMahon vs Steve Austin. The Rock vs John Cena. But qualifying the next tier can be tough: Batista vs Triple H? The Undertaker's streak? Bret Hart vs Davey Boy Smith?
If I were tackling this project, I'd probably start by looking at the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards for "Feud of the Year" and "Best Box Office Draw" results for the last 30 years. I'd need to weigh a lot of factors. I'd want to pull results from The History of WWE and CageMatch.net to look at attendance. I'd probably need to develop some models so I create predictions of what I would "expect" a SummerSlam PPV to do at a certain price point, so I could compare and tell how much credit I should give to "Hulk Hogan vs Shawn Michaels" being high.
It's a worthy project, but also a very time-consuming one.