STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) -- CAN YOU SMELL WHAT THE WWF IS COOKING!!!!!?????
The Rock, the World Wrestling Federation's No. 1 good guy, usually invites an opponent to smell what he's cooking just before pounding him into the mat.
At the WWF, the main thing cooking is money -- lots of it.
The new WWF is raunchier and more vulgar, but it's also more sophisticated. It still features men in outrageous costumes pretending to beat each other up. But its detailed story lines make it more like a soap opera than a wrestling match. Live and televised WWF entertainment events pulled in revenues of $178.2 million during the first nine months of this fiscal year, a 63 percent increase over this time last year.
WWF's ''Raw is War,'' is the top-rated show on cable television, now watched in 6 million homes every Monday night on the USA Network. ''SmackDown!'' on the UPN Network is watched in another 5 million homes on Thursday nights.
WWF's live events sell out in minutes, its action figures are more popular than Pokemon's, and its pay-per-view events bring in millions more every month.
All this, plus home videos, CDs and a new theme restaurant make the WWF one of the most revenue-rich companies around.
On top of all that, two of its wrestlers -- ''The Rock'' (Dwayne Johnson) and ''Mankind'' (Mick Foley) -- have autobiographies on The New York Times bestseller list.
When The Rock hosted ''Saturday Night Live'' on March 18, more than 20 million people watched -- the show's highest rating since Monica Lewinsky hosted in 1999.
WWF goes mainstream? What's going on here?
Isn't this the company that brought us Jesse ''The Body'' Ventura, Hulk Hogan and a whole band of fake, steroid-pumped wrestlers?
As The Rock would say, ''SHUT YOUR MOUTH!''
This is not your father's WWF.
The new WWF is raunchier and more vulgar, but it's also more sophisticated. It still features men in outrageous costumes pretending to beat each other up. But its detailed story lines make it more like a soap opera than a wrestling match.
Its fans -- mainly men ages 18 to 34 -- are apparently willing to spend buckets of money on anything WWF-related.
Five million households bought WWF's pay-per-view programs in fiscal '99, bringing in revenues of $150 million.
Live and televised WWF entertainment events pulled in revenues of $178.2 million during the first nine months of this fiscal year, a 63 percent increase over this time last year. Revenues from WWF merchandise have already hit $84.7 million this year, up 76 percent from last year.
With all these cross-promotional sources of revenue, the WWF is a marketing and money-making machine. Yet the company has not been able to gain respect from Wall Street.
WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, who turned his father's modest company into a wrestling empire, said Wall Street just doesn't understand the WWF.
''If you look at the WWF as a 'WRESTLING company,' then maybe a lot of people would be surprised (at our success),'' McMahon said.
''We're not 'WRESTLERS,' that's not what we do. We don't wrestle. We entertain you.''
It didn't help when McMahon told Wall Street to ''kiss my a--'' on national television after his announcement about the formation of a new pro football league -- the XFL -- received a cold reception.
McMahon still gets angry when he talks about it, especially the two analysts who downgraded the company's stock even before he finished his press conference.
''At least show me some degree of respect ... we didn't just pop up somewhere, we're not an overnight sensation here,'' he said in a recent interview at the WWF's Stamford headquarters.
McMahon followed his grandfather, Jess, and father, Vince, into Capital Wrestling, a northeast circuit. When Vince Sr. retired in 1982, Vince Jr. bought the business.
Eighteen years later, business is booming. So why aren't investors responding?
The stock got off to a strong start when the company went public in October, then faltered. Initially priced at $17 a share, it has swung from $34 to $9.75, but had settled back near the IPO price in late March.
In addition to the negative reaction to the XFL, analysts also noted that Coca-Cola Co. ended its two-year advertising relationship with the WWF because of what Coke said was objectionable content in WWF shows.
Analysts said the stock has also lagged because ''Stone Cold'' Steve Austin, the beer-swilling, middle-finger-flipping wrestler who is one of the WWF's most popular stars, has been out since last fall while awaiting surgery for an earlier spinal injury.
But the real problem, analysts said, is that Wall Street just doesn't take the company seriously.
''People will say, 'Pro-wrestling. That's not a real business,' so they don't take the time to even look at the strengths and the cash-flow generation,'' said Breck Wheeler, a media and entertainment analyst for J.C. Bradford & Co. in Nashville, Tenn.
''But whether someone likes the product or not, there is a huge market out there,'' she said.
Every week, the WWF good guys (baby-faces) tangle with the bad guys (heels), with scripted stunts, wild costumes and VERY LOUD dialogue.
''The Godfather,'' a wrestler dressed as a pimp, struts into the ring with his ''Ho Train,'' a collection of well-endowed, scantily clad women.
McMahon and his family are a big part of the act as they fight for control of the company. In one recent episode, McMahon threw his son, Shane, 30, to the mat, then hit him over the head with a metal chair.
The following week, McMahon's 23-year-old daughter, Stephanie, slapped her mother -- WWF Chief Executive Linda McMahon -- across the face.
McMahon sees it as a combination of soap opera, action, adventure and cartoon.
''We try and give you something for everyone,'' he said.
Whatever it is, the fans love it. Paul Sosnowski, a 31-year-old fan from Perth Amboy, N.J., spends about $1,500 a year on live matches and pay-per-view events.
Last fall, he and his fiance bought 100 shares of WWF stock at a cost of $2,500.
''I've been watching it since I was 15,'' he said. ''I'm into it for the wrestling and the athletics.''
His friend, Patrick Moore, 32, likes the story lines and the characters more than the actual wrestling.
''I just got caught up in it,'' he said.
Moore limits his WWF spending to about four live shows a year. His fiance, he explained, does not understand his devotion.
''She wants no part of it. I can't talk about it in front of her,'' he said.
The WWF has other detractors. When Coke yanked its advertising last October, the company cited the WWF's lewd language and story lines.
McMahon toned down ''SmackDown!'' after Coke's decision, but remains unapologetic.
''They'll be back, by the way,'' he said, with his trademark aplomb.
Coke's ad slots were quickly snapped up by other advertisers.
WWF came under a wave of criticism last May after wrestler Owen Hart, known as ''The Blue Blazer,'' fell to his death during a stunt for a show in Kansas City, Mo.
Five months later another wrestler, Darren ''The Droz'' Drozdov, was paralyzed below the waist after fracturing his neck during a match in Uniondale, N.Y.
''Beyond the Mat,'' a documentary released in theaters in mid-March, features the WWF's Mick Foley and several other professional wrestlers in an unflattering portrayal of pro-wrestling.
The WWF's wrestlers -- they are called ''talent'' or ''WWF superstars'' within the company -- say the shows are not overly violent or sexually graphic when compared to some of what's seen on network television.
''No one is getting killed or raped on our shows,'' said The Rock. ''It's difficult for me to see that point, especially when I can turn the channel and see much worse.''
Wade Keller, publisher of the Pro Wrestling Torch, a Web site and weekly newsletter, said if the WWF pushes the boundaries of good taste, it is because that is what the fans want.
''It breaks the rules, it's an escape, it's very high on the sensory overload meter. You have simulated violence, you have people who are saying things that people wish they could say in real life. The vicarious factor is very high,'' he said.
Mick Foley, who plays the mask-wearing ''Mankind,'' said he's seen men in business suits pull his book, ''Have A Nice Day!'', out of expensive leather briefcases. The book has been on the Times bestseller list for 21 weeks.
''I'm proud of that,'' he said.
McMahon's remake of the WWF began about two years ago, when Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling was crushing WWF in the ratings. McMahon revamped the story lines, threw his family in the mix and soon WWF was back on top.
WWF's sales for the fiscal year that ends on April 30 are expected to jump to $340 million, up from $250 million.
''WrestleMania,'' the company's biggest pay-per-view of the year, is scheduled for Sunday night, with a story line that has the four McMahons -- Vince, wife, Linda, and children, Shane and Stephanie -- each backing a different wrestler.
Vince McMahon said he's confident Wall Street will eventually come around and see the value of WWF -- even if they don't like the shows.
''Wall Street can't measure the passion that we have for what we do, and that's worth -- if I'm an institutional investor or anyone else -- that's worth a lot of attention,'' he said.
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