Arnold Furious: Before WrestleMania the WWF’s revenue stream was fairly straight-forward. They’d run TV shows hyping angles and the big blow off matches would take place at house shows around the horn and particularly at Madison Square Garden. The houses at the Garden were vibrant and during this era featured a slew of Hulk Hogan title defences. Usually with screwy finishes so those watching the MSG Network in the North-East would flock to the house circuit to see the re-matches. Case in point is Don Muraco getting shots at Hogan’s title around WrestleMania time. He’d usually win the first match on DQ before the WWF came back through the same area and then Hogan would win clean. This culminated in Hogan beating Muraco on the MSG Network in June, after all the house show circuit had already seen the match. But 3-4 month cycle of the business was about to change.
Vince McMahon wasn’t the man responsible for a change in structuring as the NWA had already made the leap into PPV, then on closed-circuit television, in 1983 with Starrcade. It was Jim Crockett’s response to Vince McMahon’s aggressive expansion policy (after creating Titan and buying the WWF from his father in 1982), which included talent raids and sneaky TV deals. There had, in fact, been two Starrcade shows on CCTV prior to Vince McMahon’s first pop at the idea with WrestleMania. Crockett had a decent idea of how to run the show; putting on big matches with nationwide consequences. Like Ric Flair’s victory over Harley Race that established him as ‘The Man’ for the NWA in the 80s. Crockett’s problem was keeping talent and he’d seen Starrcade talent like Ricky Steamboat, Roddy Piper, Greg Valentine and Bob Orton Jr. all jump ship in quick succession.
To pay for his ambition, Vince McMahon needed to step up to the PPV plate. Selling out MSG was no longer a challenge. Drawing 18,000 people in to see a show would only draw so much cash. Vince was hungry for more. Instead of 36,000 eyes on his product he envisaged a million eyes or more. It’s what “the world is watching”. Or would be, soon. Vince was always quick to jump on technological advancements, especially when they could make him money. He’d seen Cable TV as the future before the other promoters and ran them out of business with it. Now the future was PPV and Vince needed to push hard to get on board before the NWA had a unique pay-day and route back into the war he’d started. The answer was WrestleMania and if murmurs are to be believed, Vince McMahon went into the show having thrown all his money into it. If WrestleMania failed, then the WWF was done and North America was left for Jim Crockett Promotions.
Where McMahon was canny in selling WrestleMania was crossing over into other markets. WrestleMania wasn’t sold to wrestling fans alone. It was sold to people as a pop culture phenomenon. A can’t miss experience. Part of Vince’s belief was drawing in new fans and in order to do so the WWF invested a lot of time into the Rock N’ Wrestling fad. First through Cyndi Lauper, who’d hired WWF heel manager Lou Albano to be her Dad in the music video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. The use of Lauper in the WWF, as manager for women’s champion hopeful Wendi Richter, allowed pop music fans a doorway into the wrestling world. This culminated in Richter vs. Leilani Kai at WrestleMania. Meanwhile Hulk Hogan was riding high as WWF Champion and Vince parlayed the crossover success of the Rocky III star by hiring co-star Mr T to work the first WrestleMania. It wasn’t just about celebrities, it was about making the fans care about the wrestlers because of the celebrities. Now the fans of the celebrities were wrestling fans too. Or rather, they were WWF fans because that’s where the big names were on TV.
We’re in New York City at Madison Square Garden and where else could host the inaugural WrestleMania than the world’s most famous live sports and entertainment venue? Attendance for the show was 19,121. The figure seemed deliberately higher than normal as MSG’s wrestling set up had a capacity of 18,000-18,500. The insinuation was there that people were hanging from the rafters to see the first WrestleMania. Hosts were Gorilla Monsoon & Jesse Ventura, perhaps the best play-by-play and colour commentator combination in the history of the WWF.