Up to the age of 14, professional wrestling was, by far, the most important thing in my life. After that, it battled music and film for my attention until finally falling off my radar at some point in the early aughts. That isn’t to say I stopped following it completely; I checked in with the old websites and Internet message boards from time to time, stopped to watch for a few minutes whenever I caught it while channel surfing. I never “grew out of it,” because what does that even mean, especially now that it’s become perfectly acceptable for adults to openly obsess over comic books, Star Wars, Harry Potter, prefab pop acts and every other form of entertainment aimed primarily at children?
Wrestling is back on my mind because a few weeks ago WWE announced that one of CEO Vince McMahon’s long-held dreams is finally materializing: In February, the company will launch the WWE Network, an online streaming service devoted entirely to its vast video library — which, since essentially monopolizing the industry from the turn of the millennium, represents more or less the entire history of pro wrestling in America. It’s already being touted as a groundbreaking move: The model is basically a hybrid of Hulu and cable sports packages like the NFL Network, giving subscribers 24-hour access to both classic footage and original content, including monthly pay-per-view events, for an insanely affordable price of $10 per month. This might be the first time McMahon has received mainstream plaudits since . . . well, ever.
As diehards know, it ain’t easy being a wrestling fan. Admit in public that you enjoy watching two grown men pretend to fight each other, and people who previously respected you will suddenly regard you as some slack-jawed goober. And sometimes — a lot of the time, in fact — the product itself is hard to defend. As the guy who wrote one of my favorite online newsletters way back in the Prodigy days used to say, “Not all wrestling is created equal.” I’ve written full essays on why, when done right, it’s high-level physical theater: dramatic, athletic and fully able to suspend disbelief. Of course, most people don’t have time to listen to an essay-length defense of a misunderstood art form (that’s right, I said “art”), and so they dismiss it as a realm for unevolved rubes, and go back to reading about wizards and space-ponies or whatever.
The plight of the wrestling fan is only exacerbated by the fact that anytime it appears in the news, it’s usually because another star from the ’80s died of a steroid-induced heart attack or went crazy from years of head trauma and murdered his family. And so, seeing WWE heralded for anything outside of the sport’s tiny niche bubble is a welcome change of pace. And in a couple of years, if the network company becomes the envy of the television industry, wrestling could enter uncharted waters in terms of its mainstream profile. Will that change the medium’s perception as a whole? Maybe not. But maybe I won’t have to keep all my DVDs hidden in the closet anymore.
i Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.