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It was a move that belied a company looking to cut costs. It was a move that belied a company looking to differentiate itself from the competition. It was a move that belied a company looking to become number one. WCW signing Hulk Hogan was a big risk, but was it one worth taking?
WCW had been cutting costs for a while, that was one of the remits that saw Eric Bischoff rise so quickly to prominance in the company in 1993 through until 1994. WCW produced a series of mini movies in 1993 designed to add a cinematic angle on their major storyline. They were expensive, they were awful. They were as awful as they were expensive. They pulled the plug on the idea before a lot of them could even finish, and their TV programming located itself to a sound-stage at Disney MGM.
The move would see the company tape TV shows in bulk - reducing costs across the board and providing a better "look" for the TV product in an area they could better control. Fans, also, were produced - with WCW screening crowds to ensure only fans that would go along with company line could get in. Cheer on command, boo on command - don't ask questions. WCW Worldwide episodes were taped every quarter over the period of two to three days, meaning storylines would have to be planned out well in advance or, as seemingly became the case in 1994 - don't bother featuring anything of any note on WCW Worldwide. Disney MGM was WCW's home away from home, but it was cheap, and that was the main thing.
Hulk Hogan had left the WWF in 1993 to pursue a career in acting. Wrestling, seemingly, wasn't on his mind and as 1993 became 1994 he would be working on TV show "Trouble in Paradise"… filmed at Disney MGM Studios. Wrestling wasn't an option, until it was. WCW, for all of their cost cutting measures were looking for a shot in the arm and Hogan's middling acting career opened up the perfect foil.
Ric Flair had defeated Vader at Starrcade in 1993 in one of the high moment of his career as he won a title vs career match - one that very nearly didn't happen. Flair was the lead babyface in the company in 1994 and seemingly beginning his final run at the top before winding down his career in the year or two that followed. Thanks not just to Flair, but a roster that was working incredibly hard, WCW's run of PPVs in the first half of 1994 was highly entertaining, including Spring Stampede headlined by Flair vs Ricky Steamboat.
Then Hogan joined WCW.
It was hardly the biggest kept secret that Hogan was joining WCW. While he wouldn't appear on TV until June rumours began as early as February as WCW were looking to give their product a much needed bit of star power. Come April WCW were mentioning Hogan by name, then in May they were featuring interviews with him on TV. Flair would do an interview about his match with Ricky Steamboat, and of six questions he was asked, five would be about Hogan.
The Hogan deal was astronomical, not only was it the biggest deal any pro-wrestler has ever got before that stage in time it's likely the biggest deal anyone has got since. $300,000 per pay per view, along with a 25% cut of any PPV buys above the average. He was also getting a ridiculous deal on merchandise sales that on the surface at least seemed to be costing WCW money. If this was a study about Hogan's dollar for dollar value for WCW, we might as well stop the article here.
I'll save you the Magna Carta on the Hogan/Flair feud – you can read more about that here – but suffice to say from a business standpoint the numbers were positive enough, even if they didn't quite match some very lofty expectations of WCW management, and even if it did involve retiring Ric Flair in the process. The Clash in August was the most watched NWA/WCW match to date, and the PPV buyrates were up a lot. Bash at the Beach more than doubled the 1993 equivalent, and the career vs career match at Halloween Havoc did nearly double the year before.
The quality of these PPVs were falling, though. If you're like me and you're willing to rate a PPV well if the main events deliver (and both the Bash at the Beach and Havoc main events were very good), then you're not likely to slate the show. But the undercards of these shows fell flat, owing to a combination of some bad luck (Ricky Steamboat suffering an injury that would end his career) and the negatives of Hulk Hogan's friends coming in. Friends like Avalanche (Earthquake), The Butcher (Brutus Beefcake), Jim Duggan, Honky Tonk Man. All guys from the 80s – all who were very poor wrestlers. By December of 1994, the company had lost Flair to retirement and Steamboat and Steve Austin both to significant injuries.
The result was underwhelming shows with underwhelming characters. Couple in the perfect storm that seemed to form, seeing the departure of the likes of Cactus Jack and Terry Funk and the positives were hard to come by.
But that all being said, I'm sure as Eric Bischoff and those in power in WCW at the end of 1994 – of which Hogan was very definitely one – they will have been pleased. Hogan wasn't an economic signing, he wasn't designed to be a guy to balance the books. Nor was he a guy bought in to impress fans of wrestling work rate. Hogan was bought in to impress executives, and impress the people who look at numbers like house show attendances, TV ratings and pay per view buyrates. Not that all of those categories were up, but Hogan – by hook or by crook – had done enough to gain a new contract headed into 1995.