Why you should care

Because a half-hour bloodbath was the best Super Bowl commercial.

As Super Bowl LI kicks off today, Falcons fans will be desperately hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself. Eighteen years ago, in Atlanta’s first championship appearance, the “Dirty Birds” were thwacked by the Denver Broncos and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. And while another legendary quarterback, Tom Brady, could certainly carve up the Falcons defense, the most notorious moment of January 31, 1999, will remain unreplicated. This time, Vince McMahon won’t hijack the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

By the mid-1990s, the average number of Super Bowl viewers straddled 90 million and the price of a 30-second in-game commercial rocketed over $1 million. While most competing sports organizations leave Doritos Pug and the Gridiron Angels to the folks on Madison Avenue, McMahon — longtime owner and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, then known as WWF — took a different approach. During the first half, McMahon ran an iconic Super Bowl commercial promoting his company and a championship title match that night. So wrestling fans enjoyed a treat post–Super Bowl, right? Nope. Halftime Heat — a pretaped special edition — premiered minutes later, during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. McMahon’s message was clear: He had built a giant and was happy to poke the bear.

In 1998, McMahon introduced a one-hour program called WWF Sunday Night Heat that ran at 7 p.m. on USA Network. It quickly became an important vehicle for WWF branding, serving as a new stage for developing storylines and new characters while further promoting the company’s biggest stars. But to turn those new characters into big names, McMahon needed eyeballs. The rise of Super Bowl commercials’ social relevancy, combined with the Super Bowl Halftime Show’s youth-alienating duo of Gloria Stefan and Stevie Wonder, produced the perfect opportunity for McMahon to shove his product in our face. Sure, millions of viewers dismissed the stunt, but plenty flocked to witness the debauchery.

Wrestling was a guilty-pleasure hobby that was looked down upon in most circles.

 

For Hot 97 and ESPN radio host Peter Rosenberg, Halftime Heat was an eye-opener. “I wasn’t even into wrestling at that point, and I still flipped over to watch,” says Rosenberg, who now cohosts the wrestling podcast Cheap Heat and has appeared on WWE programming. “More than anything else, Vince has a great understanding of how to put on a fantastic event.”

The end of the 20th century was a transitional period for the NFL. Veteran superstars like Elway, Jerry Rice and Steve Young were fading, and new talent was on the rise. The same was certainly true of professional wrestling. Hulk Hogan’s mainstream crossover success in the 1980s lent a degree of accessibility and family-friendliness to the sport. According to wrestling and combat sports analyst Brian Campbell, there was a time when it was cool — in some circles, at least — for adult men to be wrestling fans. “That all waned in the early ’90s,” says Campbell, who cohosts Cheap Heat and writes for ESPN. “Wrestling was a guilty-pleasure hobby that was looked down upon in most circles.” That is, until the Attitude Era came along.

The Attitude Era arose in the late 1990s. Aptly named, it marked a turn toward adult-oriented content and featured future superstars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, the Undertaker and Mankind. Attitude’s characters sported a frightening edginess and thrived in an atmosphere of shock and political incorrectness. As a kid, I remember seeing the Undertaker beat his brother Kane in a flame-engulfed ring before inexplicably burning a teddy bear that belonged to McMahon’s young daughter. Mankind choked a man with a sock puppet, and thousands of Midwesterners brandished foam middle fingers. Attitude was definitely in the air.

The Attitude Era further ostracized concerned onlookers, but it also energized lifers and attracted new, young fans. The collapse of McMahon’s only true competitor, WCW, in 1998, opened the door for aggressive promotion. With a monopoly, he could finally push his brand to a mainstream audience. There were no two better characters to captivate an audience than the Rock and Mankind. The polar opposites engaged in a heated feud that came to a head on Halftime Heat. Before Dwayne Johnson became the world’s highest-paid actor, he was a third-generation professional wrestler, a well-spoken physical specimen destined for stardom. Mankind, on the other hand, was a lovably deranged thug who choked opponents with socks.

According to Campbell, Mick Foley’s everyman relatability and impressive range resonated with fans. In addition to Mankind, Foley performed separately as Cactus Jack and Dude Love. “There was such a soft spot for Mankind,” says Campbell. “It’s hard not to respect this guy who was out of shape and willing to risk his body for our entertainment.”

And risk it he did. For secrecy’s sake, the event was held in an unnamed empty arena. The “Anything Goes” match began inside a ring but quickly spilled into the stands. Mankind was kicked down a flight of stadium steps, thrown through a concession stand and doused in a commercial kitchen’s worth of liquid. But, when it was all said and done, Mankind won, using a backstage forklift to pin the Rock and nab the WWF title. In other words, the 30-minute bout was tightly booked, included a never-before-seen finish and comically played off its own ridiculousness.

The stunt dragged very few viewers away from the actual Super Bowl, but that was never the goal. McMahon’s long game worked, as the Attitude Era, which ended in 2002, was introduced to the masses and became the company’s most profitable stint ever. It was a reminder that professional wrestling had reached a level never seen before. “By mixing the hardcore Attitude with comedic elements, Vince built a title that really meant something,” Campbell says. “It was a huge gamble, but it really grabbed people’s attention.”

That evening also shined a light on the NFL’s need to connect with a younger audience. Since then, the NFL has focused Halftime Show bookings on more timely, relevant performances. And while Janet Jackson’s 2004 wardrobe malfunction would have been better received on Monday Night Raw, that’s another story.

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