‘Keeping the faith’: The WWE show goes on without Vince McMahon

Photo of Paul Schott

The fans who gathered July 23 at Total Mortgage Arena in downtown Bridgeport for WWE’s “Saturday Night’s Main Event” were on a first-name basis with the performers. Asked why they came out for the event on a balmy evening, they spoke of their enthusiasm for the likes of Becky, Bianca, Ronda and Seth.

They spoke with similar familiarity — and fondness — about the person who looms largest in the sports-entertainment company’s four-decade narrative: Vince (McMahon).

Now, the company’s patriarch has decided to write himself off his own show. A day before the Bridgeport event, McMahon announced his retirement as WWE’s chairman and chief executive officer amid an investigation of his alleged misconduct.

For the fans at Total Mortgage Arena, just up the road from WWE’s hometown of Stamford, the 76-year-old McMahon’s departure marks the end of an era. But it’s hardly the culmination of their support of the company.

Under McMahon’s hard-driving, savvy leadership, the outlandish battles in and out of the ring among the larger-than-life Superstar characters in WWE’s shows morphed into a global phenomenon — resonating from Bridgeport to Barcelona to Bengaluru.

To hear the Bridgeport faithful, it seems clear the drama generated by World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. is unlikely to soon lose its appeal to its millions of fans.

“It’s sad to see him move on to his next chapter, but we’re still excited for the future of WWE,” Gavin DeMauro, 25, a longtime WWE fan from Norwich, said before the show. “We’re keeping the faith.”

‘There’s no one like him’

McMahon has stepped down amid one of the biggest controversies of his colorful career. He agreed to pay four women a total of more than $12 million over the past 16 years to keep secret allegations of sexual misconduct and infidelity, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited unnamed people familiar with those agreements and related documents.

He is married to Linda McMahon. She played a key role in WWE’s growth as his partner in early, lean years and later when she served as the company’s CEO, before running unsuccessfully in 2010 and 2012 for a U.S. Senate seat representing Connecticut. She later served as the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration in President Donald Trump’s administration.

When WWE announced last month that a special committee of its board of directors was investigating his alleged misconduct, Vince McMahon said he would step aside as CEO and chairman while the probe was being conducted. Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon, his daughter, was announced at the time as the interim CEO and chairwoman.

“I have pledged my complete cooperation to the investigation by the special committee, and I will do everything possible to support the investigation,” the elder McMahon said in a statement last month. “I have also pledged to accept the findings and outcome of the investigation, whatever they are.”

The investigation “remains ongoing,” WWE said this week in a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

A number of the fans at Total Mortgage Arena said they recognized the seriousness of the allegations against McMahon. At the same time, they said they still admired him for building WWE into a global company in the decades since he bought its predecessor business from his father in 1982.

“I understand why he had to resign,” said Giovanni Sanes, of Smithtown, N.Y., who attended the show with his girlfriend, Pamela McDonald, of Centereach, N.Y. “But he loves the business, and regardless of anything happening in his personal life, he doesn’t want it to affect the brand itself. His creation, that started off with his father, has flourished into something even more amazing.”

Through the years, McMahon has further cultivated his celebrity by depicting in WWE shows a redoubtable boss character known simply as “Mr. McMahon.” Many Generation X and millennial fans remember his frequent on-screen appearances during the company’s “Attitude Era” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a memorable “Raw” episode from 1998, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin smashes a bedpan on McMahon’s head during a sneak attack in McMahon’s hospital room.

“I was hoping he was going to stay on longer,” said Kenny Coleman, of Bridgeport, who was accompanying his 14-year-old niece and 11-year-old nephew to their first WWE show. “He’s Vince McMahon — there’s no one like him.”

A new generation

WWE officials have often described McMahon as indispensable to the company’s success.

“In addition to serving as chairman of our board of directors and chief executive officer, Mr. McMahon leads the creative team that develops the storylines and the characters for our programming (including our television, WWE Network and other programming) and live events,” WWE said in in the section of its 2021 annual report focused on business risks.

“The loss of Mr. McMahon due to unexpected retirement, disability, death or other unexpected termination for any reason could have a material adverse effect on our ability to create popular characters and creative storylines or could otherwise adversely affect our operating results.”

In contrast, McMahon sounded bullish about his successors in his retirement announcement. Stephanie McMahon’s promotion has been made permanent, while President and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan has been promoted to the other co-chief executive officer position.

On the same day as McMahon’s retirement announcement, the company confirmed that Paul “Triple H” Levesque had resumed his role as executive vice president of talent relations. The 14-time WWE world champion, who is married to Stephanie McMahon, underwent heart surgery last year. On Monday, the company announced that Levesque would additionally head creative operations at WWE.

“Our global audience can take comfort in knowing WWE will continue to entertain you with the same fervor, dedication and passion as always,” Vince McMahon said in his statement. “I am extremely confident in the continued success of WWE, and I leave our company in the capable hands of an extraordinary group of Superstars, employees and executives — in particular, both Chairwoman and Co-CEO Stephanie McMahon and Co-CEO Nick Khan.”

Fans at Total Mortgage Arena expressed confidence in the transition.

“It’s staying within the family,” said Gabriel Diaz, of Bridgeport, who was accompanying his 13-year-old nephew and 9-year-old niece to their first WWE show. “With a new generation of Superstars coming up, what’s better than to have a younger generation running the company?”

Stephanie McMahon has played a key role in making WWE more inclusive of female performers and fans. The company has long faced criticism for marginalizing women in the ring, and worse, but female Superstars have become much more prominent in WWE programming in the past few years.

Highlighting the shift, Saturday’s show included Asuka, Shayna Baszler, Bianca Belair, Carmella, Becky Lynch, Liv Morgan, Natalya and Ronda Rousey. The female Superstars’ performances alone were worth the trip for attendees such as McDonald, the fan from Centereach, N.Y., whose outfit paid tribute to Rousey’s signature kilt-and-leather jacket look.

“We’ve never been here before,” McDonald said. “We’ve taken the ferry [across Long Island Sound] many times, but never actually landed here at the arena.”

Many girls attended as well — including 8-year-old Sadie Perez, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., who was going to her first WWE show. She and her father, Pablo Perez, both wore championship belts over their shoulders.

“I’m very excited!” exclaimed Sadie, who was clad in green-and-yellow John Cena gear. She brought a homemade sign that taunted The Miz with the message that, “I would roast you, but my mom said not to burn trash.” As one of the heels in “Saturday Night’s Main Event,” The Miz scolded the fans for jeering him by telling them, “You need to have some manners!”

‘A beautiful feeling’

Parents such as Perez said they reveled in sharing their love of WWE with their children.

“She loves John Cena and watches classic matches with me,” Perez said, smiling approvingly at his daughter. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”

The fan demographics at Total Mortgage Arena showed how WWE has become a global force in sports entertainment by creating content with appeal across generational, gender, racial and socio-economic lines. Earlier this month, the company announced that it had accumulated more than 70 billion views on its YouTube channel — the seventh channel to reach that milestone.

Buoyed by its massive digital audience and revenues from its live shows and media deals, WWE produced company-record revenues of about $1.1 billion in 2021.

So far, the stock market has taken an optimistic view of the post-Vince McMahon era: This week, WWE’s shares climbed to approximately $70, a level they have not reached since 2019. McMahon stands to benefit from that uptick because he remains the company’s majority stockholder. His net worth is estimated at $2.5 billion, according to Forbes.

His imprint will outlast his direct role. The outlandish ring action that he made synonymous with the WWE brand is still visible — even if it has been toned down in recent years to make it more family-friendly. At the end of Saturday’s show, fans filed out of Total Mortgage Arena to the sight of a shattered folding table lying in the ring. In the event’s final match-up, the furniture was destroyed when the victorious Riddle body-slammed Seth “Freakin” Rollins.

“We’ve both been wrestling fans for years,” said Stanley Wybraniec, 25, of Norwich, who came to the show with DeMauro. He noted that he and his friend have already attended several WWE shows this year.

Nodding in agreement, DeMauro added, “If we’ve been fans this long, we’ll be fans when we’re old and gray.”

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; twitter: @paulschott