WWE vocal over booking problem

5/19/2009 - NBA Denver Nuggets

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- World Wrestling Entertainment thrives on outlandish story lines and characters, but the company finds itself embroiled in a real-life controversy with the Denver Nuggets. And WWE's bombastic owner is making the most of it.

The plot: Who has rights to Denver's Pepsi Center on Monday -- the Nuggets, hosting their first Western Conference final since 1985, or the WWE's traveling TV soap opera?

WWE chairman Vince McMahon, the promoter who helped transform professional wrestling into prime-time television entertainment, fired the first salvo Monday. In interviews with ESPN, he loudly called out Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and challenged him to a steel-cage match. (Is there any other way to resolve a grudge?)

"Quite frankly, it's my view that Stan Kroenke should be arrested, should be arrested for impersonating a good businessman, because he's not a good businessman," McMahon said on ESPN. "A good businessman doesn't book a World Wrestling Federation live televised event on Monday night realizing that his team in all likelihood would not make the playoffs."

WWE spokesman Robert Zimmerman said the company reserved the Pepsi Center last August and had already sold more than 10,000 tickets for the Monday Night Raw event. He said the organization expects a sellout, with tickets ranging from $20 to $70.

But the Nuggets are planning to play Game 4 of the NBA's Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday at the Pepsi Center, the team's home floor.

It's worth noting, however, that the bottom line at most arenas is still the bottom line.

"The facility is just as important, or in some cases, more important than the franchise itself," explains Wayne McDonnell, a professor at the New York University Tisch Center who used to handle scheduling logistics at Madison Square Garden.

Which is one way to explain how the Pittsburgh Penguins recently found themselves getting iced by Yanni and the Nuggets currently find themselves in a smackdown with McMahon.

Earlier this month, a Yanni concert scheduled for Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh -- along with a number of other events, including WWE -- forced the Penguins and Washington Capitals to play playoff games on back-to-back nights, first in Pittsburgh, then in Washington.

The Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center are all owned by the same company. Squeezing every penny out of that building through ticket sales, concessions, parking, luxury suites and souvenirs for all events -- even those not involving the primary tenants -- helps pay the multimillion-dollar salaries that keep the teams in business.

Though the Penguins and Mellon Arena aren't co-owned, the bottom line is basically the same: A building that hosts an event normally makes somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000, and nobody wants to give up that kind of cash. That's especially true in Pittsburgh, where the arena is nearly 50 years old and doesn't draw as many top events as the newer buildings.

"Underutilizing the facility can be a detriment to the organization in the long run," McDonnell said.

McDonnell said sloppy clerical work and the never-ending quest to make money were the most likely reasons for the double bookings. Most arenas have schedules and calendars and contingency plans in place months and years in advance.

The WWE-Nuggets imbroglio, he said, almost certainly was not caused by Kroenke's lack of faith in his team. Trying to stir the pot, McMahon said if Kroenke had really believed in the Nuggets, he wouldn't have been booking the arena during playoff time.

"He's not sitting at his desk doing scheduling," McDonnell said. "The bottom line is, it probably doesn't sit well with the Denver Nuggets audience, thinking he doesn't have faith. But that's probably not the case. All you have to do is look at the players he acquired and the team he assembled."

McMahon was not available Tuesday to comment, a spokesman said. On Monday, he told The Associated Press he couldn't tolerate the team "just simply throwing us out on our ear."

A telephone message left for a Nuggets spokesman Tuesday wasn't immediately returned.

Paul Andrews, executive vice president of Kroenke Sports Enterprises, issued a statement Monday night a bit more understated than McMahon. "We are working with the WWE to resolve the situation amicably," he said.

The NBA, which sets the playoff schedule, is leaving it to the Nuggets and the WWE to work out the dispute.

The conflict provides a welcome boost of publicity as the Stamford-based producer of live television wrestling matches tries to fill arenas and sell pay-per-view events amid a weak economy. It comes at a time when the company is branching into making movies and dealing with the fallout from a substance abuse and drug testing policy that has resulted in more than 30 suspensions since it began in 2006.

"Vince McMahon is one of the greatest promoters of all time," said Alan Gould, senior media analyst with Natixis Bleichroeder Inc in New York. "Any publicity for wrestling is good publicity. It's almost free marketing for wrestling and the sport."

WWE is promoting the arena dispute as the "Denver Debacle" on its Web site, which it said got 18 million U.S. unique visitors last month, more than CBS.com, ABC.com, NBC.com, NFL.com or NBA.com.

Jeffrey Thomison, an analyst with Hilliard Lyons in Louisville, Ky., who has been covering the entertainment industry for two decades, said he's never seen a similar conflict.

"I don't think he's putting on an act here," Thomison said of McMahon. "He genuinely is upset."

Monday Night Raw draws almost 6 million viewers weekly, making it one of the top rated programs on cable television, Thomison said. Nielsen rated it eighth and ninth most popular cable television program for the week of May 11, while the NBA playoffs held the top seven spots.

"The conflict has to be resolved very soon," Thomison said. "Monday Night Raw is a very valuable asset to the company."

The WWE said its crews will be in Denver on Monday night, even if it means putting on a show in a parking lot.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.