KU researcher’s study grapples with what excites wrestling fans

Jacob “Jake” Hager Jr., left, known as “Jack Swagger,” shouts after throwing Jose Alberto Rodriguez of Mexico, known as “Alberto Del Rio,” partially out of the ring as they wrestle in 2013 in East Rutherford, N.J., during the WWE Wrestlemania 29 event.
Jacob “Jake” Hager Jr., left, known as “Jack Swagger,” shouts after throwing Jose Alberto Rodriguez of Mexico, known as “Alberto Del Rio,” partially out of the ring as they wrestle in 2013 in East Rutherford, N.J., during the WWE Wrestlemania 29 event. File photo

Jordan Bass learned a secret when he was 12: Professional wrestling is fake.

“I was crushed,” he said. “I didn’t watch again for years.”

He came back to it this year – this time armed with a doctorate.

And now he has completed a scientific research study at the University of Kansas. On wrestling.

It’s still fake. Brock Lesnar, Dolph Ziggler, A.J. Lee? Fakers. Smackdown? Fakedown. Wrestlemania? Fakemania.

“But I marvel at what they do and what wrestling has become,” said Bass, who has surveyed hundreds of World Wrestling Entertainment fans from eight countries.

“They are extremely athletic, able to execute extremely athletic moves while not injuring themselves or others. But wrestlers now also have to act, good enough that they make their story line believable.

“They expect you to safely body-slam a 300-pound person, then grab a mike and talk to a crowd in a way that is believable.”

Being believable is big business and is done really well by these people, said Claire Schaeperkoetter, a doctoral student who helped with the research.

“There is nothing else really like this,” she said. It is “just a little weird,” she said.

But the people who put it all together, from WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon on down, are profoundly successful, she said. They turn stories about villains and heroes into more than $500 million a year. Stockholders of the publicly traded WWE are happy.

It’s also interesting to note how McMahon and the rest of them built this performance art empire while outsmarting wrestling show competitors, she said.

What all this says about wrestling fans, and the rest of us, is weird and fascinating, Bass said.

Bass is an associate professor at KU and executive director at the Laboratory for the Study of Sport Management there. He used to play Division III college tennis and was fascinated by offbeat sports since childhood.

Not long ago, he saw how fanatically popular wrestling has become among millions of fans and realized that no scientists were studying it. He set out to learn why it is so popular and what ingredients it has that make it so appealing to millions of fans.

He and other researchers set out to learn what they could, surveying fans they contacted on wrestling message boards, Twitter and other social media.

A few of their findings:

▪ Real sports, whether it’s the NBA or NCAA football, are about winning and losing. KU Jayhawk basketball, Schaeperkoetter pointed out, is also about tradition, basketball history and a sense of place and belonging.

“KU fans say ‘we won’ when the basketball team wins,” she said.

▪ WWE fans don’t care nearly as much about “winning or losing” as fans of real sports do. Instead, their standards are about quality of story lines, quality acting – and whether the WWE did a good job of manipulating story lines.

“It’s about, ‘What is the WWE going to do this time?’ ” Bass said. “Fan reactions are about, ‘Was that guy a good actor?’ and ‘Who’s the WWE going to pick to win this week?’ ”

One of the smart moves the WWE makes, he said, is that it writes story lines but pays close attention to what fans want. And then immediately adjusts the story lines.

“Their public perception has to be spot on,” Bass said.

There are parallels to other big entertainment efforts, but not in sports, Bass said. The WWE is much more like sitcoms or fictional television dramas like “Breaking Bad” or “House of Cards.”

“If you’re a fan of the show ‘Breaking Bad,’ you might know that they did the same sort of thing as what the WWE does all the time,” Bass said. “In the first season, they were going to kill off the Aaron Paul character – until they realized how popular Aaron Paul had become. So they kept him.

“WWE does the same thing. … They pay attention to fans. They even know whether a wrestler is going to be popular in one part of the country but not so much in another part of the country … and they adjust accordingly.”

Real sports teams can’t do this, Bass said. If the Oklahoma Thunder basketball team is bad, it can’t just change its entire lineup or story lines.

“Well, they could,” Bass said. “But then they’d be really bad.”

Scriptwriters for the WWE know what they are doing, Bass said. It’s not only that they pit heroes against villains.

“It is that any good villain nearly always starts out as a hero,” Bass said. “And when that story gets stale, they flip it the other way.

“A good villain needs to be a hero first.

“And then he becomes a heel.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl

WWE SmackDown

When: 6:45 p.m. Oct. 21

Where: Intrust Bank Arena

Tickets: $17-$97

More info: intrustbankarena.com