I fell down a historical PPV buy rate rabbit hole. Here's what I found.

Everything we know...might be wrong? Maybe?

A WrestleMania III ad from the St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette. (Screenshot: Newspapers.com)

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The website American Radio History is an invaluable resource, as it hosts scanned, searchable archives of numerous magazines relating to the broadcasting industry, including various trade magazines. The other day, I was digging into their archive of Channels for the first time when I found a particularly interesting feature on page 102 of the PDF of the November 1989 issue: The top 20 pay-per-view events of the 1980s according to Paul Kagan Associates—now Kagan Research. Kagan’s firm is/was a very legitimate research and consulting group specializing in cable television that was relied upon for cable industry data by Wall Street and the like, so there’s plenty of reason to treat these numbers as legitimate.

Looking at the table published in Channels, three things quickly became apparent:

  1. Even if you didn’t want to give credence to the buy rate information for each event, the table listed the available universe of homes for each event, making it easy to do the math and get an approximate number of actual buys.

  2. Some of the numbers were a good bit different from what’s been cited historically. (While there’s no good resource for actual buys, Jason Campbell’s ProWrestlingHistory.com has always been a reliable destination for historical buy rate percentages that were published in the wrestling newsletters, usually Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter.)

  3. As noted in the preamble to the list in Channels, concerts have never performed especially well on PPV, with boxing and pro wrestling being the runaway leaders (and mixed martial arts not being in the picture yet). Only one concert (the MTV-produced Moscow Music Peace Festival in August 1989) made the list, with everything else being a boxing or wrestling card.

(And before we get to the data: None of this is meant to be an indictment of Dave Meltzer, Wade Keller, Steve Beverly, or anyone else who published PPV buy and buy rate figures in their wrestling newsletters. If nothing else, the PPV universe figures are a huge help, and it’s not remotely unreasonable to look at Kagan as a greater authority for cable industry numbers. Also, for most of the shows, more time had passed since the initial figures were reported in the newsletters, and PPV buy data was notoriously slow.)

Also, for what it’s worth: Channels ranked the events in terms of revenue, so the purchase price of the boxing events played a role in the ranking when they weren’t totally lapping the top pro wrestling events back then. Also, all of the 1989 events other than Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas “Hitman” Hearns and WrestleMania V—the number 1 and 2 events, respectively—have a footnote listing their revenue figures as “estimate.” (PPV buy data famously took way too long to collate from the various cable providers, so this makes plenty of sense.) Also, for no apparent reason, all of the wrestling events have a footnote specifying “wrestling event” even though there’s no “boxing event” or “musical performance” footnote. With that out of the way, let’s look way too deeply at the listed wrestling events in chronological order, some in much more detail than others:

WWF WrestleMania 2 (April 7, 1986)

Coming in at #19 on the Channels list is the only WrestleMania held in more than one location and the first WrestleMania explicitly marketed as being available on pay-per-view. (The first WrestleMania was primarily a closed circuit television event and only available on PPV in select markets; an article about pay-per-view in the July-August ‘85 Channels—see pages 48-49 of the PDF—puts it at “more than 100,000 pay-per-view households [paying] just under $10 each.” With a universe of 4.2 million homes, WrestleMania 2 did either a 7.0% buy rate in 294,000 homes (PWH) or a 9.1% buy rate in 382,200 homes (Kagan) paying to see the main events of Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy, Roddy Piper vs. Mr. T in a boxing match, and a wrestlers vs. football players battle royal

That’s a particularly notable because that increase would mean that the PPV beat the closed circuit screenings (319,000 tickets sold, per PWH) by a pretty significant margin as opposed to being just barely behind. Of course, it’s not a 1:1 comparison because one is individual paid admissions at an arena event and the other is for an entire household, but that’s still a pretty big difference.

WWF WrestleMania III (March 29, 1987)

The peak of the Hulkamania boom. Before we even get to the PPV data, it should be noted, since it rarely is, that this show soundly beat the previous two Manias at closed circuit ticket sales, with 450,000 to 398,000 (WM1) and 319,000 (WM2) according to the figures at PWH. Meanwhile, the PPV universe had increased by about 50% in a year, with 6.5 million homes wired up, a figure that’s notable in and of itself because it doesn’t match up to the PPV buys historically been given for the show. In historical pieces in the Observer, the figure is usually given at about 400,000 buys, but with the 6.5 million home universe, that’s not how it works out. Instead, it looks like WrestleMania III did either a 8.0% buy rate in 520,000 homes (PWH) or a 10.2% buy rate in 663,000 homes (Kagan).

A wrestling centric article in the January 1989 Channels—see pages 44-47 of the PDF—lists the same 10.2% buy rate figure for WrestleMania III “among 6 million addressable homes—a record,” which comes off like rounding to make the sentence read better. The same article also notes that the March 15, 1987 edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC—the last before WrestleMania III—did an 11.6 rating and a whopping 33 share, which NBC said was the biggest number ever for a late night special. With one in three households that were watching TV at that moment having their sets tuned in to the go-home show for Mania, it’s easy to see how the show did so incredibly well. (Also: Showing how hot the WWF was, that episode of SNME was taped in Detroit, the same market hosting WrestleMania III.)

WWF Survivor Series ‘87 (November 26, 1987)

In eight months, the PPV universe had grown by another million homes to 7.5 million, something that Jim Crockett Promotions, the WWF’s chief rival, was hoping to capitalize on by making Starrcade, their flagship Thanksgiving Night event, available at home for the firs time. Unfortunately for them, the WWF decided to try to ace them out by running the first annual Survivor Series—headlined by Andre the Giant’s first match since WrestleMania III—as their own new Thanksgiving Night tradition while also pushing cable companies not to carry Starrcade when Crockett moved it to the afternoon. Only a few providers, all but one of which were in the Crocketts’ traditional Carolinas territory, kept the show, so it bombed. Meanwhile, both PWH and Kagan have Survivor Series ‘87 doing a 7.0% buy rate in 525,000 homes. So not every show has some kind of difference between the two sources.

WWF WrestleMania IV (March 26, 1988)

There was a BIG jump in the PPV universe in the next four months, to 10.1 million homes, which the WWF was banking on with a show that featured the Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant rubber match in a tournament for the vacant WWF Championship. The first match was at the hugely successful WrestleMania III and the second match was in February on a prime time NBC special in front of 33 million viewers, so naturally the third match would be huge.

However, after countering Crockett again in January—the Bunkhouse Stampede PPV bombed opposite the WWF’s first annual Royal Rumble on USA, which drew a 8.2 rating and a 12 share according to the aforementioned January 1989 Channels article—it was time for revenge. Crockett got TBS to agree to run the first ever Clash of the Champions special opposite Mania. It drew a big rating—a 5.8 average cable/coverage area rating across the whole show and bigger for the Ric Flair-Sting main event—that took a bite out of the WWF’s biggest day of the year.

While this Mania is historically considered something of a flop—if nothing else, it was boring as hell and CCTV nosedived to 175,000 tickets sold—which PPV buy rate is the real one definitely has a major bearing on how much of that narrative holds true. WrestleMania IV did either a 6.5% buy rate in 656,500 homes (PWH) or a 9.0% buy rate in 909,000 homes. Confusing the matter a bit is that the narrative has long been that, in spite of the the universe increasing by more than 50%, buys were flat with WrestleMania III. But that’s only the case if you use the Kagan universes, the Kagan Mania III buys, and the Observer/PWH Mania IV buys, but not using the Kagan universes (which, again, I think we can assume are more are less accurate) with only the Observer/PWH figures, either using the buy rates or the 400,000 figure for Mania III.

WWF SummerSlam ‘88 (August 29, 1988)

The first SummerSlam—available in 11 million homes—was pretty much a one-match show on paper, with little to offer past the main event of The Mega Powers (Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage with Miss Elizabeth) vs. The Mega Bucks (Ted DiBiase and Andre the Giant with Virgil) with Jesse Ventura as referee. Even with that main event, the hype wasn’t about the match as much as it was about the tease that Liz would strip to a bikini to distract the heels. Demolition vs. The Hart Foundation and The Honky Tonk Man vs. Brutus Beefcake’s mystery replacement were solid support, but there was nothing else to speak of. But as uneventful as most of the show was, there’s a massive difference between the two numbers we have for it. SummerSlam ‘88 did either a 4.5% buy rate in 495,000 homes (PWH) or a 8.0% buy rate in 880,000 homes. That’s…a lot, but I’ll save further thoughts on these discrepancies for the end.

“Sugar” Ray Leonard vs. Donny Lalonde (November 7, 1988)

Well, this is…weird, as Channels/Kagan has it as the #5 PPV in history up to that point, although a lot of that is thanks to the price point being higher than for wrestling shows. As the story has always gone, this boxing pay-per-view, an attempt to expand WWF parent company Titan Sports beyond wrestling, bombed horribly in spite of heavy promotion on the live SummerSlam broadcast. Hell, there’s even an Orlando Sentinel article from a few days out about what a massive bomb it was going to be, even quoting Vince McMahon as recalling his father telling him that “No matter what you do, don't get into the boxing business.” (If nothing else, it was a massive outlay, with the Sentinel article reporting that Titan paid over $10 million to get the fight.) Contemporaneous Observers note that, unlike with their wrestling pay-per-views, Titan got the cable companies to agree to confidentiality, as well, so there’s no traditional Meltzer estimate based on cable industry sources.

So, what figures WERE floated at the time?

In the November 14, 1988 issue of the Observer, which appears to have gone to press in the hours before the fight, Meltzer wrote that “I expect Titan will claim an eight percent buy rate for the fight, which so is far past ridiculous it isn't funny.” He added that Titan’s Jim Troy was telling media that advance buys were ahead of WrestleMania IV even though some cable companies had less than a dozen orders each and “they'll be very lucky to get two percent.” With a universe of 10 million homes according to Kagan, that would puts the high end of Meltzer’s prediction at 200,000 buys. In an article that ran the day of the fight, Troy told Michael Katz of the New York Daily News that there were already 300,000 buys before the last three days even though 70% buy during said last three days. citing the possibility that it could be Leonard’s last fight as the reason for the strong sales. In spite of the advance having Caesar’s Palace about 2/3rds full and virtually no sales for a Madison Square Garden closed circuit showing, though, Katz said that “the fight is a guaranteed financial success” thanks to a $7.6 million site fee from Caesars (“so the empty seats are the casino’s problem”), a $1 million Coors sponsorship, and “over $2 million” in foreign TV rights fees on top of the gate and PPV sales. (Troy would also tell the Baltimore Sun that “all the negative talk has been fabricated to hurt our show.)

The following week, Titan claimed a 7.2% buy rate in 780,000 homes for a $19.5 million gross. Meltzer wrote that using that gross, along with a “last day price rang[ing mainly from $34 to $46,” his calculations put the event at 600,000 buys. While highly skeptical, he did hear that Titan needed a $20 million gross to break even and that they were happy, so…maybe there wasn’t that much exaggeration going on? A November 19 Los Angeles Times article, meanwhile, reported that Titan had been claiming a 6.8% buy rate in 650,000 homes, while also noting that a rep for United Cable was skeptical because it did about 4.5% among their customers. “The 6.8% figure was based on returns we had, or on about 80% of systems reporting,” Troy responded. “I expect that figure will drop a little, when it all comes out of the wash. But even if it comes down to 6.2%, it’ll still be the most successful pay-per-view event ever.” It was also noted that while Titan was asking for a guarantee of the equivalent to a 5.0% buy rate, United got it for a 1.7% guarantee.

“The buy rate was 3.4%,” rival boxing promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank told the Times in response. “There’s no reason to lie about these figures. Sure, everybody lies before a promotion to build up the fight, but it’s atrocious to do it after the fight. It’s a gullible press that believes what Jim Troy says. He’s treating the press like they were wrestling fans.”

So, after all that, what did Kagan have Leonard-Lelonde at? A 5.3% buy rate in 530,000 homes (out of a universe of 10 million) with a $15.9 million gross at a price of $29.95. Arum’s buy rate would put it at 340,000 homes and a $10.2 million gross, but based on what Meltzer wrote, it’s worth considering a different gross depending on different price points. Regardless, this is a useful data point: Even though a lot of the Kagan numbers seem high, this one was a good bit lower than what Titan was floating, so between that and Survivor Series ‘87 being the same as the PWH number, we can be pretty sure they weren’t just regurgitating Titan PR.

WWF Royal Rumble ‘89 (January 15, 1989)

Nope, Survivor Series ‘88 didn’t make the list, and neither did any Crockett/WCW shows until (spoiler alert) Halloween Havoc ‘89, which we’ll get to in a bit.

There was little to this show as far as hype outside of the titular main event, with its main support being a Rick Rude-Ultimate Warrior non-match (a “posedown”). So there’s not much to say here, although curiously, Channels has the universe at the time as 6.0 million, indicating a particular lack of interest in this specific show among cable companies. If that’s a legitimate figure and not a typo of some kind, then Royal Rumble ‘89 did either a 1.5% buy rate in 90,000 homes or a 7.0% buy rate in 420,000 homes.

Well, that seems…off.

“The approximately 1 1/2 percent buy rate for Royal Rumble shows just how oversaturated PPV has become,” Meltzer wrote the 1.5% figure in the February 6, 1989 Observer. “Titan projected a three percent buy rate for the show, so it was a major disappointment, especially since it was less than the NWA's show.” In the January 30 Matwatch, there was a little more detail: “Royal Rumble figures are far from complete, but while Titan claims a 2.8, cable operators are estimating between a 1.4 and 1.9% rate, which would be Titan’s lowest ever,” wrote Steve Beverly. If a more typical universe for that period is being assumed, 1.5% would still be south of 200,000 homes buying the show, while 7.0% would be a massive success of over 3/4 of a million buys.

With no reporting about a smaller universe in the newsletters—Titan’s carriage dispute with leading PPV distributor Viewer’s Choice would come about a year later—this one feels like a bit of a mystery. Even if Survivor Series was down a lot and providers reacted, wouldn’t someone have noticed that Rumble was unavailable to much of the country? Even if Titan was about to try to ask for a bigger percentage of the revenue of…

WWF WrestleMania V (April 2, 1990)

For buys, the biggest PPV up to that point in history, exclipsing “Sugar” Ray Leonard vs. Thomas “Hitman” Hearns a couple months later, which topped the Channels list by virtue of a much higher price point ($24.95 vs. $39.95). If you’re reading this, you know why: It was the climax of a year and a half of storylines where Randy Savage turned babyface, formed the Mega Powers with Hulk Hogan, and then turned on him for having “lust in [his] eyes” for Miss Elizabeth on a prime time NBC special. Stemming from McMahon’s attempted power play, there was another Clash special—originally a PPV, and that story is WAY too long to get into here—opposing Mania, but even doing an OK rating, it didn’t make a dent here. With a universe of 12.2 million homes to work with, WrestleMania V did either a 5.9% buy rate in 719,800 homes (PWH) or a 7.5% buy rate in 915,000 homes (Kagan). (Leonard-Hearns, by comparison, did 8.0% buy rate in 640,000 homes out of an 8 million home universe.) The buy number for Mania V would stand as the wrestling record for a decade, only being bested by the WrestleManias of the next boom period.

WWF SummerSlam ‘89 (August 28, 1989)

With the universe inching up to 12.5 million homes, the WWF had a unique new attraction: Zeus, the villain from Hulk Hogan’s film No Holds Barred, which had hit theaters in June. With only very slight lip service played to the idea that he was an actor who lost his mind—even if his real name from the credits, Tom “Tiny” Lister, was never mentioned—it was still incredibly hokey and made worse by the appearance of at least one other fictional character from the movie. Still, the public was interested, and with an assist from the Savage feud (the actual match was Hogan and Brutus Beefcake vs. Savage and Zeus), the show was a big success. SummerSlam ‘89 did either a 4.8% buy rate in 600,000 homes (PWH) or an “estimated” 6.5% buy rate in 812,500 homes. So the question is if it was a big success or a massive one, I guess.

Everything else listed from this point forward appears to have taken place after the issue of Channels with the list went to press, so I guess their “estimates” are some kind of weird advance projections. That would also explain why the only WCW shows listed are the 1989 iterations of Halloween Havoc and Starrcade: They hadn’t happened yet, so they got the benefit of the doubt. While SummerSlam ‘89 was also an estimate, there would have been time to get extrapolated buy data—after all, the newsletters got it even quicker—just not the 100% of systems reporting versions that it seems like Kagan/Channels was seemingly providing. So for these, let’s just use the universe data against the PWH/newsletter buy rates:

WCW Halloween Havoc ‘89 (October 28, 1989)

The hype for this one was all about the Thunderdome cage match, with the main event taking place in a cage electrified wire at the top to prevent escape attempts. It was also, due to a staph infection messing with the main event at the previous Clash special, the first tag team match pitting Ric Flair and Sting against Terry Funk (replaced by Dick Slater in the Clash match) and The Great Muta. Underneath, the show featured solid support, with the first battle of the Steiner Brothers and Doom being the biggest storyline attraction on the undercard. While not historically thought of as a successful show, it definitely did a lot better than it gets credit for. Halloween Havoc ‘89 did a reported 1.77% buy rate in 177,000 homes (PWH). As bad as WCW was doing at the box office much of the time back then, their PPV business was generally much stronger than it’s remembered as.

WWF Survivor Series ‘89 (November 23, 1989)

The main attraction on the last Survivor Series to run Thanksgiving Night? More Zeus! Clearance was down to 8 million homes, perhaps due to providers in some regions not getting the whole Thanksgiving thing? Anyway, there’s not much to say here. Survivor Series ‘89 did a reported 3.3% buy rate in 264,000 homes (PWH).

WCW Starrcade ‘89: Future Shock (December 13, 1989)

The first of way too many gimmick Starrcades, this one featured two one night round robin tournaments, each with four entrants, to determine the “Iron Man” and Iron Team” of the promotion. Only The Road Warriors vs. Steiner Brothers and Lex Luger’s matches, either by way of being first time matches or the first time with him as a heel, were fresh, so this show did not click at all. With a listed universe of 12 million, Starrcade ‘89 did a reported 1.8% buy rate in 156,000 homes (PWH).

WWF No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie (December 27, 1989)

An experiment from the WWF: Do a SummerSlam rematch in a cage as the Zeus blowoff match at a TV taping, tape it (while treating it as live), and bundle that one match with a screening of No Holds Barred for $11.95; much more than the movie would cost alone but much less than a WWF PPV would cost. If they were about to be done with Zeus, they might as well squeeze out every last drop of potential box office, which they did. With a universe of 11 million homes, No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie did either a 1.6% buy rate in 176,000 homes (PWH) or a 4.0% buy rate in 440,000 homes (Kagan). Without the usual costs of a pay-per-view, like satellite time, the costs of the live event itself, etc., that’s an unqualified success with either figure.

So, what did all of this tell us? It’s hard to say.

If nothing else, we have time-specific universe numbers to put to the buy rates we’ve always used, and that’s good. Even before getting to the Kagan buy rates, though, there are some figures that are still hard to make sense of, like the old WrestleMania III total buys number given the PPV universe, how WrestleManias III and IV compare to each other given the historical narrative, and the unusually small universe for Royal Rumble ‘89. The Kagan buy rates just throw an additional monkey wrench into everything, even if one (Survivor Series ‘87) is the same as the newsletter figure.

Between the source (a legit trade magazine citing a legit cable TV research firm), that the newsletter numbers generally came within a few weeks of a show when the Channels list was months to years later, and how the numbers relate to each other, I don’t think there’s an immediately compelling reason to doubt these numbers. Hell, even very late in the pre-WWE Network era, SummerSlam 2013 buys settled at more than 10% over the originally reported figure, taking it from a disappointment to a success…over the course of months and months. Given the differences in time and technology, bigger swings certainly seem plausible. I’m curious what everyone else thinks.

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