Just how do we navigate all of this PPV buy data, anyway?

It keeps getting more and more confusing.

WrestleMania IV pay-per-view ad from Sioux Falls Cable Television (Screenshot: Newspapers.com/Sioux Falls Argus-Leader 3/16/1988)

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As I was putting together the notes for the latest Between The Sheets Patreon special (part one on the death of the AWA), I found myself drawn to a passage in the March 20, 1989 issue of Matwatch. In an item titled “STRETCHING IT,” Steve Beverly wrote about how “Paul Kagan Associates’ Pay TV Newsletter has just released the all-time rankings for boxing and wrestling pay-per-view shows, according to their own estimates.” Steve, though, “believe[d] all of the figures to be high for wrestling,” particularly citing their estimate for Starrcade ‘88 ($5 million gross, which would put it at around 250,000 buys) being higher than what TBS was claiming and “all of the WWF grosses follow[ing] Titan’s company line information.”

Huh. Interesting.

Like I said when I found a slightly updated version of the list in a 1989 issue of Channels a few weeks ago, there are various things that make the topic…complicated. While most of the figures listed were higher than the ones in the wrestling newsletters that we’ve usually cited over the years, not all of them were, with Survivor Series ‘87 being exactly the same and the Titan Sports-produced Leonard-Lalonde fight being lower. On top of that, if we take the universe sizes given at face value—and I don’t see a compelling reason not to since they wouldn’t be futzed with by the promoters the way that the buy numbers would be—then the WrestleMania III buy number reported and repeated over the years in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (400,000) doesn’t match the buy rate percentage (8.0% of 6.5 million homes, or 520,000) reported in same. The same goes for WrestleMania IV, where the Observer’s figure of either 485,000 or 585,000 buys (one of the WWF history issues with proper buy numbers has a typo, it appears) doesn’t match its own buy rate percentage (6.5% of 10.1 million homes, or 656,000), with the number increasing by either 12% or 35% instead of the 30% for WrestleMania III.

(This isn’t across the board, even in the same rough time period, because SummerSlam ‘88, with an 11 million home universe according to Kagan, did a 500,000 buys according to the Observer, which roughly matches the Observer buy rate of 4.5% and thus 495,000 homes.)

A Kagan chart examining consumer spending on pay-per-view vs. its competitors. (Screenshot: Channels December 1988/”1989 Field Guide.”)

So even before you get into Kagan reporting significantly higher buy rates in a lot of cases, we’re still given reason to take some salt with the Observer numbers. which usually matched what other newsletters like Matwatch and the Pro Wrestling Torch reported. As I noted a few weeks ago, there are certainly variables that could account for discrepancies between the Kagan numbers and the wrestling newsletter numbers, like the reporting on the wrestling numbers usually petering out a few weeks after a show. PPV data took an absurdly long amount of time to be finalized back then, especially before the cable industry consolidated to the degree it has. This could easily lead to the final number being higher. The wrestling newsletters may not have had consistently accurate PPV universe size information, as well, something mentioned in a thread at the Wrestling Classics forum by “nwa88,” who did a lot of research into PPV data, including using Kagan publications.

All of that said, Steve’s concerns in 1989 don’t really seem unwarranted, either, if just because mainstream media would often parrot the WWF’s early PPV estimates. An article in the December 1988/”1989 Field Guide” issue of Channels (see page 102 of the PDF), for example cites the WWF as the source for a claim that WrestleMania IV did a 9% buy rate out of 10.1 million homes, the same figure that Kagan would later cite. The same article also puts SummerSlam ‘88 at 814,000 buys, much closer to Kagan’s 880,000 than the Observer’s ~500,000. While the McClatchy wire was billing WrestleMania IV as the biggest PPV in history up to that point without any real details, the New York Daily News would directly cite the WWF’s Jim Troy in November 1988 as the source for a claim that the show did 900,000 buys. In that case, it’s pretty safe to say that Kagan and the WWF are using basically the same figure.

An item in the November 11, 1988 New York Daily News with the WWF’s “official” numbers for WrestleMania IV and Leonard-Lalonde. (Screenshot: New York Daily News/Newspapers.com)

There were also plenty of mainstream articles that will cite approximations of larger figures without any kind of sources. Take for instance this Associated Press article from 1988 about how Mike Tyson vs. Leon Spinks was expected to do big business. “The heavyweight title bout, tentatively scheduled for June, is expected to break the closed-circuit record set last April by the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight and the pay-per-view mark established by ‘Wrestlemania III’ last March,” writes the AP reporter. “The promoters are hoping to sign up one million households, which would surpass the record of 600,000 for ‘Wrestlemania III.’” That’s closer to the Kagan number, but also right in the middle of said higher figure and the Observer buyrate against the Kagan universe, so…that doesn’t really give us any answers.

However, a Canadian Press wire story published the day after WrestleMania III, and thus most likely written right after the show, refers to “an estimated 650,000 homes in the States.” That would be a 10% buy rate and comes in just under the Kagan figure of 663,000, which feels like a huge red flag. A highly accurate number just wouldn’t have been available within minutes of the end of the show, much less at a time where there were so few shows to compare available data like advanced buys to, much less any outside data (like Google Trends) to compare it to. A Winona Daily News story a year later, meanwhile, included an unsourced mention of the show picking up 620,000 buys.

That said, it’s possible that the cable companies reporting just happened to be a fairly representative sample. Case in point: In a piece published two days after the show and thus written the day after, the Boston Globe reported that, based on local systems that they were able to get numbers from, WrestleMania III averaged…yes, about a 10% buy rate in the area, the same percentage as the Canadian Press estimate for the whole U.S. and effectively the same as Kagan’s 10.2% number. (There were technical issues for a lot of Boston area customers, but there’s no mention of any ind of refunds affecting the buy total.) It seems doubtful that the Boston numbers are juiced at all, and, coming from a major paper, it makes you wonder if those numbers were available during the show and directed to other reporters, like at the Canadian Press wire.

(And yes, WWF PPV buy data from local cable companies making it into the newspaper appears to have been a fairly regular occurrence across the country in the ‘80s. One California paper even had WrestleMania IV buy projections for San Diego county based on the exact number of advance buys and the the percentage of fans who usually buy the day of the event. I had no idea any of this was going on until I started digging more.)

I’m not sure there are any conclusions that I can draw just yet, but I suspect that I’m going to be going further down the rabbit hole of trying to get Kagan publications via inter-library loan, digging into Observer history features that might have buy numbers instead of just percentages, and who knows what else. And nwa88, if you’re out there? Please get in touch!

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