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If you were one of the roughly 102 million people who watched Super Bowl LIV earlier this month, it would have been hard to ignore WWE’s fingerprints on the biggest event in sports.
Sure, one explanation would be that Fox — which broadcast the game — recently signed a multi-billion dollar deal with Vince McMahon’s company, but the influence goes deeper than simple corporate synergy. Although commercials and promotional spots for “Smackdown” were present throughout the NFL season, the biggest example of the crossover came when former WWE star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson did the Super Bowl LIV pre-game introductions for both the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.
While no one would question handing this task to one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Johnson essentially going back two decades and cutting a vintage “Rock” promo for the two teams illustrates how much WWE has infiltrated professional sports. Just ask George Kittle, arguably San Francisco’s best and most recognizable player. His love for professional wrestling manifests itself on and off the field, earning him the nickname “The People’s Tight End.”
The rise in popularity didn’t happen overnight, but as WWE became more popular among a newer generation of athletes, the company leaned into it and began what has become one of the signature moments in sports.
“When you meet athletes over the years, they would see the championship belt and ask if they could hold it and ask if it was the actual title,” Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events and creative, told Yahoo Sports. “You’d see these reactions and these moments and you had these opportunities. The WWE title started to symbolize being this over-the-top champion. It’s a little hard with a trophy, but with a title belt I can hold it up in the air, I can wear it around my waist, I can parade around with it. Everything about it says you’re a champion when you have one.”
The birth of a championship tradition
A 14-time heavyweight champion with WWE, Levesque described how the company reached the point where their championships have become like a second trophy for sports teams across the globe. It’s not the Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup, but the WWE championship belt has become one of the most visible parts of celebrations in recent years.
What began as a simple, quiet gesture quickly evolved into a cultural phenomenon.
“We started doing it quietly, sending them out as congratulations and the response was so epic. We would get pictures back with the entire team, celebrities, stars,” Levesque said. “We even started getting stories back how it was getting put in display cases or in locker rooms, using it to name MVPs each week. It became this thing organically. They have the trophy, but that championship symbolizes something else for them.”
WWE isn’t simply giving out something you can just buy off Amazon or at Target. Each team gets the real deal — a championship title decked out with custom side plates, 383 cubic zirconia jewels and it comes in the exact dimensions of the championship belt someone like Brock Lesnar or Bray Wyatt is carrying around on “Raw” or “Smackdown.”
In order to maximize exposure, it’s important for WWE to be ready with the customized championships relatively quickly. When the Chiefs won the franchise’s first Super Bowl in half a century, Levesque tweeted an image of Kansas City’s version 15 hours after the final whistle blew.
“We know the Super Bowl is coming, for example, so we have it ready to go and as we get into the playoffs, we start making the sideplates for the teams that are in that championship position,” Levesque said. “We want to be able to deliver on it the second that it’s over.”
Days later, the custom-made belt is front and center — and often part of the debauchery — at each team’s championship parade.
“You see Patrick Mahomes wearing it around, Travis Kelce cutting promos with it,” Levesque said. “If somebody has the trophy, someone else has the championship belt and is holding it above their head. It’s become a symbol that you’ve made it. Over the years you get to know a lot of these pro athletes, so the second someone wins the Super Bowl [or another championship], my phone blows up, ‘When are we getting our championship belt? or ‘Hey, can I get a second one?’ It’s become a thing they are proud of having and carrying around.”
A new generation of limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’ sports stars
The demand for and response to these championship belts actually appears to be part of a larger trend. When you look at major American sports stars, the average age falls between 26 and 30 years old, meaning they were old enough to witness WWE’s meteoric rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
For evidence, look no further than the Milwaukee Bucks’ social media feeds.
Led by the Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, one of the Bucks’ pregame rituals involves performing wrestling moves on each other. Milwaukee’s roster has an average age of just under 29, but the more important statistic might be 46-8, which is the best record in the NBA. Perhaps the wrestling-crazed Bucks may be getting a championship belt from Levesque in the future.
“They can live vicariously through what we do, through those promos, gestures,” Levesque said. “When you score a touchdown and do John Cena’s ‘You Can’t See Me’ or Roman Reigns’ roar, that’s living vicariously through somebody that is a larger-than-life superhero in a way. It’s really what sports boils down to. WWE is able to portray all of that.”
While there’s certainly a generational link between current-day athletes and WWE, Levesque, whose in-ring career took off alongside Johnson, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and others during the heralded “Attitude Era,” partially credits YouTube and the WWE Network for bringing classic characters and moments back into mainstream pop culture.
“When you talk about some of the athletes who are 22 years old, they’ll be strutting around and cutting promos about alligator shoes and Rolex watches,” Levesque said, referencing some of the iconic lines of one of his close friends, Ric Flair. “That’s a generation of performer that’s a little bit before them, yet here they are rolling with it. I believe that from an athlete standpoint, you grow up wanting to be an athlete and wanting to be successful, but part of it in your mind is this larger-than-life mentality and being a celebrity.”
‘There’s so much respect there’
Adding to the crossover appeal of WWE in professional sports is an understanding between the athletes on both sides of the fence. While wrestling’s outcomes are scripted, there’s a common misconception that the physical aspect of the industry is less demanding than that of traditional sports.
“When you’re a world-class athlete, you can appreciate what it takes to be in this industry,” Levesque said. “There’s never an athlete who comes to our event and goes, ‘What you guys do looks so easy and doesn’t hurt.’ No, they get it, they see it and they respect that wrestlers are amazing athletes and there is no offseason. They all lend themselves to each other, everybody is a fan of somebody else.”
Despite the relatively recent practice of handing out championship belts and posting pregame matches on social media, WWE and American sports have an intertwined history. From the late Muhammad Ali refereeing at WrestleMania 1 in 1985 to Ronda Rousey being the main event at WrestleMania 35 in 2019, stars big and small have crossed over and helped put the sports in sports entertainment.
“I’ve met people who I’ve thought were ludicrously famous from a sports perspective, but when they meet you, their kids are going crazy,” Levesque said. “They’re laughing because to them, he’s just dad, but they are freaking out meeting some of us. It’s the wildest thing. It’s an awesome combo where you can do all of these amazing things together. The business, the entertainment, the athleticism of it, there’s so much respect there.”
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