Right now the WWE is attempting to make its PPV's more distinct with themed shows such as Hell in a Cell, TLC, and Breaking Point (submission matches). While fans' reactions have been mixed the WWE deserves credit for trying to invigorate the product and making each PPV seem special. Some fans may be surprised to learn that specialty PPV's date back to the beginning of PPV itself. Indeed, the idea of having special themed shows(and by this I mean shows based around a specific type of match) dates back even further as we shall see.
The WWE is by no means the first company to focus on branded events. Back in the 1960's and 70's, promoter Roy Shire featured an annual battle royal that was held at the Cow Palace Arena. Shire's Battle Royal was treated both as a special event and an extremely dangerous one (the battle royal was known for featuring injury angles including stretcher jobs). Promoter Shire featured some of his top stars in the match-up and often brought in talent from outside of his San Francisco based National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territory, adding to the show's allure. WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson was a frequent participant (as well as two-time winner of the Battle Royal) and he would draw upon his experience there when he helped design the WWE's Royal Rumble.
In 1986, promoter Jim Crockett Jr. built a supercard around tag team wrestling known as the Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup Tag Team Tournament (better known as "The Crockett Cup"). The inaugural Crockett Cup was a major event in the NWA with most of the remaining NWA territories sending their top tag teams to compete against Crockett's teams. The first Crockett Cup saw 24 teams compete for a (kayfabe) $1,000,000.00 prize as well as a memorial trophy. The event was held over two days and was considered one of the year's top events. While it did not draw as much money as expected, it was successful enough that two more Crockett Cups were held.
Even during the earliest days of PPV, promoters considered specially themed shows in order to lure in customers. One of the first was the Wrestling Classic, the World Wrestling Federation's second PPV (some people have argued that this was actually the first official PPV as Wrestlemania was only available in closed circuit arenas while The Wrestling Classic was available in select homes). The Wrestling Classic revolved around a sixteen man tournament (as well as a WWF title match between champion Hulk Hogan and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper). The WWF would follow up on the idea of themed shows with its debut of the Survivor Series. For the first few years, the Survivor Series was made up entirely of tag team elimination matches.
In 1989, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) ran an Iron Man tournament at its annual Starrcade show. The show featured both a tag team tournament as well as a singles tournament with competitors battling in round robin matches to determine the "Iron Man" (and "Iron Men"). For more on the rules of the "Iron Man" tournament, click here.
During the 1990's, WCW toyed further with themed PPV's, one of which became known as Battlebowl:the Lethal Lottery. In 1991, WCW held the first ever Battlebowl at its Starrcade The BattleBowl (which has no connection to Rob Van Dam despite what you may think) featured "randomly" (kayfabe) selected teams battling one another with the winning teams advancing to a two ring battle royal held at the end of the night. WCW would follow up with another Battlebowl at Starrcade 92 as well as a Battlebowl PPV in 1993. Unfortunately for Battlebowl fans, the concept wasn't strong enough to establish an annual tradition.
WCW wasn't alone in using special events to build a PPV around. In 1985 WWF launched the King of the Ring PPV tournaments in 1985 at the Sullivan Stadium in the Foxborough, Massachusetts (later moving it to the Providence Civic Center in Providence, Rhode Island) . The event proved popular enough not only to run until 1991 but to be relaunched as a PPV event. The WWE continued the King of the Ring as a PPV until 2002.
Recent history has shown that specially themed PPV's can succeed. One of TNA's biggest successes has been its annual Lockdown PPV which features cage matches from start to finish. While the thought of nothing but cage matches seems like overkill, TNA has done a good job of keeping the show fresh and Lockdown continues to be one of the company's most popular PPV's.
Wrestling promoters don't have to reserve themed events for PPV's. With the WWE running more and more three hour RAW's, it might not be a bad idea to run a themed show on one of these 180 minute blowouts. While I don't think it's in the WWE's (or TNA's) best interests to make every PPV or show a specially themed event, they might want to consider two of the following ideas:
Pro-Am: While I don't watch a lot of Japanese wrestling, I love some of the tournaments that the various promotions used to run. One of the best ideas I've heard of was a tournament that featured veterans teaming with rookie wrestlers. The possibilities here of course are endless. Not only do you get a chance to form new teams but you get to do angles with possible feuds between team members as well as younger guys getting a chance to get the rub from an established star. Like anything else, a promotion can make a kayfabe prize such as a big check or do something where the winner gets a tag title shot at the next PPV ( On a sidenote, I absolutely hate the idea of teams battling in a tournament where they face the champions that very night. I've never understood the concept of a team (or individual) wrestling several matches in one evening then having to utilize a title shot the same night against a fresh team).
Wrestling Olympics: I like the idea of the WWE's Bragging Rights PPV where RAW SmackDown! compete to see who is the best. The problem with Bragging Rights was that the company threw the show together at the last minute and they did little to make winning it seem all that special (other than the trophy). Imagine an all-star night in which WWE stars compete in various match-ups as well as old school angles like arm-wrestling matches, pose-downs, tests of strength, or whatever else you want to throw in. The team with the most wins would naturally go on to become that year's winner and claim a kayfabe prize they can brag about over the next year.
The key with any of these themed events is in how they are executed. Take the recent Hell in a Cell PPV. The problem with the PPV wasn't that there were three Hell in a Cell matches. The problem was that that 1) there wasn't a lot of build-up for the cage matches and 2) only one of the cage matches (DX vs. Legacy) actually used the cage with any regularity. On the other hand, I LOVED the Breaking Point The submission matches turned out to be excellent and for the most part, they tied in with the programs. For example, DX vs. Legacy was a battle of who was the toughest team. Likewise Orton vs. Cena played into the "Diehard" attitude of John Cena winning out over a weak-willed heel. Don't run a themed event unless you have a concrete plan for the matches involved.
As time unfolds it will be interesting to see whether the WWE adopts more themed PPV's or if it drops the concept in favor of more traditional shows. If history is any indication, you can be sure that themed events will be around in some quantity in the time to come.
7 years ago