There's a stone-cold chill at the headquarters of the World Wrestling Federation, and it's coming from Chairman Vince McMahon. After discussing ideas such as WWF spaghetti sauce, his wife, Linda, who is also his president and CEO, is pressuring him to do a biography. "I'd kill some poor bastard who's joined at the hip with me for a month," Vince snorts. But, he suggests, "It would be cool for you to write a book." Linda, who sits tapping her high-heeled suede pumps, can't be budged. "You're the face that sells," she insists until he finally agrees to talk to an agent. Minutes later, she's instructing Cynthia Money, her senior vice-president for merchandising, to tell a delinquent supplier he has one last chance to shape up. Money mentions a wrestler who's throwing temper tantrums because his T-shirts aren't sold at live events. "His character has to evolve first," Linda says firmly.
While her slick and highly toned husband may be the creative muscle behind the WWF--not to mention the Evil Boss who wields baseball bats during performances--it's Linda, 51, who quietly runs the day-to-day operation. For much of the past three decades, she has helped balance the books, do the deals, and handle the details that go into building a sports entertainment empire. "Vince is the type to walk in and say he wants an office in Nairobi by Monday," says Dusty Anderson, a longtime friend and Raleigh (N.C.) steakhouse owner. "Linda would be the one to put it together."
But the self-effacing half of the McMahon tag team is increasingly stepping into the ring. Linda has to defend the newly public multimedia company against lawsuits, growing competition, and the rising number of problems over its racy content, including Coca-Cola Co.'s decision to pull its ads. That's besides dealing with investors and playing the role of peacemaker in the scripted family feuds that are part of the blood, sweat, and muscle drama of World Wrestling. For McMahon, who has watched her 54-year-old husband smack aside near-bankruptcy, ridicule, and even federal criminal charges involving steroids a few years ago, the latest assaults just go with the territory.
Besides, there's not a lot of time for navel-gazing when you're managing a business that's extending its franchise to everything from snack food to a huge entertainment complex set to open in New York's Times Square in mid-January. The WWF's potent mix of shaved, pierced, and pumped-up muscle freaks; buxom, scantily clad, and sometimes cosmetically enhanced beauties; and body-bashing clashes of good vs. evil has spawned an empire that claims 35 million fans--mostly males between 12 and 34. That's the sort of demographic that makes advertisers and rivals drool. And these guys apparently can't get enough WWF tickets, broadcasts, books, CDs, games, and other merchandise. In the fiscal year ended last April, revenues topped $250 million, and analysts estimate that they'll reach $340 million for 2000. Meanwhile, an Oct. 19 public offering catapulted the McMahons to another level of wealth with an 83% share of stock that's worth about $867 million.
IMMERSION. Seated just behind her husband at the helm of this raucous ship is the poised and polite Linda McMahon. She met Vince in a small North Carolina church at the age of 13 when he showed up because his mother said there was a pretty blonde singing in the choir. Since marrying him five years later, McMahon has found herself caught up in the world of professional wrestling. A straight-A student who dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, she concedes that she never wanted to watch men throw each other around a ring. "I've come to appreciate it," she laughs between bites of a late lunch of steak and sweet potato in her pink-hued office at WWF headquarters in Stamford, Conn. In contrast, her husband is a third-generation wrestling entrepreneur who fought to turn a schlocky "sport" into mass entertainment with soap-opera scripts and enough cheeseball villains and heroes to make fans scream--and reach for their wallets.
McMahon's first forays into the business of wrestling began soon after she gave birth to son Shane in 1970. While her husband did on-air commentary, developed scripts, and otherwise promoted Capitol Wrestling Corp., then owned by his father, Vincent, Linda started handling details like scheduling. By the time daughter Stephanie was born seven years later, Linda was totally immersed in the biz. Vince, a self-described juvenile delinquent who went to military school as a teenager to avoid a reformatory stint, says he resisted the idea of having his wife involved. "From a male chauvinist standpoint, I thought she would be better taking care of the kids and taking care of me," he says. Linda still cooks Vince breakfast most mornings before they work out in their private gym, but her days of tending the hearth are long behind her. By 1982, when Vince bought the company and renamed it Titan Sports Inc., Linda was helping her man to manage as he branched into pay-per-view events, a TV series, and products such as action figures.
WALL STREET WORRIES. As the WWF began to take shape, however, a long shadow fell across it. In the late 1980s, media mogul Ted Turner bought World Championship Wrestling and soon drew the bulk of McMahon's talent to his TNT Network. In the midst of the battle with Turner, McMahon faced an even more dangerous foe: A federal grand jury indicted him in 1993 for conspiring to supply steroids to wrestlers. McMahon was acquitted but says the two-year court battle was the low point in the couple's life.
Then there are the recent controversies that have dragged WWF stock below its 17 initial offering price. Topping the list is Coke's decision to pull ads from WWF Smackdown!, which airs on UPN, because of violence and lewd content. Add to that the defection of some top writers to WCW and several lawsuits, including one filed by the family of wrestler Owen Hart, who died during a stunt at a pay-per-view event last May.
So guess who's quelling investor fears. It helps that Linda has analysts on her side who say the stock will be worth at least 30--once buyers realize that the WWF is such a potent brand. (It closed at 15 1/64 on Jan. 10.) "The average Wall Street investor is not exactly the demo here," says Laura Martin of Credit Suisse First Boston.
Whatever worries Wall Street may have are clearly not shared by the fans. Advertising and sponsorship sales increased to $30.1 million last year, a 147% jump over 1998; a CD featuring the theme songs of WWF stars rose to No. 2 on the music charts last year; and a biography by wrestler Mankind (a.k.a. Mick Foley) topped The New York Times best-seller list. The company gets one-third of its revenues from merchandise, dealing with 85 licensees who make everything from WWF apparel and greeting cards to toys and video games. In 18 months, its Web site has catapulted to the top 100, generating more than 157 million page views per month.
And the McMahons say they're just beginning their tear. "Eventually, with all the media convergence, we will be programming 24 hours a day," says Linda. Next up: an action-adventure series that she calls "a Miami Vice kind of thing" and a late-night talk show featuring WWF talent, which may be broadcast from the about-to-open Times Square complex. Projects in Australia, Britain, France, and Japan this year will extend the franchise overseas.
One of Linda's greatest pleasures is seeing her kids in the business. Shane handles new media. Stephanie works in ad sales. While Shane acknowledges his father's role in creating the WWF, he says: "Mom is much more detail-oriented, making plans and setting deadlines. She's the glue of the organization." Both kids have become regular TV characters--Stephanie, 23, recently "married" her dad's archrival, launched a coup, and is the new big boss. Linda makes an occasional appearance as the soothing voice of reason. Vince thinks his kids are "great hams" but says that "Linda is more comfortable behind a desk." So why push her into the act? Because Vince wants her in. After all, he's still the boss. "She understands that my decisions are well thought out," says Vince, who calls the WWF his mistress. "Somebody has to have the final word, and that's me."
Given the sheer breadth of tasks Linda now has to perform, Vince is pondering whether to bring in someone else as president to handle more of the operational details and let her concentrate on the broader public task of being CEO. She agrees that "there are a lot of talented people who could do my function, although they wouldn't bring the same kind of passion or understanding of where this grew from." But most say losing her services altogether would be a big loss to the WWF. Marina Jacobson of Bear, Stearns & Co. calls her "extremely smart and a very quick study" who has convinced investors that WWF leadership is very professional. That's right, professional. And anyone who's got a problem with that should go talk to Vince.