For a glimpse of the future of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE ) Inc., look beyond the fist-pumping rowdies at WrestleMania 22 in Chicago, which aired in early April, to the land of amore and Armani. Across the Atlantic, crowds of little boys, some barely old enough to write their names, are addicted to the body-slamming antics of men five times their size. They scream for rapper-wrestler John Cena at the famed Sanremo Music Festival. They snap up everything from WWE T-shirts to trading cards with a rabidity not seen since the early days of Nintendo Co.'s Pokémon.
In the U.S., WWE's popularity has dipped in recent years amid a boom in reality TV and a paucity of hunky new stars. But now, Stamford (Conn.)-based WWE is coming back, thanks in part to a hot new growth market: Italy. There, some 40% of kids between 4 and 14 tune in to WWE SmackDown each week. Retail sales have zoomed from zero to $120 million in just two years.
But the sudden ubiquity of the garish American "sport," combined with the youth of its fans, inspired such controversy in Italy that some groups called for laws to restrict children 14 and under from watching wrestling on TV and at live events. "It exploded so fast in this country," says Stefano Benzi, who covers WWE for SportItalia TV. "People didn't understand that this was just a show."
The solution: a public-relations campaign that has stars preaching, ironically, antiviolence. The WWE formed a Pact for Childhood with members of the Italian Parliament's Committee on Children. Its aim: Warn fans not to copy what they see on TV. That has helped blunt the most potent critics.
Calming the furor is crucial since international sales are growing at a 35% annual clip. The buzz from abroad has helped the thinly traded $17 stock rise more than 75% since last spring. WWE is also slowly starting to garner more attention at home. But while ratings are up for Monday Night RAW on USA Network and DVD sales are booming, veteran media analyst Dennis B. McAlpine is "waiting for a superstar to hit me on the nose."
The musclebound stars get a lot more love in Italy, where WWE's overwrought story lines strike a nerve. WWE scored a coup there because all the elements of its strategy, from live events and television to licensing deals, were in sync beforehand. When kids got excited, licensees were ready to sell a slew of merchandise at local kiosks.
Says Chief Executive Linda E. McMahon: "We're attracting fans who can grow up with the brand." Given the competition at home, those kids in Italy may pack the punch WWE needs.
By Diane Brady