WWF Axxess-ability pays off

On St. Patrick's Day, World Wrestling Federation Entertainment's Wrestlemania X8 event broke the Toronto SkyDome attendance record with over 68,000 fans, drawing $6.1 million at the gate.
It's the spectacle's first trip back to the Dome since Wrestlemania VI in 1990, and the WWF's brand of sports entertainment has changed since then.

On St. Patrick’s Day, World Wrestling Federation Entertainment’s Wrestlemania X8 event broke the Toronto SkyDome attendance record with over 68,000 fans, drawing $6.1 million at the gate.

It’s the spectacle’s first trip back to the Dome since Wrestlemania VI in 1990, and the WWF’s brand of sports entertainment has changed since then.

The product is now aimed largely at a male 13 to 35 demo with a tougher, faster and less family-friendly show, but still spellbinding. Also different were the days leading up to X8. This generation of wrestling fans were privy to WWF Fan Axxess, a three-day wrestling convention, market and hypefest prior to the main event, where diehards met WWF Superstars, checked out fun memorabilia and got up close with the brands attached to the exhibits.

Held at the Automotive Building at Exhibition Place in Toronto, the Fan Axxess event sponsored by Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Pizza Pizza, was packed with both sexes, mainly ‘tweens and teens on March break.

Walking into Friday afternoon’s session, I was overwhelmed by brand names. Yes, I had been sent here to spot them, but they were impossible to miss. Many vendors vied for attention, giving away flyers and little swags, but the action was where the Superstars were.

The most impressive spot at the event was the PlayStation 2 Brawlfest theatre, where gamers competed against a WWF Superstar in a PS2 wrestling game. Extending the reach of PS2 gaming action, Brawlfest had a huge screen over the stage so onlookers and those in line could watch the animated slugfest.

Also popular was the Blockbuster Video Fantasy Play-By-Play area. For just $15 you and a friend could commentate a big match and get a tape of your ramblings (so you can agonize at your leisure over all the cool things you should have said). It had a very slick look, and attracted a lot of bystanders. Although the lineup wasn’t nearly as long, there was never an empty play-by-play station.

Fans could also take home a personal memento courtesy of a Polaroid snapped with a WWF Superstar, sponsored by the Special Olympics.

Pizza Pizza took centre stage in its Pizza Pizza Arena, a ring set up for wrestling matches, interviews and a news conference. The news was of further WWF brand extension in Canada: the Fed is constructing a WWF store, with a theme ride called Piledriver, in Niagara Falls, set to open this summer. And the crowd goes wild.

It got pretty hot in the arena. Good thing the Molson Export Beer Pit was right next door. In front of which, to get you really thirsty, was the Sour Skittles Hall of Fame where you could peruse wrestling memorabilia and mingle with authentic wrestling legends.

However, without question, the biggest draw for the event was the Jakks Pacific autograph session. The balcony was completely overtaken by autograph booths, care of the WWF action figure licensee, which also had a huge display of its little plastic wrestling folk, managed by Wal-Mart, in front of the Hall of Fame area. As some fans had two-hour waits, depending on the Superstar scrawl they were after, there was plenty of time spent perusing the Jakks ware.

These brands were impossible to escape at Axxess.

And after four hours, you were given a free bag of Doritos and a five-song sample of the WWF’s new CD, Forceable Entry and sent merrily on your way. And for wrestling fans, that’s as good as March break gets.

As for Wrestlemania itself, Pizza Pizza and PS2 were still very visible, however Sour Skittles made the biggest impression. The brand’s logo was pasted to the side of a remote-control zeppelin and flown around the SkyDome for the entire time it took to get all the bums planted in seats. It was impossible to miss.

The savvy troop of suits behind the renegade WWF product are connecting with their highly sought after demo more than any other brand I can think of (and I am right in the bullseye of that target demo). Partnering companies saw more than 100,000 attend Axxess and Wrestlemania. The Fed has mastered the art of the ‘brought to you by’ and dozens of companies brand profiles won big with exposure during the WWF’s whirlwind four-day stay in town.