Last Friday night, a regular season NBA game drew more than three million viewers to ESPN for the first time this season. It was a 36% week-to-week increase in viewers, and it swung ESPN’s NBA coverage from a narrow loss in the all-important 18-49 demographic to a 30% victory over WWE Smackdown.
What drew viewers to ESPN on Friday was not just professional basketball, of course. The draw was Jeremy Lin. An Asian-American point guard who earned his economics degree from Harvard and was chosen in the NBA draft as pick number N/A. In other words, the opposite of the archetypal young NBA player.
In the 20th century, back when professional wrestling led the tide in sports promotion, Mr. Lin’s astonishing rise would have been straight out of the kayfabe playbook. He has a large ethnic fanbase. His college basketball pedigree and undrafted status makes him an empathetic underdog. What’s more, he plays with style and, at least thus far, avoids engaging in the cynical trickery that is typical of both pro wrestling and basketball heels.
It is easy to say that a pro wrestling version of Jeremy Lin would be shown the door before he ever made it out of developmental, but that is unfair. Mr. Lin was almost shown the door by the NBA, too. The Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets all had Mr. Lin play for their organizations in one form or another, and none of them kept him. Even the New York Knicks, the current beneficiaries of Lin-sanity, reportedly were close to releasing him before his big break just over a week ago.
What the Jeremy Lin story really speaks to is a broader sports and entertainment conundrum. “The Rise of the Machines,” as Chris Connelly memorably termed it during a podcast with ESPN’s Bill Simmons just over a year ago.
In Mr. Connelly’s definition, the Machine is the world of entertainment that has seen businessmen step too far into the creative space. When that happens a natural fear seeps in, causing decision makers to choose safe bets. What then gets chosen are singers who can please American Idol voters, basketball players who excel in one-on-one battles and wrestlers who can make the cover of Muscle & Fitness. The machine chugs along, making money for all involved, but the culture is robbed of the cowboys who have a vision, sacrifice all to execute it and bring the audience something that they never knew they craved in the first place.
Pro wrestling used to be the land of the cowboys. Promoters, bookers and wrestlers by and large gave the public what it didn’t know it wanted. A wrestling fan in Tennessee wasn’t born with a thirst for bleeding babyfaces and concession stand brawls, but the auteurs of that territory believed that it would work and made their livelihoods proving that it did.
Jeremy Lin built his career in much the same way. He maintained the educational pedigree to gain acceptance to Harvard, but all along he kept pressing with the belief that he had NBA potential. Damn the fact that no Asian American ever had significant success in American professional basketball.
Forget the knowledge that men who lack elite quickness and jumping ability rarely even get a ten day contract in the NBA. And definitely ignore the fact that, well, the kid can’t really shoot too well. He was going to accentuate his positives (vision, foresight and touch around the basket) and take the cowboy route to a job as a basketball player.
Today, the powers that be in the pro wrestling world are anything but a group of cowboys. Even Vince McMahon no longer promotes what he likes. The man who built his territory on bodybuilders and apex predators has let his product devolve into a mishmash on indy-riffic workers, merchandise-moving children’s acts and even the occasional angle centering around the emotional inner conflict of an aging legend or conflicted babyface.
WWE business has been slipping for some time, and during that time the executives in charge have surely kept the faith. Just as the New York Knicks kept pressing away – renovating their out of date arena, signing an All-Star player, trading for one of the NBA’s top scoring talents – and coming up with little success, so too has WWE. For the Knicks, it appears that their faith was rewarded.
But not because of any of the aforementioned high-profile moves. It was because they held on to Jeremy Lin just a little bit longer and let him stay on the court for a few more minutes than three other teams did. Pro wrestling fans can only hope that if a WWE (or iMPACT, or ROH) wrestler shows that type of spark, the machine will allow him to succeed.