On Wall Street, hi-tech ain’t near as sturdy as lowbrow. In the past year, the public enterprise formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation has lost its star to Hollywood, its momentum to the XFL flop, its cable dominance to Ozzy, and even its name to panda-huggers. But the sports-entertainment juggernaut isn’t going the way of ImClone. Even with all the bad news, its stock price has increased more than 10 percent during this span.
Vince McMahon’s traveling troupe comes to the MCI Center this weekend. The Rock, the incredibly charismatic “People’s Champion” who now devotes most of his time to cinematic pursuits, will not be on the card. It will be the wrestlers’ first visit to D.C. as the WWE, which stands for World Wrestling Entertainment. That’s the new handle adopted as a result of litigation filed against McMahon et al. by the World Wildlife Fund.
McMahon’s outfit grew from Capitol Wrestling, a regional promotion founded in Northwest Washington in the ’50s by his father, Vincent J. McMahon; it had gone by WWF since 1979. The World Wildlife Fund, founded in 1961, said that the similarity between the organizations’ acronyms was hurting its reputation around the world. In 1994, the two WWFs signed an agreement that spelled out how and in which parts of the globe each group could use the three letters, in order to limit whatever confusion the likeness was causing.
But with McMahon’s group reaching new heights in international and Internet popularity throughout the rest of the decade, directors of the fund began stepping up complaints about trademark infringement.
And last year, the environmentalists filed suit in London, alleging that the wrestlers were violating the 1994 agreement and asking the court to affirm that McMahon had no claim to the shared initials. After the filing, wrestling fans who’d been heretofore unaware of the fund’s existence began contacting the group’s D.C. offices.
Not to inquire about membership, however.
“We’ve been getting a steady stream of e-mails [from wrestling fans], about 95 percent of them obscene,” says fund spokesman Michael Ross. “There’ve been a lot of threats to shoot pandas.”
Even though they lacked home-field advantage—Britain’s Prince Philip is a former international presidentof the fund—McMahon’s attorneys were confident about their case before it commenced. But last summer in London, Lord Robin Jacob of the High Court of Justice, the U.K. trial court, gave McMahon a legal pile driver, awarding the World Wildlife Fund the rights to “WWF” by summary judgment.
WWF lawyers took the English beating like a wrestler who’d been hit by a foreign object.
We weren’t given the right to cross-examine a single witness,” says Jerry McDevitt, an attorney for McMahon’s WWF. “We couldn’t put any witnesses on. We didn’t get a trial. The judge decided they were going to win and we were going to lose. On balance, I didn’t think we received fair treatment at all.”
Following Jacob’s ruling, the ring advocates swore they’d take their case as far as British law would allow in search of a reversal. And so they did, appealing the decision all the way to England’s House of Lords.
But two weeks ago, that body’s Judicial Committee quietly refused to hear McMahon’s plea for relief, for all intents and purposes ending the litigation. The wrestling group has until Nov. 10 to get rid of any reference to WWF on its licensed goods and to abandon its incredibly well-trafficked Web site, wwf.com. And under British law, which operates under a “loser pays” system, the decision means that McMahon is liable for the fund’s attorneys’ fees.
Even before the House of Lords put the final nail in his WWF’s coffin, McMahon had buried the moniker. Last month, McMahon announced that he was officially changing the name of his organization to WWE, and he did it in a way that his legions of followers could easily understand: by launching a promotional campaign under the slogan “Get the ‘F’ Out!”
McDevitt says the campaign is evidence that the group will comply with the British courts, albeit unhappily.
“The McMahons spent their life building up WWF to mean something, without ever meaning to harm the fund,” he says. “But now the corporate identity you’ve had for 20 years is taken away. Vince is a clever marketer, and if we can’t have the F in there, we’ll move on. Hopefully, they’ll move on, too, but now we’re hearing rumblings that they don’t want us to be WWE, if you can believe that. That’s too close for them. Maybe an H or I would be better. This broke his heart, to in essence give up his third child’s name because of an organization he never did anything to hurt—we never had anybody come to WWF looking for pandas. But it’s the nature of Vince McMahon to turn this into a success story. He’ll get the name out there.”
Graham Clark, the London attorney who handled the fund’s case, doesn’t deny that McMahon’s record shows his promotional genius. But, Clark adds with a little jab, that doesn’t mean McMahon always walks out of the ring a winner.
“There’s no question Vince McMahon is very good at what he does,” says Clark. “But now we’ve got the belt.” —Dave McKenna