A Non-Violent Form of Entertainment: The WWE and the 1999 Super Bowl

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, a day where Americans across the country gather together to either watch the NFL Championship game or pretend to not know what “sportsball” is. It’s a bloated, glorious spectacle, a day where everything from individual plays to the halftime show to Budweiser commercials are watched and picked apart by people who don’t care about any of that stuff for the other 365 days of the year.

It’s been awhile since I’ve watched football (try being a Detroit Lions fan for a couple of decades), and mostly appreciate it now for its deep, loving relationship with the great sport of professional wrestling. From the in-ring exploits of players like William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Lawrence Taylor, and Kevin Greene, to the death and resurrection of the XFL, wrestling and football are two meatheaded cousins bonded by their love of hulking men and questionable music.

In 1999, that bond was particularly strong, as Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, riding the high of the Attitude Era, pulled a one-two punch during Super Bowl XXXIII, not only dropping $1.6M on a commercial, but running a WWF Championship match between The Rock and Mankind against the game’s halftime show featuring Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder, and the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies. Both objects are interesting curios, perfectly encapsulating everything that made the WWF as compelling as it was silly. 

WWF Attitude. Get it?

In my column about Limp Bizkit’s candidacy for the WWE Hall of Fame, I called the WrestleMania X7 main event heel turn of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin a ridiculous home run swing, but that’s a description perhaps more apt to this cultural moment, a Super Bowl ad that tries to convey the characters, narrative, and attitude (excuse the pun) of the World Wrestling Federation in 1999.

First, let’s point out the obvious: In the version of the ad uploaded to YouTube by the company, a brief scene where then WWF Women’s Champion Sable says “We never use sex to enhance our image” while walking past a man and a woman who are fucking in the hallways of Titan Tower, for God and Vince McMahon to see. Why the scene was omitted from its official re-release is pretty obvious, but if you trimmed it or Steve Austin’s “We’re a non-violent form of entertainment” line out and aired it as a 15-second spot, you’d get the same effect as the whole commercial, an ironic read on the most PR-friendly things you could say about a wrestling company with its counterargument right there in the frame.

I actually think the commercial works well, apart from the Sable scene. If you gave an advertising firm a month of Raw to study and asked them to craft a metaphor the American public might understand, “violent workplace comedy” is a really good guess at what the WWF was at the time. Austin is the only wrestler in the ad who performs an act of violence—it’s largely the regular people on the job hitting each other with trash cans and setting stuff on fire—leaving co-workers like Kane with little to do beyond enjoying a cup of coffee.

Was the commercial successful? 1999 was an incredible year for the WWF, at least as far as television ratings went, but I can’t imagine much of that success was due to a Super Bowl commercial with a tagline like Vince McMahon stoically saying “Get it?” while someone falls out of a window of the building he owns. But Super Bowl ads aren’t really about selling things—they’re largely a celebration of the institutions of American capitalism and culture. It’s not asking you to tune into Raw or check out the match that’s airing on USA Network during halftime—you’re either already watching or you’re never going to start. WWF Attitude is something you either got or didn’t get. Vince McMahon doesn’t wait for you to reply because he’s looking into your soul and he already knows.

Halftime Heat

The Rock. Mankind. An empty arena match. One thing I didn’t remember about Halftime Heat was the doctored crowd noise, which is odd given that the match takes place in an empty arena, but the show’s conceit is that it is being broadcast to a live crowd in a different venue, one where people would rather be watching Sunday Night Heat than the Super Bowl. It’s pretty great that WWE’s history of insecurity surrounding crowd noise runs so deeply that they pre-taped Shane McMahon and Kevin Kelly introducing a match that was presented the way that it was to prevent a live crowd from leaking the result.

That gives way for the match itself, which is called by a Vince McMahon who is doing his evil corporate bastard gimmick in his play-by-play voice. It’s pretty unsettling to see something as large as a WWF Championship match in an empty arena, and that’s kind of the beauty of the gimmick, which originated in Memphis as part of Jerry Lawler’s feud against Terry Funk. The match is a real showcase for Funk’s ability as a verbal wrestler, his crazy person squeals echoing in the empty arena. Its finish, where Lawler accidentally kicks a spike into Funk’s eye, is one of the most iconic moments in either man’s career, which covers a lot of ground.

The WWF’s production values rob Halftime Heat of 1981 Memphis’ more surreal qualities, but Mick Foley is up there with Funk in terms of how loud he was during his matches, and the early moments of the match includes a bit where Mankind emerges from a pile of chairs Mandible Claw hand first, Mr. Socko hunting The Rock like a shark. McMahon describes it as “Action adventure … soap opera. It’s Roadrunner. Elements of One Life to Live. It’s like Hollywood and Broadway and all points in-between,” which explains everything and nothing about the World Wrestling Federation at the same time.

Is this match good? Well, no. It doesn’t have the emotional heft of Mankind’s first WWF Championship victory over the Rock, and it’s not the horrifying spectacle that their I Quit match from the Royal Rumble was. But it’s one of the most compulsively watchable matches of the Attitude Era, an absolute mess where Foley loses a boot, bumps around a kitchen, and has salsa poured into his eyes that doubles as a fifteen minute Rock promo where he doesn’t call anybody a hermaphrodite. At its best, its a good trailer for the outsized brawls that era of WWE television was known for. At it’s worst, The Rock had to act like he was in danger of being crushed by a forklift, which we were shown from the forklift’s point of view.

The match was a huge success, but the company never looked to replicate it. That makes a certain amount of sense—even if it drew million of viewers, the logistics involved in booking and filming a match whose result won’t leak almost necessitates a gimmick like an empty arena match, which isn’t something that’d just work for any pair of wrestlers. The WWE still pre-tapes matches for special occasions—I got to see Roman Reigns beat Dolph Ziggler for Steve Harvey’s New Years Eve show—but with the NFL revamping its halftime shows so that they feature the largest touring acts in the world, the odds that someone would just casually switch channels to see what the WWE was up to diminished to the point that reviving the concept on this scale would be a futile gesture.

WWE did run a Halftime Heat last year, but that was an NXT match held at the Performance Center on the WWE Network, and their not running a similar special tonight suggests that there’s not enough demand for this kind of counterprogramming to justify the time and effort of making it. In a way, that’s a shame. Halftime Heat was one of a handful of examples that proved it was possible to use the antipathy some people have towards aspects of the Super Bowl to draw an audience years before things like the Puppy and Kitten Bowls became just as talked about as the game itself. But that’s the thing about WWE. Sometimes they swing for the fences and miss completely. Sometimes they crush the fucking thing and are content with their moment. In 1999, the WWE killed it on Super Bowl Sunday and never came back. Maybe we’ll get another shot of Halftime Heat during the XFL Championship Game later this year.