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Wrestling Night in Canada

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KEITH McARTHUR

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Most of them can barely skate. But Carl DeMarco hopes wrestlers with names like The Rock and Evolution can help sports fans and advertisers suffering through the withdrawal pains of a National Hockey League shutdown over a labour dispute.

Mr. DeMarco, president of World Wrestling Entertainment Canada, a division of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., is launching a campaign aimed at getting hockey-starved Canadians to tune in to wrestling, as well as convincing advertisers such as Molson Breweries and Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. that in a puck-free winter, wrestling is a good substitute for our national pastime.

"I think there's going to be some people who are surfing the dial to find alternative programming out there . . ." Mr. DeMarco said.

"We see a void here and we want to be strategically smart to try to fill this void as best we can."

After last night's gold-medal match between Canada and Finland at the World Cup of Hockey, millions of Canadians are waking up this morning to face the reality that they may not see professional hockey for a year or more.

Come midnight tonight, barring a miracle, the NHL lockout will finally begin. Few believe it will end any time soon. The NHL's board of governors convenes this morning in New York, where commissioner Gary Bettman and executive vice-president and chief legal officer Bill Daly will likely recommend a lockout as the proper course of action.

Lack of hockey is a problem media buyers have been -- ahem -- wrestling with for months as they look for alternatives to Hockey Night in Canada in efforts to sell everything from beers to cars to a predominantly male market.

"There's a gap that -- without having hockey -- I'm not sure can be repatriated . . ." said Lauren Richards, president of Cossette Media. "It certainly makes it more challenging."

The WWE began running advertisements this week in trade magazines warning advertisers and media buyers: "Don't get locked out."

And tomorrow, the WWE will launch a campaign aimed at sports fans. Ads to be placed in Sun Media newspapers will include the message: "We put our fans first." The print campaign will be followed by radio and TV advertising, Mr. DeMarco said.

He said the WWE is spending significantly more on advertising than usual this year to take advantage of the NHL's potential labour disruption. The WWE has research that shows most hockey fans are also into wrestling, Mr. DeMarco said, so it wouldn't be a stretch to convince them to spend more of their time watching the WWE's two weekly shows if hockey's not available.

Both sports draw a male-skewed audience, Mr. DeMarco said. And while wrestling draws a younger audience, about 80 per cent of wrestling fans are of legal drinking age, making it a suitable substitute for breweries looking to reach their target demographic.

But media buyers say wrestling is no substitute for hockey, which they've traditionally relied on for delivering huge audiences on Saturday nights.

"It can play a small part in many campaigns, but it's small potatoes compared with . . . hockey," Ms. Richards said. She said many advertisers have already made decisions on alternatives to hockey for the next few months on the assumption that the season will start late, if at all.

Ms. Richards said some of the budget that would usually have been spent on hockey is going to other television programs, including wrestling and shows with male-heavy viewership such as Fear Factor. She added that CBC's Making the Cut, a reality TV program about hockey, can also draw a large audience from the same viewers who would have watched hockey.

Sunni Boot, president of Zenith Optimedia Canada Ltd., said that while some advertisers might shift ad budgets to other television programs, others might put the funds in reserve or spend on other marketing initiatives, including in-store promotions and male-skewed radio programming.

"There's a reason that we choose hockey beyond just the sheer numbers and audience composition. There is a connectivity between that content and the hockey viewer -- especially the passionate hockey viewer -- that can't be replaced," she said.

Mr. DeMarco said one of the advantages to getting involved in wrestling is one-stop shopping. Instead of leaving ad sales to the broadcaster, the WWE sells its own advertising inventory on its two weekly shows -- Raw (TSN, Mondays at 9 p.m.) and Smackdown! (The Score, Thursdays at 7 p.m.).

The WWE also controls access to its stars, which makes it easier to co-ordinate advertising and sponsorship, he said.

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