Big Bang: The untold story of the WCW pay-per-view that almost happened
If you grabbed the second to last issue of WCW Magazine, released weeks before the final episode of Nitro, you would have seen a glimpse of what could have been. According to an advertisement on the back cover, the creation of a new WCW was already in the works. On May 6, 2001, the world would witness the relaunch of World Championship Wrestling with The Big Bang, live on pay-per-view.
The ad didn’t reveal much, but Eric Bischoff had been putting the pieces in place for months. A new commentary team had been chosen. Negotiations with TV networks like FX were ongoing. Creative plans were being pitched for top-tier, contracted competitors like Goldberg. A president and CEO were in place and they had fresh ideas for how to right the ship.
The Monday Night War wasn’t over. In fact, a new battle was about to begin, and The Big Bang marked the opening shot.
As far as the WCW locker room knew, Bischoff and his business partners only needed to cross some t’s and dot some i’s and they would own WCW. But then, the deal swerved as abruptly as the pay-per-view endings that became synonymous with WCW’s final days. What went wrong? The answer was clear from the very beginning.
Let’s get people talking about the new WCW and what it was going to look like and feel like.
“Toward the end of 1998, around August, it started to become very apparent to me that the Time Warner conglomerate [which owned Turner Broadcasting Systems] really didn’t want WCW to survive,” Eric Bischoff told WWE.com. “It was obvious to me because of the things they were doing to us — reallocating budgets that had already been allocated and cutting budgets that had already been approved six months or a year in advance.”
Bischoff left WCW in fall 1999, but when he returned, it was clear that WCW was on borrowed time under the pending merger between Time Warner and America Online Inc.
“[WCW] wasn’t going to survive it,” Bischoff said. “I said as much to [then-president of Turner Entertainment] Brad Siegel. I simply told him, ‘You don’t really want to fix it, so why don’t you sell it while there is still something left to sell?’ ”
Siegel and Bischoff disagreed for months, which Bischoff believed was a product of Turner Entertainment’s psychology that Ted Turner didn’t sell things; he acquired them. Siegel changed course in late 2000, though, and allowed Bischoff to shop WCW, which he called the “Wall St. dog and pony show.”
This was Bischoff’s first experience raising significant funds for a multi-million-dollar sale, but he found interested partners in Brian Bedol and Steve Greenberg of Fusient Media Ventures. Bedol and Greenberg founded the Classic Sports Network in 1995, then sold it to ESPN two years later for $175 million. They knew plenty about how to brand a sports property to great success. Bischoff raised $67 million with Fusient Media Ventures to purchase WCW in late 2000, but Turner Broadcasting Systems had one major catch: TBS retained a minority interest and long-term programming rights.
“Brad Siegel was not going to sell the company unless Eric Bischoff took 10 years on TBS as part of their contract,” WCW Superstar Diamond Dallas Page said.
Bischoff admitted he looked into some other networks, but nothing came to fruition.
“I had talked to a variety of networks at that time who expressed interest in WCW, one of them being FX,” he said. “I had multiple conversations with Peter Liguori, who was running FX at the time. It never progressed to the point of making an offer, but we got very close.”
But major changes needed to be made to the brand with the pending marriage between WCW and Fusient. The couple even had a honeymoon spot picked out. No longer under the Turner umbrella, aside from the TV shows continuing to appear on Turner networks, the Atlanta-based promotion was heading west.
“The plan was that WCW would move to Las Vegas and do weekly tapings out of the Hard Rock Cafe, which was building a 3,000-square-foot arena at that time,” John Laurinaitis, formerly of WCW Creative and Production, revealed. “Part of the company would be based out of Los Angeles.”
WCW once packed the Georgia Dome for an episode of Nitro, but December’s Starrcade pay-per-view didn’t top 7,000 in attendance. That played a major part in a move to Vegas.
“We weren’t able to fill arenas like we had,” Bischoff said. “Elvis Presley once said, ‘The most interesting part of any show is the audience.’ Take the main event of WrestleMania and put it in front of 75 people and it will dramatically affect the way everyone watching feels about it. That was very true with WCW. We knew we were having a problem.”
The creative needed to take a 180-degree turn, too. From competitors lying down for pinfalls at Bash at the Beach to a match where Buff Bagwell’s mom was up for grabs, 2000 featured some of the wackiest stories in sports-entertainment history.
I heard rumors that my other announcer was going to be Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler.
“We were going to shut it down for a period of time, then relaunch,” Bischoff said. “We needed a clean piece of paper to draw on. We couldn’t reach into the trash, pick out the crumbled and trampled creative — that had been WCW for the last year-and-a-half — and try to make people feel good about that again. In order for the relaunch to feel like one, it had to go away. The thinking was, let’s get people talking about the new WCW and what it was going to look like and feel like.”
While Bedol and Greenberg continued to work on the legal side of the deal, Bischoff visited confused and panicking employees at WCW’s office and focused on the future of WCW, which included the first pay-per-view under Fusient, WCW Big Bang on May 6.
“We had to plan six months in advance — minimum — with a lot of the creative,” he said. “The branding and the location of the event — the big ticket items, if you will— had to be planned six months out. Big Bang pay-per-view ads were probably pretty generic because I doubt we had it figured out at the time.”
At the same time, over in Philadelphia, Extreme Championship Wrestling was coming to its end. The Voice of ECW, Joey Styles, refused to abandon the ship, but with no ECW Hardcore TV tapings scheduled after the Guilty as Charged pay-per-view on Jan. 7, 2001, Styles began to talk with Bischoff.
“Eric sent me to meet with Brian Bedol in Manhattan to talk about what I would do for WCW,” he said. “I would be the lead announcer and I would work in digital media. I did not agree to do this with Eric until it was obvious that ECW was finished.”
Styles and Bischoff even talked about who would join him at the commentary desk.
“I suggested Don Callis, who was my color commentator for ECW pay-per-views, to Eric,” Styles said. “He and I were a very good team. I heard rumors that my other announcer was going to be Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, who at the time was not with WWE.”
With his friend in the process of saving WCW, DDP had mixed emotions because he secretly hoped to go to WWE.
“It was really important to me, because I only had a couple of years left in my career, period,” he said. “And I wanted to end my career in WWE. But my buddy was buying the company, WCW. I can’t turn around and screw him.”
The master plan was taking shape. WCW would get a second chance, a new life. After all, Bischoff owned WCW. Didn’t he?
After taxiing on the runway for months, the relaunch was ready to take off. On Jan. 11, 2001, Bischoff, his business partners and Siegel hosted a conference call to announce the deal. On the 45-minute call, Siegel assured media that Turner never planned on selling WCW, but the offers poured in, including talks with WWE that he wouldn’t address. Bedol said he wouldn’t be satisfied if WCW remained the No. 2 wrestling brand in America. Bischoff believed the future looked bright for a new WCW and employees were relieved to hear the deal was done.
Variety even reported that Fusient had plans to sit down with WWE in the hopes of creating cross-company pay-per-view events, featuring the likes of Goldberg and Sting against Mick Foley and The Rock.
“It was very positive at that time because WCW wasn’t doing as well as we had hoped,” Laurinaitis remembered. “Thinking that if we move the company and a new set of owners came in and Eric was at the helm, that might spark another run like The nWo did.”
Here’s the catch. The same day as the Fusient conference call, another business deal went down. AOL announced it was purchasing Time Warner on Feb. 11, 2000, but the deal would not be completed until Jan. 11, 2001. With new owners coming in, everything would be looked at closely, especially a division that was struggling to regain footing. Analysts estimated that WCW lost between $60 and $80 million in 2000 while WWE ran away in the ratings.
While AOL Time Warner examined their assets, Fusient did the same with their impending purchase while Bischoff prepared for The Big Bang. Though the deal was announced on Jan. 11, the amount paperwork and due diligence in a transaction this massive took weeks to complete. Fusient originally predicted that the deal would be completed 45 to 60 days after the announcement. By March, though, the sale was still not official.
Meanwhile, every Monday on Nitro, WCW World Champion Scott Steiner rolled through the competition. DDP was set to his next big challenge at WCW Greed on March 18. Two days before the pay-per-view, though, Jamie Kellner — new chairman and CEO for Turner Broadcasting — and Turner Entertainment President Brad Siegel decided WCW’s fate.
“I thought that once Eric got to that spot [the deal announced but not signed], he had it done,” DDP said. “It was like when you think your daughter is getting married, you pay for everything, and you lay the whole thing out, then the groom doesn’t show up.”
On March 20, 2001, WCW’s Big Bang went bust.
“Jamie Kellner and other higher ups at the company wanted to make TNT the drama network and they wanted TBS to focus on comedy and sports,” Styles said.
With WCW not fitting into either plan, Kellner and Siegel agreed to cancel Nitro and Thunder.
Bischoff got the call from a business partner at Fusient while on the beach. The deal was off and the signed letter of intent was voided because without the TV timeslot, the company was worth a small fraction of the original price.
I remember, Eric at that time saying, ‘get them to give us three months.’
“Once Jamie Kellner articulated what everyone was saying behind closed doors, which was, ‘we don’t want anything to do with wrestling in any way, shape or form,’ the deal with Turner had absolutely zero value to us,” Bischoff said.
At the time, TBS spokesman Jim Weiss said in The New York Times, “Basically we’ve decided that professional wrestling, in its current incarnation is not consistent with the upscale brands we’ve built at TNT and TBS. Therefore we will not be carrying it.”
It was heartbreakingly ironic that the TV timeslot killed the sale, because Bischoff never really wanted it in the deal anyway.
“Eric was really excited about taking over WCW, but I know he did not want to keep the show on Turner,” DDP said. “I remember, Eric at that time saying, ‘get them to give us three months and I will get another network to pay for the show.’ What network wants to buy a show that’s been cancelled?”
Two days later, World Champion Scott Steiner beat Page at WCW Greed on pay-per-view, while announcers continued to look at the future of WCW and the promising young talent like Kwee Wee and Jason Jett. The next night, though, Bischoff called into Nitro.
“Many of you may know that for the past six months, I’ve been working with a group of people whose goal it was — and is — to acquire World Championship Wrestling and to grow it once again to become a competitive, dominant wrestling organization worldwide,” Bischoff said with a defeated tone. “But recently we’ve hit a couple of roadblocks that may be, in fact, brick walls.”
He scheduled a “night of champions” for the following week’s Nitro in Panama City, Fla., and invited all former World Champions to appear, hinting that it could be the final night of wrestling on a Turner network. Now that the TV timeslot, supposedly a sticking point in WWE’s previous talks with Turner, was gone, WWE resumed negotiations. That Friday, WWE announced it had purchased WCW from AOL Time Warner for an undisclosed sum, but estimates had it around seven-figures.
Shane McMahon and WWE brass headed to Florida, for the final Nitro, which Mr. McMahon opened by announcing that he officially owned WCW. The Monday Night War was officially over.
When Bischoff looks back 15 years later, though, he can’t help but think WWE’s purchase was the healthiest move for the future of sports-entertainment.
“Had Fusient been successful in buying WCW, ultimately there would have been no one on that side of the equation, including me, that would have had the commitment to the business that Vince McMahon has had throughout the years,” Bischoff said.
May 6 ultimately came and nothing happened. The creation of a new WCW was forming in WWE, and the “big bang” didn’t occur until May 28, when WCW Superstar Lance Storm ran into a WWE ring and kicked WWE Superstar Perry Saturn in the face. Three weeks later, DDP joined him on Raw, as well as an influx of WCW Superstars as part of an Invasion.
As for Big Bang, Bischoff thinks it was a success.
“I did such a great job at creating anticipation, that people are still anticipating, to this day, the pay-per-view that never happened.”