TAKING IT TO THE MAT

Wrestling videos may be taking the sports video charts by storm, but with their violent themes and racy story lines, do they belong on family-friendly supermarket shelves?Denise Darnell, video supervisor at Southeast Foods, Monroe, La., said that while she's concerned about her customers' tamer tastes, she rents wrestling videos because their content is no mystery and customers always know exactly

Wrestling videos may be taking the sports video charts by storm, but with their violent themes and racy story lines, do they belong on family-friendly supermarket shelves?

Denise Darnell, video supervisor at Southeast Foods, Monroe, La., said that while she's concerned about her customers' tamer tastes, she rents wrestling videos because their content is no mystery and customers always know exactly what they're getting. Because of the popularity of shows like "Smackdown" on United Paramount Network and of pay-per-view events, those who rent wrestling videos are well aware of their R-rated themes.

"If it's a show that people can watch on cable or network television, we feel okay about renting the videos," she said. "But we are aware that they' re pretty violent and have a lot of sexual insinuation, so we won't rent them to young children without their parents' permission. Technically, these videos are not appropriate for the family-oriented business we're in, but people know their content going in."

Robert Mayo, director of home video at the World Wrestling Federation, Stamford, Conn., said the company is fully aware that supermarkets may occasionally need an altered version of a title, which is why it had actually done a "supermarket version" of one of its videos, "Armageddon," in which one of the female wrestlers removed her top. The edited version had that particular scene pixilated, and the unedited version carried a sticker that warned of nudity.

"It's not a problem for us to edit for this marketplace," he said. "We're willing to do it, but on the other hand, our product is what it is. We can't make it non-violent or non-graphic because that's what it's about. If kids are watching it, we just say -- well, their parents are letting them watch it."

Box art is never a concern when marketing to supermarkets, he said, as most video covers simply feature photos of the wrestling stars. Currently, the WWF's best sellers are "The Rock: The People's Champ," which has ranked No. 1 on the sports video charts since April; "Eve of Destruction;" and "The Rock: Know Your Role." The latter titles currently rank second and third, respectively. Each retails for $14.95.

"We've been averaging seven out of the top ten spots on sports charts for a year and a half," Mayo said. He attributes the videos' popularity to the hit TV shows and the overall popularity of the WWF brand. The WWF logo currently appears on all kinds of merchandised product, such as hats and T-shirts. There are even two biographies of wrestlers currently on the New York Times best-sellers list: "Have a Nice Day" by Mick Foley, and "The Rock Says" by The Rock.

While it may not be surprising to learn that 18- to 24-year-old males are enthralled with WWF fare, what is surprising is that nearly 40% of WWF wrestling fans are women age 30 and older. Some observers bemusedly believe that wrestling is most appealing to men and women when they are at the height of their sexuality -- men in their early 20s, women in their 30s.

"The women who watch actually become much bigger fans," Mayo said. "They get into the soap opera stories. Plus, these wrestlers aren't big lugs -- they're athletes."

Darnell said that while wrestling titles are still doing well for her, she's noticed a drop-off in their popularity in the last six months or so, which she attributes to the increased popularity of the wrestling television shows. Aside from the WWF's "Smackdown" and "Raw," there's also "Monday Nitro" on Turner Network Television and "Thunder" on Turner Broadcast Systems.

Brent Bailey, video manager at Darrow's Country Markets in Baraboo, Wis., agreed that television and pay-per-view can eat into wrestling video sales and rentals, which is why he carries very little of the genre.

"Wrestling videos are just too dorky for me," he said, "so it may be a personal thing as to why we don't carry many. I consider them more of a specialty item that customers can get elsewhere, like pay-per-view."

Another contender in the wrestling video ring is Warner Home Video, Burbank, Calif., which distributes World Championship Wrestling titles. Although its 19 titles don't rank in the top tiers on the sports charts, supermarkets may find its fare more to their customers' tastes.

"The WWF is doing a really good job marketing its titles because they're much more adult," said T.J. Moffett, director of marketing at Warner. "The WCW is more family-friendly wrestling," which accounts for its popularity in chains such as Wal-Mart and K Mart.

WCW's more popular titles are "Goldberg," "Macho Man Randy Savage," "Sting" and "Hollywood Hogan," retailing at $14.95 each.

"When our stars are huge, our videos are huge," said Moffett, noting that WCW titles appeal mainly to preteen boys. "It really depends on who breaks through in the TV programs.

"We don't have the placement that the WWF does," he added, "but our new releases do pretty well. The WWF is Coke and we're Pepsi; we cater to our own segment in being No. 2. We realize that our product is completely different, and that sex and violence will always sell better than clean family fun. It's the PG versus R thing."

Warner currently offers retail accounts its "Season Ticket" program, in which retailers can order all 12 pay-per-view bouts on video at a 20% discount. In addition, they receive premiums such as a Goldberg standee and a free one-year subscription to WCW Magazine.

"This program has been really successful for us," said Larry Mahl, director of marketing, rental, at Warner. "Since introducing it three years ago, sales of our videos have gone up 300%, while WCW's television ratings have remained medium. We've been able to keep up sales with the Season Ticket program."

At the WWF, a more one-on-one approach is taken to spur sales, particularly at supermarkets. WWF reps will work with individual video buyers to let them know which are the racier titles; it also puts voluntary ratings on all of its product.

"We tell them up front what each video contains," said Mayo, noting that one of the WWF's newest offerings should do particularly well with grocers. "Chyna Fitness: More Than Meets the Eye," an exercise video led by female wrestling star Chyna, will street Sept. 19 at $14.95 suggested retail. Other new videos on deck are "Stone Cold Steve Austin: Lord of the Ring," which was an A&E biography, "TLC: Tables," "Ladders and Chairs" and "Divas: Postcards from the Caribbean," which is a Sports Illustrated-type swimsuit video.

"I don't know about supermarkets with that last one," quipped Mayo. "We'll steer them more to the fitness tape."