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Billionaire Wrestlemania comes to Denver – just without the wrestling

E. Stan Kroenke never thought there was going to be a basketball game in Denver last night, and that’s where his problem started.

Kroenke, the owner of the Denver Nuggets of the NBA, the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL and Pepsi Centre, the venue both teams call home, has been at the center of a war of words between World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the past week. The only thing is, in spite of being the catalyst for the entire fiasco, E. hasn’t spoken a word. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the play on words)

Instead, Kroenke went dark and tried to bully what he perceived to be the weaker brand, the WWE, through backroom dealings and, apparently dishonest business practices. At least that’s how it seems because Kroenke never let himself be heard.  Instead he allowed a skilled promoter to undermine his good name and make a mountain out of a molehill that may have been resolved by treating the WWE like a peer, instead of an inferior brand.  Regardless of how Kroenke actually felt.

So where did Stan slip up? Underestimating the power and passion of the WWE – not a ‘major professional sport’ like the NBA and NHL – was Kroenke’s first mistake. Allowing WWE and its CEO and head pitchman, Vince McMahon to control the public opinion, was his second.

When the issue first suraced, McMahon appeared on ESPN’s all-news channel, telling his side of the story. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a great video, albeit one-sided, to catch you up:

As you can see, there is no bullying Vince McMahon. He was born into the wrestling business and has revolutionized it into “sports entertainment” bringing the WWE to where it is today – a multi-billion dollar international enterprise, that in many ways is the envy of the NBA. In spite of being the supposed niche player in this confrontation, the WWE regularly outdraws the NBA on cable during its regular season (WWE airs on USA Network while the NBA airs on TNT and ESPN). Now that the NBA is in its playoffs, it has begun to outdraw the WWE by slim margins. That said, according to Yahoo Sports, the WWE still regularly draws 6 million viewers for its Monday Night Raw program and Wrestlemania 25, earlier this year, grossed $52 million, making it the highest grossing one day entertainment event of 2009.

How’s that for a little guy to try and push around?

But what may have been most interesting was way in which Kroenke handled the situation after the initial flareup.  As McMahon basked in the limelight of the free publicity that mainstream players like the NBA take for granted, Kroenke basically ignored the taunting, never really commenting publicly and allowing McMahon to build his own brand by using Kroenke’s words and actions against him.  All the while, McMahon garnered national mainstream attention for his niche entertainment property, and for his efforts was recognized by Alan Gould, senior media analyst with Natixis Bleichchroeder out of New York (on ESPN no less), “one of the greatest promoters of all time”.

On the venue side, the Nuggets rivals, Los Angeles were not using their home, so LA’s Staples Centre stepped up to host the venue, receiving admiration and praise from McMahon for their gesture.  This all before last night’s show in LA when the WWE staged a 5 on5 tag team match between wrestlers dressed as Nuggets against Wrestlers dressed as Lakers.  I’m sure you can guess who won.  To top it off, McMahon himself entered the ring and confronted a toupeed and mustachioed Kroenke stand-in.  After a verbal confrontation, McMahon pushed Kroenke to the mat and out of the ring and sent him back to the dressing room with the ominous warning – “when you push the WWE Universe, they push back”.

Luckily for Kroenke, his real Nuggets pulled off a big win in the NBA Monday night, because Kroenke certainly lost the PR battle with McMahon. Let’s just hope he took the lesson from this matchup that when you’re a niche player – be it in wrestling, basketball or business – staying true to your character, your brand, and your audience will always make you a winner.