USA TODAY International Edition
WRESTLING’S WOMEN ARE FLYING HIGH
‘ Divas’ no more, they’ve taken center stage in the squared circle
As Sasha Banks rolled up to AT& T Stadium in Texas in the days before Wrestle Mania last year, she was amazed to see images of herself, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch in the center of a massive banner with men’s wrestlers on either side of them.
“I never in my whole life thought that I’d see the women right in the middle representing WWE,” said Banks, who got out of the vehicle to take a photo.
Raising the banner meant raising the bar.
“To think that the company had that much faith to highlight us along with the men on the stadium, it was surreal,” Flair recalled. “And it makes you want to work that much harder.”
Wrestle Mania 32, which took place April 3, 2016, was the last time the company used the term “Divas” to describe its female talent, instead opting to use “Superstars,” the word it uses to describe its male performers. The championship belt with the pinkish butterfly was replaced. From a change in philosophy in recruiting and developing women to the trending hashtag # Give Divas A Chance
from angry fans in reaction to a 30- second women’s match in February 2015, to movements termed the “Divas Revolution” and the “Women’s Evolution,” to elite- level performers among the most popular athletes within WWE’s three brands, women’s wrestling has undergone a metamorphosis. Another potential inflection point is ahead Sunday at Wrestle Mania 33 in Orlando.
Bayley will defend her Raw women’s title against Flair, Banks and Nia Jax; all four were trained under WWE’s third brand, NXT, at the Performance Center in Orlando. Alexa Bliss will defend her
Smackdown women’s title against Lynch, Carmella, Mickie James, Natalya and probably other surprise participants. Bliss, Lynch and Carmella came up through NXT. In a mixed- gender tag team match, Nikki Bella will team with boyfriend John Cena against Maryse and husband The Miz.
“I always think there’s more work to be done,” Flair said. “But if you look at 2016 as a whole, Sasha and I having the first- ever women’s Hell in a Cell match, we main- evented a pay- per- view, we stole the show at Wrestle Mania at AT& T Stadium. There’s always a women’s match on the show; sometimes on Raw and Smack
down, there are two matches. I think they are giving us more and more opportunity every week.”
Merchandise sales depicting female performers continue to grow, the company says. Walk through an arena at any WWE event, and you see as many men wearing T- shirts in support of Bayley, Flair, Banks, Nikki Bella and others as you do women wearing them.
WWE’s TV audience continues to increase in the percentage of females, nearing 38%, according to Nielsen figures. Those numbers include reality shows Total
Divas and Total Bellas on E! that have added an entry point to the female performers for new fans.
As a TV product — revenue from TV and the WWE Network was more than $ 420 million in 2016 — WWE appears to have convinced a male- dominated viewing audience to accept female athletes.
“We gave the women a platform, and once the world saw that, they realized that is what they wanted,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events and creative. “Women’s wrestling has earned the platform that it has. There are times when the men’s match can’t follow the women’s match. There are times when the women’s match is — and it should be — the main event. And we’re not stopping here. It’s just getting started.” Beth Phoenix, who will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on Friday, wanted to be a wrestler since watching Wrestle -Mania X as a 13- year- old. She was on her high school’s wrestling team. She had a giant poster of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on her dorm room door in college. She trained and worked on the independents before getting a developmental contract with WWE.
During a six- year run on the WWE main roster before retiring in 2012, she was a three- time women’s champion and won the Divas title. She did so with a dominating physical style rare in her era. Many of her opponents had been models or dancers who had not had aspirations to be wrestlers and were culled from the company’s Diva Search contests.
It was an era of brazen sexuality by the women’s performers in bikini contests, bra and panties matches, pillow fight matches and even a gravy bowl match.
“There were times where that wasn’t the trend to have wrestling matches,” Phoenix said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t the style, it wasn’t the brand, it wasn’t the flavor of the month. This movement happening now is girls getting opportunities that they have had occasionally in the past but not consistently. ... Now there is a consistent drive to market the girls as equal as men, and I think it’s awesome.”
The key moment of change came when Levesque took over the company’s developmental efforts and altered the parameters of what the company was looking for when it hired women — in experience and physical appearance. Levesque wanted to present the women as athletes to help WWE ride a wave of interest in women’s sports, fueled by Serena Williams, the U. S. women’s soccer team, Ronda Rousey and others.
“I think WWE is more open to seeing who is out there that they can groom as opposed to just relegating themselves to, for example, one blonde, one brunette, one Spanish talent, etc. It’s made the entire female roster more varied,” said Mike Johnson, who covers the industry for PWInsider.com.
WWE hired its first female assistant coach in Sara Amato, one of the top female wrestlers at the time and now the company’s director of women’s wrestling. THE BAYLEY FACTOR Perhaps the most popular performer — male or female — in WWE right now is Bayley, who heads to Wrestle Mania as the Raw women’s champion.
Her connection to the fans runs deep, given that she was a longtime fan herself who dreamed of being in WWE as a kid growing up in the Bay Area. Her wardrobe with bright colors and tassels hanging from her sleeves is inspired by WWE Hall of Famer Randy “Macho Man” Savage. “I still feel I’m such a fan, and I literally, every time I come out, I can’t believe that I’m here and I really do this,” she said. “I want to give back. I’m so excited to be there, so I can’t imagine how they feel.”
Levesque said he hoped to announce a women’s tournament for possibly the summer.
The biggest step seems ahead, and not nearly as far away as it was even a few years ago.
“To main- event Wrestle-Mania,” Flair said, “that would be my goal.”