World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE) has built an empire within the world of professional wrestling. Boasting top numbers of 14.4 million viewers in the U.S. and broadcasting shows in 30 languages to more than 145 countries, the WWE enjoys two major brands: Raw and Smackdown.
The McMahon family – headed by Vince – are the principal stakeholders in the company with a 70% financial stake and a 96% voting share. In what has long been the family business, Vince McMahon serves as chairman and CEO of WWE.
The origins of the company date back to 1952 and the Capitol Wrestling Corporation Ltd moniker which promoted shows via the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), later becoming the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). McMahon's Titan Sports bought the company out in 1982. A 2000 dispute with the World Wildlife Fund led to the eventual WWE tag.
Among the early stars of McMahon's WWF were Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, and Jesse Ventura. Hogan's role in Rocky III catapulted him and the Federation into the national spotlight.
In 1985, McMahon also dreamed up WrestleMania, a national pay-per-view event that he promoted as the Super Bowl of wrestling. The inclusion of celebrities such as Muhammed Ali, Cyndi Lauper, and Mr. T helped make the first WrestleMania a success. Mid-1985 also saw Saturday Night's Main Event debut on NBC, the first network wrestling broadcast in decades.
When Hulk Hogan faced off against Andre the Giant in WrestleMania III, some 33 million viewers tuned in making it the most-watched wrestling event in North American history.
The '90s were plagued with steroid abuse and sexual harassment allegations causing a downturn in the WWF's popularity. The expensive problems drove many of McMahon's wrestlers and employees to his main competitor – Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW). McMahon hit back with WWF Monday Night Raw; Turner countered with WCW Monday Nitro, eventually winning the ratings brawl.
When fighters such as Psycho Sid, Rick Rude, and Razor Ramon defected, McMahon brought in a new stable – including Vader, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Brian Pillman, Mankind, and Farooq – all culled from WCW's roster. By the late 1990s, McMahon had pushed the WWF's bad guy reputation even further, creating feuds between fighters, broadcasting more violence and swearing, and generally sharpening the edge.
In 1999, SmackDown! was born on the UPN network and, once again, found itself in direct competition with a WCW program, WCW Thunder. By that point, the WWF was winning the Monday night ratings war thanks to the Time Warner merger with AOL leaving Turner with less control. The newly formed company eventually sold WCW to WWF.
Now christened WWE and without any direct competition in North America, McMahon's venture split into the two strains of Raw and Smackdown. Various network deals came and went, taking WWE from TNN back to the USA Network. In 2006, Saturday Night's Main Event also returned to NBC after a 13-year hiatus. WWE even made the leap to HD broadcasting and social networking (WWE Universe) in 2008.
Also that year, in a move to expand its demographic appeal, WWE softened its edges a bit to become more family-friendly. By 2010, women and children comprised about 40% of WWE's audience.