To many people, Eric Bischoff is a visionary who created one of the hottest angles in wrestling history and took WCW to heights that the company had never dreamed of. To others, Bischoff is a moron who got lucky once and then leaned on that success for the rest of his career, while driving every business opportunity he had, as well as WCW itself, into the ground. And to those people, we have only one thing to say:
Why can’t he be both?
10. The New World Order
Let’s get the big one out of the way. Eric Bischoff, along with Hall, Hogan, and Nash, is one of the creative minds behind the New World Order, the faction which changed WCW forever, made the company profitable for the first (and only) time in history, and was one of the reasons why WCW defeated WWE for 84 straights weeks in the ratings, becoming the most dominant force in professional wrestling for nearly two years during the Monday Night Wars. Absolutely everyone thought Eric Bischoff was crazy when he asked for a live wrestling show on the same night as Monday Night Raw, when he signed a bunch of high-profile but aging wrestlers to big money deals, and when he centered the entire promotion around Hulk Hogan, who was thought to be basically finished as a draw. But Bischoff took all of those crazy ideas and crafted a nearly perfect invasion angle, which set the wrestling world on fire and made WCW the one thing WWE had never thought they would see after crushing the territory system in the late 80s: a direct competitor.
9. Over-Reliance On The New World Order
The problem is, the nWo kept going. And going. It split into competing factions and changed rosters on a near-weekly basis. It dominated shows and made every single wrestler who wasn’t part of the group look like a gigantic loser. Following the expected climax of the angle at Starrcade 1997, the New World Order didn’t disintegrate after Sting’s ultimate victory, but instead persisted, becoming a part of the show that simply never went away, and never stopped being a huge part of every single event in WCW. As a result, the fans watching got bored seeing more of the same old thing, and grew tired of a wrestling company where the bad guys never actually lost. Even in wrestling’s twisted morality, at some point, the good guys have to win, to give the fans their moment of catharsis after a period of watching evil rack up victories. But the heroes of WCW never got that definitive victory, because Bischoff’s one great idea had made so much money, and given him so much power, that he was loathe to let it slip away. Bischoff reasoned that if it had worked once, it would continue to work forever, in one form or another. And while the nWo ran rampant, WCW stagnated creatively, driving away the same fans who had flocked to it initially.
8. Guaranteed Contracts
When WCW was on the way down, some people pointed to Bischoff’s introduction of guaranteed contracts as one of the main reasons. After all, they said, if the wrestlers get paid the same regardless of whether they’re on TV or off injured, they’ll have no inclination to try hard, or show up for anything beyond their contracted dates. However, what gets forgotten is that before guaranteed contracts, wrestlers were horribly compensated for their work, and could basically be hired and fired on a whim. Guaranteed contracts were a good thing for professional wrestling, because they forced wrestling companies to actually pay wrestlers something in the neighborhood of what they were worth, and since wrestlers did get paid a certain amount while hurt, they were less likely to wrestle while injured, which meant that they didn’t end up suffering worse injuries. It also gave the companies incentive to make sure their wrestlers stayed as healthy as possible, extending both careers and lifespans as a result (indirectly, this led to things like the WWE Wellness Policy). The fact of the matter is that every wrestler in a major promotion today owes Eric Bischoff a debt for popularizing the concept of guaranteed contracts.
7. Adding Thunder And Expanding Nitro
One of Eric Bischoff’s first big mis-steps was massively expanding WCW’s TV programming. Suddenly, WCW went from two hours of Nitro every week (plus syndicated programs) to three hours of Nitro and a new two-hour Thunder show as well. The idea was that more programming would bring in more advertising dollars and viewers (a strategy WWE would also use when they introduced Smackdown, and then years later, expanded Raw to three hours), which made some kind of sense, because wrestling was undeniably a hot commodity for Turner Broadcasting at the time. The problem, which probably should have been obvious, was burnout. The booking team was stretched to the limit, trying to fill five-plus hours of original TV every week, plus monthly Pay Per Views. The wrestlers were also upset with having their work schedules massively expanded, and remember, due to guaranteed contracts, WCW didn’t have to pay them a single extra dime. As a result, the wrestlers who had limited dates and creative control written into their contracts began exercising those rights, with many refusing to work Thunder tapings. Between the diminished available roster and the over-worked creative staff, Thunder became a pit of mediocrity that quickly turned into a running joke, and in the meantime, the three hour running time of WCW’s flagship show led to crowds that were half-asleep by the mid-point of the show. At a certain point, it wouldn’t have mattered if the shows were any good or not (and make no mistake, they weren’t), because it was simply too much content for fans to watch regularly.
6. The Cruiserweights
In a topic of discussion that continues to this day, the belief of many wrestling fans is that the only way to compete with WWE in any way is to provide something different from the product they already have. That’s why upstart promotions like TNA introduced the X Division, why Ring of Honor leaned hard into being a “pure wrestling” promotion in opposition to WWE’s more cartoonish product, and it’s why WCW, through Eric Bischoff’s negotiations with lucha libre promoters in Mexico, brought in the cruiserweights and made them a featured part of the show. The high-flying, eye-popping style that the smaller and lighter cruiserweights was completely different from the lumbering giants that the WWE (and WCW) main event scenes were providing at the time. It was something that fans couldn’t easily find anywhere else, and it gave WCW a distinct advantage over WWE, which was forced to try and make the same connections in Mexico and Japan in order to match WCW’s product, only to find that WCW had already pillaged those regions of most of the top available talents. Years later, when WWE was finally forced to treat smaller wrestlers as legitimate potential main eventers, it was the foundation laid by Bischoff and the WCW cruiserweights that got them to that point, leading to fans accepting that it actually was possible for a good “little man” to beat a big man in a wrestling match.
5. Celebrity Main Events
WWE and WCW are both guilty of trying to enhance their products with celebrity involvement, but once WCW got to the top of the mountain, Bischoff went crazy with his attempts to make celebrities a central part of the show. The peak of this insanity, of course, was a series of PPV main events featuring non-wrestlers like NBA players Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone, and late night talk show host Jay Leno. Now, WWE has had more than its fair share of celebrity matches, but WCW took things to extremes, and revolved entire main event angles involving the World title around them. Which, in case you’d forgotten, meant Hulk Hogan was forced to carry non-wrestling celebrities in matches that were often given twenty minutes or more time on Pay Per View. The results were not good, and the events rarely made back the money required to bring in the celebrities in the first place. Most infamously, Leno’s match took place at Road Wild, at the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally, where admission to the show was free, bringing in a whopping zero dollar gate for WCW.
4. The Heel Authority Figure
Everyone knows about Vince McMahon, the ultimate heel authority figure in wrestling and possibly one of the greatest heels of all time. However, as great as Vince was, it was Eric Bischoff who introduced the concept of the bad guy in charge of the promotion, when he was revealed to be the power behind the New World Order in 1996, while also serving as President of WCW (both on TV and in real life). The idea was both creative and revolutionary, and instantly explained why the nWo had been allowed to run roughshod over the company without any retribution from WCW authorities, because Bischoff had orchestrated the whole thing, in an attempt to destroy the “old” WCW and remake it according to his own vision. While Vince McMahon’s evil billionaire character may have been more enduring, it was Bischoff and WCW who created the pattern for others to follow.
3. Spoiling WWE Shows
Bischoff was well-known for his desire to take the war directly to WWE in as many ways as possible, which in one case meant that he had a monitor at the commentary desk showing Raw, allowing him to counter-program while Nitro was in the middle of airing. It was confusing for the talent, but it meant that when Raw went to commercial, WCW made sure they had something interesting happening, and when Raw announced big matches, WCW would instantly announce a bigger one to match it. WCW also adopted the questionable policy of spoiling Raw results during the show (Raw did not start running any live shows until well into the Attitude Era, and even then, didn’t go completely live every week for quite a while). There’s no real proof of this actually gaining Nitro any viewers (although it probably didn’t hurt), but there is one infamous instance where it cost WCW, big time. In a story that is now part of wrestling lore, when Mick Foley was about to win his first WWE Title on a taped episode of Raw, WCW’s announce team spoiled the win during their own broadcast. Unfortunately, Foley was pretty much beloved by all wrestling fans, and the end result was nearly 100,000 people switched over from Nitro to Raw to watch his big victory. To make matters worse, that same night, WCW ran the infamous “Fingerpoke of Doom” angle, angering the fans who had actually stuck around to watch Nitro. It was a mistake that WCW never truly recovered from.
Even while the nWo was growing incredibly stale, Bischoff still had one trump card: Goldberg. The former football player managed to rise through the ranks despite only a rudimentary knowledge of wrestling, thanks to a carefully managed character that had quick, decisive matches and a massive undefeated streak. Even while WWE managed to extend their lead over WCW thanks to being on fire creatively and having some of the best wrestlers in the world reaching their peaks, WCW still had Goldberg selling tickets and merchandise, as well as garnering them mainstream attention. They messed it up eventually, of course, because that’s what WCW did with everything, but the rise of Goldberg was as perfect an angle as one could have expected out of any wrestling company. His WCW World Title victory over Hulk Hogan gave WCW its first (and last) ratings victory over WWE since the 84-week streak ended, and at least part of that credit has to go to the man in charge at the time, Eric Bischoff. In fact, the fact that Goldberg didn’t manage to save WCW despite itself might be the best example of Bischoff’s combined genius and idiocy.
1. Firing Steve Austin
It’s almost unfair to blame Eric Bischoff for this decision, because nobody could have possibly predicted that Steve Austin would end up re-inventing the business and becoming the biggest draw the industry had even seen. In fact, Austin himself has said at least once that from a business perspective, Bischoff was completely in the right to fire him, because at the time, he was a midcard talent recovering from a long-term injury, who the company had no plans to actually use thanks to all the high-profile signings they had made. With that said, while Austin wasn’t the biggest star in WCW, he was an obviously talented, young wrestler who could put on good matches and had above-average charisma. While not necessarily always the wrestler you build a promotion around, Austin was a solid hand who should have had a secure job for life, even if he was only used to make other people look better. Firing Austin was definitely Bischoff’s biggest mistake, but Austin wasn’t the only talented guy who got passed over in favor of Hogan and the nWo, and ended up making a difference in WWE. When you get right down to it, Bischoff’s obsession with the stars of the 80’s led to him passing over young and hungry talent that could have kept WCW afloat for years after the nWo ran its course, and instead ended up helping WWE bury WCW in the end.