By Chuck Carroll
Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment has frustrations that parallel those of a certain WWE Hall of Fame member now residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. True, these frustrations stem from nothing close to the magnitude of an international political collusion scandal. But when the WWE leaks, sometimes from high-ranking sources within the company, begin to affect the on-air product, it’s fair to conclude that Vince McMahon takes notice.
The leaks, known as spoilers, are ravenously devoured by fervent members of the internet wrestling community, or IWC for short. These hardcore wrestling fans, “smart marks” in industry parlance, are quick to refresh sites devoted exclusively to pro wrestling’s latest backstage rumors and gossip over and over. There are dozens of these sites, if not more. And there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Still, I’ll elaborate for the uninitiated. Pro wrestling is way more than a niche community. These are not random 350-pound bloggers sitting in a dingy basement wearing notoriously skimpy wrestling trunks and Lucha libre-style masks. No. Wrestling reporting drives massive traffic to websites, and many sports and culture websites — like CBS Local Sports — cover it regularly.
Whether it’s a smaller niche site or a major outlet, much of the reporting stems from two men. Dave Scherer and Mike Johnson are the Woodward and Bernstein of pro wrestling. Yet neither is a traditionally trained journalist. Scherer is a former sales representative at Coca-Cola and the owner of PWInsider.com, which has grown into arguably the most trusted source for wrestling news. Johnson is a veteran of the talent management industry. He’s a content workhorse and possibly the most well-connected man in wrestling. He’s also a regular contributor on The Taz Show.
The duo has spilled some of WWE’s biggest secrets. They take classified information about enormous in-ring surprises and disseminate it to the masses before they happen. Scherer, for example, first reported Brock Lesnar was exiting pro wrestling to pursue a career in the NFL. And just as there are now reports of political leaks infuriating The White House, some take great exception to PWInsider’s reporting. Lesnar himself may be among them.
“If you remember, that story led to [fans at Madison Square Garden] at WrestleMania that year just destroying him and Goldberg,” Scherer said. “I was told that Brock made a point to say that if he finds out who’s telling the dirt sheets this stuff he’s going to kill the person who writes it and them.”
Scherer admits that he can’t say definitively whether those claims are true.
The timing of the story proved serendipitous for Scherer. It came just as he was branching out and start his own enterprise. Johnson followed Scherer, just as Renée Zellweger’s character followed Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire, minus the romantic undertone.
“…Right off the bat we’re on the map,” Scherer said. “It was like, ‘Wow these guys just opened up and they busted the story of the year. Yeah, I think they’re legitimate.’”
Johnson has broken his fair share of stories as well, including that Sting would be appearing in WWE for the first time in history.
“Breaking that was a big deal to me, because I felt that there was only so many major milestone debuts left for WWE,” Johnson said. “That to me was a huge historic moment. This is the essence of WCW and the NWA. Now he’s going to work for WWE for the first time in his career after having wrestled from 1987. He’s going to debut there in 2014.”
>>MORE: From the world of Pro Wrestling
Scherer and Johnson both worked closely with the ECW during its original run. It’s only fitting that they also were the first to report WWE was planning to resurrect the brand years after its demise. Johnson says he was tipped off to plans for a “WWE vs. ECW” show by a source who worked at the arena where the event was to take place. And much like the Brock Lesnar story, the timing on this scoop was everything.
“I reported that story that there will be this WWE versus ECW special and it’s going to be at this building on this day,” Johnson recalled. “I found out three months later that there was a meeting going on at WWE Headquarters at the moment that I broke the story. Paul Heyman and Tommy Dreamer and these other people were in the room, and they got grilled about whether they leaked the story.”
Johnson says Vince McMahon was in that meeting and less than pleased that the story got out.
As aggravating as some reports and spoilers can be to those in the business, Scherer feels that his work is largely respected by WWE.
“Any official channel that I talk to in that company understands that I have a job to do. They may not like what I report, they may not want me to report it, but they understand it’s my job,” he said. “No one has ever reamed me out in WWE. They’ve taken offense to some of the stuff, but that’s more so with opinion pieces.”
The level of respect is so great that Scherer says he was recruited to replace controversial wrestling figure Vince Russo as managing editor of WWE’s now-defunct RAW Magazine in 1999. He ultimately turned the position. Scherer preferred to continue working full-time at the wrestling news site where he was employed at the time and had no desire to move to Connecticut.
Johnson has also garnered respect within the WWE ranks, even becoming a trusted confidant for some of the talents.
“One of the weird side effects of this job is that, as you become more familiar and friendly with different talents, and they know they can speak to you off the record about things, you kind of become an unofficial psychiatrist,” he said. “If they’re angry about something or someone in the company, they’ll come to you and rant.”
During these sometimes middle-of-the-night psychiatric sessions, Johnson gives them perspective and insight as to why things might be the way they are. These conversations help forge those strong relationships, which lead to story tips — everything from injuries to company departures.
The WWE has a long history of conducting counterintelligence on the wrestling journalists, according to Scherer. He says that years ago an employee at corporate headquarters who would call his 1-900 wrestling hotline, document the stories and report his findings to the company brass.
It’s not just wrestling organizations that keep close tabs on Scherer and Johnson. Their scoops are picked up and repurposed by scores of other sites, which then push the content to their own readers. Those readers gobble it up and then move on to another site to read a slightly reworded version of the same scoop.
Pro wrestling’s popularity, which is unmistakably cyclical, also profoundly affects the site’s bottom line. Traditional WWE viewership on television has been in a steady decline over the past few years. Just three years ago, Monday Night Raw was averaging more than four-million viewers. Recently, that number has hovered at or below the three-million mark.
“We definitely are affected by the tide that the WWE boat sets,” Scherer said.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.