Death of the Territories by Tim Hornbaker

December 20, 2019

After previous books exploring the history of the NWA and wrestling in the New York region, Tim Hornbaker covers the collision between the two.

Death of the Territories covers the period between Vincent Kennedy McMahon taking control of the World Wrestling Federation in 1982 and the sale of Jim Crockett Promotions to Ted Turner in 1988.  At times, the book offers fascinating insights, either revealing incidents through Hornbaker’s characteristic research skills, or highlighting seemingly small nuggets of information that prove significant with hindsight. Unfortunately the book doesn’t keep up this momentum and instead loses focus.

While the basics of McMahon breaching traditional territorial boundaries and being first in an inevitable race as cable TV exposed stars nationwide are well known, Death of the Territories certainly covers angles usually left out of the story. For example, accounts often point to the way Georgia’s TBS going nationwide as the original ‘Superstation’ meant its stars had fans beyond its territorial border, but Hornbaker highlights that the New York-based WOR station – which carried McMahon’s flagship show – also went across the country as cable and satellite television grew.

Similarly the story of Georgia Championship Wrestling promoting in Ohio as an early expansion comes with some additional detail and context. There’s a great story about the promotion booking a disputed finish and openly inviting letters of protest simply as a market research exercise to find out where viewers lived. Hornbaker also notes how the surprising level of interest in Columbus, Ohio wasn’t so much that it was an inherently wrestling-friendly city, rather than structural issues meant it had a disproportionately high level of homes with cable television.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest strength of the book is how it stresses that McMahon was by no means the only promoter who tried to compete on a national scale – simply the one who did it most effectively.

In another example of joining the dots, it’s commonly recounted that WWF drew attention in the weeks before WrestleMania with mainstream appearances on shows such as Late Night with David Letterman, SportsWorld and Saturday Night Live. However, Hornbaker notes the likely lack of coincidence that all three shows – along with Mr T in The A-Team – all aired on NBC, the same network that would begin airing Saturday Night’s Main Event just a couple of months later, suggesting particularly strong relations.

The real shame of the book is that these early pieces of insight are later lost as the book descends into extended periods of summing up the in-ring events of the various territories with little context or narrative significance. For several paragraphs at a time, the book simply lists wrestlers who worked in a particular territory and who held the titles, with little relation to the bigger picture of McMahon’s expansion and each territory’s fate.

This feels a lot more of a problem as the book nears its conclusion, with one example being a short section on SuperClash III, arguably the last real attempt of the surviving regional promoters to work together. Readers are told the pay-per-view buyrate was “0.5” but given no indication what this means, how it compared to other shows of the era, or why it proved a financial failure. That’s particularly problematic in 2018 when the very concept of PPV revenue being a significant measure of business is now several years out of date.

Despite its flaws, the book certainly has something for everyone, and is more readable than both of Hornbaker’s previous titles. Fans who know the story of the 80s wars will enjoy many new tidbits, while those exploring the topic for the first time will find this a useful primer. But the best historical books combine fresh facts and insight with a strong and compelling storyline, and after a strong start, this sadly drifts away from both goals in the latter stages.  (<em>This review originally appeared in Fighting Spirit Magazine.</em>)

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One Comment

  • AW January 4, 2020 at 11:54 pm

    I have yet to come across a single review of yours that I can disagree on in even the slightest instance. I agree with you (again) 100%. The book starts out strong, though some pictures would have been a welcome addition to many chapters. Not that I can’t read a book without them, but putting faces to names always helps in cases such as these, and luckily if it weren’t for the Crowbar Press books, I wouldn’t know what any of the people mentioned in this book look like.
    Hornbaker tends to, as you said, lose track around the midway point, and it becomes a book of numbers, or more correctly, dollars, than it does a story of what it was that really killed the territories, which was a combination of aging promoters (some who had been in business for four decades or longer), and utter incompetence. Crockett, rather than simply letting his Southern and Midwestern competition (Mid-South/UWF & Kansas City) die out, he bought them, wasting even more money than he needed to, on top of involuntarily financing Wrestlemania by buying McMahon’s WTBS slot for $1,000,000, when Turner was on the verge of canceling it.
    A lot of people have said Vince McMahon is/was a genius. If anything, I’ve always considered him extremely lucky. A genius doesn’t botch Flair-Hogan, Road Warriors-Demolition, the WCW invasion angle, not to mention never delivering Sting-Undertaker, nor does a genius come up with guaranteed money losers like the WBF and the XFL (a lousy idea so nice, he’s trying it twice).
    If Crockett doesn’t pay for the time slot (1 million) or buy the UWF (rumors have said he paid Watts around 3 million; and it was already dead in the water), he could have remained in the game for years to come and WM would have probably been a one-off with the WWF remaining a Northeast territory, possibly sold off by a bankrupt McMahon to God-knows-who. Or Watts, who was in line for that time-slot (and was drawing higher ratings on Sunday than McMahon’s Saturday night and the early Saturday morning wrestling show Turner put on to placate his angry audience demanding their “Gordon Solie ‘rasslin) becomes the main competitor.
    Vince got lucky and they say it’s better to be lucky than good. The real tragedy is the fate of the AWA. Early on, Vince swiped everything from Verne, from the talent to even the presentation. If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought the AWA simply changed it’s name in 1984.
    In closing, the book is good, could have been better, but worth reading.