FIRST AND LASTS
The week of May 15, 2016
tdd-the_last_hotline

The last wrestling hotline still worth calling

By David Bixenspan

If you were a fan of WCW, there’s a phone number likely burned into your memory: 1 (900) 909-9900. For a price, usually something like $1.99 for the first minute and 99 cents for each additional minute, fans could call WCW’s hotline, which, depending on the era, featured everything from legitimate wrestling news to special messages from stars who had their own segments.

It’s hard to fathom now, in the era of the WWE Network with its endless library of classic footage at your fingertips, but it wasn’t so long ago that there was a fourth wall separating the drama that unfolds in the squared circle and all that occurs outside of it. Before the Internet was widely available in the U.S., allowing for the earliest rumors sites and ultimately pro wrestling hubs like Reddit, options were limited for fans who were desperate to learn more about their favorite stars. There were bootlegs and mail-order magazines, of course, but both lacked the immediate gratification provided by hearing someone on the other end of the dial deliver the sort of news you might receive now via Twitter.

WCW’s hotline was among the most well-known and popular of a cottage industry that popped up in the mid-’80s and largely outlasted the rest of the premium-rate phone call world. In retrospect, these hotlines could be considered a precursor to the current podcast boom, proving the value of a niche audio product that could leave listeners on the edge of their seats.

These days, the concept of a paid hotline is almost as foreign as the sight of an actual payphone. Unlimited long-distance calls and Skype conferencing have rendered 900 numbers practically extinct. But despite all that’s changed in the world of wrestling and the world at large, there’s one man still maintaining the art of the wrestling hotline. There’s still one number you can call to hear all of the day’s most important news in the world of wrestling.

• • •

The history of wrestling hotlines has largely been reduced to whatever hilariously bad promo clips you can find on YouTube.

In its golden era, however, these hotlines were big business for wrestling federations and a lifeline for fans. “Wrestling fans are more fanatical,” explained legendary wrestling manager, announcer, and occasional hotline personality Jim Cornette. “Basically, think about this: Wrestling and phone sex lasted because people have to hear wrestling gossip, and they have to jack off. That’s the only two things that they’re naturally programmed to do, apparently.”

One of the earliest to crop up in the mid-’80s was the WWF Action Line, a 976 number operated by Phone Programs Inc., which pioneered the 900 number format. The cost to call the number (always 976-6363) depended on where you lived: Calling from within an area code in or around New York City was free, Detroit was 50 cents per call, Chicago was billed at “downtown” rates, and everything else was considered long distance. For much of the decade, the Action Line provided primarily promotional material, albeit with some fun screeds from stars like Roddy Piper or Lou Albano mixed in.

There were plenty of others. Newspaper columnist “Coach” Kurt Schneider launched his pay-per-call 976 number in 1985, and it was a mainstay well into the ’90s. The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), one of the largest and longest running independent wrestling promotions in the world, operated WCW’s Wrestling Hotline in the late ’80s and early ’90s, boasting a different host every night of the week, including a young Paul Heyman, the promoter who would go on to lead Extreme Championship Wrestling to prominence later in the decade

900 numbers were all the rage, briefly, in pop culture. Alyssa Milano had “Teen Steam,” Bobby Brown could be reached at (900) 909-2029, and even Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street had his own line. Michael L. Omansky, the RCA marketing executive credited with pitching DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 900 line, told the New York Times in 1989 that he was inspired in part by the pro wrestling hotlines he often dialed personally, and that it earned his clients ”well into the six figures.”

Wrestling hotlines outlasted their pop culture counterparts in part because they had so much more material to work with, giving their listeners incentive to keep picking up the phone. “Wrestling was the kind of niche that would get repeat callers,” explained Steve Beverly, a veteran broadcast journalist, who had a second career as the publisher of the “Matwatch” newsletter and contributed to multiple hotlines. “Some of the other entertainment hotlines would be a thing where you would call, and it would be a short-term thing, where you would not get repeat business at the level [needed to sustain it].”

According to Omansky, the 900 number was considered such effective marketing for the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s label that Jive/RCA allowed the artists to split the profits with AT&T, their management company, and Phone Programs Inc. Similar arrangements were made in wrestling. A leaked version of Hulk Hogan’s contract renewal with WCW from 1998 revealed that Hogan was to receive 100 percent of the net revenue generated by domestic 900 number hotline sales.

“Wrestling and phone sex lasted because people have to hear wrestling gossip, and they have to jack off.”

“Mean” Gene Okerlund reportedly negotiated 35 percent of hotline revenues as part of his WCW contract. He regularly plugged his call line, often shamelessly teasing that he had details that were too hot for TV. For example, in 1995, he urged views to call in to find out which former world champion in his 40s had just passed away—the implication being that either WWF star Bob Backlund (who had just lost the WWF Championship after a brief comeback reign) or WCW star Ric Flair (who was off TV for a retirement storyline) had tragically passed. Instead, it was the relatively unknown Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell of the American Wrestling Association (AWA), and even worse, Okerlund made the announcement as a throwaway line at the end of a 15-minute segment.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that by 1993, the entire 900 number industry was starting to collapse, with public interest shifting to the Internet’s earliest bulletin boards. “This industry has attracted more scams in a shorter period of time than any other new industry,” said Robert Abrams, then-attorney general for the State of New York, told the New York Times at the time. “There has been enormous greed from individuals determined to rip off consumers.”

11325ed9fd841ed16fc58263f968cb0eAccording to the New York Times, the industry took in $1 billion in annual sales in its first five years, but collection issues ultimately became its downfall. The disclaimers (“Kids, get your parents’ permission!”) didn’t hold up under scrutiny, and many customers simply elected to not pay their phone bills. Analysts projected that uncollectible charges were as high as 50 percent of total billings, and some providers attempted to push the losses onto the companies responsible for the hotlines. Bryan Alvarez, the former host of Figure Four Hotline and currently editor of F4WOnline.com, said on a 2014 episode of Mat Men that he shut down his hotline after he refused to take responsibility for the several-thousand-dollar bill that some kid had run up calling his hotline.

“We found out what the big drawback was, which was that people were not gonna pay the money,” recalled Hall of Famelevel announcer Lance Russell, who worked on WCW’s hotline. “You could have a telephone call with ‘The Stinger’ that comes in with a gross of $300,000, and you end up getting $28.40 profit on it or something like that. You can’t BELIEVE the money they didn’t get paid.

But just as the rest of the industry was hanging up, Dominic Valenti was getting started.

• • •

If you’ve never dialed into the Wrestling Hot Seat, do so now. We’ll wait: (212) 629-1900.

Today’s Hot Seat session opens with a recurring segment on wrestling history. Dominic Valenti’s voice is rough and gravelly, as though he’s speaking a little too close to the receiver: “March 23, 1999, I have no idea who these people are, but… Tommy Green defeated Jason Adams in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to win the MWA, Millennium Wrestling Association, heavyweight title.”

The recording is raw and obviously produced as one long take—at one point he accidentally presses buttons on his phone—with a few expletives thrown in every few minutes. Over the course of about 16 minutes, he delivers a surprisingly detailed play-by-play of the last episode of Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling, along with a listing of the day’s famous birthdays and biggest news and rumors, like Sting’s retirement or Bobby Roode and Eric Young’s releases from TNA. It’s like having a one-way conversation with an uncle who’s absolutely obsessed with wrestling. He also provides updates on his latest fantasy tournament.

“My callers, they’re big on fantasy matches: Like who would win in a match between Paul Orndorff and Roman Reigns,” says Valenti, 61. “It’s been a staple of the hotline back to the beginning. About once a month, there will be an interview, like if there’s a slow news day and I’ve got to bring somebody on.”

“This industry has attracted more scams in a shorter period of time than any other new industry.”

Valenti has been following this pattern, more or less, since 1993. At the time, some fans from around the New York metropolitan area would rent voicemail boxes from companies like EFLS that provided enterprise solutions and use them to provide a free (or cheap, depending on your location and phone plan) service to the community. The service could take calls or allow owners to leave extended extended messages of their own, essentially creating a local alternative to the national 900 hotlines.

Valenti is a lifelong fan, dating back to the ‘60s, when WWE’s predecessor, Capitol Wrestling Corporation, produced weekly TV shows from Washington, D.C. Originally, his hotline news came from a mix of calling the 900 numbers, tips he got in the voicemail box, and his own field reporting. “A lot of times, back in the day, I’d go to live shows and give them the report on that. I didn’t always have 15 minutes; at one point I had five minutes. I don’t know how I got in some of the stuff in five minutes that I do now in 15 minutes. Maybe I talked a lot faster.”

Now that he’s retired from a career in the import/export business, the Queens-based hotline is Valenti’s primary hobby. His numbers have halved over the years, but not for the reasons you’d might expect. Valenti attributes the decline not to the rise of the Internet but to the consolidation of professional wrestling in America, when two major promotions—WCW and ECW—were folded into Vince McMahon’s WWE. He thinks his older callers, who were primarily fans of WCW’s more legacy-oriented acts, never made the leap to the WWE.

While Valenti’s not the only one still doing wrestling hotlines—there’s also Diamond Dan’s Pro Wrestling Hotline, which boasts an actual Facebook page and three different daily options for callers—he’s arguably the most dedicated.

Every month, he pays the voicemail company anywhere from $50 to $60 (depending on if he runs long) to serve his small but loyal audience. Apart from his interviews, most of his content is not much different from what you can find on a wrestling news site, but it works for him, especially since his audience is looking for more international news.

“Some people don’t call every day. I get maybe… like a hundred calls a day?” he says. “But I find people are interested in other stuff more than WWE. They wanna hear about New Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and that stuff.”

At this point, most of Valenti’s contemporaries have long made the leap to podcasting. Caller-favorite features, like the post–pay-per-view roundtables heard on Bryan Alvarez’s Wrestling Observer Hotline, have become a staple of a number of podcasts. And The Ross Report, which started as WWE announcer Jim Ross’s segment on both the WCW and WWF hotlines, is now a hugely popular weekly show in the PodcastOne stable. The opening of each episode, where Ross shares his thoughts on the industry’s recent events, mirrors the format he employed on his hotlines segment.

Indeed, the best aspects of wrestling hotlines have been upgraded for the Internet era: with higher quality audio, expert analysis and interviews, and downloadable formats. But if you just need the day’s news, you can always count on Valenti to deliver it to you straight, no holds barred.

Correction: World Championship Wrestling operated under the National Wrestling Alliance from 1988 to 1993.

Illustration by Bruno Moraes