Flipping through channels on Super Bowl Sunday is an exercise in futility. Unless you’re a fan of “counter-programming” like the Puppy Bowl or the Lingerie Bowl, odds are that, if your TV is on tonight, it’s tuned in to CBS. Advertising, football, glimpses of the summer’s upcoming tentpole blockbusters, it’s all kind of a drag. Tomorrow, an endless stream of articles will go up collecting the best advertisements, .gifs, Tweets, and plays from the game and the clock will reset: another year until the next Super Bowl, Puppy Bowl, Lingerie Bowl, and round of Doritos ads. It’s audacious to suggest that more networks run original content against the Super Bowl, but if Animal Planet has the guts to do it every year, why not, say, the USA Network?
When Beyoncé took the field to perform during the Pepsi Halftime Show tonight, USA Network was halfway through an episode of an interminable marathon of NCIS episodes. In 1999, with the WWF at the zenith of the Attitude Era, they aired Halftime Heat, a 20-minute special that butted heads against Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Stevie Wonder, and Gloria Estefan, an odd hydra of acts that served as a “Celebration of Soul, Salsa, and Swing.” The Super Bowl halftime show has grown in size and scope since then, becoming a celebration of whatever company shells out the most cash. Running a wrestling match against Beyoncé sounds like a daunting proposition, but as evidenced by Aaron Rodgers’s “discount double-check” championship belt move, scads of athletes mimicking John Cena’s “You Can’t See Me” hand gesture, and The Rock appearing in multiple Super Bowl commercials this year, the crossover potential of World Wrestling Entertainment has never been more apparent. With The Rock, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and CM Punk on the roster, the time has come for Vince McMahon to once again sell the general television audience on the brilliance of sports entertainment. It’s an easy, three step process.
1. The Commercial
As crazy as it seems, the WWE has, at this point in time, as many unique characters as it did during the Attitude Era. Sure, Daniel Bryan, Damien Sandow, Brodus Clay, Antonio Cesaro, and The Shield aren’t as immediately recognizable as Kane, Mankind, or Sable, but they’re different from just about any other characters on TV, and against a sea of bro-celebrating beer ads, slow-mo car commercials, and This Year’s GoDaddy.com Advertisement, the WWE’s stable of characters would pop out against the mundanity of the modern Super Bowl commercial. This year, the cost of a Super Bowl ad was roughly four million dollars. That’s a lot of scratch. But an ad next year would be in prime position to promote the 30th edition of WrestleMania, the further involvement of guys like Lesnar and Rock, and perhaps Triple H and The Undertaker. It’d get the lesser-known guys before the largest television audience of the year, once again establish the WWE as a purveyor of unique pop culture moments, and legitimize the company in ways that direct-to-DVD movies, wellness policies, and celebrity cameos during WrestleMania ultimately can’t.
2. The Competitors
If The Rock vs. Steve Austin was the feud of the Attitude Era, The Rock vs. Mankind ran a close second place. At Halftime Heat in 1999, that feud was chosen to represent the WWF during their version of the Super Bowl halftime show. Though the resulting empty arena match was hardly among the best Rock/Mankind encounter that happened between Survivor Series 1998 and WrestleMania XV, but The Rock’s charisma and Mankind’s ability to withstand tremendous abuse were important things to showcase going forward, and 2/3 of the era’s triumvirate of big stars were put before a large audience in an important match.
For a rebooted Halftime Heat to work, that’s the template the WWE would need to work with. In 2013/2014, the three most important men in the WWE are The Rock, John Cena, and CM Punk. Despite his popularity, The Rock is no longer as emblematic of the WWE as he once was. Cena and Punk, whose feud in various permutations defined the bulk of 2011 and 2012, are the obvious choice for a halftime wrestling match. There are no two men on the regular roster who have the same effect on the crowd as Punk and Cena, nor is there a better main event combination going.
3. The Match
Say what you will about the empty arena match, but it signified everything about the Attitude Era, good and bad. Vince McMahon, while never the greatest announcer in WWF history, was at the peak of his abilities in terms of his evil boss character, and when he wasn’t shilling for the company, his cheerleading for The Rock is among the match’s highlights. My favorite exchange happens relatively early in the match, after The Rock whips Mankind into a bunch of chairs and incapacitates him with a barely protected chairshot to the head. With The Rock extolling his virtues to the crowd, Mankind’s Mr. Socko-clad arm rises from the wreckage like Jaws’s fin from the ocean. As Rock keeps speaking, McMahon notices the approaching Mankind and alerts his champion just seconds before the deranged challenger shoves a sock down his opponent’s gullet. Rock’s muffled screams through the play-by-play headset are great. McMahon complaining that Mankind interrupted The Rock’s “eloquent” speech is even better. In combining the brutality and comedic aspects of the WWF at the time, it’s the Attitude Era in a time capsule.
To get it right in 2014, the match would need to be taped before a live audience. Rock/Mankind taking place in an empty arena makes sense within the context of its being another in a series of increasingly crazy gimmick matches designed to test the unbreakable will of Mankind and the cunning intellect of The Rock. There’s nothing the WWE is more proud of right now than their ability to connect with their fans, who are collectively referred to as the WWE Universe and who have the ability on any given Monday to dominate the trending topics on Twitter. It’d be unreasonable from a budgetary standpoint to air the match between CM Punk and John Cena live, but an audience is almost necessary. Best case scenario, film the match in Chicago and get a crowd something like this:
If the match between the two is even half as good as their Money in the Bank 2011 match, then you’re talking about a contest that’d immediately qualify as one of the best of the year. Furthermore, it’d be a match that showcases two sides of the WWE’s product, the two they most emphasize during any given broadcast. In John Cena, you have the larger-than-life, PG, kid friendly specimen of masculinity, the unquestioned face of the company. In Punk, you have the emblem of the WWE’s so-called “Reality Era,” a dangerous man whose offense is a combination of realistic submission holds and strikes and classic wrestling showmanship.
Every Monday, the WWE produces a number of PowerPoint-style bumper graphics that promote the company as a pop culture juggernaut. They trumpet the virtues of their various public relations outreach projects, big events, and bigger personalities. With five TV shows and the occasional pay per view card, they sometimes do this six times a week. They are preaching to the choir. Signing The Rock and Brock Lesnar are good steps to entice casual fans and snakebitten diehards to watch the product again. Putting Snooki in a WrestleMania match ensures that the media continues to cover professional wrestling like the freak-show it’s been perceived as since the rock ‘n wrestling era. It’s beyond time for the WWE to marry those sensibilities and reach out to casual fans in a way that it hasn’t in over a decade. It’s time to bring back Halftime Heat, to do it bigger and better than before. The company has little to lose, and the USA Network has the time. John Cena vs. CM Punk during the Super Bowl would be a once in a lifetime event, something wrestling fans would talk about enough to distract from the ridiculous plays, overproduced pop concerts, and potential power outages the big game provides. To me, it’s not a question of when the WWE will put on another Halftime Heat, but why the idea has gone untouched for fourteen years.
And if John Cena hits CM Punk in the head with a gigantic bag of popcorn, so much the better.