The argument is one of the oldest and most debated in the history of competitive bodybuilding: "How do we appeal to the mainstream?"
I actually debate, not the question at large, but rather the question itself. Do we really want to appeal to the mainstream? Mainstream appeal translates into relating to the masses, blending in, and most importantly, gaining acceptance from our audience.
The biggest hurdle has been the fact that bodybuilding itself isn't mainstream. The people that have been harboring this question need to understand one simple thing. By appealing to the mainstream we would be sacrificing the very thing that makes bodybuilding unique: not appealing to the mainstream. And therein lays the paradox.
One thing that people tend to overlook is the fact that in order to be classified as 'mainstream,' a sport must have acceptance by the general public, thus the 'mainstream' title. They (the ham n' eggers ), have to be able to relate on some level.
Relating To The Public
You'll notice that the most popular sports are the ones participated, for the most part, by the majority of people (Football, baseball, basketball, golf, running, etc.). The further away from "normal" you get, the less interest you get from the viewing public (i.e. The X-games, the Iditarod, cliff diving, bodybuilding, ice curling, etc.).
For bodybuilding to have have mainstream appeal, means bodybuilding would have to "fit in." This would mean the end of modern bodybuilding as we know it. Forget the freaks (No appeal). Forget the mass monsters (No appeal). Pro bodybuilding would more resemble the local YMCA swim meet rather than the Barnum and Bailey entertainment we've all come to love.
The women's shows would simply go bye-bye. If the men's shows can't appeal the masses, what shot do women bodybuilders have (those who don't even have appeal within the industry)?
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Fitness and figure might have a chance as they are above the "norm" when it comes to the average girl and what they want to look like.
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Well, Maybe Some Of You Can Stay.
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I'm not so sure that the mainstream market is what lies in bodybuilding's best interest. I firmly believe that if you take what has made this sport what it is, and scale it down, soften it up and make it a G-rated affair we would end up with NO appeal at all! We would lose the following we do have and it wouldn't have any of the elements that attract the curiosity of the "regular" people.
We should quit looking to make changes to attract a market that doesn't exist, and concentrate on making it better for the market we already have. Let me put it to you this way: I have absolutely no interest in going to a Broadway play. None.
No matter what ads I see, billboards I pass, or even tickets I'm offered in the balcony (didn't do Lincoln much good, did it?). I simply have no wish to sit in a theater with stage actors drowning on about some Italian tragedy (and I'm Italian and an actor!).
The same goes for our sport. No matter how hard we try, we are not going to get Harry and Mary Smith from middle America to order the PPV for the 2005 Mr. Olympia. There are, however, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in the fitness industry we can appeal to. This is where I suggest we focus our attention. We already have a built-in audience ready to go, waiting to be entertained and dazzled with the IFBB's finest.
So What's The Problem?
We have a built-in audience and plenty of shows throughout the year. Why the lack of fans?
Some pro shows only get 1,000-1,500 paid attendance. The Mr. Olympia only attracts a mere 4-5 thousand fans (the same ones year after year I might add), and that's the "superbowl" of bodybuilding!!
Easy answer: Boredom.
Let's face it, even for the most hard core of fans, the competitions are as exciting as watching Geraldo Rivera unearth Jimmy Hoffa's old office for two hours, only to come up snake-eyes.
Routine after routine we sit, and sit, and sit. Every once in a while there's a funny routine, an entertaining routine or just someone who's got no business being in posing trunks; it's clearly the exception in 4-5 hours of induced fun. Quite often, I find myself out in the lobby talking industry shop with all the other pro's and dignitaries who are C-Span comatose.
What the competitions need are more "entertainment style" acts. I'm not talking about the guest poser, I'm talking acts (strength athletes and dance troupes), hell, I'll even take a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat.
Anything to break up the monotony of one boring posing routine after another. We need a good inflection of entertainment to keep the audience happy and give them something that resembles a show, not a competition.
What Can Bodybuilding Do?
At the pro level, we need more "characters" (believe me, we have plenty of them!). I'm not talking about made up monikers and story lines, I'm talking about taking off the handcuffs and letting the athletes personalities be revealed. It worked for Pro wrestling. Why not Pro Bodybuilding as well.
Speaking of pro wrestling... A perfect template for what we should be striving for, when it comes to entertaining the troops, might include some pre-show interviews?
In addition, why not have a big screen at all the pro shows? This could include a live feed from the backstage area so the audience can see and hear whats going on (ya know... let them know who's talking smack, who almost got into it, who's the neurotic one in the corner not talking to anyone). Catch the word that keeps coming up? Entertainment!
Big time pro bodybuilding should be all about displaying the best physiques in the world while at the same time exposing the audience to the "inner circle" of the bodybuilder's personalities. The conflicts, the friends, enemies, sabotage, gurus, smack talkers, rookies, veterans, etc.
All this represents what the viewing audience craves (soap opera style sports; it's what sells). Yes, I'm aware that this was tried some years ago with the WBF (World Bodybuilding Federation). While Vince had a good idea, he crossed the line and made a circus side show out of bodybuilding. You can't put the guys in goofy outfits and stupid skits and hope to retain the pure competition that makes up the sport of bodybuilding.
What the audience doesn't want (i.e. what doesn't sell) is boring, monotonous, zero personality competition. We already have the athletes in place to make this work. Let's use the pro wrestling format as a good example of what we can do to make improvements for bodybuilding competitions. Here are some ideas of what is helping make the pro wrestling format successful and what we already have that is a close match:
- They have Vince McMahon. We have Jim Manion.
- They have Triple 'H.' We have Ronnie Coleman (the champ).
- They have John Cena, Chris Masters, and Batista. We have Chris Cook, King Kamali and Mark Dugdale.
- They have the "managers." We have the "guru's."
- They have "The cerebral Assassin," the "Rabid Wolverine," and the "Big Show." We have the "Real Deal," the "Blade," and the "Blonde Bomber."
Pro wrestling sells out arenas WEEKLY, all over the country. They pack more people on any given Monday night (RAW) than we do at the Olympia (once a year showcase of the worlds best)!Let's face it folks, bodybuilding itself is not that exciting. We need entertainment within the sport to capture a viewing audience. Viewing being the key word here. Viewing as in "watching on TV," viewing as in "watching it on PPV," viewing as in "selling commercial time to make REAL money."
Building Our Presence
That's where we're dropping the ball. We have no presence, and without presence, there's no exposure, and without exposure... well you get the point. There will be no audience and no money! Consider that the Mr. Olympia still only pays out a little over $100,000. I watched the World Series Of Poker (which has caught on to the whole "entertainment" gig), and they paid out $100,000 to the 10th place finisher!
It's time to take pro bodybuilding to the next level. That level is bringing entertainment and personality to a sport that is sorely lacking both. No, we're probably not going to make fans out of Harry and Mary Smith from Middle America even with the changes, but we don't need to. We need to make (and keep) fans out of our own fans first and foremost.