NEW YORK – Wrestling showman Vince McMahon's once high-flying World Wrestling Federation has fallen on hard times.
Suddenly, WWF shows — which used to take up six or seven places on the cable TV top-10 revery week — is lucky to get one or two spots.
They have been replaced by SpongeBob SquarePants, the Lifetime tear-jerker movie of the month and The Osbournes.
Wrestling has seemingly lost its sleeper hold on the psyches of young men, its main audience.
Suprisingly, the audiences for wrestling's marquee show, UPN's WWE Smackdown, are actually smaller than its cable TV counterpart, Raw on TNN.
All in all, wrestling's ratings are down about 13 percent from 1999, when the company began trading its stock publicly on the New York Stock Exchange.
At least part of the blame falls on the fact that some of wrestling's biggest stars are no longer in the ring, people familiar with the business believe.
Chyna, an Amazon-like wrestler (real name: Joanie Laurer) left the company more than a year ago for a career in on her own. The Rock (real name: Dwayne Johnson) has appeared only sporadically since starring in the film The Scorpion King.
"The pendulum swings both ways for wrestling. it's been around since the beginning of TV, the ratings go up and down — but wrestling is not going anywhere," says Mediaweek's TV Industry analyst, Marc Berman.
"What we've seen over the last six months — as the economy has dropped and entertainment viewing has declined — I think you've seen an environment that's seeking something new," says Julie Hoffman, WWE's chief marketing officer.
"I think we'll come back during the new fall season and re-establish some patterns with our audience," Hoffman says, "But it's been a volatile time overall."
"We'll always have wrestling in some capacity," says Berman. "I just think that right now, based on the names in the ring that aren't fighting — if you could call it that — it's not at the top of people's priorities anymore."
It doesn't help either that McMahon's biggest, still-working star, Stone Cold Steve Austin, appears to be having personal problems.
A domestic squabble last week ended when Austin's wife Debra Marshall-Williams called the police and told them he hit her.
Earlier, Austin clashed verbally with WWE writers — who script how matches will be played out — and he walked out just hours before a live telecast of Raw. He has since been taken off the company's "active talent roster," according to WWE officials.