Italy’s youth caught in grip of TV wrestling
By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) – Forget soccer icons Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. Italian boys have new heroes: beefy, loud American wrestlers like Rey Mysterio and Undertaker.
The high octane, over-the-top world of televised wrestling has taken the homeland of ancient gladiators by storm, thrilling young boys eager to copy their heroes and raising fears of school violence among some parents and psychologists.
National soccer coach Marcello Lippi recently complained that home-grown talent risked drying up because children no longer played soccer in the streets as they were hooked on wrestling.
In November, the muscle-bound heroes of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc’s television shows toured Italy. The appearances sold out in a few days.
"I prefer to watch wrestling than soccer because it’s more dramatic; anything can happen," said Oliviero D’Ascanio, a 9-year-old schoolboy in Rome who, like his friends, also follows the behind-the-scenes storylines that come with the WWE product.
"There’s friendship and betrayal in wrestling as well as just sport," he said.
In playgrounds across Italy, young boys trade collector cards and practice their heroes’ hallmark moves, ignoring the regularly broadcast warning: "Don’t try this at home." WWE wrestler dolls sold like hot cakes at Christmas.
WWE, a publicly traded company, runs the sport’s "big leagues" with shows like "Wrestlemania" and "Smackdown!."
Its programs are broadcast in Italy for two hours every day — at lunchtime and in the early evening — on News Corp’s Sky Italia and are also transmitted for two hours at prime time on Saturday evening on Italia 1, a terrestrial channel owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset.
Vera Slepoj, president of Italy’s national association of psychologists, said there was anecdotal evidence that the wrestling obsession had already fueled school bullying.
"Wrestling proposes the most ancestral and brutal role models based on pure violence, which are particularly dangerous for 8- to 11-year-olds who are often left to watch the television without the support of an adult," she said.
WWE’s wrestlers, like Rey Mysterio who wears a mask and finishes opponents with a move dubbed the 619, battle each other in the ring, but the fight is just the climax of a soap opera-style string of storylines that surround the scrapping.
This stylized mix of drama and danger — the outcome is predetermined although wrestlers do get hurt — has captured young Italian minds since the WWE shows took to the air on terrestrial television in 2002.
"Italy is red hot, there’s a definite level of fanaticism there," said WWE’s London-based international marketing manager Jonathan Sully.
"We’ve been in the UK for much longer but wrestling is faster-growing in Italy and our ratings there are very high."
Silvia Sordelli, a spokeswoman for Media Partners Italia, which distributes WWE’s shows in Italy, said the U.S. company is hoping to repeat its Italian success in France and Spain.
Outside English-speaking countries, WWE broadcasts mainly in the Far East, Mexico, Germany and Italy.
Although there are no precise figures or statistics linking violence at school or among young boys to a love of wrestling, many parents, teachers and psychologists in Italy are worried.
"It’s a classroom problem because it’s very violent and a lot of the boys are obsessed with it, they talk about nothing else," said Laura Nanni, teacher of a class of 8-year-olds at Rome’s Ada Negri junior school.
Asked about concerns that wrestling offers a bad example, WWE’s Sully said the company repeatedly broadcasts the message that viewers should not try to copy the wrestlers’ moves — a warning also carried on its Web site.
Sully said WWE also runs community programs for youths in Britain and the United States, where it helps to promote literacy.
Slepoj, who is on a national committee to ensure acceptable television standards for young viewers, said the panel’s recommendations that wrestling be shifted to a late-night slot had been repeatedly ignored for commercial reasons.
"With merchandising and advertising revenues the economic interests are too strong, and they are at the expense of the psychological well-being of our children," she said.
WWE tops up revenues through a brisk trade in merchandising which reached a peak over the Christmas period.
Toy shops across Italy had to repeatedly re-stock with dolls of WWE’s most popular stars such as Batista, John Cena and Big Show, who weighs in at 493 pounds and is over 7 feet tall.
Slepoj believes Italian parents should be more vigilant about what their children watch and laments the lack of supervision that she says exists in many households.
In one of the more gory scenes transmitted recently by WWE in Italy, one wrestler appeared to plant a screwdriver in his opponent’s skull, but the victim battled on.
"We shouldn’t be surprised in a few years if our more vulnerable 15- and 16-year-olds decide to resolve their disputes in a discotheque or wherever by pulling out a knife," Slepoj said.