By BROCK VERGAKIS
NORFOLK, Va. - When World Wrestling Entertainment airs its annual holiday special, nobody will be more excited to see what's shown in-between tag-team shenanigans and bone-rattling body slams than the United States Navy.
For the first time in its 10-year history, WWE's Tribute to the Troops is showcasing the Navy during a taped performance in Norfolk, home to the world's largest naval base. It is a public relations coup for the Navy, who wrestled away the national spotlight from the Army at a time each branch of the military is trying to tout its relevance and value in a time of shrinking budgets. The Pentagon already faces a 10-year reduction of $487 billion in projected spending under a deal reached last year and further cuts could also be on the way.
With television crews following close behind, WWE performers visited warships, met with wounded warriors at a Navy hospital and flew in a fighter jet, among other things during their visits to several bases. Takeouts of wrestlers interacting with sailors and Marines are expected to make it on air during a two- hour special being aired on USA Network on Wednesday and a one-hour special on NBC on Saturday.
"The best thing out of this is it gives us the opportunity to showcase the absolutely fantastic men and women who make up the United States Navy today," said Rear Adm. Tim Alexander, commander of Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. "You know our ships are great, our airplanes are great, our submarines are great. There's no doubt that we have some pretty neat technology, but at the end of the day it's all about the people."
The wrestling special marks the second straight year the Navy has landed a high-profile nationally televised event that allows it to reach potential recruits as well as those who live away from the coast and may know little about what the service does. Last November, the Carrier Classic basketball game played on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson received ESPN's highest-ever rating for a game played in November. WWE officials also expect a bump in viewership for the holiday special over its typical broadcast.
The first seven years WWE filmed its special it did so in Iraq and Afghanistan. The past two years, it highlighted large Army communities in North Carolina and Texas. The show is so popular that each branch of the military and bases within those branches compete against each other to host it, similar to cities vying to host the Super Bowl or a political convention.
"The opportunity to showcase the Navy and all that it does in Hampton Roads as well as the state of Virginia within a national broadcast on both USA Network and NBC network, for us, is a very positive legacy point for our having been here and an opportunity to tell this incredibly important story to the nation and those abroad who would watch this," said John Saboor, WWE's senior vice president of special events.
The Navy and the Norfolk area had several things going for it that helped it land the show, Saboor said. In addition to Naval Station Norfolk, there were other Navy installations in neighboring Virginia Beach and Portsmouth that wresters could visit to help broaden the interest in the WWE while reaching a greater cross-section of the Navy. Saboor also said Gov. Bob McDonnell's office and top Navy leaders went out of their way to help accommodate his crews.
While originally conceived at a time the U.S. was fighting two wars, WWE has no intention of ending the annual special anytime soon now that the war in Iraq has come to an end and troops are drawing down in Afghanistan.
"Personally, I like the fact that it's domestic because it certainly says to me that the conflict areas are dwindling and more men and women are at home as they should be with their families," said WWE wrestler John Cena.
In that spirit, WWE will also highlight its partnership with Alpharetta, Ga.- based nonprofit Hire Heroes USA during the broadcast to help reduce the unemployment rate among veterans.
WWE executives see the Tribute to the Troops as an annual holiday tradition similar to Bob Hope's specials that helped boost morale among members of the military, who are among its biggest fans.
Sailors waited in long lines to get free tickets to the Norfolk performance and many brought their children, who were also treated to performances by the Muppets. In the weekend the show was taped, wrestlers also spent countless hours signing autographs and taking pictures with sailors and their families.