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Column:: Joe Cohen’s expertise helped the WWE succeed. He hopes to do the same for the XFL

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Joe Cohen stands next to his WWE Hall of Fame Legacy Wing Award and other honors at his home in Pacific Palisades.
(Tom Hoffarth / Los Angeles Times)

Vince McMahon tells the story about flying back home from one of his WWE events in Los Angeles, comfortably stylish in a “bad ass” all-black Global Express private jet. His son-in-law, best known as Triple H, stops in the aisle to ask: “Hey, by the way, who is that guy, Joe Cohen?”

McMahon’s reply: “Without Joe Cohen, there’s no WWE. And quite frankly, without Joe Cohen, we’re not on this magnificent airplane. We’re riding on a bus.”

Without his usual bluster, McMahon’s anecdote was part of a video tribute when Cohen, co-founder of the USA Network and an industry pioneer who moved live sports such as the NBA and NHL to the cable platform in the 1980s, was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in New York three years ago.

McMahon, the WWE majority owner and whose father, Vince Sr., co-founded the sports entertainment company in 1952, inducted Cohen into the Legacy Wing of his WWE Hall of Fame last April. With that came a ring inscribed: “No Joe, no WWE.”

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To know Joe Cohen is to also know what’s on deck for McMahon.

WWE “Monday Night Raw” circles back to Staples Center for another episode of its emblematic series – still a tent pole on USA Network, but “SmackDown Live” is switching to a new deal this fall with Fox. The 72-year-old Cohen plans to drive from his Pacific Palisades home Monday afternoon to reconnect with McMahon and talk more business strategies.

The latest venture they’re wrestling with: How to re-constitute the XFL.

In 2001, McMahon’s “He Hate Me” challenge to the NFL with a prime-time spring league quickly imploded with NBC as his major partner. If exposed to McMahon salesmanship on how the XFL 2020 version will be more evolutionary than revolutionary, skepticism is healthy.

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But if someone like Cohen can act as a character witness, to the point where he’s even impressed McMahon will unload more responsibility for the new XFL on media partners ABC/ESPN and Fox, it carries plenty of weight in the industry.

“There’s nobody better than Vince – and Vince is the indispensable part of the XFL – in putting together live television and programming,” says Cohen. “He’s instinctive and hires superb people. He challenges them. Even with XFL, one of the greatest resources will be his staff at WWE.

“What’s most interesting this time is while Vince is used to controlling the entire program, just as he does completely with the WWE, there’s a bit of a cultural shift to see him giving the production to the rights holder.”

Cohen says McMahon’s recent trip to Dallas to meet up with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reinforced the idea that this XFL will create more “innovative ideas with football stadiums that have been part of previous Wrestlemania events. This is also meant to expand the football universe and work complementary with the NFL, not to be competitive.

“There are pendulum swings in this business. Timing is also everything. You’ll see more diversity with this XFL. Vince watches what goes on in society and really embraces that. This will speak to the 21st century.”

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Joe Cohen at his home in New York. Cohen is assisting Vince McMahon with the XFL launch.
(Jeff Proctor)

Cohen’s ahead-of-the-curve existence as an industry influencer long before the term became popular only starts with how he married his Madison Square Garden connections in New York to cable programming and flipped the paradigm. His L.A.-based resume includes creator of L.A.’s once-upon-a-time Z Channel, which morphed into SportsChannel L.A. and got the Dodgers, Angels and Clippers to provide exclusive games. Cohen was also co-owner of the NHL Kings in the 1990s post-Bruce McNall rebuild.

Cohen’s current sports media investment is in a distribution company called The Switch, which banks more on advanced fiber optics than satellite dishes. He calls it a “video Federal Express.”

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For this eight-market XFL rebuild, Cohen says he’s only part of venue deals – Los Angeles, the 2001 XFL champion playing at the Coliseum, returns with a franchise aligned with Carson’s Dignity Health Sports Park.

Other points Cohen emphasizes as how McMahon has the advantage of “a longer runway this time” for XFL liftoff:

-- McMahon’s 1.7 million subscription-based WWE Network, a streaming online service, is what Cohen describes as “way ahead of the other sports in social media and figuring out how to monetize sports on a digital platform,” and it will cultivate crossover viewers.

-- The recent birth-to-bankruptcy of the Alliance of American Football last spring provides teachable moments for innovation and quality of play.

“The AAF did a very good job with delivering a product that was attractive and watchable television,” said Cohen, noting CBS, TNT and the NFL Network gave it major-league production elements. “Vince is launching something that he has the financial wherewithal to carry out, which the AAF didn’t have.”

-- The gambling element will be more sophisticated and “every new piece of content is an opportunity for some kind of commercialization.”

Acknowledging they’ve already done some “mockup” XFL games in a stadium facility, not only to experiment with rules but also television coverage with advanced on-field camera positions and dual sky-cams, Cohen adds: “I really don’t want to steal any thunder that will be announced sooner or later in ‘Vince-style.’ ”

That also shows the brilliance of Cohen, knowing the boundaries of a fruitful broadcasting relationship.

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KICKING AROUND ASSIGNMENTS

As Fox has established John Strong and Stu Holden as its main soccer broadcast duo, it’s notable that they aren’t in France for the Women’s World Cup, but instead have stayed back to follow the U.S. Men’s National Team as it reconstitutes itself for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

“It’s great to see the crew next to the Eiffel Tower while John and I are slugging around Minnesota and Cleveland, for sure,” Holden said with a laugh from his home in Venice last week, prepping for the U.S. games against Guyana (Tuesday, 7 p.m., FS1) and Trinidad and Tobago (Saturday, 5 p.m., FS1).

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Admitting he’s become “a massive fan” of the women’s game, especially with a 3-year-old daughter who loves watching them on TV, Holden said that as he and Strong were the lead broadcasters for the men’s U.S.-absent World Cup last summer in Russia, “we had a lot of conversations about where we are best positioned, and this is the first real tournament for the men’s team in a long time and it’s something to establish our voices of American soccer and this team.”


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