Like many people, I’m often skeptical of broad, sweeping claims made without some numbers to back them up. I’m not saying I need to see complicated math like the kind David Krumholtz’s Charlie Eppes performs on Numb3rs, but I do like to see some quantifiable proof before I’ll buy into certain things. For most things, blind faith doesn’t cut it for me.

Pro wrestling is problematic in this regard, because there aren’t a lot of helpful numbers floating around. Since the outcomes of matches are pre-determined, statistics are few, and the ones that do exist don’t mean much. Sure, Ric Flair may have the most world title reigns, but what, exactly does that mean? It’s a testament to his longevity and proof that he’s been at the top of the industry on numerous occasions, but does it automatically mean he’s had a better career, than, say, Hulk Hogan? Most people would say it doesn’t.

But there are some numbers in wrestling that do matter, and one in particular that means a lot to the Vince McMahons of the world: the weekly TV ratings. The number of eyeballs watching wrestling programming is readily available, easy to compute and other than the financial bottom line of a promotion, the most important number to measure its health. I’ve been exposed to the ratings for wrestling shows through various sources over the past eight years, but I’ve never taken any time to look inside the numbers to see what they might reveal.

That changed this past week when I finally utilized the mighty power of the internet (thank you Wikipedia!) and dug up the weekly ratings from the WWE’s glory days, circa 1998 and 1999, as well as those from the past year and a half. I’m certainly no Charlie when it comes to interpreting numbers, but I did find a few statements — some theories and others widely held beliefs — that were easy to put to the test.

Please note that I am simplifying things by studying only Raw, mainly because it’s the only wrestling show that’s been on television continuously since 1998. I’m also using the ratings for the U.S., since that’s what I have access to, but don’t worry Canadian readers — I promise to tie things in to a topic important to all of you before I finish.

Statement 1: Raw benefited from its return to the USA Network

The numbers say: Yes, but not right away.

One of the most-hyped events of 2005 was Raw’s return to USA, its home for years, after a stint on TNN, which eventually became Spike TV. The WWE put a lot of time and energy into publicizing the move, and it certainly paid off on the first night. The final broadcast on Spike TV earned Raw’s second-lowest rating of the year at 3.2, while the USA “Homecoming” episode pulled a 4.4, the second-highest mark of 2005. The momentum didn’t last long though, because Raw averaged a 3.88 rating for the final 13 weeks of the year, less than a tenth of a point better than its 2005 average of 3.81.

As Jim Ross might say, business picked up once the calendar flipped over to 2006. Raw has done six percent better than last year through July 10, and the ratings have consistently come in at or above 4.0. Comparing the new USA era to the last 41 weeks on Spike, the increase is even higher, suggesting that while it took a little while for the move to pay off, the WWE did the right thing by returning to its roots.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the increasing number of viewers has nothing to do with USA and is just a symptom of an overall upswing for the WWE. Let’s see…

Statement 2: Raw, and by extension the WWE, is on the upward portion of its business cycle

The numbers say: Possibly, but it’s too early to tell

Through June 5 of this year, Raw’s average rating was a 4.07, not too far off from the 4.12 the show averaged through the same period of 1998. You might remember 1998 as the year that the WWE really caught up to its rival WCW after getting trounced in the Monday Night War for quite a while. Propelled at first by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and later by the emergence of The Rock, Raw took off over the second half of 1998 and became a juggernaut in 1999, pulling in an average rating above 6.0 and turning in its highest rated show ever (an 8.1 on May 10, a night when WCW Nitro did not air) and its best quarter-hour of all time (September 27, for the “Rock, This is Your Life” segment).

I’m pretty sure even Vince McMahon’s wildest dreams don’t include a similar performance in 2007, but a successful run over the second half of this year could be a promising sign of brighter times ahead. But to paraphrase Eminem in 8 Mile, if something’s going to happen, it needs to happen now. Raw saw a nine percent increase from the first third of 1998 to the second, and got an additional 10 percent boost over the final three months of the year. Raw’s 2006 numbers have been pretty level as we head into the third show of July, so McMahon and company have to hope this isn’t as good as it gets this time around.

There’s also another hurdle on the horizon, because football season is less than two months away. And we all know that Raw’s numbers take a hit once Monday Night Football starts. Right?

Statement 3: Monday Night Football takes some of Raw’s audience away during football season

The numbers say: Not so fast

There’s no doubt that both MNF and Raw are popular among the 18 to 34 male demographic, so this statement seems pretty reasonable. The funny thing is, the numbers just don’t support it. Back in 1998, the ratings train didn’t even slow down once football season kicked off, with Raw’s average rating up against MNF averaging 4.76, compared to a 4.44 mark for the year as a whole. The next year saw a decrease on Mondays in the fall, but it was a drop of less than one percent, hardly cause for concern.

In the less heady days of 2005, Raw experienced a decrease of just over one percent, from a 3.83 average to 3.79, once the pigskins started flying. The show even turned its highest rating of last year in the middle of the season, on November 14, though that was admittedly a special case since it was the tribute show following the tragic death of Eddie Guerrero. The point is that wrestling viewers are loyal, and the effect of Monday Night Football on Raw appears to be minimal.

That’s something for Canadian viewers to keep in mind as you prepare for the big WWE announcement this Wednesday, which is expected to be Raw moving from TSN to The Score. As Tim Baines recently wrote in his column for the Ottawa Sun, conventional wisdom says TSN’s acquisition of Canadian broadcast rights for MNF made it less willing to re-up for Raw, since the WWE’s flagship show would be pre-empted for four months. The numbers suggest that may be a hasty move, since at least here in the States, fans find their way back to Raw once the pigskins stop flying — ratings for Raw always show an increase of some sort come January. There are financial considerations in play as well, but The Score should be pretty happy with its new Monday program in the fall, and even happier in the new year.

At least that’s what the numbers say, and we all know they don’t lie.

On a totally unrelated note, a number of readers e-mailed after my last column to let me know that a number of wrestling simulations exist for the PC that allow you to run your own fictional wrestling fed. When time permits, I’m planning on pitting them all against each other, battle royal style. Thanks to everyone who wrote, and keep those comments and e-mails coming.