There is something wrong with the WWE.
Ratings are down or flat for Monday Night Raw, WWE Network subscriber growth has slowed, the 205 Live program draws fewer viewers than Attitude Era programming on the WWE Network (and very sparse crowds watching the product live), and fan interest in the product as a whole is waning. Almost more troubling, recent attempts to create new stars from talent developed via the WWE’s NXT initiative have been more miss than hit. This has lead to repackaged feuds between older or already established superstars, and these recycled storylines have been met with large amounts of indifference and even displeasure from the WWE Universe. Reports from fans in attendance at live events also seem to indicate that negative crowd reactions to performers or story beats are being turned down by the production truck so that viewers perceive a reaction closer to what WWE creative desires for the product (Note: WWE has long turned down boos and turned up cheers for their anointed stars, but lately it seems they are piping in reactions for reaction’s sake).
Recent polling indicates that the average WWE fan’s age has risen from 28 years old in 2000 to age 54 in 2017 which seems to show that young fans are aging out of the product and not coming back. If this holds, WWE will find itself unable to sell ad space targeting the extremely lucrative 18-54 ratings demographic to major companies during their primetime broadcasts as easily as they do now, which would really hurt the company’s profitability and growth, as their TV contracts are a huge revenue stream for the company.
For a company which prides itself on finding out what’s best for business by taking the pulse of the crowd and proceeding based off what they appear to want, something is quite off. Whether it is product over saturation due to having 5 hours of network TV to fill each week and not enough good ideas to fill it, inner turmoil between the old guard and the new in regards to how talent and storylines are booked, or talent injury and/or lazy storytelling curbing audience enthusiasm, it’s becoming clear that something radical may need to be done, and quickly, to right the ship.
While the WWE has long found itself subject to peaks and valleys. The astronomical successes of the 1980’s brought along by the meteoric rise of superstars like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage faded into the cacophonic mess that was the early to mid 1990’s. This period was marred by terrible characters (see: The Goon, Mantaur, Bastion Booger, etc) and abysmal writing and the WWE was extremely close to going out of business completely as a result. Were it not for the WWE taking a chance by allowing their talent the freedom to take more risks in the ring and on the microphone and following the fan’s reaction to non-traditional superstars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and The Rock, the WWE might currently be in the mess of failed Scrabble-tile-like wrestling federation monikers along with the NWA, AWA, and UWF.
While the McMahon’s get the bulk of the credit for the company’s successful periods, like any other sports or entertainment endeavors, largely these successes are built on the back of the collaboration between the performers and creative staff to produce engaging stories. Simply put, it is easier for a writer to write and take chances when they know that their ideas are in good hands. Likewise, skilled performers take ideas and add their character’s perspective and feeling, giving depth, breadth, and action to the words. When these pieces come together and are presented in a way that the audience can feel and become invested into, magic happens (see: Hogan/Savage Wrestlemania V; Rock/Austin Wrestlemania X7; Cena/Punk; Bryan/Authority).
From all indications, while the McMahon’s are amazing proprietors and marketers of professional wrestling, they appear to be struggle with creating an engaging product that captures fan’s attention. Vince McMahon has long preferred the spectacle of a performer, which has led to numerous prodding matches featuring large, slow, technically lacking stars and other performers pushed because of their look. There are so many stories from past WWE staff members regarding Vince’s initial negative reaction to performers based on how they looked (Mick Foley) or their overall size (Eddie Guerrero), only to be proven wrong by the fan’s reaction to them, that this assumption has to be a valid one.
Stephanie McMahon leads the creative team, but her TV persona lacks the depth with which her real-life self seems to burst. Nearly every interaction between Stephanie and a babyface male superstar ends up feeling somewhat generic in that the interaction culminates in “Stephanie’s Two S’s”: the Sneer and the Slap. As the modern day WWE operates with a kid and family friendly intent, the slap only neuters the male victim, as they can have no comeuppance. The ability to strike back against an evil oppressor in a manner greater than or equal to what was doled out is an elementary key to resolving any physically escalated conflict within a story, and the reliance on using lazy, overused trope makes me wonder if Stephanie is best placed as head of creative or if she would be better suited in another company impacting role which would still highlight her incredible charisma, knowledge, and passion.
These hinderances which are rooted in the McMahon’s are not likely to be resolved as long as the family is in control of the company and it’s inner workings unless it they are willing to hire some people that are willing to speak up and work to convince the McMahon’s to take chances on large scale changes which could reinvigorate the fan base. There are several things that the McMahon’s and the WWE could do to facilitate this change.
Pro wrestling’s roots grew out of the carnival and circus industry. In the early days, wrestlers were part of the show, traveling and living with other other carnival workers. In fact, modern day sports entertainment still adheres to guidance developed during the early days. Early wrestlers adopted “carny speak” as a way to communicate inside and outside the ring. Also, wrestling fans are sometimes referred to as “marks”, the same as midway-goers identified by carnies as easy targets.
The most prominent of the traditions still followed by today’s performers is the itinerate nature of carnival culture. Day after day, week after week, the show travels around from town to town, sometimes with multiple shows in different towns in a single day, with few off days for performers in between. Missed dates mean missed dollars and that stands firmly against the carny code.
The WWE prides itself on keeping it’s performers on the road in order to keep the WWE Universe entertained. Wrestlers are responsible for their own transportation to these events, typically scheduled within a drivable distance from each other. As wrestlers are also responsible for their own expenses while on the road, many will travel together, splitting the cost of rental cars, hotels, and meals. The communal aspect of this experience often allows talent to bond and idea-share and the long-held tradition of good guys riding with good guys and bad guys riding with bad guys is still encouraged. This touring schedule is a point of pride for the WWE, as they routinely tout that performers are generally on the road in excess of 250 days per year.
While this can be looked at as similar to what the average, full-time, 5 day per week, worker across America works per year, consider the wear and tear accumulated by wrestlers due the way the business operates. According to Cagematch.net, Dean Ambrose had more matches than any other performer on the WWE roster in 2016 with 204. On the road, they are stuffed into rental cars, sitting for hours at a time, headed to the next town on the tour. Wrestlers also make appearances throughout the tour at events in show towns that are being held by company sponsors, in addition to taking time to meet with fans associated with various charity and philanthropic groups. Once these obligations and bookings are met, performers typically get on planes and head back to their homes for a couple of days and restart the cycle again.
One can gleam from opinions offered by many current and former pro wrestlers that this grind can lead to injury and burnout. As with any workplace, health and well-being are key, but these are paramount in sports entertainment, as mental fatigue can cause lackluster performances. This can lead to uninspired work on the microphone in the best case to an unintended injury for the performer or opponent in the worst case. Either way, both the performer and overall product suffer as a result.
While WWE employs some of the most finely tuned athletes in the world, even the best of the best fall victim to the rigors required by the job. Injuries to superstars Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, and Finn Balor in recent years have caused the World Championship and Universal Championship to be vacated and long-built storylines to change quickly. One can only wonder if these injuries were freak instances that occurred, or as a result of the accumulated toll paid by each of these athletes over the course of the schedule required of them.
In the United States, the professional sport with the most games and the longest season is Major League Baseball. Teams play over 30 spring training games and 162 regular season games between mid-February and late September, with 10 teams eventually qualifying for postseason play in October, adding an additional 11 games (at minimum) for the final 2 teams. This means that the average player will come to the ballpark 192 times per season and players on the best teams will have 203 games (at minimum). Considering players don’t play every day and have travel demands similar in scope (but very dissimilar accommodations), the demands of the baseball season seem most similar to a WWE Superstar, minus the physicality.
There is one other major difference: baseball players are given 3-4 months off to recover and prepare for the next season. The WWE is never on hiatus.
Adopting an off-season is my first suggestion to shake things up and I have some ideas as to how it could be managed in such a way as to not only not break the business, but make it best for business.
How exactly would an off-season work in the WWE? Interestingly, it might be easier to institute an off-season than previously thought, as many of the pieces are already in place that would help cover the hiatus.
Firstly, the hiatus would be 8-12 weeks in length and it would begin immediately after the Wrestlemania wrap-up shows. The WWE has long looked at Wrestlemania as their unofficial year end. Choosing to end the season at this point would keep Wrestlemania positioned as the biggest show of the year and allow the WWE to continue to sell full-week travel packages that include the Raw and Smackdown shows that follow Wrestlemania at a premium price. Potentially, these packages may be even more in-demand if these shows are the de facto “season finales” (to borrow a TV term) for their brand, as they could also be used as the launching pad for the next season’s stories.
During this off-season, RAW’s network TV time would be filled by NXT broadcasts, which would be 2 hours in length. This would allow non-network subscribers to be exposed to new wrestlers, so that when those performers are promoted to the main roster, viewers would already be familiar with them. This would also benefit the performers, allowing them to perform on live TV and do some touring. NXT is currently taped weeks in advance and aired on the network and does limited touring. Dropping the show to 2 hours keeps the unseasoned talent from being overexposed and the limited run of the series could bring more eyes to the network when the show transitions back to it’s normal schedule.
The additional hour on Monday night would be filled with what is referred to by baseball fans as “Hot Stove League” type content. The hour long program would recap the previous show’s action (similar to Talking Smack) but also include draft coverage and speculation and interviews with talent that help set up the forthcoming season’s content. Smackdown’s time slot would be filled by limited-run content like the Cruiserweight Classic or other tournament style content which would grab fan interest and conclude in time for the new season to commence.
The final week of the off-season will be devoted to 2 things: the draft on Monday night followed by trades and free agent signings on Tuesday night. WWE’s draft specials and roster shakeups typically are much anticipated events, but are often anti-climactic in the way they are handled.
Before the draft, at the start of the show Monday night, each GM will submit a list of 5 wrestlers on their current roster that are “protected” and unable to be drafted by the other brand. Tag Teams will count as 1 total unit. Those designated as “protected” will not be able to be designated as such for the next year’s draft. Champions for each brand are exempt from being drafted and do not need to be protected but can be traded only on the first night for other champions, those with the “protected” designation, and draft picks. These are the only trades allowed on the first night.
Also, each GM will release 5 performers, making them free agents. All remaining unprotected talent will be draft eligible. The draft will proceed using alternating picks between the two GMs, unless there are acquired picks that change the order, until 20 total selections have been made. Each GM’s draft picks must include one member from the pool of NXT talent. Any undrafted wrestler remains property of the brand that they were on before the draft occurred and are trade-eligible Tuesday night.
Tuesday, the final night of the off season, will consist of free agent signings and trades. No champions or draft picks places can be traded on Tuesday night, but “protected” members can still be traded. If there are any players that remain unsigned from among the released players, they will remain free agents and are eligible to compete on the NXT roster until signed. All NXT performers will be treated as free agents after this night. At the conclusion of Tuesday night’s show, all rosters will be frozen at 35 total performers eligible to compete on RAW or Smackdown and free agents can be signed only if there is an injury or corresponding release. There will be one additional time in the year when trades can be made and that is the night after Summerslam, after which time rosters will be again frozen.
Once the first year of this new process has completed, any talent that has performed for a brand for a year but has not been protected, drafted, traded, or released will become a free agent eligible to resign with their current brand or negotiate with the other brand.
Now that the new off-season has been laid out, there are a few other things that can be done to help.
The next change to be made to the WWE product would involve realigning the talent into divisions. With only 35 performers per show, there will be room for the WWE to spotlight other wrestlers by making changes to how existing divisions are presented and introducing a new division altogether.
The first change would be to create a new WWE Network show for the now-robust tag team division. Right now, with the roster as deep as ever, so many tag teams with huge amounts of potential have gone under used, have had their storylines cut short only to seemingly disappear (see: American Alpha and Slater/Rhyno) or have been broken up prematurely. As some of the best matches over the last couple of years have come out of the tag team division (specifically NXT tag teams), this division deserves it’s own time on the schedule in order to maximize the talent.
This show would air on Wednesday night after NXT with the matches taped before Raw and Smackdown (the same process by which Main Event matches are taped). Tag teams from both Raw and Smackdown would appear on this show, with strict adherence to brand specific competition. This change would allow the tag team division to give extra time to shine and keep them from having to compete in 8 man tag matches on their respective shows in order to gain exposure.
Finally, the annual Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Tournament (which really should be the Teddy Long Tag Team Tournament given the Playa-in-Chief’s love of tag team matches, but that’s neither here nor there), would be featured on this show. 10 teams would qualify for the tournament, with the top 3 non-champion teams from each brand being automatic qualifiers. The remaining 4 teams would be composed of the 4th ranked team from each brand and 2 teams from NXT and these teams would face off in the wild card round. The NXT teams would be the NXT tag team champions and 1 other team which wins a qualifying tournament from among NXT tag teams. The #4 Raw team would face the NXT Tag Team champions while the #4 Smackdown team would face the NXT tag tournament winners.
The brands would be mixed when the teams are seeded after the wild card round. The #1 Raw team would face off with the winner of the matchup between the #4 Smackdown team and the NXT tag tournament winners, while the #1 Smackdown team gets the winner of the other wild card contest. The #2 team from each brand will be on the opposite side of the bracket from their brand’s #1 team and will face the #3 team from the opposite brand (i.e. #2 Smackdown will face #3 Raw on the Raw #1’s side of the bracket). This will allow the best teams to face off regardless of brand affiliation and a legitimate winner to emerge with bragging rights. The winner of the tournament will receive the existing trophy and a championship match versus their brand’s champion. If an NXT team wins (which would be awesome booking, btw), they would choose which brand’s champion they would face, with a main roster contract available as well should they win.
The addition of this show and the showcase tournament would allow extra time for the competitors in this division to show their amazing talent to a broader audience by offering additional match time. With the current tag team division being currently being so stocked with talent, this only stands to help prove the old adage that is long-held by wrestlers and wrestling fans alike: great tag team wrestling is often some of the best wrestling around.
The final changes I would make involve the women’s division.
In 2014, the WWE found itself in an historically unprecedented situation: the company was flush with talented female performers. While the WWE long featured female wrestlers, physical looks were often times the focus of the attention given to the division, with competitors competing in gimmick-heavy matches (pudding wrestling, bra and panties matches, swimsuit competitions, etc.) meant to mask the fact that many of these women weren’t very technically proficient. Very little training was given to these women before they were thrown onto the roster, many meant to be eye-candy first and viable performers second. WWE chose to rebrand them as “Divas” instead of women’s wrestlers. Somewhat sadly for the women who had taken the time to develop their skills and become world-class in ring performers, they were rarely able to shine as brightly as capable because of the division’s skill imbalance.
As the WWE developmental system evolved, the WWE made a pointed effort to recruit and attract female talent whose background was in athletics. WWE also hired coaches who understood not just wrestling, but coaches who understood how to maximize matches in order to exploit the unique style of high-level women’s wrestling.
This approach paid dividends. WWE brought in several good, young ladies who either already had wrestling experience or had been already been exposed to the business, and the division became one of the most compelling parts of the NXT product, and the so-called “women’s revolution” subsequently became a social media phenomenon. Once this new generation of performers proved to the fans that there was more substance than hype, WWE dumped the “Divas” and began referring to them as “Superstars”, same as the men.
Somewhat unfortunately, even as the roster continues to be bursting with skill, interest seems to be waning. The women were split across the Raw and Smackdown brands, which has led to some curious matchups and repetitive booking. Further, the way the rosters were split intentionally or unintentionally created a noticeable talent gap between the shows.
Bringing the women back together as part of the Smackdown brand is the first step to fixing the these issues. Allowing the best performers the opportunity to compete against each other is key to stoking fan interest in this division. Just as important is affording them adequate time to tell their stories. Often times, women’s matches seem cut short and sometimes end abruptly, leaving fans confused and storylines truncated.
Adding a 30 minute, WWE Network exclusive women’s show solves this problem. While 205 Live hasn’t been a total success, it has given the cruiserweight division room to breathe and allowed the competitors to have some really good matches without being overexposed. The women’s show would do the same.
The final change coming to the women’s division would be the creation of a Women’s Tag Team Championship. The roster is deep enough at this point that multi participant matches are commonplace and the additional title would allow for another title to be pursued. Tag team wrestling has also proven to be a launching point for many great singles runs and the opportunity to showcase more performers only stands to benefit the talent involved.
By mimicking the operation of another division, the WWE could further legitimize the women’s division as more than just a sideshow. These changes would strengthen the performers, the Smackdown brand, and overall WWE Network content, all while helping to grow the next generation of women’s wrestlers.
So that’s it. What do you think? Let me know in the comments or reach out to me on social media (@factfreemedia on Twitter or search Kayfabe Forever on Facebook). Thanks for reading!