The past week in professional wrestling and the world in general has been a whirlwind. With non-essential businesses shutdown and recommended quarantined countries, the public definitely has more important problems than the status of Wrestlemania. Still, as we all (hopefully) try our best to contribute to a solution and not add to the problem, this entire scenario had a staggering effect on sports entertainment. Recent Raw and Smackdown shows have been almost unwatchable with no audience and stars posing for a non-existent crowd. The entire independent circuit, including the dozens of shows that are usually scheduled around WWE’s major event, is more or less paused as many cities are limiting public gatherings. However, in true Vince McMahon fashion, the leader of sports entertainment won’t allow even a possible pandemic halt his signature event, as the show is still scheduled to air as a two-night event on the WWE Network. Aside from wondering why the company would push forward when it seems much more logical to postpone the event until public restrictions are lifted, the question is, what will this Wrestlemania be without a crowd?
Furthermore, what does the entire situation say about the WWE product?
Recently, I began reading Michael Azerrad’s depressing, but fascinating biography about Nirvana, “Come As You Are:The Story of Nirvana.” Azerrad’s in-depth look at the rock trio that ushered in a change in the music industry includes quotes from dozens of hours of interviews he had with the members of the band, including the late front man, Kurt Cobain. But, before he traces the path of Cobain’s isolated childhood, documents Dave Grohl’s fierce drum style, or Chris Novoselic’s mellow lifestyle, Azerrad spends the first few chapters exploring why the punk rockers had the chance to break through to the main stream from Seattle’s underground music scene. When the band’s 1991 Nevermind album sold more than 5 million copies upon its initial release and has since sold a total of nearly 30 million copies, making it one of the best-selling rock albums of all time, it made a statement about the music industry. Too often, the main stream record labels of the early-90s would use promotional dollars, not the quality of the music to sell records. Most songs that made the charts at the time were all sizzle and no substances, mostly fading away when the next trend was pushed to the public. Cobain’s gravel voice along with the unfiltered musical style of Grohl and Novoselic couldn’t be corporately packaged as anything other than what it was, an unapologetic view of society. Sure, the band had other members in its early days and a few collaborators, including the talented Pat Smear, but the three musicians most well-known as Nirvana were a successful combination for a reason.
As much as entertainment takes numerous forms, the success behind it often has a similar narrative, there’s a theme that the audience can identify with or connect to within the performance. It’s not a coincidence that during the same era that Jerry Springer had pay-per-view specials and Howard Stern was heard by nearly 20 million listeners that Steve Austin drove a beer truck to the ring because professional wrestling reflected most of society.
In some respects, the no frills atmosphere of WWE programming has exposed some of the reasons there was discontent with the product in recent years. Perhaps, similar to the music industry that Nirvana put on notice, the current WWE landscape is more about the over-the-top production value than the quality of the content. For the past several years, the Wrestlemania brand, not the actual card, has been the selling point of the biggest event on the calendar. Now, without the option to use all the smoke and mirrors of a massive set and pyro to act as a form of camouflage, maybe the WWE product is being viewed as what it might be in its purest form, a rather flat event without anything that truly draws viewers.
As a comparison, the WWE became the walmart of wrestling, a cheap and easily accessible brand that the audience is already familiar with, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to quality. In fact, how many times in recent months has management brought back stars from at least two decades ago to boost the ratings for a particular week? The bigger question is, how much of WWE viewing patterns are more habitual or a familiarity based on the success of the past than the ability to make viewers want to tune in each week? Outside of Brock Lesnar or John Cena, both of them as part-timers, who actually moves the needle? The talent is there, but the structure and presentation of the product might hinder the progress of some competitors on the roster.
The publicly traded company churns out content almost as if it was on auto-pilot to satisfy its stockholders more than a focus on the demands of the audience. I’ve written about it several times before, but with the dominate market share that the company maintains, there’s a certain level of complacency and mediocrity that developed within the product. As a result, the core audience that has those habitual viewing patterns still tunes in, but with less consistent viewing on a weekly basis. Part of the problem is that the structure of WWE programming more or less allows for that because there are times that a viewer could skip a month of Raw and not really miss the majority of the narrative of the show.
It appears that the company has gotten too comfortable in its position as the undisputed leader of sports entertainment, and again with the price of pay-per-view events being $10 a month on the network, they unintentionally lowered the value of those events. Along with that, since the network is sold as a bundle with the classic content and special features, there’s not the pressure for management to sell a specific pay-per-view to the audience. As much potential as Drew McIntyre has, it wasn’t as though the audience was rallying around him prior to the Royal Rumble win and before that he almost floundered on the mid-card on Raw so it’s possible that the writing team just picked McIntyre because someone had to win the Rumble more than he was over enough with the audience to justify a major push.
Granted, the over-the-top atmosphere is always a trademark of WM, but there’s pyro every year so ultimately the quality of the event is what makes it memorable, not the set for the entrance. If this year’s WM had matches or storylines that the fans were emotionally invested in than the venue wouldn’t be a determining factor of its success. The major difference is that the company can’t use its promotional dollars to attempt to sell viewers on the importance of the event.
The totality of this situation is why All Elite Wrestling being successful would be extremely beneficial to everyone involved in the wrestling industry. Obviously, some of the aspects of AEW must be tailored to the main stream to expand it’s fan base, but similar to how Nirvana took a niche form of music and presented it in fashion that became main stream, there are elements of AEW’s product that could help boost the wrestling industry. For example, last week’s episode of Dynamite didn’t have fans either, but had more hype than anything during the recent Raw or SD shows. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be negative about Wrestlemania, but the performance center TV shows highlight the lack of buzz around the product. The same question continues to surround WWE booking decisions, what will the company schedule when they don’t have stars from the past to boost the product? The answer won’t be at WM 36 because a 53-year-old champion is defending the title and Roman Reigns is booked for the main event for the fifth time in the past six years to attempt to get him over as the top star.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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