Who’s A Draw In Pro Wrestling?

A few weeks ago, underrated legend and trainer, Lance Storm got into a friendly social media debate with Jim Valley, an associate of Bryan Alvarez’s Figure Four Daily, which is under the same general umbrella with The Wrestling Observer site. A few quick side notes, I look forward to Lance’s discussions with Bryan Alvarez every week for their podcast, as it shows the insight Lance brings to the table. Plus, Bryan’s rants are always entertaining. For those that haven’t heard it, I’d suggested finding his ramblings on Youtube about the purchase of a gold boat. More importantly, Jim Valley, who was hospitalized for five months with a life-threatening condition, continues to make improves in his recovery. It’s truly great that Valley kicked out at 2.9 and he’s a great guy.

Now, the debate the former leader of Team Canada and the wordsmith of podcast had was, “Is anyone a draw in professional wrestling?”

In truth, they are both right, depending on the perspective that you want to take on the situation, but why the industry reached this point, and more importantly, the impact it can have on the future is a topic itself.

As I’ve written in the past, there are positives and negatives to “the brand” being the draw in professional wrestling. For roughly the past two decades, the WWE has promoted the company as a whole ahead of any individual star, something that isn’t a coincidence when Vince McMahon didn’t have major competition. From a corporate prospective, the upside of strengthening the brand is, it improves the accessibility and the revenue associated with sponsorships, something that is very valuable to the WWE stock price. That’s what many of the diehard fans that are in the “wrestling bubble” don’t consider when they complain on social media about some of the more infamous mishaps in recent years. Management’s top priority is often the shareholders and the stock price because that’s where the most money is to be made within the organization. One of the main reasons that the company inked their massive TV deals in 2019, as well as the Peacock deal, is because the organization has a very strong public profile that was further established by the success of the stock price. Are the Saudi shows controversial and clutter the timeline of angles for big matches? Sure, but the company makes millions of dollars from those shows and that looks great for the conference calls.

Don’t get me wrong, I shake my head watching “The swamp fight” or Randy Orton puking the Papa Shango ooze, but the company just landed another $1 billion for the Peacock deal so how can you argue with the success?

If the organization is sacrificing the short end money for truly building stars for the future remains to be seen, but the selling point of the brand is success for the corporation. Speaking of which, the other positive for the organization of the brand ahead of talent is that it gives the promotion much more flexibility when negotiating with talent than in the past. For example, when Hulk Hogan was the cash cow for the WWF in the 80s, he was promoted as the top draw and did big business for the Titan Sports organization, but at the same time, Vince McMahon had to keep Hogan happy, both with storylines and with payoffs to keep the train on the tracks. After Hulk distanced himself from the WWF following the steroid scandal of the early-90s, the company was left with a rather thin roster in terms of star power because such a focus was put on Hulk for the previous several years. Granted, the argument could be made that Hulk’s popularity began to fade somewhat at that time, which was seen later in WCW in 1995, but he was still the top draw for McMahon for the previous ten years.

Even when the company is built around a small core of main eventers, there can still be a major dip in star power if a piece of the puzzle is shifted. When Stone Cold walked out, Mick Foley left, and The Rock had started his work in Hollywood, the WWE in 2003 had much less sizzle as compared to the all-star cast from just two years earlier. That’s not to say there weren’t still great performers on the roster because there were obviously stellar competitors under contract, but the top-tier names that draw the general public is a different conversation.

One of the very few advantages of the infamous 50/50 booking that more or less keeps everyone around the same level of star power today is that if someone get injured, the writing team simply puts someone else in the same spot and can continue along the same path. The example I will use for this is, Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins at Wrestlemania 35, and something to consider is, would the amount of tickets sold or WWE Network subscriptions have really been any different if it was Lesnar vs. Finn Balor instead? That’s not a jab against Rollins, but to point out that in the grand scheme of things, regardless of what brand they are booked for on TV, Rollins and Balor will generate roughly the same numbers.

The biggest downside of the brand as the selling point is that, in my opinion, the “brand” as an entity can only get over to a certain level with the audience before it hits a ceiling because for the most part, fans make the emotional investment into characters, and the emotional investment is what ultimately draws the money. The audience identified with Stone Cold, Mick Foley, and others so they were willing to spend money to follow the storylines. Without the emotional investment from the crowd, the product becomes interchangeable with any other entertainment option. The ability to create “must see” TV is what generates money.

Jim Valley cited Kenny Omega as a draw, which, as mentioned, is possible depending on the specific context. There’s absolutely no doubt that when Kenny Omega is involved, fans pay attention, with the prime example being that his involvement with Impact garnered the group the most buzz they’ve had since Anthem rescued the company from the brink of collapse.

Perhaps, the key to the Storm/Valley debate is that there might be a difference between the ability to generate buzz and the ability to draw money, especially in an era when the WWE Network is $4.99 a month and selling traditional pay-per-view is much more difficult.

I’m not going to attempt to declare a winner, but the discussion seemed to bring up some points that maybe the concept of a “top draw” is in the past? Sure, the WWE designed the product to be a brand first initiative because it maximize the corporate aspects and somewhat minimizes the risk of investment in specific talent because injuries don’t have as much of an impact on the general direction of the show when another competitor can easily be booked for the same spot. At the same time, when there’s countless hours of television, social media, and Youtube content, is it really possible to protect someone’s aura enough that they can shift the needle as much as the stars of the past? By nature, when there’s seven hours of weekly WWE TV, how do you prevent any particular talent from being at least somewhat overexposed? One of the reason that Stone Cold drew record-setting ratings during the Attitude Era is because fans knew that had to tune into Raw to watch him, particularly before the addition of Smackdown, the audience knew that if they wanted to see what Stone Cold would do next they had to watch Raw for the weekly content.

In some ways, it’s a little disappointing that today’s era, the majority of pro wrestling is based on the brand as the selling point because just how over particular talents were is one of the entertaining aspects of the industry. However, it’s great to see the competition and the options for the fans because it benefits the entire industry.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta