By Chris Cruise, Guest Columnist
As with most marriages… America’s relationship with the WWE style of professional wrestling is ending with a whimper rather than a bang. The two sides have just grown apart — its boredom rather than abuse that’s the cause of the split. Although one side clearly wants to stay together, the other side is abundantly cognizant of its options and wants to explore them after years of its entreaties to the other to change have been ignored.
The dismal ratings reports from the Wrestling Observer newsletter tell the story in devastatingly objective fashion: with more entertainment choices than ever, including Hulu, YouTube, Netflix and Amazon, in addition to hundreds of cable channels, video games and social media, Americans — young Americans in particular — are choosing in droves not to watch the boring WWE programming anymore. Every Tuesday seems to bring news of yet another 20-year ratings low.
A long-time observer of the sport, reacting to a draft of this column, said “measuring (today’s) rating(s) to ten years ago is not very fair, what with all the channels and (smart) phones (and) computers that sap all TV ratings. It’s a different world.” Of course, he’s right. But the fact remains that WWE’s ratings in particular are suffering. In my opinion, WWE has problems far beyond those the entertainment industry is dealing with.
(WWE is attempting to rebound from its record low ratings, of course and has recently seen temporary blips in the right direction. But Vince McMahon’s magic touch may be fading; it happens to the best of them.)
As F4WOnline.com reported on June 17th, “SmackDown drew its second lowest mark since moving to Tuesday, beating only the show that went head-to-head with election night. Meanwhile, Impact did its highest rating in three months, Lucha Underground’s numbers were way up this week, and Ultimate Fighter did its biggest number in two seasons, so the record lows are not a pattern for other similar programming this past week.” (Emphasis added)
Why? Why after more than 30 mostly popular years of the highly-produced WWE-style wrestling on television (dating from the emergence of Hulk Hogan) are so few people choosing to watch WWE now? Beyond the fact that we have so many choices now, in my opinion it boils down to this: bland, interchangeable, homogenized and pasteurized performers involved in unimaginative and poorly executed storylines. WWE viewers who tune in expecting a fat juicy steak with all the trimmings are getting skim milk and thin gruel. Predictably, they’re not coming back for seconds.
Yes, WWE presents high-quality wrestling, but it does so on a wildly overproduced set with timid, unimaginative, implausible and worse, wholly predictable storylines, when all people want is decent wrestling on a simple set with engaging characters involved in believable storylines. Fans come wanting steak and eggs and get fed oatmeal. And WWE doesn’t seem to be listening. They’ve taken an exciting indy wrestler named El Generico and repackaged him into Sami “Bland” Zayn. They’ve invented Enzo Amore and have made the mistake of thinking the reaction to him will result in improved ratings and ticket sales. They feature middle-school-level acting by the overrated Sasha Banks and think that will cause millions of teenaged boys to rush to buy a ticket to see her. The supposed new face of the organization, Roman Reigns, can’t cut a credible promo, has little feel for in-ring performing and is hated in the worst way by the majority of fans.
That’s the best the vaunted WWE development system can offer? This is what the supposed geniuses are giving the fans? The ridiculously overproduced entrance of the uncharismatic TJ Perkins? Weird and obviously made-up names like “Alexa Bliss” and “Nia Jaxx”? The forgettable and timorous Tom Phillips is a lead announcer? The dull as dishwater Baron Corbin is seen as a money player? It’s all just one undifferentiated mess to most of those who are watching. Hardly anyone believes this stuff anymore and few are buying it.
It’s clear that the WWE decided some time ago that in order to stay on the USA Network, attract the advertisers it needs and bring in young fans, it had to tone things down. But as recent reports have shown, youngsters are a minority of the company’s fans. The WWE’s years-long efforts to Disney-fy their product and attract a majority-youth audience have failed miserably. The company’s fan base has instead gotten progressively older — and it is those fans who are becoming progressively turned off.
No reasonable person can dispute that the wrestlers of today are as good as the sport has ever seen. Individual matches on “Raw” and “Smackdown Live” are almost always good — sometimes even PPV-level.
Save for the women’s matches, there are few botches. The athleticism exhibited by the performers is consistently excellent; one rarely sees a bad match on TV anymore. We see the poorly used, but generic, uninspiring, one-note Seth Rollins and others consistently put on excellent matches. But the fans are sitting on their hands, popping only upon the execution of a high-risk move. Fans come to be entertained but are instead presented with a great athletic performance. No! Deep down they don’t want that. They want drama. They want believable storylines. They want to see big men in credible feuds. Instead, they get Lucha Libre combined with European grappling style combined with Japanese strong-style. That’s great, and admirable, but it’s clearly not what most American fans want and the ratings prove it.
Instead of giving the fans what they want, the WWE feeds them consistently good, non-threatening, rough-edges-sanded-down, over-scripted milquetoast athletes engaged in fake fights where the outcome is rarely in doubt and in which there is no emotional involvement by either the performers or the fans. Even newcomers to the company quickly become stale, simply another face on the roster after a few weeks, victims of the company’s 50/50 booking mentality and its inability or unwillingness to create a breakout star. Too many matches end in disqualifications or run-ins; the bookers apparently don’t have the guts to tell a performer that they are putting someone over clean in the middle of the ring.
As StillRealToUs.com noted: “…it’s hard to deny that WWE has one of the most, if not the most, talented roster in company history in terms of athleticism. There’s no denying that the current stars of WWE have taken athleticism to a whole new level, but there’s also no denying that the storytelling of today’s WWE programming leaves something to be desired. The storylines that play out on TV are unfortunately, often lackluster, and sometimes stars who were successful in NXT don’t always find the same success on the WWE main roster.”
The focus on this week’s show to the detriment of next month’s and the lack of consistency and long-term booking continues to bedevil the company. As a long-time observer of professional wrestling told me recently: “I do think the booking funneled thru Vince (McMahon) is the big problem. If he cannot remember last week, someone needs (to maintain) an overview of the storylines — and then have the guts to straighten them out.” This same observer noted that “the flip side of WWE’s (problems is that) WrestleMania gets bigger and bigger each year.” I think he has a point and I think the WrestleMania phenomenon is clouding the company’s judgment. Remember that, while Pedro Morales was doing great business in Madison Square Garden for a couple of years in the early 1970s when he was WWWF champion, business was way down in other arenas throughout the territory; Vince, Sr. recognized the problem and replaced him — noting, in effect, that one arena does not a successful territory make.
If this were anything other than a family owned business Vince McMahon, Paul “Triple H” Levesque and Stephanie McMahon would have been fired long ago. Judged by the objective standards of the ratings, they’re failing, and badly. And it’s not just because cable viewing is down; WWE ratings have dropped much faster and further than cable ratings have dropped. There is clearly a problem here specific to the WWE.
Another factor in the decline is that the talent that at one time gravitated to pro wrestling know they can make more money with less damage to their bodies — and in a less-negative environment — in MMA. A decade ago, many of UFC’s charismatic stars would have been in WWE. That’s a big loss. Talent drives wrestling and the WWE hasn’t been able to find, create or build a platform for a breakout star in more than a decade. Maybe the WWE’s much-vaunted system is failing the company. Maybe being forced into a system like so many sausages is keeping talent from being able to rise to the top. Everyone seems disposable and interchangeable — just cogs that can easily be replaced. The brand is the thing, we are told. Yet the brand is failing. In any other company the failing leaders would be replaced.
I believe WWE and the USA Network will part ways in a few years, leaving WWE to try to survive with just the WWE Network. I think the company is scrambling every day to get to the point where its network can sustain the company before the USA Network and advertisers end their relationship with WWE. I think this strategy comes from the bold, strategic and visionary mind of Vince McMahon, who has consistently been successful when he courageously puts his company’s future on the line, risking it all, betting every dime on his vision. But has Vince’s vaunted vision failed him this time? Is he unable or unwilling to destroy the system he created in order to save his company?
The only question is whether WWE’s online-only network can be financially successful before the company gets booted from cable.
I don’t think the company will ever be as successful as it once was, not just because viewers have other choices but because the company isn’t giving us what we want and because it is no longer part of the cultural conversation. Where tens of thousands of fans once packed arenas throughout the country to see the WWF/WWE every month, now an average of 4,000 come to see house shows — and they’re surrounded by thousands of empty seats. And the WWE only comes to town once or twice a year!
We may have reached a tipping point for the WWE style of professional wrestling, one from which there is no coming back. Sure, the company has survived what many considered death blows and always came back, often stronger. Many before me have written what were clearly premature obituaries. But this feels different. I hope I’m wrong (others before me certainly have been) but it feels like there are too many forces arrayed against the company for it to survive in its current form. Can it be destroyed in time for it to be saved?
Just because WWE has thrived for decades doesn’t mean it always must. My guess is that history of surviving through deep valleys is leading to a certain complacency within the company. But there are no guarantees in the entertainment business, and the company’s leaders should be keeping that in mind. The American public has always been fickle: look at the once-mighty Sears, Radio Shack, JC Penney and Macy’s. They are all threatened, as are the malls they once ruled, a quarter of which are predicted to close in the next five to 10 years. And where are Zayre, Mammoth Mart, Hills, HH Gregg, Sports Authority, Circuit City, W.T. Grant, Woolworth, J.J. Newberry, Gymboree and Montgomery Ward? Even Wal-Mart is being threatened. Yes, even Wal-Mart! Where is Roller Derby today? Where are the Harlem Globetrotters (barely visible)? What happened to VW buses and station wagons, CDs and DVDs and drive-ins? The NHL is drawing ever-smaller, though enthusiastic, crowds. (Perhaps that is the model that will permit WWE to survive). And after nearly 150 years, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is no more. Few people watch the network news, soap operas, variety shows, westerns or game shows anymore. And who even knows who boxing’s heavyweight champion is anymore? Goodbye rotary-dial phones and landlines, fax machines and bookstores. Cable is threatened; ESPN is laying off hundreds of workers.
We are in the midst of a historic realignment. WWE could be wiped out by these forces with little effort. Relatively speaking, it’s a tiny company. Professional wrestling is not immune from larger societal trends.
Is the strategy to super-serve a smaller but more rabid fan base? Maybe it is and maybe it will work. Indeed, it appears to me that that is the only thing that will.
To be sure, pro wrestling has gone through peaks and valleys in the past and has always rebounded. Like President Nixon, whose political career was declared dead by Time magazine in 1962 and who would win the presidency six years later, professional wrestling has always come back. But there are limits, as even Nixon learned in August, 1974.
In short, it appears to me that the dominant national pro wrestling company cannot survive in its current form. While independent wrestling is thriving by breaking rules and offering its small (but limited) base of fans what they want, the WWE may be too constrained by the strictures of USA Network and the limits WWE advertisers have placed on it to give the fans what they are clamoring for.
The open question now is can WWE continue on cable until it reaches critical mass on its network, or will the fan defection accelerate until WWE reaches the point that cable no longer wants it and there are not enough fans to support the network? Is it in a death spiral (companies and countries often don’t know they are in the middle of a death spiral because they are too close to the subject, too hopeful, and unwilling or unable to see the situation for what it is)? Japan was in a deep economic recession for more than a decade. Venezuela seems to be headed for the bottom. The Nixon presidency entered a death spiral that ended two years later with Nixon’s resignation. Does the WWE have to be destroyed in order to save it? Years ago a longtime observer told me that the national expansion would at some point crumble and wrestling would be dead for a few years; he said it would then slowly rise up in territories and they would get stronger and stronger, like they were before the 1980s. It could be that that process has already begun.
Chris Cruise is a former play-by-play announcer for WCW and currently works for The Westwood One Network. He recently taught a course on the life and times of Bruno Sammartino at Community College of Alleghany County near Pittsburgh: