If you have followed any of my wrestling-related blog pieces over the years on CosBlog, you may already know that I became an avid fan of the WWE product since 1994. Back then, my all-time favorite wrestler Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart was in a heated feud with his younger brother, the late Owen Hart. What I did not know at the time were a few things:
- This was Owen’s biggest push after years of bad gimmicks and a lack of creative direction.
- The WWE was trying to recover from a steroid scandal that nearly ended the company.
- The WWE’s business had dropped off across the board after losing marquee stars and licensing deals as a result of the steroid scandal and audience fatigue.
- I would be glued to WWE programming for the next 27 years.
Regardless of the WWE product’s issues at the time, I was an 11-year-old kid hooked on the outlandish storylines, the cartoon gimmicks, and finding the Hasbro and LJN action figures that I missed out on. There were no online dirt sheets to find out what was happening backstage. Even the wrestling magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated among others would keep me guessing what was going on in a very kayfabe manner.
I frequently get the inspiration to write about WWE whenever I have a grievance about the product at a particular moment in time. Despite the years of venting my frustration about everything from John Cena’s overbooking to mid-card talents being mishandled, to Roman Reigns being forced upon fans, somehow I still kept watching the shows. There would always be someone or something that pulled me back into the product and a reason to shell out money for Mattel’s Retro line of toys.
On July 31st, 2021, my relationship to the WWE changed forever. It was the day when Bray Wyatt (aka Windham Rotunda) was officially released by the company. It disturbed me how one of the biggest money attractions in years with “The Fiend” character was suddenly dropped without explanation. We heard rumors about creative differences, personal issues, lack of communication with management, etc. Even if there were reasons to complain about the company’s booking decisions (i.e., losing to Goldberg in Saudi Arabia), there was no doubt that Wyatt was more over with the audience in a year and half than he was in his entire run. He had the potential to be a top attraction just like the Undertaker. So why did his release mark a change in my fandom for WWE?
Wyatt’s release came in the midst of a massive cutback in talents that began during the previous summer and it was all reportedly the result of “budget cuts”. The list was staggering from the lower end of the card (i.e., Sarah Logan, Slapjack, the Iconics, Zack Ryder, etc.) to main eventers (i.e., Nia Jax, Mickie James, Samoa Joe, Brawn Strowman, etc.). While there were those who were deserving of their firings, most of the others had serious potential set back by injuries or lazy booking. Even more shocking were those very NXT talents that Triple H himself fostered and mentored into stars. Among them, Adam Cole and Keith Lee. From athleticism to character, these men had the necessary IT factor to become household names. Unfortunately, an out of touch owner in 76-year-old Vince McMahon saw one man (Cole) as being too small and more like a manager and the other man (Lee) as a beastly heel with a new name related to a golden age wrestler and made him scream like a cat. Though he tried to work his magic to keep Cole, he flat out threw his hands up on Lee and cut him along with his fiancée by year’s end. For a company generating hundreds of millions of dollars each quarter, there is no way budget cuts were the single reason for losing these talents.
This is where I get to the root of the problem: WWE no longer cares about what the fans think as long as checks are getting cashed. Unlike 1994 when they were in financial strain and eventually had to respond to the evolving audience attitude, WWE now generates more revenue through TV deals and licensing than at any point in time whenever wrestling had a boom period. Fans can tweet their displeasure all day. Ratings can drop to their historical lowest in the 18-49 demo. The talent backstage can get frustrated with their spots and vent publicly as “sources” to the likes of Dave Meltzer and other dirt sheets. None of it matters because WWE can afford to not give a damn. With Nick Khan as WWE’s President and Chief Financial Officer, the company has quietly changed its direction from the old term “sports entertainment” to being a “content creator” akin to Netflix. If you know Netflix well, they pump out new movies and episodic series every week. Not all of it is good quality; however, it increases the supply to meet a greater demand as many streaming platforms are doing right now with more people consuming their media at home. With Vince pushing out so many hours of TV time a week, there is extraordinarily little time to ensure any real quality control in overall presentation of the product on-screen. As long as Raw and Smackdown have something for everyone regardless of age, race, or gender, the tone of the shows will remain unbalanced.
Then there is the other turnoff: WWE is no longer invested in the future. I’m not specifically talking about increasing its value for the possibility of getting sold to a mega-corporation like Disney or Comcast in another few years. In the days long after Hogan, Austin, Rock, and Cena, WrestleMania used to sell itself no matter who was in the main event. Now, there is almost zero up and coming stars getting any closer to being on a main event level anymore. There is the constant need to return to the well of overpaid stars of the past (i.e., Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg) to run the same old matches with the hand-selected stars who Vince has the most investment in (i.e., Roman Reigns). For everyone else, however, guys like Seth Rollins, Drew McIntyre, Kofi Kingston, Big E., and Finn Balor can get their moments at virtually anytime and win a major title. But unfortunately, those wins would usually happen not on the main event or get booked like a fluke. So, when they lose those titles, those same guys are demoted back where they were or fired. There is no sense of long-term investment in building any one of them to be ready for the day when the big money guys can no longer work. One will say just relax, enjoy the ride, and be patient. They will get their time again. But when everything gets positioned to returning to the well with the same 3 or 4 guys, when can we say enough is enough and it’s time for a change?
If you do not believe a word I’m saying, then take a recent blockbuster like SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME as an example. The 3rd entry in the Tom Holland-led MCU trilogy grossed over $750 million domestically and more than $1 billion worldwide. It played into the nostalgia of the past while exciting moviegoers for more stories to come with the most iconic Marvel Comics character. Now compare that to other Phase 4 releases in 2021: BLACK WIDOW, SHANG CHI, and ETERNALS. All 3 films grossed between $150 to $250 million domestically and did less than half worldwide compared to Spider-Man. While WIDOW was plagued by the Pandemic changing its release date and a simultaneous release on Disney+, something has to be said that all 3 films were pushing commercially unproven characters that were an acquired taste for moviegoers. They made money on the Marvel name. Spider-Man made money on Spider-Man. At the end of the day, the real bank will be made on the iconic characters at the top. They are safe bets.
This is also true about WWE. In an age where attention spans are getting shorter and people are more cautious about where they spend their money, this company wants to play it safe with those very talents who will give main event matches that draw regardless of in-ring quality. They want those people who will instantly give their attention to what’s familiar. That is why, for example, the WWE ice cream sandwiches only have sketching on the cookie of 2 current roster moneymakers (Roman Reigns and Becky Lynch), 1 inactive performer (John Cena), and 1 departed legend (Randy Savage). It is also why as a ratings ploy they will do an appreciation night of an inactive star (The Rock) who is too busy with Hollywood to do any wrestling business in order to create “possibility” in the mind that such a star can return at any time. And when they can’t get the biggest name ever, they get the next best star (Stone Cold Steve Austin) to show up, hype up the crowd, hit a stunner, and chug beers all so they can stop the ratings slide for one week.
The good news for wrestling fans as well as aspiring wrestlers today is that there are options to turn elsewhere. I’m not ashamed to say All Elite Wrestling is my weekly addiction since its doors opened in 2019. The wrestling is top notch, the emphasis on pushing young talent is great, and the lack of B.S. makes it more entertaining for me to love wrestling again as I recently told Eddie Kingston during an autograph signing at the last AEW show I attended. Now AEW is not without flaws between a roster that is getting over stacked, an owner who sometimes tries a little too hard to be cool in public, occasional segments that bomb on TV, and sometimes a questionable booking process. But the good outweighs the bad for my viewing pleasure.
Plus, with the excessive amount of WWE roster cuts, other smaller companies such as Impact Wrestling, MLW, GCW, AAA, and New Japan Pro Wrestling can benefit from the rub that these talents got from being part of the top company in the business. One wrestler who proved anyone can survive without the WWE machine was Matt Cardona (formerly Zack Ryder). A Long Island-born kid and cancer survivor who got himself over with his YouTube channel not controlled by WWE. But as soon as he got a little push, a bad rating for one show resulted in his ultimate decline. Only after he was let go did Cardona not only keep his popular Major Wrestling Action Figure Podcast going but he also bounced around the various companies getting into bloody feuds and winning titles in the process. He found far more success on his own to the extent that it made his WWE run look like nothing more than as developmental period.
With all this competition out there, I thought the WWE would step up its game creatively to excite fans once more just like during the Monday Night Wars. But when I watched this year’s Royal Rumble, I realized nothing changed. The women’s rumble match was half inactive Divas from the past. The men’s rumble was poorly booked with botches, questionable eliminations, and no surprises. The winners for both rumble matches were the same predictable big money stars. No one new really shined and nobody seriously got over. It’s 2022. Yet, the top stars dominating the card are the same people from 1999 through 2015.
Nothing is going to change anytime soon, if ever. WWE will continue to play safe with their top money stars and part-timers. Storylines will continue to lack logic and treat its audience with disrespect. Mid-card players will get their moments but get shut down for the greater purpose of hyping the next big money match be it at WrestleMania or in Saudi Arabia. Nonsense like the 24/7 title will continue to be a joke despite being irrelevant and stupid each week. Stars who want to leave for legitimate reasons (Mustafa Ali) will be held to their contracts for no reason except the boss says so. NXT, once the best programming that WWE was putting on, will continue to devolve like Nickelodeon slime as the company pushes the indie darlings away and pursue “natural athletes” who have the right look, but no wrestling ability. I will continue to praise the company when they do something worthwhile (i.e., Roman’s tribal chief run, emphasis on the female and African American talents, etc.). While I vent out my views, the last thing I want is to shut down anyone who enjoys the product. Wrestling fans have the right to enjoy one or more promotions and not get ridiculed if they like one more than the other. As far as I can see it for me, however, the boss has his “vision” and he makes billions of dollars regardless of low attendance, ratings, and critics. It does not mean I have to sit there and accept it when my time gets even more precious with age.
WWE is nothing more than the ex-girlfriend I have fond memories of in a far distant time. Such a time is what I learned to let go of so I can grow.