As we fast approach Summerslam amidst another drought of creative satisfaction with WWE, I am reminded quite starkly of how much I enjoyed the so-called ‘Biggest Party of the Summer’ last year.
Summerslam 2018 was a rousing success in card construction, it felt like. The basic rule was a simple and obvious one, but a simple and obvious one that WWE seem so frequently to miss, especially in an age where it seems every pay-per-view needs to be four hours long: keep the uninteresting stuff short and lend the time to the stuff fans wanted to see. Yes, it sounds self-evident, and yes, bizarrely it seems to be a point we have to make.
Summerslam 2018 hinged around three major half-hour matches: a rousing curtain jerker wrestled for the Intercontinental Championship between Dolph Ziggler and Seth Rollins, a long-awaited story-driven confrontation between old rivals Daniel Bryan and the Miz and a physically brutal, psychologically taxing title bout between WWE Champion AJ Styles and Samoa Joe. Each instance allowed for the delivery of a top quality bout and, in two cases at least, a borderline summer classic.
The rest of the card was afforded exactly the right amount of time each match seemed to warrant – a quarter of an hour for the women of Smackdown Live (SDL), ten minutes for a much needed Tag Team title change, but most importantly little more than a brief five minutes for the fledgling stories people had no interest in. Braun Strowman vs. Kevin Owens, Finn Bálor vs. Baron Corbin, even the re-run of the inexplicably disastrous WrestleMania main event of the same year between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns were all kept mercifully short, to the great benefit of the pay-per-view overall.
The difference in post-show emotions between it and its preceding WrestleMania felt like night and day and left me with the overwhelming impression that WWE had cracked the code, had figured out something that had seemingly eluded them since the first time they padded out Summerslam to a four hour run-time in 2015: how to handle a bloated Big Four show. With any luck, WWE will be able to reprise the same method this year.
The card for this year’s event is still to fill out, but already I think it’s fair to say that lukewarm stories like Natalya’s chase for Becky Lynch’s Monday Night Raw (MNR) Women’s Championship don’t warrant much more than a solid five minutes between the ropes, nor would Kevin Owens’ looming encounter with Shane McMahon: a familiar pairing acting out an overly familiar story ironically fuelled by a whole lot of talking about denied opportunities. Such self-defeating output is better left short, sweet and to the point. Let’s not have a repeat of that horrible Hell in a Cell, where we have to sit through forty minutes of pointless action so as to arrive at the predictably inevitable Shane McMahon signature spot we’ve seen before.
Rumours are currently that Seth Rollins’ second challenge for Brock Lesnar’s Universal Championship will be given a longer run-time, for the two of them to compile a competitive, for lack of a better term, ‘proper’ title match this time around. My attachment to Rollins as my favourite wrestler and my belief in his ability to deliver quality between the ropes means I could live with such a choice. So too, considering the history underpinning the match, would I be happy to see Kofi Kingston’s WWE Championship defence against old rival Randy Orton be given a longer feature length run-time in the ring. It feels like a fitting occasion.
But it’s important for WWE not to overindulge themselves with thirty minute long main event style matches. I don’t want to see the rumoured match between Charlotte Flair and Trish Stratus at all, given how many contemporary and full-time female talents are sat on the main roster doing nothing, but as a for instance I certainly don’t want to see it go particularly long.
I know it’s a little odd to seem so obsessive over match lengths so far out from a pay-per-view, but to my mind it was the precision judgement of such a factor that allowed Summerslam 2018 to be such an enjoyable watch at the time. After all, it seems to me that, having watched an uncountable number of pay-per-views in my time as a fan, many more than once, it’s one of the foremost factors in determining a pay-per-view’s pace and, by extension, its sense of overall quality.
Extreme Rules 2019, for example, was a pay-per-view I saw many fans express contentment with. It’s fantastic to see such satisfaction, considering the wider angst the fan base are currently enduring when it comes to WWE’s product. I didn’t enjoy it, however, because it felt like a never-ending carousel of mediocrity – mediocrity that defied the otherwise great quality ring work put together by what I maintain is the most talented generation of performers in WWE’s long history, and born instead from the tepid storylines underpinning that ring work.
Have you ever gone to see a film and, finding yourself uninterested in the story and caring little about what happens to its characters, feel like you’ve been sat in the theatre for much longer than you actually have? It’s a stressful experience, one that feels like the movie you’re enduring is never going to end! The same phenomenon occurs when watching WWE pay-per-view. A chronic lack of emotional interest in the otherwise interesting action, in my experience at least, makes everything feel like it’s lasting twice as long as it actually is. When you’re expected to sit there for four hours, it can quickly begin to feel like a form of mild torture.
This is an obvious problem when you come across the clearly misguided notion that Shane McMahon and The Undertaker should be jerking pay-per-view curtains in twenty-minute long tag team matches in the year 2019, but also becomes a problem for even the better matches. I was shocked when I saw that Cesaro and Aleister Black wrestled for only ten minutes, because it felt considerably longer. Unfortunately, when this phenomenon does come into play, it means that, by the time you reach the main event (and in this instance I was at least curious about what Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch would do with the Inter-Gender Tag Team genre), you’re watching the clock more closely than you are the show.
Then Brock Lesnar’s music hits and you’re thrown all the way right back to January of the same year….
The truth is, Summerslam 2019 is going to inevitably be loaded up with matches most fans won’t be particularly invested in emotionally. That much feels like an inevitable reality. Thus, it couldn’t be more important for WWE to ensure they remain vigilant of the aforementioned reasons why Summerslam of last year could be called a successfully entertaining show: keep the nonsense nobody cares about short and lend the time to the matches that will deliver emotionally.
If I was feeling glib, I might ask how any WWE pay-per-view nowadays that follows this formula could ever reach four hours in the first place.
Although, there is a take-home from such sarcasm. In recent weeks, for both my own podcast Sports Entertainment is Dead and my joint podcast The Right Side of the Pond, I have been revisiting old Summerslams, from the mid-90s in the case of the former and 2001 specifically in the case of the latter. The difference in pacing couldn’t be starker. While today we might be lucky to be two matches deep into a card after the first hour, in years prior the show might already be on its third, fourth or maybe even fifth! The events clock in comfortably under three hours, and the cumulative effect of such rapid pacing is a far more entertaining, digestible and memorable experience every time.
No sacrifices are made in qualitative terms to achieve this either. It helps, of course, that there aren’t more than ten matches on the cards, and in the very early iterations of the event the shorter match times are a boon as well, with better storytelling heading into the event augmenting the less dense action of the night to weigh more on the emotional scale: to my mind, a far superior method of producing a product satisfying for fans to consume. But even when matches last an arguably unnecessary length of time – ten minutes just for Undertaker to squash DDP inside of a Cage?! – that same aforementioned strength of storytelling heading into the event helps ensure matches don’t feel overlong, even if they might look it on paper.
When this then couples with a discipline of production that doesn’t pad the pay-per-view out with adverts and backstage skits, with stupidly overproduced entrances and repeats of the very show you’ve been sat watching for what feels like a week, what you end up with is a product not paralysed by a gratuitous corporate obsession with length and volume.
Summerslam last year, reinforced by Extreme Rules this year, demonstrated that a balance can and must be struck in the design of a four hour pay-per-view to result in an entertaining experience. Summerslams from further back, though, demonstrate that a pay-per-view need not be designed to last four hours in order to be an entertaining experience in the first place.
So really, the lessons of history are once again clear for anyone with their eyes open to see: size isn’t everything, but storytelling most definitely is.
What are YOUR thoughts on today’s obsession in WWE to make everything – from matches to TV to pay-per-view – last as long as it can possibly last? Sound off in the comments below, over on social media or by joining LOPForums today!
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