REQUESTING FLYBY: WWE At The Crossroads (Has It Ever Been So Bleak?)

For many, WWE’s latest ludicrous super show, the absurdly named Crown Jewel, was something of a final straw. Seemingly booked as a parody of the most extreme worst case scenario imaginable, the show seemed to combine all of the worst WWE habits of the past half decade. Almost a week on, I’m not sure what was worse, the grotesque sacrifice of Braun Strowman – a wrestler, by the way, who WWE invested a considerable amount of effort in getting to this point – at the altar of Brock Lesnar, or the comical insertion of Shane McMahon in the World Cup Final at the expense of The Miz, followed by the boss’ son swatting aside Dolph Ziggler as if he were a troublesome insect. For Strowman, who is not the first super-over guy to fly headlong into a glass ceiling, it was a case of, as Talking Heads sang, “same as it ever was”. And in case anyone was wondering whether any further indignity could possibly be heaped on the famously unfortunate Midcard Class of 2008, the plight of Miz and Ziggler last Friday gave you your answer.

Those of us who frequent, and have frequented for some time, the world of wrestling forums, and wrestling social media, know well that such apocalyptically bad writing and booking tends to be met with a kind of spirited gallows humour. Shawn Michaels and Triple H throwing crotch chops well into middle age, well, that’s just one more opportunity to write a funny tweet, isn’t it? It’s a defence mechanism I find myself adopting all the more frequently, because honestly, if we weren’t laughing at it, might we not actually be crying? And look, we all understand what these super shows are, be they Greatest Royal Rumble, Super Showdown or Crown Jewel. They’re a kind of bastard offspring of house show and pay-per-view. Roll out the creaking part timers who can barely move around a ring to please the Saudis or to help fill an enormodome like the MCG, alright, fine, if they must. Stick a load of midcard filler in there, sure. But when you’re actually using weekly TVs to build to this crap, that’s when the line blurs too much. When you have the Wrestlemania rematch of Nakamura vs Styles at Greatest Royal Rumble, or Becky vs Charlotte II at Super Showdown, you’re telling your audience that this is a serious pay-per-view…but at the same time, The Undertaker is botching a simple Irish whip, old man Michaels is dad dancing, and Shane McMahon is winning a tournament where the winner gets to be called “The Best In The World”. It’s not a pay-per-view as we know them, and it’s been televised, so it’s not really a house show as such. WWE are trying to be all things to all people: a nostalgia machine, a place to see high quality pro wrestling matches, a soap opera in tights (I’ve always hated that analogy, but watch an episode of Raw in 2018 and you’d find it hard to argue against), a forward thinking ethical company engaged in social issues, and a streaming service featuring a range of original programming. But in trying to be everything to everyone, might we actually argue that they have become somehow nothing to anyone?

Despite the nonsense that took place on Friday night, I still took the time to check out the Raw “highlights” this morning, particularly as the show hailed from the UK, where, after all, I am from, and good grief, what a slap in the face for anyone who bought a ticket to see it live. Since 2015, there has been a steady decline in the quality of weekly television, but as of right now it is truly unwatchable. Survivor Series team selection bluster, led by the black hole of charisma, Baron Corbin. Filler, some more filler, Kurt Angle (for some reason) back in a week to week wrestling role instead of being an authority figure, Braun beating up security guards. Yes, there was another tremendous Rollins and Ambrose segment, but that was all your £50 plus was buying you. WWE used to be much smarter with overseas tours. When they run Raw or Smackdown abroad, they usually pull out all the stops, put on a special or dramatic show, put on a huge match, have the Wyatts confront The Shield, something like that. But last night was just as unbearably bland as almost every Raw has been since late 2016, and that’s a problem, because they’re saying to their second biggest market, a place where they’ve just launched a splinter promotion, “you guys don’t matter, we’ll put this no effort show on, and you’ll like it, we know you’ll come anyway.” The problem with that as a business model, is that sooner or later, the people you can rely on no matter what will dwindle. We’ve all seen the stats about the average age of wrestling fans going up. The industry is reliant to a degree on fathers and mothers passing their passion to their children. If you alienate the future parents, where will the future merch wearing kids come from? Putting out a crappy “will this do?” product will eventually come back to bite them. Or maybe they don’t realise how formulaic, how dull the weekly TVs truly are? We all know that Vince McMahon himself and Kevin Dunn have an iron grip of the way Raw in particular is produced, and it would seem that we’ve reached the crisis point of the sports entertainment model; it’s exactly the product Vince and Kevin want you to see, and maybe they’re even mad enough to believe that it’s the product you want to see.

The thing is, this is not the way that a corporation trying to grow its influence should act. If we compare WWE to other large sporting organisations, the difference is stark. When the NBA and NFL send regular season games to London, they send some of their most historic franchises. La Liga just signed a multi-season agreement to play a game in the States every year for the next ten years. Who are they sending? Barcelona, no less, one of the most iconic football teams in the world. WWE have a UK tour and they put out the exact same episode of Raw they’ve been running for two years. It’s completely counterproductive. But then, when I was thinking about this earlier, it occurred to me that all of this could be by design. The main roster WWE product is, increasingly, maybe not for me. I can’t actually think who it’s aimed at, or who is enjoying it in its current form, but I certainly am not. So if I say, “I can’t watch Raw and Smackdown”, I imagine the way they see it is “ah, but you’ll like NXT, and NXT UK, and 205 Live, won’t you?” and they’re right, I do like those shows. And it occurs to me that their strategy is to try and offer enough products that their diverse audience will at least like SOMETHING they put out, even if it’s just Bruce Pritchard doing funny voices on a podcast. You know, all of this would be fine if you could be sure that people were enjoying the main roster product, but who actually is? And even if WWE are putting out all these alternative projects for the disenchanted hardcore fan, do they not want as many people as possible to be watching their number one product, ie the main roster? Because I am a wrestling writer and podcaster, and I cannot sit through an entire episode of either main roster brand. If that’s the case for me, what chance does a casual fan have? Believe me, I WANT to be excited about getting home from work on a Tuesday and putting Raw on, like I used to. But I just can’t anymore. Since 2016, WWE have essentially half-assed it, relying on the reasonably captive nature of their audience to keep the revenues rolling in. Well, I think such a cynical position will cost them in the long run.

I suppose what’s most frustrating is that when WWE get it right, they still do it better than anyone. Look at the way they rehabilitated Drew McIntyre and Dolph Ziggler and put them up against the might of a reformed Shield, before parlaying into a resumption of hostilities between Rollins and Ambrose. That was brilliant writing. So they can do it. Look at what goes on at Takeovers and the UK Championship Tournament and imagine that kind of thought going into the main roster product. My goodness, with the talent they have, they would blow us all away. There has never, ever been such a vast assemblage of pro wrestling brilliance as there is currently on WWE’s books…they just can’t use them properly. Look at the way NXT call ups go missing as soon as they make the jump. Or the way key guys of the current generation like Owens, Zayn and Balor are constantly used ineffectually, or inconsistently. Others fall away completely, despite their talent; anyone seen Bray Wyatt lately? What’s Rusev up to? Nowadays, you’re better off staying in NXT, like Johnny Gargano, who I understand is about to break the record for the amount of matches at a Takeover. Old fans like myself watch an awful lot of back catalogue. Right now, myself and Doc are working on the top 100 midcard matches in WWF/E history, and man oh man, what really stands out is the vibrancy. The vibrancy of the crowds, the vibrancy of the performances, the way that these performers of the past were given the opportunity to be productive in the middle of the card. Where is that now? Everything is so…mechanical. It’s the same stuff recycled endlessly. They don’t even try and hide it. Six man tag, contract signing, backstage attack, rematch clause, all these tired tropes in some kind of a random order, with over scripted promos and over inflated match times on bloated pay-per-views. My co-hosts on TRSOTP and I have often joked that WWE real life feuds now play out like the AI powered feuds on 2K’s Universe Mode. Think about that for a minute. A console game randomly deciding where a run in happens, when a fake handshake is offered, when a post match attack takes place, accurately reflects the booking taking place. It’s a dreadful state of affairs, really.

WWE finds itself in a delicate position right now, and I’m not sure the suits realise it, least of all Vince, who has never seemed as bizarrely out of touch as he does right now. The bad feeling created by the present part timer heavy creative direction is causing hardcore fans, internet fans, whatever you want to call them, to leave in droves. Hell, WWE drove away my friend The Doc, perhaps the most passionate WWE fan I’ve ever known! That takes some doing. Meanwhile, in chasing the casual demographic with nostalgic figures from the past, the company don’t seem to realise that the strategy will eventually not be viable. Undertaker is more physically broken than Humpty Dumpty. Kane is an elected politician. Triple H is meant to be running your damn creative for goodness’ sake. Batista and Rock are Hollywood stars. What next? Orton and Cena taking over as a new generation of part timers? What a depressing thought. I think Doc put this well on his farewell podcast this week: if you want to actually keep the product relevant and growing, you need breakout stars from this generation and the next generation, not yet another desperate foray back into the New Gen or Attitude or Ruthless Aggression. If you continually objectify the company’s past, how can it ever have a future? And that’s all I got to say about that, as a certain Texas Rattlesnake would have said.

This is Maverick, requesting flyby.

 

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