Apologies for my lack of content lately. Job searches and potential moves tend to take over most aspects of life. That being the case, I haven't written anything new here in a few weeks. I didn't want to continue the dead air so I decided to post the following article. I'll say upfront that my argument in this paper is referring to WWE's overall current business approach. I don't necessarily feel that there's anything "wrong" with WWE right now. In fact, it's been presenting some of its best work in years since I wrote this. Still, it's not at the level where it once was. And the company's endless campaign to once again reach that mountaintop is what I put under this specific microscope. It's a piece that I wrote a few months ago as a POV paper to aide in my job search (unfortunately it hasn't worked just yet). Nevertheless, if the world of advertising can't yet see my point in this, I'm hopeful that you, the Internet Wrestling Reader, can. So, take a look, and please, leave a comment if you feel so inclined. Be brutal if you have to. I can take the hits.
What is wrong with WWE?
If you look at the numbers, (the ratings, attendance figures, PPV buys, etc.) the answer is “not much” when compared to most other forms of entertainment. Monday Night RAW is a ratings powerhouse on cable every week. Friday Night Smackdown is more or less keeping MyNetwork TV alive (we’ll see how that goes once the show moves to SyFy in the Fall). Speaking of SyFy, they’ve been consistently winning the Tuesday night 10-11 PM timeslot on cable in the 18-25 M demographic, thanks to the newest show, NXT. WWE is a publicly-traded, constantly touring entity that packs crowds into arenas around the country night after night. WrestleMania has gotten so big, and become such a grand event, that it now gets bid on by potential host cities in the same way as the Olympics and the Super Bowl. And to top it all off, at the most recent shareholders’ conference call it was announced that plans are in the works to launch a WWE TV network sometime in the next year. Still, as big as the company is today, 10 years ago it was at least twice as popular.
The late 1990s were unquestionably the most profitable time in the history of the wrestling business. WWE (then WWF) and WCW were deeply entrenched in the Monday Night War (the battle for cable supremacy between their two competing shows, RAW and Nitro, respectively). Nipping at their heels was ECW, the little promotion-that-could that was based out of a bingo hall and a basement in south Philly. Names like Goldberg, The Rock, Hollywood Hogan, and Stone Cold Steve Austin were equally as famous as sports and entertainment icons like Kobe, Favre, Spears, and N’Sync. Even the word, “Smackdown,” a phrase made up by The Rock, found its way into Webster’s Dictionary.
Today though, if you cop to being a fan of professional wrestling (or “sports-entertainment” as Vince McMahon prefers to refer to it), and you’re above the age of nine, you’re cast aside, looked at as a lesser-than. Wrestling fans today are a step below NASCAR and a notch above Bum Fights. In 1999 WWE’s weekly TV ratings hovered between 7 and 9 points (roughly 8 to 10 million viewers). Today they’re down to about 3. What happened to all of those people that were watching pro wrestling a decade ago? The same thing that WWE had then, is the same thing that is hurting it now: mainstream acceptance.
In the late 90s you couldn’t avoid pro wrestling.
It was literally everywhere. By early 2001, WWE had become such a gigantic force that it essentially killed off its main competition. In March of 2001, thanks to tanking ratings and lack of network television support, both WCW and ECW were forced to shut down. WWE was there to pick away at the scraps. McMahon’s empire purchased the name, the contracts, and the video libraries of both companies (Though the exact amount has never been publicly disclosed, it’s been said in various books and reports that WCW was in such shambles at the time of its demise that Vince McMahon was able to purchase the ENTIRE company – contracts, copyrights, and tape library included – for less than $5 million). Once the competition was gone, and WWE saw that they had the mainstream acceptance they’d always wanted, they switched to auto-pilot. They had nothing left to prove, so they apparently decided they had nothing left to show. The characters stopped being interesting. The storylines became increasingly unrealistic. The matches took a backseat to the “comedy.” As a result, fans left in droves, and they have yet to come back.
In the nearly-10-years since then, WWE has done everything in its power to win back that mainstream acceptance. They started (and folded) a football league (The XFL). They opened (and closed) a record label (Smackdown Records). They produced (albeit briefly) an MTV reality show (Tough Enough). Most recently, they’ve created (and are struggling with) a movie studio (WWE Films).
McMahon and company, in an effort to win back the mass love and affection that they so desperately crave, have taken almost every step necessary to distance their product from the stigma of professional wrestling. According to the company, they’re not a wrestling company. They’re not in the “wrestling business,” they’re in the “sports-entertainment business.” Their employees aren’t “wrestlers,” they’re “superstars.” The championships aren’t “belts,” they’re “titles.” Even the fans aren’t “fans,” they’re “the WWE Universe.”
The truth is that no matter what kind of changes the company may make, unless they get rid of the ring and stop putting on fake fights, the marquee will always say World WRESTLING Entertainment. It’s the in-ring product that got them the popularity that they’re searching for in the first place. The wrestling fans are the ones that originally bought into, and helped to spread, the product they were presenting. But rather than take the approach of doing what you’re good at and listening to your most loyal and dedicated followers, WWE is doing everything it can to bring back the people that left it 10 years ago. The bottom line is that most people these days do not watch wrestling, and WWE is being greedy. They want everything that they used to have. Even with the relatively massive audience (both at live events and on TV) that they do still have, WWE’s target market is the people they hope will just stumble upon their programming.
Some point to popular alternatives like MMA as a reason for the public exodus away from pro wrestling. Still, just because the public knows it’s fake doesn’t mean WWE should stop trying to convince them to believe in it. With the rise of the UFC and MMA has come constant criticism towards WWE’s overtly “fake” product. People will argue that the realism and brutality of MMA will completely overtake any sort of marketshare pro wrestling may hold. But some would argue that MMA, and boxing too, are just as showy and fabricated as wrestling. Guys are paired up to fight each other, not because they genuinely want to hurt the other, but because it will make the most money. It’s the same scenario in wrestling. The difference, though, is that in MMA and boxing you receive a definitive, clear-cut victor. Wrestling, on the other hand, does have a predetermined outcome, but the drama and action and buildup to that finish is 100% unique from any other form of athletic entertainment.
WWE’s situation is similar to recent issues faced by a completely different brand.
Over the years, Playboy has grown to iconic status. The bunny is a symbol as recognizable as the Nike Swoosh or the Apple.....apple. But, with the advent of digital media, sales of print magazines have seen a significant drop-off. To counter this, Playboy has ventured outside of its paper comfort zone and found new ways to remain relevant and profitable. Expanded online experiences, television content, merchandise, all of these are ways that Playboy has been able to thrive despite the recent shortcomings of their previous bread-and-butter medium.
Playboy’s case is not unlike what WWE has been attempting to do over the last decade. By branching out into film, music, On-Demand television, and aligning itself deeper and deeper into the Hollywood community, WWE has been able to expand its presence as a globally recognized brand. The difference though is that the more WWE focuses on outside projects, the less importance they put on their in-ring product, and make no mistake, WWE always has and always will be 100% dictated by what they present at their live events. Without a strong wrestling product for fans to believe in and buy into, the WWE brand carries ZERO weight.
In the end, what it’s going to come down to for WWE is looking back; not at where they were when they were at their highest, but at what they did that got them there. Despite their best efforts, WWE has never done well when they’ve ventured outside of their core competency. They need to listen to the fans that are there NOW, and the ones that have stayed with them through the years. Once the product is good enough for those fans to again want to spread the word, then they can start worrying about the “would-be” fans. The marquee will always say WRESTLING. It’s what brought them to the dance, and it’s the same thing that will get them invited back.