The company known as World Wrestling Entertainment is putting too much emphasis on one of the words in its name, and it's not "World."
It’s Monday, and another week of WWE professional wrestling programming starts. At this point, paying attention reveals trace elements of masochism and vulture-like obsession.
My Spent Milk spent much of 2017 covering the WWE during its run-up to WrestleMania in New Orleans, often writing about the storylines that give the wrestling matches purpose, and how haphazardly they changed directions and in some cases were abandoned. That, along with terribly scripted promos written in ways no human speaks, made watching Raw and Smackdown—the company’s weekly live shows—a moderate pleasure at best. I saw some really good matches and great performers, but I endured a lot too.
Those problems have continued and worsened to such an extent that ratings and live event attendance are declining. The WWE presented the pay-per-view “Stomping Ground” in Tacoma, Washington recently and had to curtain off part of the Tacoma Dome to force the audience into a smaller space where it would register on camera as bigger than it is, Last week’s Raw and Smackdown took place in the same venue on Monday and Tuesday nights and had to stage manage even smaller crowds. The company knows that the ratings are dropping, but strong television contracts have insulated the WWE’s bottom line and perhaps for that reason, it has tried to deal with the lack of interest in its product in the most unlikely ways, the most recent being hiring professional wrestling veterans Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff as executive directors of Raw and Smackdown respectively.
The WWE has tried to raise the star power of both shows through what is called “the Wild Card rule,” which allows a certain number of WWE Superstars from one show to appear on the other. That idea backfired as the WWE now bases five hours of programming on back to back nights on the same handful of wrestlers. The Wild Card rule initially set the limit for crossover performers at three, then four later in the show that introduced it, but the number has grown each week to the point that the rule the WWE set for itself seem like a joke. Since many of the same performers now appear on both shows, some have been drastically overexposed. WWE CEO Vince McMahon’s 49-year-old son Shane has become the worst offender and now gets go-home heat—the kind of heat that comes when viewers don’t want to see him get what’s coming to him; they just want to see him go away. His storyline is particularly galling because many strong professional wrestlers can’t get airtime while he gets more than enough as a participant in not one but two feuds right now, neither of which is compelling.
Last week, the WWE tried a new gimmick and decided that matches shouldn’t continue through television commercials. That hasn’t been a problem in the past, but McMahon has decided that it’s an issue that needed to be addressed, and the change produced matches that moved too quickly to tell much of a story, or they became gimmicky best two out of three falls, or elimination matches, or … whatever device could be used to give a story 10 to 15 minutes of TV time that didn’t involve wrestling in the commercial breaks. The resulting matches rarely found their rhythm. Ricochet and Samoa Joe overcame the constriction and still had an engaging match, but it would have been great to see two performers of their calibre get the time to tell their story at a less accelerated pace.
The frustrating thing about the WWE and its current woes is that its roster is stacked with people who have shown that they can have great matches that involve high-impact or high-flying action as well as the basics of good in-ring storytelling. And the one avenue the WWE won’t explore in its efforts to improve ratings and interest is better in-ring wrestling. Raw Women’s Champion Becky Lynch was one of the hottest Superstars in the company at the start of the year, but she has been cooled off by a program with Lacey Evans, whose lack of experience shows in her matches. Professional wrestling need both performers to work together to make matches appear real, and Evans’ missed spots make the matches and Lynch less compelling. Similarly, Baron Corbin has Shane McMahon-like change-the-channel heat, but the WWE has him in an on-going feud with the Universal Champion Seth Rollins, even though he has lost to Rollins 10 or so times this year in singles or tag team matches. The WWE believes in him and Evans but the audience doesn’t, and fans certainly don’t see a reason for the two to get another chance against Rollins and Lynch. They’ll get one anyway in an intergender tag team match, driven primarily by Rollins and Lynch being a real life couple.
The booking of Corbin and Evans points to a more basic issue. To get viewers to care about matches, there needs to be some uncertainty about who’s going to win. Another WWE Superstar, Sami Zayn, is great on the mic and a very good in-ring performer, but the WWE has booked him to lose so many times that if he’s in a match, the outcome feels like a foregone conclusion. Rather than build him up as a credible opponent, he goes into a match with a painful string of L’s behind him, which makes it pretty obvious that he’ll pick up another one. Corbin will get chances to shitkick Rollins in the weeks leading up to the match at the “Extreme Rules” pay-per-view, but barring shenanigans, neither he nor the WWE have given viewers any reason to think he can win.
New Japan Pro Wrestling has made inroads into the American market in part because it’s now available in the States on AXS TV, but also because it’s a great product that does a good job of managing wins and losses. The company’s biggest star—Okada—occasionally takes a loss, but not so many that his shine is dulled. The occasional loss builds suspense in his matches, and they are booked so that his opponents look good, so much so that neither is damaged by a loss. WWE losses often make future success by the losers hard to imagine.
The thing that made the WWE different when Vince McMahon grew it from another regional promotion to a national one was its emphasis on characters, so perhaps it’s no surprise that when times are tough, he focuses on the characters and not the wrestling. But wrestling matters, and fans remember great matches, not great promos. Promos give matches context, but good matches will give fans a reason to forgive a lot. Part of the frustration with the Wild Card and the current limited pool of performers getting air time is the knowledge that a lot of really good in-ring performers including Asuka, Shinsuke Nakamura, Andrade, and Chad Gable are getting little or no TV time.
With all the buzz that’s surrounding the eminent launch of All Elite Wrestling (AEW) and the success of its first two pay-per-views as business and product, the question is how long it will take the WWE to snap out of this self-imposed nosedive. Last week we saw what looks like the start of two promising programs—one with Kofi Kingston and one of the top heels in the company, Samoa Joe, and one with Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura. All of these performers have the in-ring skills to put on great matches and mic talent to build the drama. If the WWE could just get out of its own way, programs like those will give fans a reason to reconnect to wrestling.