The past week, WWE gave us:
- Christian vs. Alberto Del Rio
- Rob Van Dam vs. Alberto Del Rio
- John Cena, Daniel Bryan, and Randy Orton vs. The Shield
One of these matches is scheduled for a pay-per-view (PPV) one week from now, another one of these matches could have taken its place, and the third is one that is very similar to past PPV matches. These kinds of matches aren't outside the norm now in WWE. Main event caliber guys wrestling against each other is a necessity to maintain the ratings and interest in WWE's 6+ hours of weekly programming. Most can agree that this dates back to the Monday Night Wars of the 90s. The only way to survive as a wrestling promotion was to start giving fans more interesting matches on a weekly basis. Otherwise, they're not tuning in to the current feuds and certainly won't have any interest in purchasing PPVs.
There are no more Monday Night Wars, though. WWE has a monopoly on wrestling in America and that is unlikely to change any time in the near future. The problem is that the viewers have been conditioned to expect great match-ups on a weekly basis. Pandora's box has been opened and there's no going back. As a result, there are very few fresh match-ups left in the WWE for PPVs. The few that are saved for PPVs end up getting put on free TV a short time later. We're getting to see Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena at SummerSlam, but would it surprise anyone if we see this being a main event on Raw sometime in the next month? Christian has now faced Alberto Del Rio twice in the last month and they will have their first world heavyweight championship match next Sunday, but is it going to be drastically different from the previous two matches we've seen recently?
WWE right now has operated a sort of middle-ground approach to this issue. They've put Brock Lesnar, Triple H, and The Rock in various PPVs throughout the year and have kept their wrestling limited to only those dates. If you want to see these superstars wrestle, you'll have to pay for it. However, if you want to see other big names like John Cena, CM Punk, Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam, or Daniel Bryan, you only have to tune in to Monday Night Raw or Friday Night Smackdown. This gives you a few fresh match-ups when mixing them with the part-timers, but not much.
So what options does WWE have to remedy this? There are at least a few options that can be experimented with:
- Bring back the brand split, but leave the PPVs as brand independent. This forces the writers to avoid certain match-ups. You can have a draft as a shake-up to create some new match-ups like they've done before. You could also use Main Event as the in-between where you have one-off matches. If a certain match gets a lot of praise, you could then have that be an inter-brand feud that gets a lot of focus for being a rare inter-brand feud. The main issue here would be creating more main event level stars. There is enough talent in WWE to accomplish this, but it's extremely difficult to create true main eventers from scratch.
- Create more part-time stars out of guys like Cena and Punk and leave the free TV matches to the mid-card. Unlike Brock Lesnar or The Rock, these guys could still take part in some house-shows and would still be on TV but in a non-wrestling capacity. You would expect the ratings/TV viewership to take a hit in this scenario, but with the expectation that you are generating a lot more interest in your PPVs and giving fans a reason why they would have to pay to see their favorites like Cena and Punk wrestle.
- Eliminate the non big 4 PPVs. Those 4 PPVs still give you enough revenue to keep and a big enough gimmick to ensure that they are special. You could even move the Money in the Bank matches to SummerSlam to help make up for the lack in hype compared to WrestleMania. I believe this is the best route to take and I think it can follow a similar format to the NXT structure. NXT right now offers no pay-per-views and is arguably the most well-written, well-booked show WWE runs. A large part of that is there are no PPV's to build to. When two wrestlers engage in a feud, they begin wrestling each other within a week (TV time, not taping time). There's no need to use four weeks to promote just one match. This also helps hide a lot of wrestlers' weaknesses on the mic. Just think of someone like Sheamus not having to kill time committing felony crimes and disrespecting legal proceedings.
- Maintain the status quo. They are still getting enough PPV buys to make it profitable to run monthly PPVs and the TV ratings are still strong compared to other cable shows. The big question mark here is how long can they keep the PPV buys going as they continue to place a lot of importance on the free TV side of things. Also, will a new TV contract make them focus on more high profile matches on free TV as compared to saving these matches for PPVs?
I'm sure there are also more options and thoughts on the issue than just those that I listed. And its entirely possible I'm putting too much thought into the issue. As a fan, I should feel happy that I'm getting a lot of great matches for free on TV. I just can't help but shake the thought of how strange it is to make people pay for some matches that have either been seen on TV already or will be seen on TV shortly after the PPV match.