As long as you're not blind or deaf, you can see and hear the reaction Daniel Bryan gets when he performs in front of live crowds at venues all across the globe. He has the most over catchphrase -- "YES" -- since Stone Cold Steve Austin ruined our lives with "WHAT" back in 2001, and he uses it to great effect.
He's become so popular with the audience at any given arena, in fact, that fans have taken to completely hijacking shows to chant for him. It happened, to a small extent, at WrestleMania 28 back in 2012. It happened, to a much larger extent, the next night on Raw in Miami. It's happened many times since then, including at the 2013 Slammy Awards in Seattle when it got so bad during the go home segment to the TLC pay-per-view (PPV) featuring a John Cena vs. Randy Orton confrontation that the former had to call an audible and incorporate Bryan into his promo just to keep the fans on track.
Then it happened again last night (Sun., Jan. 26, 2014) at the Royal Rumble PPV at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Only this time it was different. It wasn't just a group of fans chanting "YES" throughout the night, or audibly begging for his inclusion in the actual Royal Rumble match. No, this particular segment of the audience revolted when it became clear it wasn't going to get what it wanted.
They booed Rey Mysterio, as clean cut a babyface as you'll find, and cheered his eventual elimination, not because they don't like him but because he had the misfortune of drawing number 30 and not being Daniel Bryan.
They booed Batista, who won the match, and flipped him off as he was walking to the back. He got pissed enough about it that he returned the gesture and mocked Bryan on his way out. Naturally, rumors of upset WWE officials soon followed.
They booed the skies, because those skies house the sun that gives creative life to Vince McMahon, who just doesn't see money in Bryan, a sentiment echoed by "The Beard" himself.
Naturally, this is a problem.
And it's an even bigger problem because there doesn't seem to be a clear cut solution to it.
If you're wondering how it could be possible that Bryan gets the crowd reactions he does and he's still not carrying the WWE world heavyweight title, well, there's an answer you're probably not going to like.
Because he's not best for business.
I don't mean that in the Triple H "new kayfabe" way, but in the "cold, hard numbers" way. Put simply, Bryan isn't moving merchandise like a CM Punk or a John Cena, he isn't selling out house shows where he's the advertised main event, he isn't exploding PPV buyrates, and his quarter hour ratings on Monday Night Raw and Friday Night SmackDown do not show popularity on par with how loudly he's cheered.
As noted by Dave Meltzer on Wrestling Observer Radio last night, Eddie Guerrero broke through the glass ceiling and won the WWE title in 2004 only after the quarter hour ratings on SmackDown went through the roof when he showed up on TV. Fans loved him at the arenas AND they tuned in at home.
As of yet, that's simply not the case for Bryan.
There are strong arguments to make over why that may be. Bryan's merchandise probably isn't selling because most of it is ass ugly. Really, who is going to buy a hat where the bill is a fake beard? As for ratings and PPV buyrates, well, booking could play a bigger part in that than anyone is willing to admit. Bryan himself has said he's gotten over despite not being protected like the bigger stars in history, and he's exactly right.
You weren't seeing many clean Steve Austin losses on Raw during the Attitude Era, and least of all when he was on his way to winning the title. Actually, you were seeing him go toe-to-toe with Mike fucking Tyson and look every bit the badass on the level of the man who, at that time, was still considered "The Baddest Man on the Planet."
A big reason fans bought into Austin -- and he's being used to compare to Bryan here because Bryan gets a reaction something like he did -- was because WWE told you, sometimes without having to say it and speaking through actions and sometimes just coming right out and shouting it, that he was the top of the food chain. And it wasn't just hyperbole, he went out and delivered on it. He broke his neck and was back on Raw stunning the boss a month later. He won two Royal Rumble matches in a row, then won the title at WrestleMania in the main event.
This some two years after he coined his top catchphrases and was positioned strongly. Bryan, meanwhile, is almost two years removed from coining his top catchphrase and he boasts no Rumble victories -- again, despite the audience aching for it -- and there doesn't seem to be a grand plan to put him over big at WrestleMania.
But not only is Bryan not getting put over, he was actively shit on during his title chase. The angle for Austin was that he was a tough-as-nails redneck who curses, drinks beer, and beats the hell out of people, so the powers that be had to figure out how to get the belt off him because he was a loose cannon who kicked too much ass.
Why is it a surprise, then, that ratings and PPV buyrates aren't shooting through the roof? Well, it's not; not really. The creative powers that be have convinced the audience Bryan will get screwed over time and time again because that's exactly what they said they would do and that's exactly what they've done. There's no reason to tune in because we've seen this movie before, and the ending sucks.
There is, however, a reason to buy a ticket to watch the live show -- the "YES" chant is so much fun with 10,000 people doing it along with you -- and those fans are making their voices heard loud and clear. We still want Bryan, we just don't want him in the form WWE is giving him to us.
To circle back, though, most of the main business indicators that Vince McMahon and company follow and use (partly) to determine who gets the WWE title and who doesn't aren't showing how massively over Bryan has become. That means a change isn't likely to occur, despite the reaction. Bad booking or not, that's the reality as it stands right now.
It's created quite the conundrum for McMahon.
What makes it even worse for the big wigs in Stamford is more and more crowds may be more and more inclined to follow Pittsburgh's lead and totally hijack shows where Bryan isn't featured and positioned like the biggest star on the card.
That could very well include WrestleMania 30. If they turned on John Cena vs. Randy Orton, then booed Batista out of the building, how will they react to Orton vs. Batista for the same title they all want Bryan to be carrying, especially if it's the main event of the biggest show in company history, the first PPV featured on the WWE Network?
It could get really, really ugly.
The solution could be as simple as rearranging the bout order at WrestleMania. Or it could be as devastating as burying Bryan to snuff the chants out once and for all.
Or -- GASP -- WWE could scrap all plans, call the audible live crowds are begging for, and book Bryan to win the belt and close WrestleMania 30 with 80,000 fans chanting YES at the same time.