In 2005, ESPN made a decision that undoubtedly improved its reputation in the sports media world, and it had nothing to do with Skip Bayless, Tim Tebow, or LeBron James. ESPN hired the company's first ombudsman, George Solomon. Solomon's credentials were impressive as he was the sports editor for the Washington Post and had worked for the newspaper since 1972. But let's back up for just a moment for those who might not be familiar with the term.
An ombudsman is an independent entity that is hired on behalf of an organization to analyze, critique, and explain decision-making processes within that company. He or she also would react to widespread complaints from a third-party perspective, though employed by the company or group under fire. The key role is to promote the transparency of some group, company, organization, or conglomerate. Some of you may think you know where this post is headed, but you may be surprised.
Searching online will reveal that WWE has no such person or persons within their organization, at least not one that reports to the public, which defeats the purpose.
It's not the ombudsman idea, which is a wise one for any company, particularly news gathering or media-related, that's on my mind, but in a roundabout way, it's relevant to the discussion.
With the launch of the WWE Network this past Monday, everything in many respects changed, with the notable and asinine omission of a RAW broadcast to launch it that felt in any way more special than any normal TV product. On the network, WWE plans to produce both a pregame and post game show for RAW and PPV events, similar to what has been done online over the past year or so as the WWE App became one of the company's foremost interests. If you happened to watch Monday's efforts on the Network live stream, you were likely both disappointed and maybe more damningly not surprised that you were underwhelmed with what WWE gave you before and after their signature weekly event. Nothing noteworthy and plenty of Josh Mathews and Booker T along with Alex Riley, who was respectable, and Renee Young, who as usual, is very good.
So how do you fix it?
Well, for starters, within WWE you begin to treat your product as more than a judged figure skating routine and you also begin to watch how, and I know this is a novel assertion to make, SPORTS pregames and post games are done.
It's not logical to expect WWE to behave exactly like an ESPN, FOX, or even a CNN, because they are producing their own news and analysis, but there may actually be a way to do this that makes sense. To get there, let's look at one of the more worthless pieces of media of any level available anywhere on the globe: WWE Magazine.
WWE's publication gives its readers, which dwindle along with most of its ilk year after year, absolutely nothing of note outside of an occasional biography of one of its stars with some interesting stories from that star's childhood or pre-WWE days. No editorial journalism of any kind exists and the entire magazine is a LEGO Movie style, "everything is awesome...everything is cool when you're part of a team" kind of vibe.
While a three page pullout swimsuit spread of Summer Rae certainly doesn't suck, the internet has made it much less important than in 1995 when Sunny did it or even in 2000 when Trish and Stacy and Torrie did it.
Here's the bottom line. If you want people to buy and take an interest in your magazine, you have to pull the shrink-wrap off your company and hire people that might write something objective. As bad as ESPN The Magazine generally is, you still get the Manziel expose from Wright Thompson or the follow-up once in a while that reminds you the magazine not only exists, but also might be worth a look. Has there ever truly been a time when that was true respective to WWE Magazine since the turn of the century?
The above picture of Tammy Sytch...well, let's just be honest. I'll put the 95 spread on my desktop, but I'll pay attention to and discuss her appearance on Confidential for a lot longer.
Back to television, the two examples to examine are the NFL Network and TNT's NBA coverage, which finds its way onto looped repeats on NBA TV.
Wrestling is different than pure sports and angles can't simply be given away in WWE Magazine or on their network coverage and I think everyone grasps that reality. But, if the company's postgame show was more like Gameday Final on the NFL Network or the best postgame of any kind in history, Inside the NBA, you'd have a product someone might care about for more than passing the time.
If, on Monday night, following the broadcast, WWE Network ran a postgame show broadcast from a studio set put up backstage that would look identical week after week, that would be a start. If the panel was the same each week, and if that panel did not include Booker T, that would be another step in the right direction. Give us Renee and maybe Riley or someone better and one of the journalists that in fantasy land, you hired for WWE Magazine who were responsible for breaking "news" in the way an Adam Schefter or David Aldridge or Ian Rapoport might, now we're talking. Add in two workers or announcers with name recognition who are exceptional talkers or great personalities (see Charles Barkley) and who will always make the brand itself look competent, for example a Brian James or a Mick Foley or a Joey Styles, things are beginning to come together. And if weekly, the panel interviewed the RAW announce team in the same way ESPN goes to Rece Davis and Dick Vitale after a big game for final thoughts, ponder a veritable SportsCenter (but back when it wasn't horrific) focused on wrestling that actually meant something.
The key to any postgame show is the highlights. Here's where WWE needs two wrestlers and one or two broadcasters. Take the Swagger vs. Big E match from Monday and break it down and do what Michael Cole, JBL, and Jerry Lawler didn't do, explain what actually happened bell to bell. Explain why E's shoulder block on the floor into the steps was so dangerous and how it led to a momentum shift. Go in depth on Kane's focus on Daniel Bryan's shoulder or leg, why it was the strategy and how well it worked. You don't have to give away the secrets to make a show of this sort successful. You simply have to treat your product like the secrets are worth protecting, or in simpler terms, you have to treat the matches like legitimate sporting events. This would make even a rest hold matter because your panel would explain what result it had on the victim and what part of the anatomy it most fervently attacks.
In terms of revealing the results of a missed high spot or any missed move, it makes what "works" even more special. It's always been ridiculous to assume that every single move, punch, kick, or attempted reversal should work in a wrestling match. Boxers don't connect on every strike, far from it. In an actual fight, punches are missed, guys and gals fall down, hurt themselves, or attempt things that don't work out. Wrestling matches with blown spots where the guys don't immediately repeat the same waltz to get the spot in have a semblance of "real" along with them.
This is the blue collar mentality that adds charm to a political candidate who might not speak with five syllable words or the reason why NASCAR connects with so many sports fans, because these people appear to be, even if they aren't, actual human beings and not programmed cyborgs. It's okay to point to a move that didn't work, not to ignore it as if it's a blemish on a perfect match. Once again, the LEGO example...everything should NEVER be awesome. Life quite often sucks eggs, and it's the same for everyone on the planet. It's much easier to believe in someone or something when they embrace the omelet in front of them rather than try to paint over it like it was bacon all along and we were just stupid. Just look at how dumb Kathleen Sebelius looked a few months ago. In short, yes, these are the droids you're looking for.
When Drew Brees throws an interception, the NFL Network, a publicity arm for the league whose moniker is "Protect the Shield," (Seth Rollins would approve) tells the audience he did it and breaks down the mistake. So why is the same process not put in place for a missed missile dropkick, a reversed hurracanranna, or simply a signature move that didn't get the three count? Why did Wrestler A lose to Wrestler B, especially when Wrestler A was on a roll in the middle of the match and seemed to have everything going his way? That question should be answered because there's absolutely a reason for every finish, except when two workers are in a ring doing spots with no transition or point simply because they want people to know they can flip or drop someone on their head.
If the match breakdowns and the show as a whole were done correctly and intelligently, WWE could literally educate their audience as to why these wrestling matches the people are paying money or spending time to see...well...why they count, why they attract attention, and in effect the company could teach the psychology of a match to the audience without ever giving away anything whatsoever. It would make the fans understand the work in the ring, pick up on the story elements, and just as a bonus, it could make the hideous announce work much less important, because the audience could understand the value of working on the arm and a hammerlock slam the same way EA Sports and the telestrator have allowed them to comprehend the benefits of a 2-3 or an amoeba zone in hoops or nickel coverage or a receiver's double move in pigskin.
Is this possibility such a radical concept? Can it be done? Am I insane? Was there a reason for the photo of Renee above? Of course there is, but since I have no ombudsman, I don't have to reveal it. Just call me GuyNamedOpaque.
Sadly, the cat is out of the bag and the kayfabe horse can't be put back in the barn...that stallion bolted during the Attitude and nWo era. This idea...isn't about recovering a lost art. It's about putting a bit of a haze across the company that at least indicates THEY care about the perspective with which they present their material.
Give us intelligent discussion about what just took place. Don't force the talking points and allow the show to be the closest thing to an ombudsman that a sport in which every outcome is predetermined can be. Treat the audience as more than sheep and actually teach them something, give them something to pay attention to, and help them grow as an audience along with your product. Admit a mistake when it happens once in a while and put people on a panel that are more than just names on a screen. Speculate on the mentality of the combatants and their friends both in the ring and in what the camera picks up outside of match time. Use the talent you have and hire someone that might challenge the status quo.
In short...just be real. Be willing to do more than put icing on your own cake, even if it's stale, and celebrate your own birthday in an empty Chuck-E-Cheese. And finally, make sure William Regal is on that panel until the day he dies, which hopefully is sometime in the year 2340.
WWE has an enormous opportunity to do something momentous...but just as the above interpretation of life, this is not a perfect world, so the chances or anything even remotely in this vicinity are impossible.
But hey, it's fun to pretend there's only a silver lining everywhere and the cloud actually doesn't exist, right?