In the mid 90s, WWF was struggling. The WWF title reigns of Diesel and Shawn Michaels in 1995 and 1996 weren’t drawing the kind of numbers the company was looking for. Its main competitor WCW was stirring the pot. First they signed Hulk Hogan, the face of WWF in the late 80s. Then it launched Monday Nitro to go head-to-head with Raw on Monday Nights which immediately made an impact in the ratings. Then WCW gave birth to the nWo and took over as wrestling’s number one promotion in terms of popularity. WWF had to do something to counteract falling ratings simply to survive as a promotion.
What they did wasn’t a quick fix. It took two years of building to create WWF’s Attitude Era. It took a mix of consistent booking, real life events and clever use of celebrity to take WWF from a struggling number 2 promotion to its most successful period in its history. The birth of Stone Cold Steve Austin was at King of the Ring 1996. It took him until Wrestlemania 13 to become the anti-hero babyface. But no protagonist is complete without a good antagonist. That antagonist was created by the real life events of Survivor Series 1997 that turned a commentator into the evil boss Mr McMahon. Austin’s rise took until Wrestlemania 14 until it made a positive impact on the ratings thanks to Mike Tyson’s involvement in the main event.
Following Wrestlemania 14, ratings climbed and kept climbing. Then in January 1999, the night Mick Foley won the World title, WWF would never get beaten again in the ratings war with WCW. The popularity of WWF, combined with other factors, saw WCW’s popularity decline dramatically, eventually ending with the company’s demise in March 2001.
Why I am telling you all this? Because it’s a lesson that WWE needs to learn in 2015. Without direct competition from another brand of wrestling (that isn’t their own), WWE have rested on their laurels which has caused ratings to fall to record lows. Decreased ratings will mean decreased revenue from future television deals and it may have a knock-on effect on the amount of WWE Network subscribers. In a worst case scenario, USA Network could actually cancel WWE programming altogether which would cause havoc on WWE’s stock price.
How have WWE been trying to combat this issue? By bringing in a 56 year old Sting for a match, bringing back the Dudley Boyz, bringing back the Undertaker outside of Wrestlemania season and making Brock Lesnar work more dates than he ever has since 2004. Looking through a crystal ball to Wrestlemania 32 season, the projected card features two guys who were in the main event of Wrestlemania 16 – The Rock and Triple H. Relying on this older talent who had their best days in the 90s is starting to take its toll. Firstly, it’s not really have that much of a positive effect on the ratings based on recent weeks. Secondly, it’s causing these players to suffer from injuries. It’s reported that Sting may have suffered a career threatening injury at Night of Champions, The Undertaker collapsed after his match with Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 30 and The Rock tore his abdomen & adductor muscles after his match with John Cena at Wrestlemania 29. Realistically how long will can WWE rely on these part-timers when injuries may force them to retire from the ring for good?
WWE needs to start thinking about long-term planning, like it did when it switched from the brightly coloured, cheesy characters of the early 90s to the edgy, attitude era stars of the late 90s. One of the main reasons for the WWF’s success was its ability to create new stars. While WCW remained stagnant with the likes of Hogan and Savage who were past their prime, WWF invested time and effort into building stars like Austin and The Rock. It took them through the midcard as heels, turned them babyface when the crowd wanted to cheer for them, then turned them into big stars and big draws. Looking at the current roster, the biggest full-time star is John Cena, a man who debuted in 2002. In the following 13 years, WWE has failed to create new stars who can truly draw a big audience to the product. While guys like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan have tried their best to break through the glass-ceiling, a mix of injuries and uncommitted booking has seen them fail in their quest. But WWE is reaching crunch-time. If it doesn’t create new stars soon, the old ones will be gone for good and so will a large portion of the remaining audience.
It’s time WWE looks at the big picture. I think the company needs to pick two to three guys that they want to carry the company forward and book them strongly all the way to the top, even at the expense of the remaining roster. This does take time and investment in talent, working around any kind of injuries they might have and not bailing on their respective storylines when things look like they might be going awry. 50-50 booking that has plagued the company so much in recent years has failed to get anyone over. When Kevin Owens pinned John Cena cleanly at Elimination Chamber it looked like it would skyrocket him straight to the top. But its impact was null and void two weeks later at Money in the Bank when Cena got his win back. Even Roman Reigns, probably the most protected man in the entire roster has lost several times and now doesn’t seem like a big deal that he might have been had he actually beaten Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 31.
WWE also need to look at how they are using celebrities to attract more viewers to its product. Going back to Tyson at Wrestlemania 14, you can definitely criticise Tyson as a person, but his mainstream relevance at the time was unquestionable. Tyson could have been booked to do multiple things at Mania. He could have been put in a match like Floyd Mayweather was at Wrestlemania 24. He could have interfered in a match and changed the result like Jon Stewart did at Summerslam this year. Instead Tyson simply counted the 3 count that won Austin his first ever WWF title and effectively put over Austin as a bone fide star. Tyson didn’t steal but shared the spotlight with Austin. Too often WWE is putting over the celebrity and not the real star of the show – the wrestler. If the company uses celebs to elevate talent like they did with Austin, it will bring more than just media coverage that goes away immediately after the event.
Along with celebrities, we should talk about how part-timers are used. As much as we might not like the fact that Sting has only come back to WWE to lose two matches on PPV, it does show the selflessness of the man to try and elevate the new guys. How many big part timers have put over new talent? The Undertaker has only lost in recent years to another part-timer Brock Lesnar. Brock Lesnar has only lost matches to Triple H and Cena before starting his monster run following Wrestlemania 30. The Rock lost one match out of five which was to John Cena who was already a bone fide star and didn’t need the rub. If these old timers are so popular then why can’t they elevate the new crop of talent for the betterment of the product as a whole?
In business, it can take time for a product or service to take off and become a truly profitable asset to a company. This is why people write 3 to 5 year business plans. It’s why tech start-ups need to raise millions of pounds of funding from investors before they even know if their company can turn a profit. Its risk and reward. If a business only takes preventive measures to try and improve itself like cutting staff or resources or working on what it’s always done, without looking to change its business model, it can end up making things a lot worse. WWE is working under an unsustainable business model. It’s a model that relies on the drawing power of Wrestlemania and the big stars from the past that come with it. Those stars are less of an attraction than they were in their prime and only have a limited amount of matches before they need to retire. A more sustainable model would be a steady stream of new stars being created. Stars that sell out houses, sell merchandise, get people to subscribe to the network and get people to tune in to the product on a weekly basis. While this approach may take time, causing a short-term dip in popularity, if done right, it could bring a much healthier future to the WWE.