Everyone wrestling fan has an idea of what good wrestling is. You listen to Jim Ross or Wade Keller when they guest on Steve Austin’s podcast, and they seem to wish that the WWE was more like what the Mid-South or the AWA was like. I sometimes read a Best and Worst column where its obvious the author wishes the WWE was more like NJPW. I personally wish the WWE it was more like Lucha Underground. How cool would it have been if Bray Wyatt had actually stolen the powers of Lighting and Flame from the Brothers of Destruction and they had to battle to reclaim it.
Sometimes this sentiment of what we want our wrestling to be like spills over into frustration. There's this popular idea that Vince McMahon is this out of touch pensioner who is responsible for everything bad about the WWE today and once HHH takes over he’ll start booking WWE like NXT and the likes of Ryback and Sheamus will be replaced by the likes of Tyler Breeze and Karl Anderson and everything will be so much better.
There’s a lot wrong with that idea. .HHH or whoever else succeeds Vince won’t book the WWE (main roster) the way NXT is booked for the simple reason that its two very different audiences. In fact by differentiating between how they book NXT from the main roster, WWE has cleverly created an engaged audience for what is (for all the hype) still a developmental league.
NXT is a place where most of the eyeballs belong to mature fans who know enough about the wrestling world outside WWE to be genuinely excited about some Japanese lady (who I had never heard about till I read the recaps for the Brooklyn Takeover). These fans also appreciate the nuances of wrestling enough that Jordan v Gable are actually a thing that matters (and rightly so).
While obviously a lot of these fans are also part of the audience for the main roster product, the main roster fan base is much more diverse. It doesn't just cater to smart wrestling fans, but also to children, casual fans and a huge international audience (Don’t let the UK fool you, not all of them are smarks). It’s a much broader audience who consume wrestling in a completely different way and for the most part wouldn't be watching the product if it was more like NXT.
The subtleties of any art form never translates well to a broad audience. If it did we wouldn't live in a world where we’re waiting for Season 5 of Arrested Development while Two and a Half Men is in I don’t even want to know what year and where Bon Jovi albums outsell Arcade Fire 3 to 1 despite getting maybe 5% of the press and none of the critical plaudits. But broad isn’t always a bad thing. I’m not exactly an Adam Sandler fan but if I’m on a family holiday that includes my 11 year old niece and my 60 year old dad, we’re probably watching Grown-Ups 2 on the TV. Broad will always connect with a wider audience because its easier to engage with.
Part of why I watch the WWE is because I very much engage in (non- Lucha Underground) Wrestling in a casual way. Almost everything I hear about NJPW makes me think I would love it. But I don’t watch it because I just can’t make the initial commitment of time to catch-up to it.
The things that make a lot of NXT stars successful or engage us about NXT the most aren’t things that would necessarily transfer automatically to a big stage. You can rave about Bailey or Tyler Breeze or even Jordan and Gable as much as you want, but there is nothing about them that grabs a casual watcher who’s not examining all the details (partly because they might not even know what to look for). Hell, even Sami Zayn was pretty vanilla to me (though admittedly a really good wrestler) until that "You don’t get to end me, I end you" promo got me interested in him and if I’m honest I’m not missing him the way I’m missing Seth Rollins (or would miss Kevin Owens if he was hurt).
It’s already been proven that NXT alumni can be top stars, but the best case scenario for most NXT starts is going to be a mid-card role. Don’t be surprised if Bailey turns up in the main roster and a large part of the crowds are "meeeh" (Yes I saw that match, yes it was awesome, no I don’t really care that Bailey won) or if Baron Corbin is winning the Andre the Memorial Battle Royale at Wrestlemania 33 and Shinse Nakamura is already back in Japan because what Baron does and what he looks like will translate to a much broader audience even if he has 5% of the wrestling ability of Nakamura.
This isn't also to say that WWE couldn’t do some things better that would make it a more enjoyable product. Lets just say they put me in charge of Raw and told me make it better. I would:
- Devote more time to matches and less to recaps and promos
- Use some sort of ladder system to set up stakes where wins and losses matter, and
- Use the entire roster to mix things up more (so the same guys don’t keep wrestling each other) and not feel compelled to make all my top guys wrestle on every show.
That’s just three things and that doesn’t even get into how I might book the characters differently. But that’s when the other reality of being such a huge juggernaut of the product kicks in. How the WWE is doing its job is measured by one of the most outdated measuring systems for anything (seriously, Google how ratings are actually calculated). No matter how well the WWE does, over time its gradually going to indicate that the WWE they are doing a worse job than ever, regardless of the actual quality of the show. Its not just them, all over TV there are shows would kill for the kind of ratings that wouldn’t even come close to saving you from cancellation a decade ago.
So in my scenario where I am booking Raw, I am stuck in a downwards rating spiral that’s not related at all to how well I do my job. Also the show I'm booking is on a basic cable channel I will get notes from people who are probably not wrestling fans telling me I should have Cena in a prominent role (even though I obviously recognise his runs is pretty much at an end) and have the Authority open shows (even though everyone and their mother realises that show opening promo’s are the worst) because they are recognisable and because its good for ratings . I could say no but I'm not the kind of idiot who thinks I can defy the people that write my checks and it’ll be all be fine.
Oh' and I haven't even got into the thorny issue of having an audience base where my biggest star and my best prospect are really popular with casual fans, but the hard-core portion of my fan base hates them in such a way that it threatens to screw up every big PPV.
You know what, I don’t like my own scenario. Screw it I’m going to NXT. Its on my ownnetwork so I don’t get notes, its mostly an adult audience so I can add a decent level of complexity (and not limit my performers into the 5 moves of doom because mass audiences love familiarity) and its not my cash cow so I can get really experimental with who I sign and push because if I can turn this into a touring entity, it’s just gravy.
Yeah, one of my favourite shows (and I’m not just talking about Wrestling here) is Lucha Underground and here I am admitting that if I was in charge of WWE I could make it a little more like Lucha Underground, but I couldn’t make it Lucha Underground. I mean if it really came down to it, I would rather be Lucha Underground because I’m the sort of kid that always wanted to be in Black Flag rather than Motley Crue (that’s not a shot to the Crue, I love Dr Feelgood) but this scenario is always easier when I’m giving up hypothetical money and fame as opposed to actual money and fame.
So how do I deal with this disconnect between what I want and what I watch? I rarely watch Raw live and normally read the recaps before deciding if I watch it on my DVR or skip though it via the Youtube clips. Of course When Lucha Underground Season 2 starts soon I’ll watch it obsessively and completely avoid anywhere on the internet I could see spoilers. If Lucha Underground isn’t on (Or horror! Is cancelled) I won’t suddenly be mad at WWE for not being like this other thing I like more.
To use an analogy, I don’t go to a Bon Jovi concert and start complaining that this isn't as good as Arcade Fire. I just hope they play "Living on a Prayer" and "You Give Love a Bad Name" and then I go home and listen to Arcade Fire and have deep thoughts about how their music makes me feel.
PS: I don’t actually like Arcade Fire, that was just an illustrative example. I’d have said Deafheaven but they're probably not famous enough to illustrate the point I was trying to make quite as well.