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WWE’s Lack of Center

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WWE is in an odd place right now.

TV ratings are steadily declining, but then again so is basically all of television. The era of Cena is basically over; he’s working a part-time schedule now and can’t be counted on to carry the company anymore. For all the angst he brought half the fanbase during his tenure on top, history will be very kind to him. He won’t be (and shouldn’t be) put on the same tier as Hogan or Austin but he was a better custodian to “the torch” than either Bret or Shawn or Diesel, all of whom oversaw a sharp decline in product interest during their times on top. To be fair to those three, the 80’s wrestling bubble had burst and there was not much that could have been done to reinflate it. On the other hand, none of those three were apparently capable of keeping enough fans from jumping ship to other forms of entertainment.

John Cena was an able custodian. He wasn’t a needle mover, though he deserves credit for being the best “face” of the PG era WWE could ever ask for. In that regard he was Hogan 2.0; he just lacked the Hulkster’s ability to lead a cultural movement. To fans under the age of ten, Cena was every bit as big as Hogan was in the 80’s, it’s just that Hogan wasn’t just popular with little kids. He had all ages going bananas for him, and not in the “any reaction is a good reaction” way either.

Still, WWE knew how to utilize Cena’s narrow band of appeal and maximize his popularity with a specific demographic to great success. It’s easy to dismiss Cena as someone who failed to grow the fanbase, but WrestleMania moved to being a permanent stadium show under his reign at the top. There’s a dozen other factors involved in that but to discount Cena’s role would be ignorant indeed.

Now he’s gone and in his wake is a show without a face. In fact there are two shows again and neither one of them has a central face that the “creative” team is building their stories around. Of course Roman Reigns is “the man” until proven otherwise, and he’s popular enough when flanked by Ambrose and Rollins, but put him alone and ask him to play cool/popular guy to the villainous Lesnar or Strowman and those good guy/bad guy roles reverse very quickly. With the Shield there’s no bigger babyface or hotter tag than Roman Reigns. Solo, there’s no hotter heel. That makes for a character who gets big reactions, but it doesn’t make for someone who can bring house show numbers up to snuff. Fans pay to watch the guys they like.

WWE’s attendance numbers are more worrisome than their TV ratings. Hell in a Cell last week was a loaded show, with several weeks of great TV building to it, marketed around one of the most iconic and popular gimmick matches the company has in its arsenal. And the show wasn’t even close to a sell-out. Rarely does WWE ever sell out arenas anymore. Usually the “hard-camera” side of the arena (out of the view of the TV viewing audience) is only half or even a third-full, and WWE constantly shifts attendees around to ensure the best on-camera look. And then they shamelessly declare a “packed house” like the carnies they are.

There’s a lot of empty seats peeking out on the top of that video.

Hell in a Cell should have been a true sell-out, and the show itself more than delivered an event worthy of a sell-out. Like all WWE PPVs lately, there were some baffling booking decisions where bad results took away from good contests. Jinder is still running around with the belt, presumably until December, so that’s an albatross around the show’s neck, but despite that it was more than worthy enough for a bigger crowd than it received. What’s the problem? Could it be the company’s lack of legit main-event superstar (1) being pushed by the company that (2) the whole fanbase can rally around?

In the 1980’s, the Hulkster was the undisputed star of the show and everyone else revolved around him. There were separate storylines, title feuds and more, but they all happened secondarily to what happened to the mustachioed one. In the Attitude Era it was Austin’s show until he took time off for surgery and the Rock slid into the role. Either way it was a one-man show, despite a roster loaded with more “over” talent than ever before (or since) in wrestling history.

Who is the one guy today that WWE builds its shows around? On SmackDown, Shinsuke Nakamura is in the middle of a feud with Jinder Mahal, but he’s already lost two title matches in a row. There’s no sense of urgency around his character from a writing/booking perspective. He’s not “the guy.” On Raw, Roman Reigns is clearly supposed to be the guy, but both times they’ve tried to cement that position the fans have “yeah naw’d” it pretty hard. As a result, WWE has spent the last year knowing they were going to give Reigns yet another WrestleMania main-event (an honor typically reserved for “the guy”) but because he’s so unpopular as a solo act, they can’t book him week-in and week-out like he’s the guy. They have to protect him and hide him in non-main-event feuds in ways they never did with Hogan, Austin/Rock or Cena. They may want him to be the guy, but he’s not the guy...or he’d be the guy.

Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman

Guys like AJ Styles and Braun Strowman have proven repeatedly that they have the it-factor needed to be a guy to build their shows around, but WWE is reluctant to pull the trigger. With Styles the issue may be his age. With Strowman it may be Vince’s stubborn belief that he should be another generic monster heel, no more than the second coming of Earthquake.

So what do we have? We have two shows without a center of gravity; two shows without a singular “hero” (or anti-hero) that the main storyline can build around. As a result, the shows feel aimless, drifting from one three-month feud to another without any anchor for fans to hold onto. Until that changes, TV ratings will continue to slide, attendance numbers will continue to shrink, and interest in the product will continue to wane.

I’m Matthew Martin: I love the WWE but everything sucks and I’m never watching again.

See you next Monday.

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