I toyed with writing this—I haven't written anything in a while—before committing to do so because it's WWE-related.
Keep in mind, I don't hate WWE—it's a fine wrestling promotion—but I don't watch it. I am fully an AEW guy. I don't even get up in arms over "booking decisions" anymore because AEW's show is so plot-oriented that it is dumb to worry about it.
However, I could not help but notice how many people were up in arms over WWE's decision to pivot to 53-year-old Bill Goldberg. That pivot, of course, is Goldberg defeating "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt for the Universal Championship.
Allow me to be one of the few to say this: WWE made the right decision. In fact, "The Fiend" should have never been put into a position to be any show's focal point. And yes, Goldberg was the right one to shoehorn into this position.
However, today's decision serves as a microcosm two things about WWE and today's pro wrestling world. I don't consider these to be "issues" in a bad sense. Nonetheless, they're worth an extended observation.
Why? WWE's TV model of variety show fun unfortunately does not jibe with the creative writing depth that is required to pull off "The Fiend". I warned about this in a comment I left a few months ago.
I appreciate the amount of hard work Wyatt put into the character as well as the efforts of WWE to try to utilize the company's best untrained actor. However, Wyatt's characters—including his original Max Cady-esque gimmick—are difficult to write and book in a show that runs 52 weeks a year.
There's two reasons for this. For one, that requires writing week after week of compelling television to do service to the act. For two, certain fans get so attached to the performers beyond their character that if they do not like where the plot (or angle) is going, they're going to dismiss it as a booking problem and, well, bitch about it.
Unlike most wrestling fans, I consider "writing" and "booking" two different things. "Writing" is the creative decision. "Booking" is the business decision. Pro wrestling is at its best when these elements complement each other with weight given more towards creativity. This is typically why AEW and NXT weekly shows are held in higher regard than the Raw and SmackDown despite the vastly smaller audience(s).
Sometimes it is necessary to prioritize the business decision over the creative decision. If an audience has enough trust in a promotion's creative decision-making, then most of the time they can rationalize the business decision. If that track record is notoriously poor then you will get backlashes like today.
In this case, I don't think the backlash is warranted. "The Fiend" is a character that is more appropriate on say Lucha Underground, which was a seasonal serial with its own insular universe. As compelling as Wyatt's Jekyll-and-Hyde portrayal of the character was, it had a limited shelf-life in WWE's metafictional product.
Big concept character, stables, and angles are tough to wrap up in pro wrestling. WWE managed to do it well in the past with The Corporation and the McMahon-Helmsley Faction where there was somewhat of a definitive end to both. However, that was 20 years ago when WWE committed itself to being a "dangerous soap opera". Other times it has not—namely WCW's nWo and TNA's Aces and Eights. AEW's Nightmare Collective was headed in that direction before the company wisely axed the angle before it got way too far.
"The Fiend" is a hefty concept; and with hefty concept comes a need for creativity to always take precedent over almost any business decision. That's simply not WWE. Once WWE decided that they would have to make a business decision with "The Fiend", Wyatt's title reign was on borrowed time.
It's a shame, really, for Wyatt. As I mentioned previously, he is the company's best untrained actor, put his all into every angle he's a part of, and has a real connection with the crowd. He is one of the company's most thoughtful performers. However—and this is something he noted himself in an interview—WWE really doesn't know what to do with his characters.
Unfortunately, this is going to be a recurring issue for the rest of his career in WWE.
In an era of declining measurable television viewership, FOX took a leap of faith when they agreed to pay WWE $200 million a year for its programming. Whether or not FOX was expecting 3 million viewers like it was speculated is anybody's guess, but the company is paying for live weekly programming that's available 52 weeks a year. I still think FOX overpaid, but that's their business in how they perceive value of an asset.
SmackDown is competitive in the most lucrative demo—something FOX hadn't been able to say in years on a Friday night, even though Tim Allen's series Last Man Standing averaged 2 million more total viewers.
Both WWE and FOX executives were expecting "WrestleMania-season" to be a bellwether for viewership. After all, this is typically when pro wrestling interest it is at its highest. Even though SmackDown's viewership numbers are by no means terrible—the CW's viewership on Fridays, for example, is total bargain basement—executives are probably expecting more.
With viewership that's probably below expectations, a massive Saudi show, another pay-per-view, poor Network numbers, and tepid interest heading into the company's biggest show that's only a month and change away—WWE had to do something.
As talented as Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan, and Bray Wyatt are, they're not going to draw significant eyeballs. As such, WWE has decided to call on the still-in-shape 53-year-old Bill Goldberg to be its focal point on Friday nights heading into the company's premier showcase.
Goldberg is a known, trusted commodity; did not suffer from years of overexposure post-WCW; and can draw at least lapsed fans that remember him from the late 1990s into nostalgic viewing. Goldberg—who made his pro wrestling debut 23 years ago—can still command the attention of an audience.
He has a crowd-pleasing moveset that is limited as hell to the consternation of fans that care more about "workrate". But I always considered "workrate" to be total bullshit; wrestlers can engage an audience with only 5 or 6 different moves between them if they have charisma and a great ability to tell an in-ring story. The truth is no one cares to watch Bill Goldberg put on a wrestling classic: fans are interested in seeing a spear and a jackhammer.
Goldberg is the right performer for this moment. The decision made was meant to be a short-term one that achieves two objectives. For one, WWE manages to cover for what will be an unpopular decision among the online community by putting the championship (and focus) on a performer that is well-liked by fans outside of it. For two, WWE is not tasking a new generation performer to please various stakeholders and shareholders.
It remains to be seen how well this all plays out, but I imagine WWE will be fine. On the other hand, it goes to a larger point about what happened to post-boom pro wrestling.
The industry at large never recovered from three things that took place between 2000 and 2005: the closing of WCW, the end of Steve Austin's career, and the conclusion of The Rock as being a weekly on-screen performer. While John Cena, Edge, and Randy Orton did a remarkable job in carrying the baton afterwards, none of them replicated the impact of Austin and Rock; McMahon—and pro wrestling at large—have spent the last 20 years trying to get back to where it was in 2000.
Talented performers have come along; many still performing in their mid-to-late 30s. None of them have reversed the trend of declining viewership, attendance, and overall interest. The last part many of us are insulated from due to the robust online community that pro wrestling enjoys.
But the numbers and metrics don't lie. WWE knows this. So understandably, they're going to turn to yesterday's stars year after year, attracting them with flexible schedules and offers of financial largesse. It's not that WWE can't build new stars—that was never the issue. The issue is that WWE has built up new stars and the audiences never grew.
Pro wrestling enjoys the most mainstream visibility, coverage, and positive press that it ever has had—but it's still depending on an online and offline community of maybe 6-8 million active consumers for its fortunes. With greater diversity in how people can consume entertainment and be entertained by content, this is just the reality of pop culture.
So when it comes to a short-term decision that's needed to appease stakeholders and shareholders, that responsibility best falls to part-time performers. It's better explain a short-term decision that may have not worked rather than try to make excuses for a full-time performer and blame them (unfairly) not moving the needle.
All in all, WWE made the right move.