When watching WWE programming there are some obvious things that the viewer has to do to enjoy the average episode of Raw and Smackdown. Usually that involves either mentally shutting down or mulling over every decision and creating plot points that do not exist to form a coherent narrative. Lately this has only been amplified due to some of the most confusing and just plain awful booking that WWE has had in a very, very long time.
For once Wrestlemania is approaching and instead of that mild excitement that I’d usually feel, there is a sense of malaise. It has nothing to do with Daniel Bryan, Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Sting or the Undertaker. Sure, those are all parts of the whole and symptoms of the disease-ridden carcass that we call the WWE right now, but my problem doesn’t point to the usage (or misuse) of any one individual performer. Instead it’s the jumbled narrative that is half-attempting to please fans and half-attempting to completely ignore them.
In a way it is difficult to trace exactly how the company got to where they are now with things being such a mess, but I think that it’s fair to say that Vince McMahon’s opinions diverging from that of the fans is a good place to start. It’s 2015 right now and you are reading this on the internet. That is a very important fact to remember because the internet has long been seen as a bit of an amorphous antagonist in the world of professional wrestling. Hell, it is still treated as such on WWE programming. For many years the WWE has been able to write off this rift of diverging opinions to be the fault of "the internet."
There is a problem with that line of thinking, though. The internet of 2015 isn’t the internet of 1996 or even of 2003. The internet of 2015 is an integral part of everyday life.
Even ten years ago discussion about professional wrestling was mostly kept to message boards and chat rooms. There were wrestling websites around, but they were few and far between. Wrestlers were still a relatively secretive bunch and only trusted sharing their stories to a select few insiders. They didn’t have social media to complain on, they didn’t have a direct connection with their fans and really, the business was still mysterious to many of the average viewers. If a wrestler found his or her name on the company’s website wishing them well in their future endeavors there weren’t immediate offers for shoot interviews lined up.
That reality is gone, though. The internet is pervasive and no longer does a fan have to lurk and learn to find out a wrestler’s real name or have to trade tapes with some creepy guy with a bad reputation. Fans and go to Wikipedia to find out whatever they want about a wrestler and if they hear someone talking about some cool, young indy performer all they have to do is check out YouTube, DailyMotion or Vimeo to see them in action. When Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, Claudio Castagnoli, Samoa Joe and AJ Styles were some of the kings of the indy world and internet darlings with no wider platform it made sense for the WWE to scoff at the idea of these guys being contracted performers.
Internet tales of Triple H being "down" on most of these guys for their movesets or how they built matches went from internet lore to internet fact, just like the stories of him holding down talents like Booker T, Rob Van Dam, Chris Jericho and anyone else that internet fans latched onto. The wrestling industry’s relationship with the internet fan was a rocky one, at best.
Then something happened and the world began to change, technology advanced and wrestling fans had increased access to all of this information that was usually reserved for the hardcore "internet fans." All of a sudden everyone was an internet fan because just about everyone had access to the internet. The "casual fan" ended up being younger and younger, while most of the other demographics found themselves with access to news, rumors and facts that used to be obscured to them.
The problem here is that the WWE still views the "internet fan" as the internet fan of old. They view these fans chanting for Daniel Bryan and booing Roman Reigns as just "internet fans." It’s the dirtsheet reading, rumor-mongering, indy-darling-loving internet that has historically had little impact on business. If the WWE were to try to make the "internet fan" happy ten years ago it would have made very little sense considering the number of fans and their spending habits. The average fan didn’t care about browsing pop-up-riddled, spyware-infected sites for the latest scoops and didn’t really know much about performers that existed outside of the WWE sphere of influence.
That was then, though. This is now. Now not having a smartphone is a bold statement, as is not having a Facebook account. Smartphones aren’t only for the tech-savvy with money, they are issued by workplaces and your average tween is doing snapchatting at school instead of passing notes. Anyone who has been paying attention to the last few months of WWE programming can plainly see that the live crowds just aren’t into what WWE is presenting to them. The question is; why?
Why are the fans so against WWE’s plans, and if they are, why isn’t the WWE listening to these fans? The answer is relatively simple; the WWE still believe that the people who paid money to be in those crowds, that are wearing their merchandise and subscribe to their network are just a vocal minority. The backwards thinking is that these reactions are similar to what the "internet fan" of old would try to push the WWE to do. It completely flies in the face of current demographics and how wrestling fans have evolved over the years.
I’m not unsympathetic to the fact that Vince McMahon has a lot of experience within the pro wrestling world and has a general idea of what works and what doesn’t. That’s why he has such a hard time pushing women’s wrestling and smaller guys. Neither of those things have really drawn him money in the past compared to his tried and true parade of musclebound men spitting misogynistic slang at scantily-clad female set pieces, you’ve gotta admit that. But the world has changed a lot in the past twenty years and the average wrestling fan is probably a bit closer to that derided "internet fan" from ten years ago than the average fan during the Hulk Hogan or Attitude Era.
There have been some mild concessions made over the past few years to quell the discontent, most notably Daniel Bryan’s storybook Wrestlemania run last year. Of course, it wasn’t what the WWE wanted to do and they were backed into a corner. You can’t fault them for trying, nor can you fault them for moving in a new direction when Bryan’s career was in question and he sat out most of 2014. What you can fault them for is the awful, half-cocked attempt to silence that same discontent this year by sabotaging Daniel Bryan’s heat in vain attempts to position Roman Reigns in a better light to fans that quite simply aren’t buying what he’s selling just yet.
It was a strange narrative diversion that the company felt that they had to make and in reality it just made everything else feel more rushed, slapped-together and uneventful. Randy Orton was always penciled into having a major program heading into Wrestlemania against Seth Rollins, but the diversion to attempt to placate the fans and cool the flames of fury led to Orton sitting out television for a longer period of time due to how thin the top of the roster has been. Rollins was needed for throwaway tag team matches and to be the foil to both men, he didn’t have time to tango with Orton just yet.
Now with just a few weeks left to Wrestlemania the company is scrambling to fill out the card and finding itself backed into strange corners. All the while they are resisting what the fans are calling for but attempting to throw the occasional bone to quiet down the crowds and snap them back into line. Of course it isn’t working and it is just making everything else confusing or just downright bad. Tossing #GiveDivasAChance into their ongoing mess of a Diva’s division might feel clever, but fans realize that WWE is doing nothing extra with their women at all. Giving Daniel Bryan a chance to earn his way into Wrestlemania might have felt clever, but leaving him with nothing heading into Wrestlemania feels confusing for a guy who headlined the PPV right before Wrestlemania and is now somehow associated with a bunch of midcarders stealing Bad News Barrett’s Intercontinental Championship from him while he wrestles.
It’s time for the WWE to either listen to their fans and get over their decades-old grudge against the entity they call "the internet" or to simply stick to their guns and pump out the programming that they want to pump out, regardless of how the crowd reacts. One or the other, because this half-cocked approach is making everything a whole lot worse. For once Wrestlemania feels like a chore as opposed to an exciting, can’t miss spectacle and they only have themselves to blame for this.
Dave Walsh is a novelist and combat sports writer best known for his work with the sport of professional kickboxing. His second novel, Terminus Cycle, comes out on March 24th.