A close friend of mine in the Nashville sports media scene presented me with a question yesterday that completely changed my plans for this article. Originally, this post was to be about the possibilities of Bray Wyatt interfering and going HAM on Roman Reigns Sunday in his Last Man Standing Match with the Big Show. On Monday night, Bray talked about a guy who lifts a lot of weights but has endured failure. I had previously considered the possibility of a Reigns-Wyatt feud that could lead both to high profile matches during the filler time period in the lead-up to SummerSlam. While that feud might be too big for May and June, it felt like "something." The promo led me to think of the recent slew of TapOut ad spots that feature Reigns working out. But, my head also told me it might be Ryback, and when the Big Guy followed Wyatt's words, that looked to be the direction. So, a piece about a potential Wyatt-Reigns program all of a sudden didn't make all that much sense. Then came the following question from a colleague at 104.5 The Zone:
Why don't I just stop watching and come back the night after Battleground in July? I'm reasonably certain if I just quit now and returned then, WWE would just hit "play" again, rather than watching all this "pause" material.
It's a fascinating concept, and it's one we've all thought about through the years, but we may have failed to consider it with the proper emphasis. It's absolutely true. Every year, with the exception of 2011, the wrestling community gets extremely excited as March enters its latter stages. Wrestlemania is on deck, which means every other promotion is also planning to cash in with big events, conventions, autograph signings, and even breaking news items.
Let's flash back to 2014, where the Royal Rumble left many fans feeling disenfranchised and dejected. Those marks wanted Daniel Bryan, but the company had made promises to Batista and Vince McMahon still believed the leader of the YES Movement was more the "flying goat" and less the face of a billion dollar industry. He would give in, and after what was an entertaining Elimination Chamber show, the business ignited under the flame of the Daniel Bryan vs. Authority storyline. It worked enormously well and culminated in DB's dual wins in New Orleans. Wrestlemania 30 was well received and the fans seemed excited as hell. On the following night, Paige debuts and wins the Divas Championship from AJ Lee, Brock and Paul are gloating over the shocking end to the Undertaker's streak, and the Shield becomes embroiled in an awesome feud with the reformed Evolution. Even with early WWE Network problems, things felt "right" to the IWC marks, the mainstream marks, and the professional wrestling media. That's not to say some disagreed with certain directions or certain WWE angles, but as a whole, it was a positive period.
The B-shows that followed for the next few months were entertaining affairs, but in reality, how much content from those cards do you remember for the right reasons? You remember Evolution vs. Shield and, well, what else? Perhaps you remember John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt, but you might think of the kid in the corner during the cage match more than anything. The Last Man Standing match was excellent, but what did it matter? It's not that what was occurring in front of you was bad, it was just "there." How many honestly integral things took place during that time frame? You remember DB and Kane, but not for a good reason. Seriously, that entire angle was god awful and reinforced the fact that Bryan's title reign was merely a stopgap to Lesnar. Remember Kane trying to pull Brie "straight to hell" through the ring canvas on RAW?
In July, post-Money in the Bank and following the entirely forgettable Battleground, WWE had to sell SummerSlam. Vince and company hit the play button on their creative and things started to happen. Seth Rollins did the unthinkable, Rusev and Swagger struck the right chord on television, Stephanie and Brie became embroiled in what our own Geno Mrosko called one of the best moments he'd ever seen with the arrest angle, and John Cena and Brock Lesnar had their confrontations and set up what would become one of the more memorable title matches in history. Once again, everyone was excited, and my god did that show ever deliver out in California. The night after, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins tore the house down on RAW and Seth pulled out the cinderblock gimmick.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of two weeks later, RAW had become almost unwatchable. It was painfully dull, and with very few exceptions, remained that way until the second or third week of January. Does anyone sense a pattern here?
During its first big heyday, WWE business followed a quarterly plan, pushing the Royal Rumble, Wrestlemania, SummerSlam, and the Survivor Series. Television was different in that era, and PPV cards always felt huge because actual competitive matches took place on these gems. Even a mediocre PPV was special in the era of the job match. If you wanted to see great wrestling, you went to house show events or you attended or bought the PPVs. It made sense, and for well over 15 years, I've wished we were back to the days of at MOST six supercards a year. It won't ever happen, because the revenue dictates a full slate of 12.
But my friend's underlying point seems to illustrate that in these last several years, it's become increasingly obvious that WWE still programs towards four, no make that three key times during the year. Is there a fix for this problem? Is it a problem?
Consider that WWE isn't alone in this line of thinking. It isn't like Spring Stampede was producing WCW's most compelling, high-end content. Those big matches - the novel bouts, not the rematches - took place at Starrcade or Halloween Havoc. Even the Great American Bash fell by the wayside and didn't feel particularly important after 1996. As for Superbrawl, that was often Starrcade redux. In 1997, Piper-Hogan II, in 1998, Sting-Hogan II, just as a few examples. Every ECW show was special because of the nature of that business model and the necessity of quality. Paul E. couldn't afford to put on a shit show because his company required constant momentum to stay afloat. It's the Ring of Honor model of today. Sure there are bigger shows, but almost every taping is full of great stuff, because it has to be. On a more integral level, it's expected to be good, if not pristine. It's a completely different way to do business. Vince McMahon hasn't been in any type of dangerously precarious position since the high point of his competitor's nWo angle and his pre-Attitude days. But, if it becomes patently clear that multi-month chunks of your programming are almost completely irrelevant and your fans somehow realize it, you might be in some trouble.
Here's what we know, even though it could change: Brock Lesnar is indefinitely suspended, with Triple H likely to bring him back after his own face turn. It would be against Seth Rollins, even if H has nothing to do with it. At SummerSlam, the company would like to build around Lesnar vs. Rollins vs. Reigns. Pretend you're an average wrestling fan and not someone reading Cageside. You watch, but you aren't living and dying by pro wrestling every week. With the aforementioned knowledge in your head, how much does it matter to you that Seth Rollins and Randy Orton are having a cage match on Sunday? Here's the scarier query: Even if Orton wins the title, should you care, when you know where things are likely to be in mid-July? If Orton wins, he'll lose it back over the next few months. Seth has to have the title to set up the feud with the returning Lesnar, who remains infuriated over the finish at Wrestlemania. Unphased at this time is Roman Reigns, who was screwed that night as well. He's worried about the Big Show. He'll start to care again in four months, or maybe sooner as a tease. It defies logic, but it's what we've got. So, at this very moment, the title is largely meaningless.
We also hear, courtesy of Dave Meltzer and the Wrestling Observer (subscription required, but highly recommended) that Reigns is set to feud with Kane once the Big Show angle runs its course. That may well have changed. As for the current angle, only Vince McMahon hasn't realized the feud ran its course after the second television match in December, but his opinion is the one that counts. If Reigns is set to be involved in the triple threat with Lesnar, and against these opponents, most understand he's probably not losing until August on PPV, if then. So, how much of the Roman Reigns saga do you need to see when you know where he will be in August? Isn't it pretty darn accurate to say if you stopped watching WWE television right now and picked up the night after Battleground, what you'd miss wouldn't change the REAL storyline in the least? It's as if there's one congruent storyline each year that plays out across three major PPVs and is at best tweaked and fluffed through the other nine.
If your argument to combat that conclusion is you just love wrestling matches, enter in the reality of multiple two-minute television bouts, worthless finishes, and the WWE formula that results in three hours of the exact same match executed by different actors. It comes down to "fanatical completionism" and the simple idea that some people have to see it all. But, should we demand a little bit more?
Community is an excellent television comedy and although it couldn't ever find a ratings or promotional foothold on NBC, it's still alive on Yahoo Screen. The fourth season of that show suffered, following the removal of creator and executive producer Dan Harmon, and much of it sucked. If I'm in the mood to watch Community, I'm going to pull out my Season 2 and 3 DVDs, or maybe some of 5, which improved greatly as Harmon was brought back to the show. So, why is it that if you look at my shelf right now - along with 1, 2, 3, and 5 – you'll see a boxed set of Season 4? Simple. I want to have the entire collection, which leads to wasted time and wasted money, but fulfills some kind of ridiculous mental balancing act.
Be honest with yourself and answer this: How jacked up are you for Extreme Rules 2015? How many matches are you just so psyched up to see that you're building your Sunday around WWE's April offering? Granted, it's a show that usually does turn out to be one of the better B-shows of most years. This year, they have built to matches, but how interesting have those builds actually been? Once we're done on Sunday, how much are you looking forward to the May show? If the answer reflects irritation or mediocre interest, perhaps there needs to be a shift in expectation and response or a change in behavior.
One of Albert Einstein's classic phrases says, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." We're incredibly hard on RAW and SmackDown and WWE as a whole right now, and with good reason, but we all knew it was going to be this way, because it's ALWAYS this way.
But here's the rub, and there's no getting around this one folks: It doesn't have to be this way. It's absolutely possible to have those marquis tent pole matches but create a sense of urgency towards the remainder of the calendar. I remember pieces of Backlash and Judgment Day and Unforgiven and Souled Out and Fall Brawl and all the rest in the past because there was at least something different in the run-up and the final execution. We're going to see some pretty solid matches on Sunday night, but in 2015, that's just the way it is. On very rare occasions do we watch any promoted specialty wrestling card and not come away with some decent work.
If you're a busy person, whether that's family, hectic work schedule, obsessive hobbies, or whatever it might be, it takes five hours a week to watch WWE's two main television broadcasts each week. You're watching eight hours of content a week if that Sunday includes a PPV, nine if you're watching NXT, ten if you include NJPW on AXS, twelve if you include TNA, not to mention specials on the Network or streaming content emanating from some other source. Five hours of original television just between RAW and SmackDown, with the acceptance that none of it means much at all until mid-July. That's quite a statement. The Network is free this month, so how foolish are we to have assumed that Mania momentum was ever planned to be more than just Mania momentum and after effects?
Furthermore, how stupid was I to ever think Reigns-Wyatt would happen now, during a down period? Maybe it would be absurd to even consider doing such a thing now, rather than building Wyatt up and having him hot at the right time in a feud that could be objectively competitive. But, do you have to see Bray vs. Ryback, or could you live with seeing highlights or reading results? What if the TV that set it up was better? If it happens, which it may not, do you expect it to be a solidly set-up match?
Finally, how stupid might WWE (or any promotion be) who operates in such an inconsistent manner? Isn't it troublesome to know they realize wrestling fans don't care what they're doing right now and not feel in any way obligated to attempt to change that truth in some way? They can't all be Wrestlemania caliber shows and the builds can't always be that great. Hell, Wrestlemania's build was well below par this year. But, there was a payoff that mattered, because Wrestlemania as a name has such gravity. Does Extreme Rules? Does Battleground? Does…Survivor Series?
Make a list from 2014 of what you would have missed had you simply tuned in when you knew the TV would be worth your time. If you're keeping it a hundred, it's probably not a long list. So far this year, you'd have missed Neville's 450 off the barricade, which no doubt will be on montages and countdowns, and Kane being fairly entertaining for two weeks. You'd have missed some decent Cena matches, but nothing you haven’t seen before in terms of results or match structure. If you're Sheamus, you're better off with people seeing you the night after Mania and not again for a while, because you're booked as a monster, but one that's in a "Kiss Me Arse" match on PPV. That stipulation almost instantly negates anything the least bit serious to your return. What you missed, mainly, were some decent, but not UNIQUELY BRILLIANT wrestling matches.
Is it good, is it worthy, is it sensible to watch everything every week, when you know 75% of the time you'll be disappointed when you don't have to be? Or, do you have to have Season 4 on your shelf?
Oh, and then apply some of these questions and answers to the regular seasons in many of the major sports in this country or any country. We're watching the NBA and NHL playoffs right now and just got finished with a historic Masters tournament in golf and of course, March Madness. If you didn't see a single Duke game until the Final Four, what did you really miss? However, there's one discernible difference here and it must be mentioned. In those sports, no one is programming irrelevance. As a result, everything is competitive and everybody wants to win.
I'm not saying there's an answer here and certainly am not asserting there's a right or wrong opinion. I just think it's intriguing to ponder for a few minutes just how much time we all spend watching wrestling programming that consistently means so little.
(PS: If Ryback-Wyatt was built around problems that originated during either the Nexus angle or issues between Tough Enough alumni, throwing some reality into what will likely be a very cartoonish program, sign me up. I'm not holding my breath.)