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WWE needs an off-season (somehow)

What time do you go to bed? What time do you get up in the morning?

A generation ago, a few scientists went to live in sunlight-deprived underground caves to research how astronauts in deep space might fare without a traditional day/night cycle. They discovered that, over time, their dependence on the traditional “sixteen on, eight off” wake/sleep cycle eventually disappeared and they found themselves staying awake for a day and a half to two days straight before sleeping for as much as forty-eight hours. When they finally left the caves, they were surprised to learn how much time had passed; their altered sleep cycle had rewired their brains into thinking they’d only been in the cave a short while.

It was a surprising discovery, and led to the consensus that humans don’t necessarily need eight hours of sleep each night and that, under the right conditions, they might operate just as well if not better, with bigger blocks of time spent awake and asleep.

Let’s talk about WWE’s grueling schedule and the need for some kind of an off-season for their talent.

Last month the company was hit by a mini-plague as a wave of mumps swept across the Raw roster, taking several superstars out of commission and severely altering plans for the TLC PPV. After the initial panic wore off and the infected were properly treated, everything returned to normal and the superstars returned to their regular work schedule.

That work schedule, for a Raw superstar, features a four on, three off schedule (Friday-Monday), not counting extra appearances for media interviews and such. And that’s not to mention how much of their “off” days are spent travelling home to the site of their next show. They work this schedule every week, every month, every year. This year Christmas falls on a Monday and superstars will be expected to work that holiday as well, just like they work every other holiday.

As a matter of fact, the only special occasion they don’t have to work is the TV taping after a wrestler dies, and even then it’s dependent on if the wrestler was really famous and beloved it or not.

We all understand that WWE is a unique brand of entertainment. It’s not just a TV show; it’s a traveling circus that visits five cities a week, and just happens to be filmed during two of those visits a week. WWE performers are not typical employees either, thus the company is not subject to the same standards of labor laws that regulate more traditional work forces. WWE superstars are “independent contractors” who (typically) sign exclusive-deals to perform only for WWE. If you don’t want to abide by their work schedule that’s fine, you can go work for TNA or ROH or NJPW, but the pay will be a lot less and the exposure (which leads to better pay) even more so. WWE is pro wrestling. They have secured a quasi-monopoly over the industry. It’s not a true monopoly—there are plenty of alternatives out there—but none have the cachet, prominence and money of WWE. Even if all non-WWE entities combined into one they still would fall well short of the revenue the WWE brings in. Basically if you want to become famous in North America as a wrestler, you have to go through WWE. They are the NFL of pro wrestling.

Except the NFL has a players association that occasionally holds the owners by the balls. The NFL has a months-long off-season, giving those players who suffer extreme wear-and-tear on their bodies and chance to recover before pre-season training begins again. Even if the players are doing “work” in the interim it’s not any physical labor, allowing their bodies to better recover.

The WWE never ends. A full-time worker will be wrestling 200 days a year (not counting media appearances and other special occasions that affect the more prominent superstars), more or less, and that doesn’t include the constant travel from one city to another, across multiple time-zones. Imagine jumping and landing flat on your back onto 2x4s twenty times a day, four days a week, driving from city to city in tiny rent-a-cars, and when you finally do get a day off, it’s sandwiched in between work days, so you spend most of your time traveling home and being exhausted for the little time you have away from work before you’re back on the road to get to the next day’s job site.

Recently the company has offered a lot of lip-service and even some positive actions concerning concussion protocol. They talk a lot about the safety and well-being of their superstars. Most of this started after Eddie Guerrero died (twelve years ago this month) and really picked up when Chris Benoit happened (ten years ago). But the single biggest factor in the wearing down of their superstars (which leads to drug-abuse, which leads to tragedy) has hardly been examined.

The WWE needs an “off-season” and I put that term in quotation marks because it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to operate the way the major league sports do, where everyone works for a few months a year and then everyone is off TV entirely. There are ways to rotate talent in and out of the active roster but it would require some structural changes to the way WWE operates.

It would require a baseline salary for their superstars, instead of a “paid by appearance” arrangement that most talent deals with.

It would require shifting the company’s focus from being a traveling circus that happens to be filmed, to being a live-TV program that happens to travel from city to city. What that means is, sometimes a talent is going to get hot right around the time his mandatory leave is about to kick in. The old school mentality of “you’re hot right now, you have to work through this injury, or work through that tragedy, or work over this holiday, etc” needs to go. In its place needs to be the mentality of a TV show: “This storyline is catching fire with viewers/ratings right as the season finale is coming...that’s great! Fans will talk about it with their friends during the break and the show will be even more popular when it comes back on the air!”

Look at the ratings for a show like Breaking Bad; it grew and grew every season because every season finale hit right as that season’s viewership was peaking. By the time the next season began, it did so with more viewers who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Now granted, Breaking Bad was a taped show and couldn’t just tell its cast “we’re too popular to disappear for a few months, we’re going to film another episode.”

WWE is a live show, and thus it has the ability to tell its talent “this storyline is really popular so we’re going to run with it next week and the week after, etc.” That advantage as a live show would need to be tempered with the understanding that a hot superstar who has been beaten up for months-on-end needs time off, regardless of how popular he’s become. Write him out and build up his eventual return. Look at what happened when Steve Austin was forced out of action: They wrote him out at Survivor Series 1999 with a car-attack mystery. Whenever he popped back in (such as Backlash 2000) the fans went bananas, eager to see him return full-time. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all.

Right now one of the biggest problem with the WWE is how over-exposed it is. Something WWE is on TV on three and sometimes four days straight every week. It’s too much, but I’m not even advocating they cut back on the number of TV shows they run (the TV deal with USA is the company’s single biggest source of revenue). I’m saying they should allow their superstars on those shows the chance to rotate in and out, on set-schedules, taking a month—even two—off at a time. It would mitigate burnout, give creative time to reevaluate certain storylines and give lesser, background workers the chance to step up in their absence and potentially elevate the overall popularity of the roster as a result.

The only thing preventing it from happening, in one form or another, is the old carny mentality of WWE management and the short-sighted and foolish culture they’ve established, where superstars think being “tough” and “loving this business” means having to work two or three-hundred days a year.

WWE would be a lot better if we saw its talent a little less.

Sound off Cagesiders: Do you think WWE needs to implement some kind of an “off season” for its talent? If so, how would you go about maintaining the year-long schedule of the company with the need for the talent to take breaks to recover from the grind? What sort of rotation would you implement.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

an error in the article was corrected to reflect 2017’s house show and TV schedule.

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