During his pre-WrestleMania 36 media rounds, John Cena expounded on the state of the WWE product. One of his thoughts at the time was about something that gets talked about on the wrestling web quite a bit - whether there are specific stars fans pay or tune in to see anymore, or if the overall brand is now the attraction.
In 2020, Cena believed the days of selling out a building or popping a rating just by putting a name like Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin or his atop the card were over. Less than a year later, he’s changed his mind.
That’s what he told Forbes, during a conversation about - among other things - the recent firestorm caused by Undertaker telling Joe Rogan he thought modern pro wrestling is “soft”:
“I guess I’ve viewed the WWE as a product outside of myself for a long time. I guess that’s why I was so interested in the business side of it from very early on in my career. In that, I’ve seen it evolve, but I’ve also been called ‘everything that’s ruined sports entertainment.’ I could look at the economics of it and make an argument that between myself—and the large amount of folks that carried on the roster beyond the Attitude Era into the Ruthless Aggression Era and the Reality Era—the fans of the Attitude Era certainly looked at our product as not what they’re used to, and it wasn’t. So I may have a bit of disagreement with Undertaker’s word choice because I don’t think it’s soft, I think it’s different.
“What do I think of the WWE product right now? I love it.
“I think it’s bold, it’s forcing people to take chances... in 2020 where I had said that I don’t believe that WWE will ever have a marquee star. And here we are, less than a year later, and I can blatantly say I was wrong. You wanna talk about being too close to the product? I was just too close. Having seen it, having lived it myself, I should have just realized that the company is in transition. It takes a long time—I would say it’s three-and-a-half years or more—to build a certain talent because I’ve walked in those shoes.
“Now you have Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns, Sasha Banks can be in that conversation, but it’s not what I said it was in 2020. It’s not a scattered fragment of Super Friends. WWE has just refocused, re-shifted and now is consolidating on marquee stars. They have their marquee stars, and going forward they will have their big names. As far as those names being larger than life, the enormity of their impact is up to the individuals themselves.”
As I said above, this is always a hot topic among those of us who think a lot about the business of pro wrestling. There are going to be lots of takes on Cena changing his mind. Here’s mine...
I haven’t seen a ton of evidence to support John’s new position. Ticket sales haven’t been a thing for almost a year, but the television and online numbers still point to there being a dedicated audience for WWE and wrestling that doesn’t fluctuate much week-to-week. What counts as a success story these days - AEW Dynamite and SmackDown - are a mix of big names in cohesive stories. For those of us without granular data, it’s nearly impossible to say what’s responsible for those shows’ performance.
What I have seen is the shift in WWE’s strategy. Booking-wise, the company’s featured long title reigns to establish some of the very names Cena mentions as the “marquee stars” of Monday and Friday nights. They’ve also tried out some marketing ideas like billing McIntyre as “the star of Raw” for a while last summer. John’s a savvy promoter and a company man, so I’m not at all surprised his new stance reflects WWE’s modified approach.
Is it the right move? Time will tell, of course. For my money, it’s a right move - but it’s one that has to be executed along with a number of others. Things like identifying the appropriate wrestlers to feature, creating content that highlights them while also being engaging and entertaining when they’re not on-screen, and forming partnerships that get the stars and the product in front of right audiences... the difficult art/science alchemy that goes into any marketing effort.
Give us your take on WWE and “marquee stars” below. And check out Cena’s entire talk with Forbes, where he weighs in on Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and continues to insist he won’t be at WrestleMania 37, here.