John Cena isn’t a full-time member of team WWE right now. But he’s always said he’ll always be a part of the company. And if you’ve ever heard him talk about the sports entertainment business, you know it’s something he gives a lot of thought.
While doing press for the new television shows he has coming out this week (mostly HBO Max’s Peacemaker, but also TBS’ Wipeout), Cena stopped by The Rich Eisen Show on Tues., Jan. 11. Eisen’s “social media grand maester” T.J. Jefferson asked him about the more than 80 wrestlers WWE released in 2021, and Cena had a long, thoughtful answer.
He hits on a number of points other have made about the biggest wrestling company in history’s latest approach to roster construction and talent development, and from the perspective of someone who was almost cut early in his career before going on to become the face of an era.
“When I started in the WWE, the WWE had just absorbed WCW and ECW. And also had two developmental territories, and the rosters were — abundant, is probably a good word. So when I started in the WWE, there were releases twice a year. And it created stakes for developmental talent. And it created stakes for talent to try to make a name for themselves because we just knew — we knew that on a calendar year, shortly after WrestleMania and either before or after the holidays, there would be cuts. There always were, and that seemed to stop right around when we really began to redefine ourselves with our new school, I’ll say like the ‘Ruthless Aggression’ Era style characters. Me, Brock [Lesnar], Randy [Orton], Dave [Bautista] — when those guys began to anchor in and develop the program going forward into the next decade and more.
“And we started to expand our reach, we started to have more programming. The talent rosters started to get big. And then it became — I think a lot of it might have been WWE’s hiring strategy, and this is once again I’m not thinking for the WWE. This is just me posing a different perspective. I think a lot of it might have been a little slightly defensive hiring because there was and still is a giant boom right now in sports entertainment. People are absorbing this content. They’re engaging. People are making a name for themselves outside of the WWE. It’s no longer a one-stop shop.
“So I think with this flux of passionate people who love sports entertainment, people do get a name for themselves outside the WWE. And if the WWE feels maybe they can be a fit in that world, they’re going to try to give that person a shot. They’re also really, really bullish on continuing to hire new talent. So that the NXT Performance Center is, I don’t want to say overwhelmed, but they’re at max capacity. So you have all these performers, and a lot of them aren’t getting a chance to perform.
“I think that’s the real frustrating thing, both to the WWE and from a stance of a performer. And unfortunately, at the end of the day, it is a business. I remember when I started in the WWE, I want to use the word fortunate. I was fortunate enough to be at the show in Atlanta where Stone Cold Steve Austin was fired. And that moment right there. It shot through me like a cannon because I got the impression that if they could fire Stone Cold Steve Austin, unless your name was Vince McMahon, everyone is replaceable.
“I think a lot of the frustration from the audience out there is they view sports entertainment like I do. I love watching matches. I love seeing potential in human beings. I love seeing potential in performers, and I see potential in everybody, especially when people begin to define what they would call a gimmick or a personality. I love to be able to try to run with it on conversations to see how far we can take it.
“But there is only so many spots. There is only so much programming, and I understand from a business standpoint the amount of releases that have had to happen, if the company justifies that, ‘Hey, this is the move we’re making. We want to carry less talent.’
“It has very little to do with profit/loss margin. If the company strategy is to run on a lean roster. It doesn’t matter. You run on a lean roster. If the company strategy is to run a fat roster — I remember when we had stacks of performers, and the stock price was seven bucks. It’s just a directive that the company was given to run on a talent-heavy roster or a talent lean roster.
“And I know obviously, this is a touchy subject and it’s gonna elicit perspective from everyone, and everyone certainly is entitled to their perspective. I think the sad thing here is people who have this gift aren’t being allowed to use it. And people are out of a job, and that is the absolute saddest thing is that people no longer can work at a company that they called home for a period of time. I feel for everybody who’s had to go in that direction, but all of us, myself included, our journey will eventually have an end.
“And when you’re in it, sometimes you don’t have that perspective. But I personally, from my early days in the WWE, always had the perspective that it could be over tomorrow for any and all of us. Because if they can fire Steve Austin, there’s no way I’m even close to his ability. And that means they can fire me.
“But that’s just the culture I was brought up in. I was brought up in bi-annual cuts, and it happened all the time. And I just think we — WWE — went through such a long period of not releasing anybody, and now they’re kind of getting back into that rhythm again, that it is a very abrupt shift to somebody who’s not familiar with that. And my heart goes out to everybody who has to get that sad news, because that’s a tough conversation to have.”
It’s a pretty realistic take: empathetic to talent while still being pro-business. I’d probably quibble with the notion that profit/loss has nothing to do with it — the company’s own “budget cuts” justification indicates releases are at least partially motivated by their impact on the bottom line. But overall, it’s the kind of answer that makes you understand why WWE trusted him as their frontman for almost two decades.
As Cena says though, everyone is going to have a perspective — on WWE’s business plan, and his comments on it. Fire away below.