WWE’s inability to create new stars has been a talking point for years now. While most of the men & women performing at WrestleMania 38 this weekend are in their 30s, several of the biggest names like Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Edge, Bobby Lashley, and AJ Styles are 40 or older. 57 year old Steve Austin looks poised to main event Saturday’s show.
It’s a problem the company hopes to address with their new developmental strategy, and specifically their NIL program for college athletes. James Kimball, WWE’s senior vice president for global talent strategy (a title that’s awfully similar to the on Paul “Triple H” Levesque’s held for years), spoke to ESPN about their approach in an article on the Next In Line/name, image, and likeness initiative.
Compared to stars like Roman Reigns and Bianca Belair, who signed with WWE in their mid-20s after pursuing careers in competitive athletics, Kimball is looking to start working with the new crops of recruits while they’re still exploring their options. The goal is to have them main roster ready by the time Reigns and Belair were just entering developmental.
“We would like that [age] number to come down, especially on the developmental standpoint. The second you enter our developmental program and then potentially end up on NXT TV and then onto Smackdown or Raw, you want that number to be 25, not 30 or 35.
“Even if you come to WWE when you’re 23, 24, 25, that’s a significant improvement over what has historically been the case with some of our developmental talent. We fully support every athlete pursuing their dreams in their given sport. The idea is that we have that opportunity in college to evaluate them as a potential talent, and for them to evaluate us.”
It seems that what WWE has done with Olympic gold medalist & NCAA champion amateur wrestler Gable Steveson is a test case for this new approach. Steveson has been around the system at every opportunity for a while, and the company now plans to debut him on Raw after WrestleMania.
“We’re able to develop them in an accelerated manner. Get them to WrestleMania or Raw, do media training, do community events. All those initial exposures to the business, those have been done while you’re still in school. And then you come down to Orlando and off you go.”
As for what they’re looking for, it’s still the basics of being a pro wrestler.
“Ideally, you’d like to find a nice blend. It’s understanding how to transfer true athleticism from a given sport to a 20-by-20 ring, understanding spatial awareness and timing. And then it’s the ability to express themselves on a microphone. That becomes a requirement over time, whether you’re a heel or a face, or you’re heavy on promo or even light, at some point you need to be able to tell a story.”
One criticism of this approach is that recruits may not have a passion for the business, and may lack the commitment or dedication required to succeed. In the case of Steveson and one of the NIL program signees featured in the ESPN piece, Northwestern football standout Joe Spivak, they are lifelong fans in addition to being high-level athletes.
Will it pan out? It seems riskier than taking people who already know how to be wrestlers and turning them into WWE Superstars. But the company doesn’t need everybody they sign to be a star. There’s logic to this approach, and it may produce people who are a better fit for the their vision.
Time will tell. For now, it’s at least better than trying the same thing and expecting different results.