I Believe WWE, And In WWE

Taking inspiration from this column by George T. Conway III.

I believe WWE re-imagined its content and puts smiles on people’s faces.

I believe AEW and NXT viewership bounced back better than Raw and Smackdown after the initial Covid bump simply because they’re new, and not any other commonality. I believe ratings are down because of talent injuries, and if not injuries then it’s because Vince McMahon is working on getting over new talent, and if not that, then it’s the lack of a live audience, even though AEW and NXT are dealing with that too. 

I believe Vince listens to fans, and I believed him when he said that #CancelWWENetwork trending after Royal Rumble 2015 was “good for WWE”. As is more and more common these days, it was just an over-amplified vocal minority expressing their disapproval of the creative, because the babyface didn’t win — even though the babyface did win, albeit to massive boos, despite coordinating the surprise post-match endorsement of one of WWE’s biggest stars ever and one of the most famous names in Hollywood. But that incident was just an aberration from the weird people there in Philadelphia that night, and the subsequent negative reaction to Roman Reigns at numerous subsequent TV tapings, PPVs, and Wrestlemanias, for years afterward, was unavoidable and not indicative of any internal problem. At least Reigns was getting a reaction.

I believed Reigns himself when he said WWE is for kids, and he performs for them and not for the male fans around his own age, who, after all, watch Raw 43% less in the four years since he said that.

I applauded Edge for noting some fans are little more than a “minuscule militia of malcontents who will just want to complain about everything”, and that it’s more important whether 60-year-old retired wrestlers like your match than paying customers. Reigns agrees that the opinions of people who’ve never locked up don’t matter. And I nodded along with Seth Rollins recently when he said fans today don’t have the patience for long-term storytelling. At the same time, I totally get why Vince frequently changes course and orders the entire show to be rewritten on short notice.

Furthermore, I loved it when Paul Heyman (a few years before he was hired then fired as WWE Raw executive director) said to paying WWE Network subscribers that fans “bitch about anything” and they should “STFU” or “boycott”. The fact WWE ticket and merchandise sales have grown -26% and -16%, respectively, after that cathartic rant only proves his point.

While I believe the problem is the fans, I also believe the problem is the talent. I couldn’t agree more with Vince that the problem with this generation of WWE talent is that they’re unambitious millennials who are afraid to fail. And the reason Cesaro isn’t a bigger star is because he doesn’t have “it” and “because he’s Swiss”. I believe WWE is a meritocracy, and if Superstars work hard enough and grab that brass ring, they’ll always get what they earn. 

I scoff when people say Vince is out of touch. The guy has had huge success and is pretty self-aware. I think back to that 2004 interview he did when he said he doesn’t want “to be an impediment to progress”. He knows people around him, including and not limited to his family, will let him know if he was anywhere near as out of touch as some people say. It’s like Vince’s long-time and current aide Bruce Prichard says: people have been saying that about Vince for decades, and he’s got a 35-year track record of creating compelling characters and story-lines.

But I believe John Cena when he says it’s pretty much impossible to have that era-defining star because of the “knee-jerk reaction” of fans and how they use social media, which totally explains why WWE hasn’t created a star as big as him in the last 15 years.

By the way, people need to get over the “Saudi blood money” thing. WWE’s deal to provide events to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia twice a year at $50 million per show as part of Vision 2030 is a lot of guaranteed revenue for the company. WWE is a part of the change in that country because they were allowed to have women wrestle there. It’s not propaganda and it’s not a case of “sportswashing”. And it’s not like what KSA does is so much worse than other countries. People also need to get over the notion that the Saudi government supports a pirate broadcaster, which screwed up WWE’s ability to complete a Middle East-North Africa TV deal — even if the company’s handling of the ordeal left them vulnerable to a class-action lawsuit.

And I believe whatever WWE says about why its talent was stranded in Riyadh last October while the CEO and privileged others flew out promptly on the corporate jet. I believe the delay was due to mechanical issues and nothing else.

I believe positive Covid test results among WWE talent are evidence that their “system is working”, as EVP Paul Levesque said. It’s not really relevant the company started testing in late June only after a Covid outbreak at their facility. And I support EVP Kevin Dunn in the sentiment that masks look bad on TV.

Other sports suspending their seasons while WWE continued on with tapings just shows how dedicated the company is to providing entertainment. I agree with EVP John Brody that WWE has a social responsibility to put smiles on people’s faces. I believe smiles are the primary motivation, and securing hundreds of millions of dollars in TV rights fees is just an added bonus.

I believe EVP Levesque that a lot of companies are “having to make tough business decisions to ensure they’re still there” at this unprecedented time. WWE’s decision to furlough and lay-off employees and talent early on in the pandemic was a matter of fiscal survival. The company also has a responsibility to its investors, which is why 2020 will be the company’s most profitable year ever.

I believe none of these stories, individually or in aggregate, have a negative effect on WWE’s brand. These are internet stories a small number of online fans care about, nothing more. Speaking of which, WWE has over 1 billion social media followers; when critics point out WWE’s declining consumer metrics, they never bring up that the company’s social media followers are always growing (except for last quarter).

I believe there’s nothing economically insidious about WWE’s TV viewership trends or other consumer metrics. I believe WWE’s long-term growth opportunity to take full advantage of the rising value of live sports content remains strong. And more than anything, I believe Vince McMahon and WWE know what they’re doing.

Brandon Thurston has written about wrestling business since 2015. He’s also worked as an independent wrestler and trainer.

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