There are two pro-wrestling companies (WWE and AEW) now with coverage in most U.S. homes, another (Impact Wrestling) in about a third of homes. None of them have a mainstream creative vision. Instead, they have niche creative visions.
The execution of those niche creative visions may gratify key decision-makers and performers, but while companies prioritize amusement over a more sports-like presentation, they turn off more fans than they attract, and the potential market for pro-wrestling remains limited. I’ll explain here why I think this is the case.
First, how did we get here?
Televised pro wrestling in the U.S. has been desperate to be anything but sports for much of the last 30 years.
While he was still probably paying for some TV time, Vince McMahon won the 1980s wrestling war with gimmick-heavy creative and celebrity guest appearances.
Vince finally vanquished rival World Championship Wrestling in 2001. His former disciples with creative influence at WCW (e.g., Vince Russo, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, etc.) played a role in causing the company to combust from dysfunction as they poorly tried to apply Vince’s vision of wrestling. Back then, WWF (before it was WWE) was getting just $550,000 a week from Viacom and $300,000 weekly from UPN.
Perhaps feeling affirmed by achieving a virtual monopoly, around that time McMahon’s programs became increasingly scripted. Backstage skits where the wrestlers did not acknowledge awareness of the cameras began routinely appearing on Raw and Smackdown.
Since winning the war in 2001, theoretically affirming Vince’s creative genius, WWE has doubled-down on his less-sports-like vision — while becoming gradually less popular with consumers in the ensuing 19 years.
Total Nonstop Action Wrestling made it to high-coverage cable on Viacom’s Spike in 2005. TNA tried and failed to compete with Vince, but only on his creative terms. The leaders at TNA largely assumed Vince’s creative approach was the right and true way to appeal to the masses. His dominance of the industry must have been proof. TNA’s creative endeavors were so chronically disdained, the company had to abandon its toxic trade name and rebrand itself “Impact Wrestling” in 2017.
It’s as if Vince has long been trying to morph his pro wrestling business, which he took over from his father, into something that transcends pro wrestling. He’s spent decades trying to make movies — literally. And he’s spent longer trying to turn his programs into something more like the scripted entertainment that gets more cultural respect.
So what befalls WWE now is a tragicomic blessing. The media economy is making pro-wrestling richer than it’s ever been — not because it finally recognizes wrestling as honorable scripted entertainment, but because it identifies it as at least enough of a live sport.
Despite the career-long efforts of Vince McMahon, and the generation of derivative minds he trained and influenced, to divorce their medium from sport and to re-engineer it into some kind of ironic meta-comedy, wrestling gets to share in the billions nonetheless. Fox now awards Smackdown with about $4 million per episode (13x what UPN was paying). USA Network gives Raw $5 million a week (9x what Viacom once paid).
TV networks are writing huge contracts for sports, in eager attempt to keep the MVPD complex alive in the face of streaming video and the increasing uselessness of the very invention that originally helped bring Vince to such power: the cable TV subscription.
What can we learn from regions with different creative roots?
Japan is often a control group for the wider wrestling business. Wrestling in Japan may tell us how the creative side of wrestling would naturally play out if the free market were actually free and not determined by one major company from 2001 to 2018. New Japan Pro Wrestling is the country’s leading company, by far. It features a straight-forward sports approach, without fourth-walled skits, without ironic breaks from the narrative, with few angles, and with some of the most charismatic and talented wrestlers of the generation. It’s a mainstream product.
Bearing in mind Japan and the U.S. are different countries with different cultures, it seems likely to me the outcome for modern wrestling is that the U.S. market would naturally be led by a major player whose creative approach is one presenting wrestling more strongly as a sport. Yes, predetermined still. Spectacular, still. But with the audacity to take itself seriously. A company where titles, wins, losses, and angles are greatly consequential, not merely the currency of a desensitized narrative. And if this is not the likely outcome, it is at least untested.
Certainly there’s an audience interested in comedy in wrestling, extraordinary storylines, and other experiments from other mediums — exemplified in things like WWE’s cinematic matches and All Elite Wrestling’s “Le Dinner Debonair” — which break greatly from wrestling-as-simulated-sport. There’s a real and respectable audience that’s interested in a novel flavor of wrestling. I’m not sure, though, leading wrestling companies can successfully appeal to the widest possible audience while also serving big helpings of elements more familiar to scripted media. And likewise, I doubt audiences who love cinema and skits in their wrestling will be prohibitively turned-off by a wrestling product that looks more like the live sports content the media industry increasingly values.
WWE has gotten less popular with consumers while New Japan has gotten more popular
Consider a recent survey conducted by Yougov for Variety found “it seemed more cartoonish than when I liked it” was the leading reason former wrestling viewers said they stopped watching.
Consider that New Japan — with its strong sports-like creative — has grown its consumer revenues and key metrics in recent years. And WWE — with its insistence on diverging away from sports — is losing in direct-to-consumer revenues.
WWE’s finances have improved due to the greater appeal the company has to its business partners, especially its television distributors. Despite creating content that supposedly serves the masses, though, ticket sales, merchandise sales, and product licensing revenues fell each year, 2017 to 2019. Even a new technology, WWE Network subscribers, fell in 2019.
According to New Japan’s parent company, in fiscal year (ending July) 2018, media revenue only made-up 20% of New Japan’s business. The rest of their business is from events and consumer products: direct-to-consumer revenues. And given the loss of New Japan’s distribution in the U.S. via AXS TV, there’s little reason to think media revenues for the company have strongly grown since FY2018.
Until Covid interrupted events, New Japan’s paid attendance and total revenue grew each year since FY2013.
The number of events New Japan ran over this time increased, but so did average paid attendance per event.
Google web search may reflect how much people are thinking about various brands or topics. Searches for WWE, domestically and globally, have fallen each year since 2016. Until the year of the pandemic, searches for New Japan, domestically and globally, have grew each year since 2010.
Havens for alternative flavors of wrestling do exist in Japan, in the form of two of the most popular companies, after New Japan: Dragon Gate and DDT. No doubt, there is a place for novelty and experimentation in the wrestling economy.
Dragon Gate has strongly storyline-heavy content. It embraces of non-traditional wrestling values. It appeals to demographics the more mainstream approach to wrestling doesn’t serve as well. Dragon Gate exercises a plethora of stipulations, gimmicks, and relationship-heavy storylines.
And then there’s DDT with its wild embrace of “entertainment” wrestling and comedy. As much as any company in the world, DDT has tested the bounds of what pro-wrestling is.
In this sense WWE is not in fact delivering mainstream wrestling to its audience. To the contrary, WWE is producing utterly niche programming, despite long ago earning its high-reach platforms and universal brand recognition.
But isn’t AEW supposed to be more sports-like?
AEW comes closer, but is still not quite doing “mainstream wrestling” in this sense. The people behind AEW have consumed many years of WWE content. A large portion of the people who work there, from executives, to wrestlers, to agents, to staff, formerly worked for WWE. WWE’s actually-niche creative is the unquestioned presumption about what popular wrestling ought to be in the U.S. and globally.
Certainly people at AEW know part of their opportunity is in being an alternative to WWE, but the content AEW produces still emanates from the inescapable U.S. wrestling groupthink that prefers short-term amusement over long-term emotional investment.
But it’s not from a lack of promising. Like a reformed addict, U.S. wrestling brands — or their TV networks — have repetitively given signals they’re going to be sports-like.
As if anyone believed it, WWE even was supposed to become more sports-like following Smackdown’s move to Fox in October 2019.
“Fox wants everyone to promote WWE as a legitimate sport,” Dave Meltzer wrote in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in July 2019, “not that the outcomes are real, but that it is a choreographed sports presentation as part of a Thursday through Sunday sports block in the fall with the NFL on Thursdays and Sundays and College Football on Saturdays.”
Major League Wrestling, which is distributed by beIN Sports and DAZN, markets itself as a sports-like approach. MLW’s executive Court Bauer says the right things: “Major League Wrestling is a sports centered league. I think there are wrestling leagues that are like a variety show, or a circus or over the top. For those wrestling leagues where it’s like you’re in on the joke.”
MLW calls its matches fights and says it presents itself as more of a combat sport. But it also puts out content that looks like a cross between a wrestling promo and a direct-to-video movie scene. Bauer, too, worked for WWE as a writer from 2005 to 2007.
AEW’s chief executive Tony Khan told fans ahead of the company’s inaugural event: “We’re going to offer a sports-centric product that focuses on the athletes and work… I plan to draw from a lot of what’s worked outside of wrestling in sports. In MMA, UFC, and Boxing, people have done great things. There’s a lot to be said in how we’re going to cover the sport of wrestling. We’re now identifying wrestling as a sport.”
There were AEW press releases, too, with sentences like: “Focused on producing fast-paced, high-impact competitions, AEW offers fans less scripted, soapy drama, and more athleticism and real sports analytics, bringing a legitimacy to wrestling that it has not previously had.”
At yesterday’s AEW media conference call, EVP Cody Rhodes was asked if the creative direction described early on had changed.
So when it comes to sports-centered wrestling, I consider everything I do — me, personally — to be sports-centric. I honor my own identity by presenting myself as such because that is who I am. You talk about Dinner Debonair. That is who Chris Jericho is. There are different flavors of ice cream that we serve at AEW, and it is very funny to me, [that] some of the modern — I don’t know [if] ‘pundits’ is the term — the wrestling journalism that tells you it has to all be one way. That hasn’t worked for anyone you’ve told that it all has to be one way. So why tell us [that]?Cody, AEW FULL GEAR Media Briefing (11/5/2020)
The seven-minute musical comedy involving Chris Jericho and MJF on the October 21 episode of AEW Dynamite got rave reviews from some fans. I was watching live and thought it was genuinely creative, funny and intelligent — all of which I think is rare for comedy in wrestling. And MJF revealed himself to be a great singer. But “Le Dinner Debonair” drove viewers away.
15% of the total audience tuned out before it was over.
And despite Jericho branding himself the “demo god”, 11% of adults 18-49 tuned out. The key demo audience started out at 402,000 at 9:19pm and dropping to 357,000 by 9:25pm.
The segment appeared in the sixth quarter of Dynamite. With one of year of data, we now know the average growth/loss for viewership for the sixth quarter is -4%, in both key demo and total audience. The tune-out rate for Le Dinner Debonair fell well below that rate.
A sports-centered creative approach is most pronounced in AEW in the storylines Cody’s involved in. I’m not quite sure what Cody was trying to say yesterday in the comment quoted above. Since we’re the same age, I’m sure he knows as well as I do that during our adult lifetimes there’s never been a strongly sports-centric wrestling product with high-reach distribution in the U.S. It’s not only possible that such an approach more broadly applied would strongly succeed; it’s never even been given the chance to fail. When sports have never been more economically valuable, now is certainly the time for someone to at least try.