World Wrestling Entertainment is, in some ways, a very different company than it was during the Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection days during the 1980’s boom. Much to the chagrin of current wrestling fans, WWE is also a far cry from what it was during the famed Attitude Era. The company no longer emphasizes the in-ring competition aspect of the show, it’s commentary team is in a perpetual state of promotion and the company is now publicly traded, which has lead to a more conservative product. Even the company’s name has changed. Roughly 14 years later and that “E” on the end is still jarring. I’m not even 100% sure if it’s correct to call it WWE or “the” WWE. A lot of the talent doesn’t seem to be sure either sometimes. More so than even the name change, and changes from within are the changes to the world surrounding the company, some for better and obviously some for worse.
First and foremost is the way the WWE product is consumed. While TV ratings were a staple in how to judge the company’s success, that metric has become incredibly outdated, even if media, critics and fans have been slow to catch up. In my own personal circle, I would say less than half of the people I know watch anything at the time it actually airs on TV. Between DVR and online streaming services a lot of audience isn’t watching Monday Night Raw at the time they used to. I know I rarely ever start watching Raw at it’s 8:00 PM start time and I couldn’t tell you the last time I watched SmackDown! on the night it airs. I also know I’m not alone in either venture. Add to that the fact that WWE has among the most popular YouTube channels and almost limitless video, photos and news on WWE.com. Even PPVs are now mostly streamed through the WWE Network. Raw and SmackDown! are still broadcast in a traditional way, but we are not interacting with these shows the same way. When you factor in the presence of social media, there is a whole new level of fan interaction.
In my estimation, the biggest single change in the world surrounding WWE is the fans themselves. We still watch, discuss, attend live events and TV tapings and purchase merchandise. But somewhere along the way, we realized we could be a part of the show and at times be the biggest part of the show. There are matches, moments, and entire segments that can be completely hijacked by those in attendance through boos, chants and signs. This is one hurdle WWE hasn’t figured out how to clear. John Cena, the top guy for a decade is still openly hated by at least half of the fanbase. The top guy in waiting, Roman Reigns, is met with a concerning level of almost indifference. There is a sentiment among fans that at times WWE is putting on a show for themselves. They are forsaking the wants of the people and booking to their own wants and desires. But this thinking is what led me to a different way of seeing this issue.
WWE does seem to regularly leave fans wanting much more with storylines surrounding it’s World Championship. Whether it’s Super Cena or the Roman Empire, a large chunk of the fanbase is always unhappy. But, over the last two years WWE is finding ways to appeal to more people. For the hardcore fan there is NXT. Many NXT fans discuss it’s superiority over the main roster, but is this really a slight of WWE when it is part of WWE? As the only game in town, they have nothing to fear, but NXT ensures that Raw and SmackDown! aren’t the beginning and end of their programming. It appeals to those who are most vocally displeased with the WWE product. I’ve heard many fans say TakeOver: Brooklyn was a superior show to SummerSlam, but honestly, the success of NXT doesn’t detract from the company as a whole. The continued growth and increasing popularity of NXT gives WWE fans an alternative that continues to put money in Vince McMahon’s pockets. Claims that TakeOver: Dallas will exceed the quality of WrestleMania isn’t really a complaint. It’s actually just a nice bonus added to Mania weekend.
Even on the main roster we are getting to see talents like Kevin Owens making the Intercontinental title arguably more meaningful than the WWE title. We have the recent signing of AJ Styles and a successful first program with Chris Jericho to hold onto. While the entirety of the show won’t appeal to everyone, there are aspects of the show that appeal to different demographics. WWE Network is constantly coming up with new original programming. Some of it is admittedly better than others, but it is still more content to please a more diverse group of people. Hardcore fans are also being extended another olive branch with the announcement of a Global Cruiserweight Tournament coming this summer. WWE is a huge entertainment company that isn’t seeking to appeal solely to longtime, hardcore wrestling fans. They are trying to broaden their reach while finding a mixture of programming that can appeal to all different groups.
While I’m sure WWE would prefer fans love everything they do, it doesn’t really matter if Roman Reigns gets booed out of the arena at every Raw and PPV. They know the people who love wrestling will ultimately find something they like while parents continue to buy Reigns t-shirts for their kids. In reality, those of us watching in the 1980’s were spoonfed Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. We were also spoonfed Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in the early and mid 1990’s. Stone Cold Steve Austin was never supposed to be a star but he caught our imagination and ran with it for years. Now we have so much information at our disposal that we rebel against what WWE tries to spoonfeed us. But kids still go along with the story WWE wants to tell. This is my one big criticism of WWE outside of poor creative and booking. The excuse that Roman Reigns sells too much merchandise to be a heel seems silly. Whoever WWE puts in the top babyface spot will sell merchandise to kids. There is nothing about Reigns that is especially appealing to kids other than the fact that they’re being told that’s who they are supposed to like.
We can criticize WWE all we want for poor storytelling. We can criticize WWE for making Raw less watchable than it once was. We can even criticize WWE for giving us a lackluster main event at WrestleMania that will almost surely see the winner booed as the show closes. But that doesn’t change the fact that over the course of the last two years and for the foreseeable future, WWE is building arms to their company that will continue to reach an increasingly diverse audience. That actually does sound like it’s best for business.