Tuesday, December 19, 2006

WWE: 2006 Review and 2007 Preview

World Wrestling Entertainment recently released a DVD on the history of the AWA. The WWE’s coverage of AWA focused on the demise of the company. The DVD made the AWA seem out of touch and behind the times, which it was. The AWA lost the war and went out of business in large part because Verne Gagne was hopelessly behind the times. The World Wrestling Federation put out a product that drew in new fans and growing revenues. The AWA played to a steadily declining audience that eventually could no longer support the promotion.

Since 2001, WWE has put together a product that largely turns off fans. This has led to steadily decreasing revenues and an increasingly hostile audience. One of the greatest assets the promotion has is the lack of competition. There is still a significant audience that loves wrestling and loved the WWF and wants to see the promotion turn itself around. Without a competitor to satisfy that audience’s desires, they stick around waiting for WWE.

In 2006, that changed. The emergence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a pay-per-view entity has finally given a large base of wrestling fans the product that they missed. At the most basic level, there is now a serious product matching up people in fights where the winner seems important. As such, UFC pay-per-views are now regularly drawing bigger domestic buy rates than every WWE pay-per-view except WrestleMania.

WWE in 2007 has a choice. It can continue on oblivious, just as it has for years. Pay-per-view buys will continue to decline, and ratings are likely to suffer as well. Worse, the likelihood increases that fans will find alternatives to where they not only stop watching WWE, but stop caring if it ever does turn itself around. Or alternatively, the promotion can finally take affirmative steps to rebuild the promotion. Long term building, less goofy comedy and meaningful match results are a must.

WWE has shown an ability to do all of these things in 2006, but it needs to have more consistent focus and drive. It all starts with long term planning based around setting up fresh matchups that people will pay to see. When each week’s show is an indispensable link in the long term storyline chain, it makes absurd and counterproductive diversions less likely. WWE still has a reserve of longstanding goodwill from its fan base, but there will come a time when that well is dry. 1984 is over twenty years in the past. Dana White may be remembered as the new Vince McMahon. But if Vince McMahon isn’t careful, he may be remembered as the new Verne Gagne.

Other Notes for 2007:

-At WrestleMania 21, Batista and John Cena were anointed the new stars of the company. At the time, it looked like Batista was the greater star, and Cena was a distant second. Almost two years later, the roles have completely reversed. Cena is far and away the most important individual to future WWE success, while Batista looks like he might go down as a guy who had one hot run but didn’t prove himself worthy of the push he was given. Cena inspires emotion from crowds, and is the biggest star in professional wrestling today. He also couldn’t be a better representative of the company and has worked to improve himself on the ring. Batista, unfortunately, appears to be going on nothing but momentum from a long standing push and his physique. He badly needs to do something to justify his position. If he doesn’t, WWE should cut bait on him as champion and make him a special attraction more like Undertaker or Big Show.

-One of the problems with going public is the pressure from the financial world to make your books look good, even if that means doing things that may be bad for the company in the long run. To the extreme, that can involve cooking the books like Enron and the like. But WWE has a problem of its own with financial pressure. Pay-per-view buys and television revenue have gone down, and WWE doesn’t want to correct the problems that have caused the decline (since the McMahon family bears a large degree of personal responsibility) nor appear to be a company on the decline. Thus, they have sought ways to expand revenue streams. Some of these ideas are extremely smart, such as expanding the international market and increasing DVD production and sales. However, some of the ideas are short term solutions that are awful ideas in the long run. Namely, WWE has increased the number of PPVs it runs, and added even more television to its already full plate. This helps to offset declines, but WWE can’t keep procrastinating on its problems by just producing more and more product. That will simply exacerbate the negative trends. Instead, WWE needs to focus on what it already has, and make everything feel more important. Five hours of television a week is too much. ECW is just thinning the roster and burning company energy. It’s not worth the ad fees in the long run. Likewise, the extra revenue from an expanded PPV schedule is not worth the long term damage from deterring wrestling fans from ordering PPVs. They are better off running once a month and making each event feel important again. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, or the self-corrective measures will no longer have future potential effectiveness.

-Another key issue for WWE in 2007 is going to be wrestler morale. WWE is lucky that most wrestlers in North America view WWE as their ultimate goal. There should really be no reason that WWE can’t secure the best talent in North America. Yet, there are wrestlers voluntarily leaving the company for less money because they are unhappy with the way WWE is run. WWE needs to combat this, and the way to do it is by reestablishing the meritocracy that has always been a WWE strength. If new wrestlers are getting over or show major potential to get over, they need to be pushed above older wrestlers who have run their course. If wrestlers don’t think their hard work can potentially be rewarded with a greater push, they are either going to stop working hard or they are going to leave. It’s better to keep them on board and utilize their talent.

-WrestleMania now draws very well each year just based on the name, which makes it the most effective time of the year in getting over new main eventers. This year and every year WWE should think about ways to use WrestleMania as a coming out party for upcoming stars and anointment for new main event stars. Booking newer stars high on the card legitimizes them in the eyes of fans and helps set up the rest of the year. If WWE expects big things from someone towards the end of 2006 or in 2007, that should be getting set up now.

Tomorrow: UFC 2006 Review and 2007 Preview
Thursday: Observer Awards Ballot


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Todd, I always enjoy the blog, even when I don't enjoy the WWE and TNA products. Mercifully, there's ROH for my wrestling jones.

I think your analysis of WWE is dead-on. Storylines are rushed; the fans, ignored; WWE pushes who they want to see in the main events. Bobby Lashley, Batista, Orton, HHH, Cena, etc...etc...They're interchangable. The only difference between them is that HHH will make a shoot comment on Raw or PPV, and no one is allowed to respond back. One of the advantages of being family, I presume.

Seemingly daily, someone from WWE will pound their chest and tell the world that their employer is fan-friendly. Well, either those people are liars or are stupid. WWE has been fan-unfriendly for a long time. Think back to the Invasion. Which wrestler was receiving monumental cheers? Rob Van Dam. Since then, WWE has half-heartedly pushed Van Dam, often suggesting he was/is one of the most gifted athletes in the company. So you have a gifted athlete who the fans love. Why not push him? Oh, that's right, he wasn't a WWE creation. He doesn't wrestle the WWE main event style. He's not their guy. So he's forever in the mid-card, upper mid-card, doomed to be popular but never truly pushed. If Matt Hardy looks in a mirror, I'm sure he sees RVD's reflection.

WWE often says that they began to win "The Monday Night War" when they started listening to its fans. Well, listen to them now. They know what's best.

Denis Gorman

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Tyson said...

Is there a reason to believe that Hunter won't take over the top spot on Smackdown?

Honestly. It may be the best thing for the show. For the short term til they can find another star. Batista-HHH will draw and it may even be in both guys best interests.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

I agree with a lot of what was said here, but there are some really simple things they could be doing that could go a long way towards the goals you were mentioning.

Establishing a viable mid-card is extremely important. Vince Russo is an idiot, but he did understand the importance of a mid-card that people are invested in. People really want to like Carlito, for instance, but WWE never gives us a real reason to actually care about him. What is his character besides "the guy that says 'cool' and spits apples"? That's not a character, it's a gimick. Give him some music that goes beyond "generic island music," give him a storyline beyond "guy who rescues random girl from Masterlock" and see what happens.

I think slight production things would be huge, music again being a good example. In 1999, the talent pool was much more shallow, but I could recognize the music of any wrestler on the roster from Bob Holly to D-Lo Brown, all the way up to Austin. In 2006, can you hum Charlie Haas' theme, or even Johnny Nitro's for that matter? The only decent music at this point is the outsourced stuff like Edge, Victoria, and Cena. (Actually, I like Umaga's music but it is ruined by lack of anything interesting in his actual enterance itself, which could be really dark and cool.)

Anyway, I think there was exactly one good mid/undercard fued in 2006 and that was Trish vs. Mickie James. It had a slow build, character development, originality, and a proper blow-off. Can you say that about anything else that didn't involve a 40+ year old wrestler, Edge, Cena, DX, or cheap use of recently dead wrestlers? WWE- get someone who can write original ideas for wrestlers below the main event, give those wrestlers decent ring attire/nick names/music/wardrobe, and if the crowd catches on, push the hell out of them. That's how ringmasters become Stone Cold, Greenwich snobs become The Game, and Blue Chippers become The Great One.

Thanks for letting me get that rant out.

8:55 PM  

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