Declining ratings. Disgruntled talent. Disenchanted fans. The make-believe world of professional wrestling – um, sorry, “sports entertainment” – is struggling with a real-life quandary: The undisputed leader in the industry is going through the doldrums. Oh, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is doing fine financially. In fact, the publicly-traded company stands to make more revenue than ever in 2020 thanks to its TV deals with the USA Network (five years, $265 million) and FOX (five years, $205 million per year). Still, the company is on a downward trend in terms of viewers. Earlier this month, the WWE’s flagship show, Raw, sunk to an all-time low of 1.686 million viewers.
So what’s going wrong with the WWE?
We offer five possible answers.
PROBLEM NO. 1: COVID-19. Let’s start with the obvious. Whether you watch wrestling on TV or in person, it’s just not the same without a live audience. Since the coronavirus pandemic reared it’s ugly head, the WWE’s shows – Raw, Smackdown and NXT – have had to go without the benefit of any fans in attendance. The result has been a much more sterile and subdued presentation, which just doesn’t work for a show that thrives on audience reactions. Also, since the company isn’t forcing its wrestlers to perform during this pandemic, some stars haven’t been available over the past couple of months. Former WWE champion Roman Reigns, for example, has elected to stay at home with his newborn twins and isn’t expected back anytime soon. Intercontinental champion Sami Sayn has also decided to sit it out until the pandemic ends. (As a result, the company recently “stripped” him of the title and is holding a tournament to crown a new champion.) Like most businesses, the WWE has taken a punch to the gut with COVID-19. The question that needs to be asked: Will the viewers come back when things return to normal?
Becky Lynch, perhaps the WWE’s most popular superstar, has taken a leave of absence to have her first child.
PROBLEM NO. 2: LACK OF NEW STARS. The WWE no longer has a megastar like “The Rock” or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin that is a proven ratings draw. The wrestler that perhaps comes closest is former UFC champion Brock Lesnar, and he’s only a part-time performer with the company. In addition, the extremely popular Becky Lynch recently announced that she is pregnant and will be taking a leave of absence. (Similarly, another big draw, former UFC champion Ronda Rousey, left the company last year to start a family.) There are a lot of talented men and women in the WWE, but no one has been able to grab the big brass ring as the “must-see” face of the company. Part of that is due to a more fickle fan base. “When fans s—t on the product, it’s hard for the newer talent to adapt,” says one prominent professional wrestler in Hawaii. “And when they can’t, the plug gets pulled. Nobody is pushed to the sky right out of the gate. You need to give new talent a chance to grow. By not allowing talent time to develop, the roster is not able to progress, and because no one is progressing, there are no big names. They can’t build bigger stars, bigger draws and bigger storylines.”
Wrestler Bray Wyatt has had his ups and downs in the WWE thanks to inconsistent story angles.
PROBLEM NO. 3: POOR CREATIVE: Wrestling storylines are always a hit-or-miss proposition. Sometimes a story angle catches fire, and sometimes it just doesn’t resonate. Some of the WWE’s stories in 2020, however, have failed miserably and get aborted with no explanation. For example, there was a disturbing cuckold angle where the real-life wrestling couple of Rusev and Lana was broken up due to Lana messing around with another wrestler. A “wedding” was staged at one point, but the ceremony was interrupted by another wrestler, Liv Morgan, announcing to the world that she and Lana were in a lesbian relationship. That segment was so brutally panned that the WWE abandoned the lesbian angle right away, and soon after that the entire storyline dissolved. (Rusev, who had been complaining about how he was being used, was subsequently released by the company.) Another angle had a menacing giant, Erick Rowan, walking around carrying a covered cage. For weeks, this angle centered around the question, “What’s inside the cage?” The big reveal? Rowan had a giant mechanical spider. That was a massive flop, and the angle was soon dropped (And, like Rusev, Rowan was also released.) Overall, WWE’s writers have struggled with creating stories that capture the attention of an increasingly discriminating audience. A wrestler is treated like a breakout star one week, then gets buried the next week. It’s a tough predicament, especially when all creative ideas are subject to the changing whims of Vince McMahon. Former WWE star Dave Bautista stated, “[WWE Creative] seems like it’s become worse. I feel like they don’t have a clear vision, a long-term vision, and everything is very week to week. It doesn’t seem like they stick to a plan very much.”
Heralded new stars like Ricochet sometimes get lost in the WWE’s creative shuffle and wind up forgotten.
PROBLEM NO. 4: WRESTLING JUST ISN’T AS POPULAR. Professional wrestling went mainstream in the mid-1980s with the birth of “Hulkamania,” and the industry hit its peak in the mid-1990s with the Monday Night ratings war between the WWE and WCW. But those days are long gone. WWE’s “Raw” program averaged 5.88 million viewers every week in 2000. Today, the show has at times dipped to below two million viewers. Wrestling’s decline in popularity can be partially attributed to the expanding amount of entertainment options available to the consumer, from MMA and Netflix to the growth of cable sports networks and online gaming. Adding to the dilemma: WWE hasn’t done a lot to make itself attractive to newer and younger audiences.
The WWE would benefit from the return of former UFC champion Ronda Rousey (right).
PROBLEM NO. 5: SPOILED FANS. Thanks to the Internet and wrestling news sites, it’s getting harder and harder to please today’s wrestling fan. These days, it seems, everyone’s a critic. Fan’s have turned into armchair bookers who think they know more than the wrestling professionals. A visit to any wrestling fan forum will inevitably turn up angry comments such as, “They have no idea how to build new stars” or “I’m done watching this company!” Says one local wrestler, “I honestly like the current format with no fans because it allows the WWE to build up newer stars without having to worry about fan reaction.” Says another veteran Hawaii wrestler: “Yeah, fans are spoiled. They want something. They get what they want. And then they cry about it when it’s no longer the flavor of the month.”
# # #