Wrestling fans are among the most fiercely loyal followers of their game in all of sports. Think about it … even though their sport is seemingly always under fire, the fans are diehard in their support of their favorite stars and their favorite promotions. Atop the heap the WWE still remains, and what’s more, it doesn’t look like they are in danger of losing their stronghold on that top spot any time soon. In fact, since 2001, there hasn’t been a viable contender to compete with the professional wrestling powerhouse.
Initially, this monopoly may have been viewed as a good thing by the WWE shareholders and the folks who don’t truly understand wrestling. However, competition is what keeps a team sharp and that includes the men and women behind the scenes that are making the administrative and creative decisions. Since they stopped looking over their shoulder at the competition and have focused more on demographic data and other indicators to show them the way, they may not be seeing the forest for the trees.
Let’s face it, after more than a generation of the WWE’s dominance in the sports entertainment field, the product now looks vastly different than it did when Vince McMahon first dreamed up the concept of WrestleMania. But the solutions that the WWE is looking for do not lie with Hollywood writers or social media experts. In fact, the solutions are connected directly to the product that is presented between the ropes each and every night. The following are the top ten actions that the WWE can take to win back the fans.
10. Re-Consider the Guaranteed Contract
If you ask Kevin Nash, he loves to be applauded for “changing the game” by setting the precedent for guaranteed contracts for the wrestlers. But the damage is done when you take the individual initiative out of an incentive-driven business. Watching the televised product now, you don’t see the same intensity from wrestlers of the past generation whose pay cheques were influenced by the strength of their ticket sales. Instead, there is a culture of wrestlers who don’t want to rock the boat because they don’t want to lose their jobs. Yes, some of the wrestlers atop the marquee should be locked up, but those who aren’t marketed with t-shirts, action figures and other licensed goods should be left a little hungrier to find out how bad they want it.
9. Separate the Brands
For the casual fan, there is no distinction between one program and the other if they turn on the television and can see the same match on either program. By creating two brands with no crossover talent except those carrying championships, the WWE can re-build some of the competition that is missing from the wrestling game, albeit internally. With the opportunity for more TV time for the emerging talents, they will have a greater opportunity to showcase themselves and either generate a return on the company’s investment in them, or they’ll sink and create an opening for someone else to rise.
8. Remember the Purpose of Television
When wrestling first hit the airwaves in the 1950s, there was a worry that by broadcasting the matches on television that it would hurt ticket sales in the arenas. To remedy that, promoters cleverly used television as the vehicle to hype the matches that they wanted people to pay to see. With the current climate, main events are being given away weekly on TV, so there is no draw to get people out to the arenas or to buy the pay per views. Don’t give away for free what the fans are willing to pay for.
7. Consider the Whole of the Wrestling Community
This isn’t a hard jump from where you are at present. The WWE is already recognizing wrestlers in its Hall of Fame that never made an impact with the company. Take for example Abdullah the Butcher, The Fabulous Freebirds, or even Sting. However, their inclusion in the hall is good for wrestling and is representative of the sport at large. The same can be applied to the in-ring product. Filling three hours of television time can be easily done by adding more matches – maybe undercard matches featuring credible talent from the independents that are not under contract, but aspire to be. But not just a match to enhance a current star. By highlighting these independents and drawing from their following, the reach of the WWE gets even wider.
6. Re-Introduce Managers
Long-time wrestling fans can readily recall the antics of legendary managers like Bobby Heenan, Jimmy Hart and Lou Albano that helped to elevate the drama and create a larger than life mythology around the wrestlers under their charge. Yes, today’s wrestlers are more athletic than ever, but when their in-ring interviews sound scripted, not organic, it doesn’t make it easy for the fans to get behind them. Let’s re-introduce some managers, give them stables of talent to work with and re-build the awe factor.
5. Remember That Not All Fans Are Digital
Yes, we recognize the value of representing the social media reach to investors and advertisers as a measurable statistic to ensure their support. However, at the same time there is a group of fans that may feel like they are neglected because they are not online or following the latest trends on Twitter. You must not forget these fans too, that buy tickets, snap up merchandise and speak passionately about the product as a proud fan. This may include a re-introduction of print media like the WWE Magazine on a limited distribution/subscription basis.
4. Fire the Hollywood Writers
Here’s where the trouble begins … for a few years there was a lot of action going on backstage that seemed to amp up the excitement. Limousines were blown up, cars were demolished, all kinds of high budget stunts were added to the mix. But where do we go from there? Unlike the movies where the explosion blows up the hated villain and that’s the end of them, we know that nobody is dying … so it’s an anti-climactic outcome that may have generated great ratings for the short term, but not sustainable growth. While they may have some expertise in getting ratings today, their investment is not in the year over year appeal of the characters, who need to be constantly refreshed to remain relevant.
3. Re-Introduce the “Jobber”
The closed network environment of the WWE roster now means that a super villain may get built up with a three minute match against another contracted star. To build one, you kill another, but as fans we are now subjected to matches featuring that talent that we don’t believe in until their contract runs out. Let’s find the next generation’s Barry Horowitz and Steve Lombardi and put their skills to work for the benefit of the entire roster.
2. Don’t Forget About the Importance of Those Arenas
Without a doubt, there is more money to be made with television contracts and pay per view, but the direct relationship with the fans that support you is also an important element of wrestling. It’s in those arenas where the fans get the opportunity to meet these television personalities up close and to forge a lasting emotional attachment to something that they have experienced viscerally. Arena business is struggling in most markets both because the product is so readily over-exposed on television that only the diehards are coming out. Frequently, the brand takes marquee status over the respective main events. People are coming out just to see WWE … not because any particular wrestler on the card is a draw. People can’t get as emotionally attached to a brand as they can a person. Build those main events and make the live event portion of the business matter again.
1. Increase the Chaos of Uncertainty
Professional wrestling is lost in an environment of long-term contracts. We have lost the “wow” factor of a surprise debut, or the introduction of a new wrestler mid-stream seemingly out of nowhere. There is a lot of great talent that isn’t currently under contract that could be cherry picked for short-term angles to elevate the headliners and then disappear into wrestling’s abyss again. We can’t get excited about John Cena vanquishing a foe at the end of a heated rivalry only to know that there is no long-term consequence. That defeated star will still be on television the following week, without any new blood circulating through the system. The controlled chaos aura of wrestling is destroyed when all hope of anarchy is lost.