Doctor's Orders: Simple Suggestions for WWE to Create Mid-Card Matches that Matter
By The Doc
May 20, 2014 - 11:37:02 PM
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QUESTION OF THE DAY: Are you in favor of keeping both the US and IC titles or unifying them?
You know the story. Columnists have told the tale a thousand times of their childhood fondness of the mid-card singles titles in the NWA/WCW and WWE. They have worn their memories of the Intercontinental and United States Championships like badges of honor, celebrating Magnum TA vs. Tully Blanchard at Starrcade, Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage at WrestleMania, and Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect at Summerslam. Indeed, the once proud lineage of the secondary gold in major American wrestling promotions is a topic never too far removed from the forefront. Far be it for me to add another in a long list of “please restore the mid-card title value” pieces.
Let’s just clearly state that I am one of those people that remembers the golden age of the US and IC belts and longs for a renaissance, of sorts, as much as anyone. Yet, I recognize that the WWE sees that all of the money to be made in their modern product is in the main-event. I’m OK with that. It’s just that I’m not OK with the giant, gaping hole in the rest of the air time that they have to fill on a weekly basis. That mid-card chasm is full of hollow battles between men without conflict. Stories cannot be told on the 20X20 foot canvas if there is no plot. All the creative attention in WWE goes to a select few that have been given the honor of headlining a major event. And it is, truly, just a select few.
In 2012, only nine regular roster members were featured in the top singles matches on PPVs on two or more occasions (John Cena, CM Punk, Dolph Ziggler, Kane, Big Show, Alberto Del Rio, Sheamus, Daniel Bryan, and Ryback). In 2013, that number fell to eight members of the regular roster (Cena, Bryan, Punk, Ryback, Randy Orton, Ziggler, Del Rio, and Show). There are over forty other active male wrestlers in the WWE at any given time that fill the space between headliner segments every week on TV. Particularly since the brand split ended in late 2011, the attention paid to mid-carders and the singles titles for which they vie has been minimal. Granted, the problem has existed for a very long time, but it has become far more glaring with Raw’s expansion to a three-hour broadcast in July 2012. With five hours of relevant TV on Raw and Smackdown, eight or nine wrestlers and a few occasional returnees (i.e. Brock, Taker, Rock, Trips) are engaged in feuds that will sell the monthly super cards, while just about everyone else aimlessly meanders about.
One of the things that makes professional wrestling awesome is that it combines the aggressive elements of sport and blends them together with theater’s flair for the dramatic. Sports rivalries often take years to develop on the field, pitch, court, or ice. It begins as friendly and tensions develop as the competitive juices flow, eventually leading to a far more entertaining game or match fueled by added emotions. Pro wrestling starts with a personal issue and develops it immediately into a must-see battle. The investment that fans make in a superstar are most frequently born from these on-screen issues, created specifically to hook the audience. The problem is that, if the majority of the emotional attachments made to a wrestler come from his rivalries and only eight or nine superstars are consistently engaged in mentally-stimulating rivalries, then how is fan to develop any more than a passing interest in anyone besides those eight or nine guys?
Some of you might be OK with simply having impressive exhibitions of in-ring skill on display each week. Fair enough and I applaud your attitude, but I’ll repeat the same thing right now that I have in past columns and on “The Doc and Super Chrisss Show” numerous times: I skip 90% of the matches on Raw and Smackdown every week because so few of them have any bearing on anything. Heresy, I know, given my card-carrying IWC status; we’re all supposed to drool over workrate and flippy moves, hate big men, believe in Triple H’s burials, and loath traditional main-eventers. Hey, I love great wrestling, too, and from the purely aesthetic perspective, we've seen a lot of random, really good matches in the last few years. I just need a story. In order for matches to matter to me, there must be a reason for the combatants to clash. I need something to be at stake.
The odds that the Intercontinental or United States Championships will ever reach their 1980s, early 1990s peaks are slim. That much should be understood by any current fan with their head somewhere below the clouds. All the same, though, there are improvements that can be made to make those titles once again matter and to heighten the profile of the entire mid-card in the process. Mid-card titles can be tremendously effective at creating reasons for matches to take place. So, what I’d like to offer is three simple suggestions:
#1 – Appoint two members of the WWE Creative Team to solely focus on mid-card storylines and mid-card singles championships
Currently, there are seven members of the WWE Creative staff that report to the higher-ups, who ultimately approve of the material that gets used for TV. If two of the seven were responsible only for certain blocks of air time and the myriad of wrestlers that occupy it, then it would cultivate an environment for success. Right now, it is painfully apparent that, with the exception of a pet project or two at a time – like a Fandango or Adam Rose or Bad News Barrett – 80% or more of the creativity is used on three or four segments per Raw and two or three per Smackdown. Take last night’s Raw, for example. The first quarter hour, last quarter hour, and overrun were dedicated to the Wyatt-Cena storyline, the top of the second hour was Stephanie McMahon continuing her feud with Daniel Bryan, and the top of the third hour was all about furthering the angle between Evolution and The Shield. Throw in the attention paid to the flavor of the second quarter of the year (Adam Rose). All in all, it followed the general format of most Raw broadcasts.
I’ve been encouraged by things like the “Beat the Clock Challenge” and the “#1 Contender’s Tournament” to add a sense of urgency to rebuild the Intercontinental Championship division ever since WrestleMania week concluded, but those are gimmicks that do not create sustainable change. Lasting impressions will be left on the mid-card when consistency to its booking returns. Having two people whose sole purpose in WWE is to craft a series of backstage segments, physical altercations, matches, and interviews using mid-card wrestlers like Dolph Ziggler, Sheamus, Cesaro, Damien Sandow, Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes, etc. would basically make the non-headliners and their dedicated writing team their own little world. Simply break down the average amount of time per week given to the non-main-eventers and disperse it as seen fit amongst the men competing in the mid-card. Segments can be written to fit quarter hours and be largely immune to (the reports of) Vince McMahon’s desire to continually rewrite the key pieces (main feuds) of the Raw script.
If WWE wants to hire Hollywood writers, then put them in their element. So many TV shows have ensemble casts very similar to the large roster of talent under contract in WWE. In such programs, there is a constant rotation of secondary stories to keep the viewer engaged so that, when the actors involved in the secondary stories are subjects of a primary plot twist, interest is maintained. The WWE would be well-advised to devote a section of their creative staff only to those secondary stories.
#2 – Develop a Ranking System or Poll to help fans keep track of mid-card championship contenders
Rankings and polls create excitement throughout sports and entertainment. In sports, weekly polls for college football have television programs devoted to their unveiling. Ratings battles, as proven in wrestling, are little more than lists that rank Nielsen data, but they are highly dramatic for all who have something at stake in their results. Professional sport league standings are amongst the most viewed pages of all the major online sites. These are tools that aid in creating stronger bonds to a team and a league; to a show and a network. They should be used to WWE’s advantage.
The best thing about rankings and polls is that they are simple. From the fan perspective, they up the interest level. It’s as simple as that. If polls determine the placement of their favorite team or player, they are more invested. From the organization’s standpoint, it gives meaning to games and matches. If rankings meant nothing to NFL or NBA Playoff standing, then the games that determine the rankings would mean very little. Part of the problem with the WWE mid-card is that most of its matches have no stated intention. They are not about the top prize in the company or destroying a legacy or factions colliding in a balance of power or an idealistic struggle between what’s traditionally best for business and what’s actually right for business. Mid-card matches just happen. They start, they finish; some are good, some are bad; rarely do they mean diddly squat. There are 82 NBA regular season games. In order for every game to matter, there has to be something on the line. Take away the essential element of a game or two deciding a statistical difference in the standings and you strip the NBA of much of its relevance. It’s why the NCAA Tournament has come to define every bit of college basketball season. The regular season is about half as significant as it use to be, rendering it obsolete amongst the general sports fan lexicon. The same thing has happened to the WWE mid-card. A rankings system and polls would help change that.
The strongest opponents to rankings amongst the critical wrestling fan community over the years have voiced their concerns that the WWE would not handle it correctly. Well, again, it’s not something that needs a degree in rocket science to devise. The ranking system could be something as simple as win and loss records over a given period of time (WrestleMania to Summerslam, Summerslam to TLC, and TLC to WrestleMania) or it could be something more complex like using the variety of different WWE Legends that sit on those God awful pre and post shows to put together a poll along the lines of the Coaches’ or Harris polls in college football. The WWE begs its audience to interact and often uses the mid-card to force the interaction. So, have a fan poll asking which contenders deserve to be in the US or IC title mix. Maybe all three elements (win/loss, Legends poll, fan poll) could be combined to form a definitive list. The Network could air a weekly rankings show with 30-minutes or less of break down and the results could be prominently featured on Raw and Smackdown every week. I know I’d watch that if it were done well.
The bottom line is that rankings/polls would give the mid-card matches a reason to occur and it would not take a lot of effort to enforce and maintain them.
#3 – Ensure that there is always a conflict that leads to a title match
One thing that I have always liked about the idea of rankings is that it is an easy way to create contenders that the fans are conditioned to accept as championship threats. Yet, once the contenders manifest and the time comes for them to engage the titleholder, then there needs to be further conflict to maximize the effectiveness and the longevity of a potential rivalry. Not everything is going to click, but if you have a system in place that constantly churns out challengers, then it provides the luxury of being able to pick and choose your spots when it comes to lengthening feuds over the title that work or cutting your losses on the ones that don’t pan out. There are a lot of simple beefs that can be used to fan the flames of a mid-card title storyline. A classic example was D-Lo Brown using his chest protector to gain an added advantage as the European Championship back in mid-1998. It was cheap and it was not the kind of thing that would have ever been used to sell millions of viewers or thousands of tickets, but it was just enough to add something to the product and the title that he was carrying.
There are any number of basic issues that could be used to create a cycle of mid-card championship dramas, from girls to looks to bullying to nationality to the spirit of competition. Rinse and repeat depending on the talents involved and you’ve got yourself a well-oiled machine that cannot break – you just keep feeding the machine.
At the end of the day, I’m very happy with the overall WWE product, but it is at times like these when most everyone just seems to be spinning their wheels, the part-timers are gone, and the doldrum period of uncreativity kicks in during the spring that the WWE’s lack of mid-card focus becomes amplified. It is then that I am reminded that, for the last few years (and for the first time in my wrestling fandom), I have been fast forwarding through 65% of the broadcasts. And the reason is simple: the matches on TV mean about as much as a peck on the cheek after a first date means to future matrimonies. It doesn’t have to be that way. The entire show can matter. These suggestions would be a start.
Join Super Chrisss Wednesday at 5PM on “The Doc and Super Chrisss Show” for the Win/Fail of the Week from Monday Night Raw and a look ahead to Payback.
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