This year’s Wrestlemania season has brought along a dominant theme on the internet that there will be too many part-time stars in the top matches this April, overshadowing the talents that are on the brink of a breakout and who are around all year long. It’s a fair point. However, patience is in order.
Doctor's Orders: The Plan in Place to Create Wrestlemania's Next Big Stars
By The Doc
Jan 23, 2013 - 12:13:20 PM
One of the things that I’ve learned over the last nine years of writing for LOP in various capacities, which you would think to be obvious but somehow is not, is that the casual fan does not care about the same things that we do on the net. We, the smart marks, choose to dissect and breakdown the nuances that the general viewership could, but don’t have their eyes trained to see. I’ve often called us the collective “wrestling media” for that reason. No other entity exists to analyze the WWE and other promotions. Until one comes about; we’re it. It becomes ingrained in our nature to look for things that can only come from spending further time studying the business. The typical fan watches the WWE like the majority would the new James Bond movie, Skyfall. They want to see action, girls, and gadgets. Only someone that studies film would be looking at the more intricate plot, the introduction of old characters becoming new again, or the outstanding acting of the hero and villain.
Unfortunately, I think we sometimes forget that we’re all on the outside looking in. It’s easy to be the Monday Morning Quarterback, so to speak, judging and analyzing ‘til our hearts’ content. Subsequently, we often fail to give successful companies like the WWE their due. There’s a smart group of people running that organization. I’ve been watching the WWE for 25 years. The only other things that have interested me for that long are football, basketball, soccer, and women. So, the WWE is obviously doing something right.
Individuals or businesses that have sustained success, in my opinion, earn the benefit of the doubt. The San Francisco 49er’s coach, Jim Harbaugh, made a controversial decision to bench his starting quarterback three months ago and go with the kid that he drafted as a prospect. He took a chance and it paid off in spades. They’re in the Super Bowl. Personally, having followed (and developed a deep respect for) Harbaugh when he coached the Stanford University Cardinal, I had no problem trusting his instinct despite my initially negative reaction to his call. The WWE, similarly, knows what they’re doing. Yet, when names from the past pop up as the rumored participants in Wrestlemania’s biggest matches, many on the net damn near crucify the WWE for not having any foresight. We’re on the precipice of a shift in the WWE toward a new crop of talent. I give the WWE a lot more credit than most in actually being cognizant of that fact and prepared for it, while also attempting to sell out a football stadium and draw a buyrate strong enough to make their year-end balance sheet look damn good in the process.
We, the comparable, smaller scale wrestling version of ESPN and its followers, are an over-reactionary group that, somewhere along the line, decided we were smarter than the people that run the business that we follow. While the internet goes nuts over Nielsen, for example, the WWE does an outstanding job of diversifying their business model. Wrestling is on more TVs right now than it ever has been. That might seem like a funny statement considering that domestic ratings stink compared to the days of the 6.0 or even the 4.0, but the fact that I get feedback from people from Ecuador, India, Australia, Malaysia, and all of Europe indicates that the WWE is making up for it elsewhere.
I’m not trying to be a WWE “homer” when making such statements; I’ve got my criticisms like any other fan. I want Dolph Ziggler in the main-event of Wrestlemania as much as anyone - I just think that the WWE knows who to pick as the top stars and, if he’s meant to be one, then he’ll get there according to a plan that’s (usually) smarter than mine or yours.
So, whether you be a fan of Dolph Ziggler, The Shield, Ryback, Daniel Bryan, Antonio Cesaro, Wade Barrett, or any other superstar on the outside looking in on a coveted top spot, you need not fear. Your guy is not likely to be heavily featured at Wrestlemania XXIX, as Undertaker, The Rock, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, and maybe even Steve Austin could all be around in the next several weeks to create a another memorable “Granddaddy of ‘em all” full of stars who wrestle, on combined average, less than once a year. But don’t think that it necessarily means that your guy won’t benefit. I follow the Jim Ross school of thought that logically states that the icons are going to put a lot of unique eyes on the product. While it is, to a degree, unfortunate that their presence will mean a lesser chance for some of the young guys, putting these proven box office draws on the card in the headlining bouts will create a different opportunity for the stars of tomorrow.
The WWE has a plan. In the last two years – and this year will be the third – superstars from the past have dominated the main-event at Wrestlemania and the financial figures have skyrocketed. The Rock, flanked by Undertaker and Triple H, has made his considerable presence felt. It has been very important to the business in the present and, if you pay attention to detail and keep the casual viewer in mind, you’ll see that it will also be very important to the business’s future.
I think that the WWE’s new economic strategy is based on the one thing that’s actually bigger and better, now, than in either of the boom periods of the late 80s and 90s: Wrestlemania. Pay-per-viewership has plummeted for everything but Wrestlemania and its annual precursor, the Royal Rumble. In 2012, the combined PPV buys for all the other PPVs were just four hundred thousand more than those earned by just Mania and the Rumble. If you take Brock Lesnar out of Extreme Rules and Summerslam and use the two year prior averages, it’s even closer. Wrestlemania has become to the WWE what the NBA Playoffs are to professional basketball. The WWE and NBA both have very long seasons, if you will, and people no longer can stay engaged throughout. When January to April or April to June rolls around, though, the money pours in. So, both organizations have adjusted their fiscal strategy to match the trend.
Three to five hundred thousand extra buyers tuned in for the last two Wrestlemanias, compared to Wrestlemania XXVI, which drew 885,000 buys. Mania is at a point now where 2010’s Phoenix version was considered a disappointment. The Rock coming back to verbally engage and then wrestle John Cena, along with a match-up between two of Wrestlemania history’s most recognizable figures, boosted the Wrestlemania XXVII and XXVIII buyrates substantially.
Looking at the data across the board, those extra viewers are not coming from the usual fanbase. They’re unique. Now, did those people tune in to see the newer stars? No. They bought those shows to see The Rock interact with John Cena and Undertaker vs. Triple H; and perhaps other proven commodities such as Edge and Randy Orton made them happier to part ways with their money. The counter to that would be that a Ziggler or Punk or Bryan, with the right push from January to April, could face a top star and draw the same amount of money. The problem is that said counterargument is likely dead wrong. And the WWE knows it.
Let’s be honest, here…if Wrestlemania XXIX’s two biggest stars were John Cena and CM Punk, do you think it draws one million buys? Do you think it even draws 885,000, which was the lowest number in almost a decade? There’s just no way. Do you know what the largest number of buys was for a PPV that didn’t involve Wrestlemania season, Rock, or Brock last year? It was 212,000 for Survivor Series. You can’t take the same guys doing 212,000 or less, slap “Wrestlemania” on them, and expect the numbers to quadruple. 2012 was a great year for emerging names, but those names aren’t ready to draw, yet. The WWE needs the Rocks and Takers and Brocks to sell the year’s biggest show. It’s either those guys or a huge non-wrestling celebrity like Floyd Mayweather or Donald Trump.
Here’s how we know that the WWE knows what they’re doing, though:
At Wrestlemania XXVII, Alberto Del Rio may not have won the World Championship, but he looked like a star. Losing didn’t really hurt him because people hadn’t overly invested in his match with Edge. Yet, the presentation was strong. From his entrance to his announcer to his in-ring execution, Del Rio looked the part of someone to whom attention should be paid. CM Punk looked like a breakout star in the making in losing to Orton a few matches later. The Miz was criticized for his work rate and his successful title defense was tainted, to some, by the booking of the finish. That’s what the smark remembers. Generally speaking, the lasting memory was that Miz defeated the face of the company (after his entrance was preceded by a video package that made him look like a million bucks). By the end of the night, the most memorable moments to the broader audience were those given by the legendary figures that they paid to see. However, the seeds were planted for the fresh faces to one day become more relevant.
I have been saying for two straight years that Cody Rhodes is sitting pretty. He is the one mid-carder who has managed to completely avoid a throwaway match. In each of the last three years, he has had a singles match that got plenty of hype on television. If that trend continues, even if it involves his tag team partner in a tag championship bout (since that division is far above where it has been in recent years, in terms of quality and depth), then he’s just one break away from being a serious player.
It’s nothing new. The WWE has executed plans to bring future stars into present consciousness since the beginning. Randy Savage had a minimal role at Wrestlemania 2, but was given just enough time to make an impression. People that paid to see Hogan, Andre, Piper, and the celebrities made note of the Macho Man. When he was involved in a higher profile match at Wrestlemania III and stole the show, it stuck in the minds of those that came to Detroit for Hogan vs. Andre and Piper’s retirement match. Savage was then, and only then, pushed to the main-event and stuck as a headlining act for a long time. Ultimate Warrior followed a similar path, getting little more than a squash match at Wrestlemania IV. By 1989, when he was wrestling for the IC title, the same people that saw him in 1988 made the connection from the prior year. The next year, he was in the main-event.
We saw the same thing when Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had short tag team matches at Wrestlemania V and VI, and lengthy tag team matches at Wrestlemania VII, before having their roles expanded in the two to three years that followed. Undertaker’s role started small and progressively got larger in the same time frame, allowing the three to become cornerstones of the New Generation. Triple H had three years of playing increasingly better parts before his first lead role.
In every one of the above examples, the WWE did their best to come up with the biggest possible matches that would sell Wrestlemania and, along the way, new guys emerged to be placed in such matches down the road. It’s a yearly game of chess to see where they can strategically place the prospects while the established members get treated like only the establishment can.
It’s about a progression. That’s why Ziggler, Barrett, Cesaro, and others will take a back seat this year. The most important audience of the year doesn’t know them well enough, yet, to pay money to see them headline.
That’s why I think CM Punk wrestles Steve Austin this year. He’s the only guy on the roster not named Cena that is ready to rub elbows with the glory day icons and draw big money with them. You have to strike while the iron is hot and Punk is a hot commodity right now. If he beats Rock and claims that there’s no one left to beat, only for Stone Cold to saunter out and open a can, Punk is going to be sent into a different stratosphere, for now and in the future.
There was a process put in place that makes Punk vs. Austin possible. It started at Wrestlemania XXVII against Orton. It was taken to a much higher level last year. When a record number of people tuned in last year for Rock-Cena and Taker-Trips, the WWE handled Punk’s title match very well. He went on after the End of an Era match. They put together a great video showing his journey. The pyrotechnics and staging of his entrance looked great. Then, he was given the chance to have a showcase, feature-length match against a known commodity who had a name in and out of the wrestling business. The Wrestlemania season viewing audience has, thus, been conditioned to accept Punk as elite and his 400+ day title reign has only strengthened his position. Facing Taker would be a nice consolation prize, but facing Austin would forever put Punk on a level, in my opinion, no less than Shawn Michaels (meaning that he would, at the very least, be headlining in featured matches every year until he’s ready to retire).
I think that the WWE has a great opportunity to build up Sheamus, this year, to the echelon close to where they put Punk at Wrestlemania XXVIII; and I think that they’ve got a chance to make a splash with Ziggler, a relative unknown to the broader viewership. I want the Celtic Warrior to wrestle Randy Orton for the World Heavyweight title. Orton is a name. Last year, the first impression given at Mania was Sheamus completely destroying the World Heavyweight Champion. Defeating Orton for the World title in a competitive match this year would put Sheamus one step closer to being a guy that could step into the ring with the best of the best at a future Wrestlemania and have people paying to see it. Then, if Ziggler cashes in immediately afterward, not only does Sheamus come away looking like a bad ass who can beat a multi-time Mania headliner, but Ziggler firmly establishes in everyone’s’ minds that he, too, is a man to watch.
If they book the Miz, who noticeably earned the victory in last year’s 14-man tag match, and Alberto Del Rio in ways that make them each look strong, then the people that saw them do what they did two years ago will store it in their memory banks and will be more readily accepting of them in bigger matches down the road. Sow in the seeds for Cesaro and Barrett, Ryback, and The Shield somewhere on the card and you’ve got a Mania that accomplishes quite a bit for now and later.
Wrestlemania XXIX is likely to be a phenomenal show for most of the fanbase. There looks to be more star power involved than we’ve seen in a long time. While we may not yet be seeing the stars of tomorrow in the spots that we believe them to deserve, don’t let it taint, or worse yet ruin, a show that could give you some awesome wrestling fan memories. It’s more important now than ever before that the WWE hit an economic home run with Mania, so there are going to people around at this time of the year that aren’t around at any other. Before too long, though, the process in place to get fresh faces in Mania’s top matches will be complete; and we’ll be glad that we were patient…and the memories will be that much better.