Doctor's Orders: WWE Stuck Between a Unique Rock and a Hard Place
By The Doc
Feb 4, 2014 - 10:36:08 PM
QUESTION OF THE DAY: How are you feeling a week after the Royal Rumble and CM Punk news?
So, like the majority of Americans and millions of others around the world, I spent my Sunday locked into the Super Bowl. Fellow NC State graduate, Russell Wilson, led his Seahawks to victory in the same building that I watched WrestleMania 29 last year. The game set the all-time American viewership record, becoming the fourth out of the last five Super Bowls to accomplish such an incredible feat.
The National Football League sells in the USA. It’s that simple. Small market teams, big market teams, no market teams (no offense, Green Bay) – it doesn’t matter. The NFL rules the roost around here. I’m sure that the WWE would love to be able to say the same about their product. To be self sustainable to the point that they would not need to be gifted The Rock “finally” coming back to attain the three most financially profitable WrestleManias of all-time would be an amazing achievement. If hitting economic home runs in April were as simple as putting popular stars in competitive situations to end creative storylines, then the WWE could do exactly as the people wanted. Unfortunately for us people, it’s not that simple.
For the last week and counting, I have been doing what most of you have been doing – trying to figure out how to process all of the events of the Royal Rumble and CM Punk’s departure. Never before in all my years as a wrestling fan have I seen such excitement on Sunday morning be followed by such apathy two days later. The Royal Rumble is supposed to be one of the peaks on the sports entertainment calendar – not a deep, depressing valley. Yet, in just a short time span, I saw diehard supporters take their remotes and figuratively throw them at their televisions in a vote of no confidence in the WWE hierarchy. Feeling that a sense of clarity was in order, I set out in search of the actual data necessary to lend the WWE and its fanbase some perspective. In my book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, I describe pro wrestling as being the one major sport or entertainment entity in the world that shuns the very media that wants to cover it as extensively as the E! Network covers Hollywood and ESPN covers the NFL, NBA, etc. It was more of an observation than a gripe, but I suggested that the WWE, subsequent to their inability to embrace their media (the LOPs, Torches, and Observers of the world), have rendered themselves void of any real calming voices that support their more controversial decisions. Michael Cole certainly won’t do it. I don’t dislike him, but neither he nor any of the other announcers offer much in the way of insight toward the product. If they were the WWE equivalent of a beer advertisement, their marketing modus operandi would be to stand in front of the camera yelling “Bud Light! Bud Light! Bud Light!” Plug, plug, plug, plug, plug is about all that those guys do nowadays. Perspective is often lacking as a result. And it is one of my primary aims to offer it.
The WWE is a machine, no doubt. Steve Austin referred to himself, once, as a gear that got used up and was replaced by a new gear and the machine keeps on turning. CM Punk called it the “spoke in the wheel.” That is true, to an extent. Pro wrestling has its core audience, of which many of us are a part, and that is unlikely to change. When one guy leaves, another takes his place. We stay. Where the machinistic viewpoint comes under scrutiny in the details. It’s too simple. As with any machine, some parts are more important than others. That’s the qualifying statement that should be attached to the WWE machine analogy. And the question at the top of everyone’s minds these days is how important a part/gear/spoke in that machine/wheel is Daniel Bryan…and how important a part was CM Punk? That’s the million dollar question that I want to try to answer. As I tell patients all of the time when we go through detailed reports of their conditions, if you don’t understand the problem then it becomes bigger than you are, but to comprehend what is happening is to make you bigger than it is - the unknown makes you powerless, but knowing gives you power.
Let’s get the controversial fact out on the table to being with: the WWE is not stupid. Columnists of all mental acuities were rabid in their criticism of the WWE a week ago (I among them), almost universally claiming that the WWE missed an opportunity to use the Royal Rumble for Bryan’s ascension to the top of their Universe. A week or more of allowing emotions to cool has returned the level-headed to the undeniable conclusion that the WWE does, in all likelihood, know exactly what it is doing (as they usually do) whether we like what they’re doing or not. Rather than question that, let us instead focus on why they are doing what they are doing because that is where all the answers are. They have made too much money and have too much money at stake in the WWE Network to purposefully drop the ball with Bryan unless they had a really good reason. My research to discover their thought-process, as usual when attempting to unravel the unspoken theme of their psyche, was based on the $ money $. You want to know why Vioxx stayed on the market for 10 years after it proved to cause sudden heart failure? Follow the money. You want to know why football in America gets all the best time slots in primetime? Follow the money. If we want to know why the WWE would be reluctant to push Bryan during their biggest season, just follow the money.
The WrestleMania business model is simple – if you give your current roster members already under contract with their usual checks and bonuses the chance to headline WrestleMania and WrestleMania winds up being a smash hit at the box office, then you make more money as a corporation. The problem is that the WWE has reason to believe that they can’t do that. Instead, they feel that they must pay Dave Batista or The Rock more money to come back than they otherwise would have on current roster members so that they can field a WrestleMania line-up that will sell. With the current fiscal model being so heavily dependent on the success of WrestleMania season – The Royal Rumble through WrestleMania (and, to some, Extreme Rules) – they need the annual January-April stretch to be a home run every year. Studies of the last decade reveal that Mania is actually very close to being self-sufficient. By that, I mean that the “Show of Shows” has a name value capable of carrying a large part of weight with unique viewers. They went all out at WrestleMania XX with the nostalgia theme, combined it over the next two years with a new group of top stars achieving moments that came to define their careers, and unleashed the perfect formula at Mania 23 and beyond with a big name celebrity, a huge football stadium venue, and the requisite marquee match-ups. Subsequently, Mania has drawn less than 900,000 buys just once in a decade (and never less than 880,000). The Rumble and Mania nearly outdraw the rest of the year’s PPV numbers combined; they’re THAT important to the WWE fiscal calendar.
How important is Daniel Bryan to the bottom line? That is the question that has to be answered to determine his place on the marquee when viewing the wrestling world through a green($) colored microscope. Vince McMahon is, if but nothing else, a shrewd businessman. He’s about to promote his 30th Mania. When making business decisions, you look to past precedent. What has and has not worked will largely determine what names go on the aforementioned marquee. So, after having reviewed all of the numbers that I have determined he’d be most likely to analyze in determining whether or not Daniel Bryan deserved to be at the top of that marquee, I present to you exhibit A:
Summerslam 2013, with a storyline that challenged the vocal minority to put their money with their mouth is and pony up to see Bryan win the title, drew 60,000 less buyers than the previous year.
Night of Champions 2013, featuring Bryan getting his rematch and once again challenging the vocal minority to fiscally champion their darling, drew 14,000 less buyers than the previous year.
Monday Night Raw ratings continue to stay stagnant domestically, despite Bryan’s placement in well over half of the show’s top segments and main-events since the summer of 2013.
What those numbers reflect is one of the oddest trends I’ve seen in 30 years. For one of the first times that I can recall, Daniel Bryan is the kind of top level star who gets a massive reaction from live audiences around the world that are enthralled with his underdog persona, but who has a neutral affect on TV ratings, does not sell a ton of merchandise, and whose success fails to translate into PPV buys. I’ve never seen someone be as over without it moving the needle in the manner that the WWE wants and needs it to. The people that watch wrestling all of the time love him, but he’s not yet proven capable of drawing in the added interest of the all-important casual viewer. As JBL intentionally or unintentionally said last night on Raw in a statement that actually fit the context of this situation perfectly, “You can’t put popularity on a billboard” – neither can you put popularity on a marquee. Thus, it simply seems that Bryan puts the WWE between a unique rock and a hard place – they either push him to the moon knowing that all relevant data shows that he might cause business to suffer or they leave him as an upper mid-card act that has an incredible influence on live crowds who won’t accept that the highest he can go is, on the average, the upper mid-card.
It’s a quandary. The reason why they brought back Dave Batista is that he provides them with no such quandary. Let’s go to exhibit B:
WrestleMania 21, a show built on the storyline of Batista turning babyface on his long-time stablemate, Triple H, started the modern trend of monster success at “The Show of Shows.”
WrestleMania 23, with Batista’s name on the marquee in the first match in the “Streak within The Streak,” was the 2nd most financially profitable “Granddaddy of ‘em all” in history.
Monday Night Raw ratings immediately jumped when Batista came back this year and have done well, historically, when Batista was put in big situations in the past.
“Returning star taking a spot from a current roster member” Batista may be, but he also has a proven track record for being a major player on absolute beastly number-drawing PPVs. With the WWE Network scheduled for launch in three weeks, Vince and Co. felt that they needed to stack the deck without Rock or any other celebrities coming in. From the business perspective, how can we blame them? I think it’s pretty clear that the WWE thinks that not a single one of the stars that they’ve created since WrestleMania 27 – CM Punk and Daniel Bryan among them – can draw and they've got the data (and we can see it) to back it up. When put in position to be the primary draw at a major PPV, a star that “made it” after April 2011 has been involved in just one main-event that drew substantially over expectations – Royal Rumble 2013 featuring Rock vs. Punk in the match that ended the 434 day WWE Championship reign. Outside of that, it has been a few marginal hits and a whole bunch of misses.
Whether we – the core audience – likes it or not, the WWE gave our guys a chance to move the financial chains and they lost economic yardage. So, the WWE decided to bring in stars that could get fiscal first downs. As a business man, you cannot deny those things or bemoan the WWE for them. On the other hand, as a fan, you cannot deny the reactions that Punk and, especially, Bryan receive. It has been utterly awesome watching two babyfaces connect with the fanbase so well after many years of the WWE begging the people to cheer for the guys that they want to be heroes. WWE may care about business figures, but we don't. We want to see the compelling drama that pro wrestling best brings when the stars that are popular or truly hated are getting the biggest pushes. I may enjoy writing about WWE economics and getting into their psyche, but I'd much rather watch a 5-star classic CM Punk or Bryan match than see Batista in his basketball shoes stumble around gassed for 20-minutes. In Big Dave's words, "Look, I don't have a problem with Batista," but I'd just rather see someone that's 2014 relevant to the product that I watch 52 weeks a year. So, don't get me wrong, ladies and gentlemen, I very much want to see Bryan at the top. I'd like to see Dolph Ziggler and Cody Rhodes (Holy Moonsault!) at the top, too. I just feel for the WWE a bit, too, because they're not in a very comfortable spot. They serve two masters - their core fan base that drives the reactions in arenas and the casual fan base that drives outside interest and buys PPVs and Network subscriptions. The problem is that, in a perhaps cruel twist of fate - the masters each want very different things.
What’s likely to happen in the near future is a compromise. The WWE is going to continue to push for Orton vs. Batista because they think it will sell. We saw last night that the WWE is going to try and use one of their most effective old school heels of the last few years – Alberto Del Rio – to make Batista sympathetic to the core audience. At the same time, they’re going to put Daniel Bryan in a position of prominence on the Mania card in hopes that his underdog story might win over the casual audience. The recent WrestleMania formula was to introduce stars to the broader audience in semi-headliner situations like they did with Del Rio at Mania 27 and 29, respectively. They did so very successfully with CM Punk, having him engage Orton in a rousing upper mid-card feud in 2011, then pushing him up to the WWE title match in 2012, and matching him with Taker in 2013. Bryan has not had much of an intro at Mania with his 18 second loss and meaningless Tag Title win, so they’ll have to abandon the formula with him. His introduction might have come in a win over Sheamus (the provider of the 18 second loss) if it were not for CM Punk’s departure, but now that the #2 guy on the active roster is gone, it opens the door for the people to get the compromise that they really want (albeit surely not how they wanted it) – Bryan either in the title match or, more likely, in the match with Triple H that Punk was supposed to get.
One thing is for certain - I don't envy WWE officials right now.
Join us on "The Doc and Super Chrisss Show" Wednesday at 5PM as we discuss the week that was, the week that is, Elimination Chamber, and the WWE Network's launch.
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