People say I complain too much.
Sure, WWE's ratings are in the toilet, live event attendance is down, and absolutely no one on the roster draws any mainstream interest, but I complain too much. People are telling me that WWE is about to break out, establish new stars and usher in a new boom period for the next generation of wrestling fans.
Fine, then let's compare it to the last WWE boom period: The Attitude Era.
I'm not talking about the peak of the Attitude Era. I'm referring to 1997, the year that WWE decided to change course once and for all and start battling against the evil Ted Turner and World Championship Wrestling.
For you newer fans who live under rocks, WWE was getting absolutely destroyed in the ratings by WCW due to its new New World Order storyline and high-flying cruiserweight division. WWE needed to change with the times or die, and Vince McMahon ushered in the Attitude Era, a "soap opera for men" where foul language and gratuitous female nudity were not only present, but they were encouraged.
So, since so many people seem to believe that WWE is headed for a boom period in 2012, let's set the way-back machine to 1997 and compare the ratings and rosters of the shows as of November.
Note: Obviously, I can't include every single worker on the roster, and some of these guys were not present for all of 1997. I just chose the guys who best represented the time period in order to compare the two eras.
November 1997 - 3.15 (source)
November 2012 - 2.95 (source)
So the ratings aren't that different if you average them out throughout the month of November. The only difference is that in 1997, WWE was on it's way up while WWE in 2012 is on the way down. Another big difference is that in 1997, wrestling fans had an alternative in WCW while 2012 fans are stuck with a three-hour borefest which kills live crowds and causes people to tune out en masse.
1997 - Bret Hart (left in November), Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Steve Austin (injured for part of the year)
2012 - CM Punk, John Cena, Sheamus, Big Show
Obviously, the names of 1997 carry a little more star power than the ones of 2012, and certainly, that could be part of the problem. Today's talent is far overshadowed by the names of the past and is even made to look second-rate when late-'90s stars return to television. Both Punk and Cena can absolutely bring it when it comes to ring work, but I don't think anyone would argue that they are better than Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels. Sure, Cena moves merchandise, and Punk is (or was) an internet darling, but I think it's very clear that 1997 had the combination of star power and wrestling ability.
1997 - British Bulldog, Owen Hart, Mick Foley, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Faarooq, Kane, The Rock, Marc Mero, Vader
2012 - Daniel Bryan, Kane, Dolph Ziggler, Randy Orton, Alberto Del Rio, Rey Mysterio, The Miz, Ryback, Kofi Kingston
The 1997 upper mid-card was full of names who would go on to become big stars (The Rock, Mick Foley, HHH) but at the time, they were some young guys hoping that they didn't get stuck with a loser gimmick. The Rock was on his way to immortality, Mick Foley was a bump machine trying to find his niche, and HHH hadn't started with Stephanie McMahon yet.
Today, the same class of workers are in the same situation. Daniel Bryan is the hottest act in the company right now, Dolph Ziggler seems poised to break out any day now (although we've been saying that for two years), and Alberto Del Rio seems destined for push after push. However, you could argue that the upper mid-card of 2012 is more talented wrestling-wise and has bigger name value.
1997: New Age Outlaws, Headbangers, The Godwinns, Legion of Doom, The New Blackjacks, The Truth Commission, Disciples of Apocalypse, Furnas and Lafon, Los Boricuas
2012: Rey Mysterio & Sin Cara, Rhodes Scholars, Prime Time Players, The Usos, Primo and Epico
Naturally, there were more tag teams in 1997 because there was an actual emphasis on the tag team division back then. Until recently, WWE was fine sticking two upper mid-card guys together (The Miz and R-Truth being one example) for a few weeks and having them win the tag titles just for fun. With HHH slowly moving into power, he has made an effort to revitalize the tag division with teams like the Prime Time Players and the Rhodes Scholars.
Back in 1997, tag teams were mostly made up of over-the-hill veterans (Hawk, Animal, Barry Windham) or guys no one cared about (Godwinns, Truth Commission, DOA). It wasn't until the Dudleys, Hardys, and Edge and Christian broke out that the tag division really became important again, so we'll call this one a draw.
1997: Goldust, D'Lo Brown, Brian Christopher, Taka Michinoku, Kama Mustafa, Mark Henry, Savio Vega, Scott Taylor, Steve Blackman, Flash Funk, Leif Cassidy
2012: Antonio Cesaro, Brodus Clay, David Otunga, Drew McIntyre, Heath Slater, Jinder Mahal, JTG, R-Truth, Santino Marella, Zack Ryder, Tensai, Tyson Kidd
The lower mid-card is certainly not what draws money, but it is the place where future talent is supposed to pay their dues and learn how to draw a house. Unfortunately, this has become somewhat of a lost art, and really, none of the 1997 guys (outside of marginal success for Mark Henry) ever became solid main-event talents.
2012 has a huge roster of young talent who seem ready for a push, but creative just can't figure out what to do with them. Slater, McIntyre and Mahal are stuck in the Three Man Band stable but might be able to cut out a comedic niche for themselves. Cesaro seems to be in line for a big push once his U.S. title reign is finished, but WWE is notorious for giving up on guys out of the blue. Honestly, 2012 gets the advantage here only because we know that most of the 1997 guys fizzled out. We don't know about the present day roster.
1997 - Jim Ross, Jerry Lawler, Vince McMahon, Michael Cole, Chyna, Paul Bearer, Rick Rude, Sable, Sgt. Slaughter, Howard Finkel
2012 - Michael Cole, Josh Matthews, Booker T, AJ Lee, Vickie Guerrero, Jim Ross (part-time), William Regal, Lilian Garcia, Matt Striker
Honestly, this is probably the category where 1997 wins in a landslide. Jim Ross was at his absolute best as a play-by-play man and was so much better than anyone else, it wasn't even funny. Vince McMahon was coming into his own as a heel owner, and various managers were causing trouble for everyone.
These days, Michael Cole annoys fans on a regular basis, Jim Ross stopped caring a long time ago, managers of any form are totally nonexistent, and the heel authority figure has been beaten to death.
So the finally tally is two wins for 1997, two wins for 2012 and one tie, which really resolves nothing. That's probably because 1997 and 2012 both represent a crossroads (and not the finishing move) for WWE. In 1997, Vince saw the lagging ratings, boring product and stagnant main event and turned WWE into ECW. McMahon went on to become a billionaire, printing money off of the work of Steve Austin, The Rock and HHH.
Today, McMahon faces a very similar problem. Wrestling is no longer cool, and the ratings aren't budging, no matter how many soap opera writers are hired. Can WWE actually recover, or is the empire that Vince McMahon created over the last 30 years crumbling all around him?
Only time will tell...