In 2003, John Cena was winning over fans as the "Doctor of Thuganomics," a loudmouth rapper who creatively and maliciously disrespected legends like The Undertaker and Kurt Angle.
Two years later he was the company’s top babyface but was being booed out of arenas all across America.
Since the summer of 2005, fans speculated that a heel turn was imminent, but it never came.
In the last few years alone there have been perfect opportunities for a change in Cena’s character.
He could have turned on Team WWE or Randy Orton and joined Nexus in the summer of 2010, or he could've "embraced the hate" in the buildup to his match with The Rock at last year’s WrestleMania.
These opportunities have consistently been passed up. Most notably, during the Nexus angle alluded to above, Cena’s character showed he would rather lose his job than his integrity.
Ironically though, in passing up all heel prospects by keeping Cena 100 percent wholesome, WWE has created a tremendous opportunity for itself.
It’s now gotten to the point where most fans have just accepted that squeaky clean Cena is here to stay. However, John Cena needs to turn heel. Just not in 2013.
No one on the current roster can possibly usurp Cena’s position. Those who are close from a popularity standpoint, such as Orton and Punk (during his babyface run) don’t appeal to the ever important demographic that Cena does.
This year it seemed that WWE was preparing Sheamus to perhaps take the baton from Cena, but despite plenty of TV time and a lengthy championship reign, Sheamus doesn't come close to Cena, both in terms of crowd response and as a figure to represent the company.
Cena is currently the measuring stick of the WWE. That role can be replaced, but the WWE's current business plan needs Cena as a babyface in his other positions.
John Cena isn’t just the company’s top star, he’s also at the heart of many of the company’s media relations endeavors, such as the ‘Rise Above Cancer’ and the continuing “Be a Star” campaigns, as well as the much flaunted Make-A-Wish directive.
At the moment, John Cena is the embodiment of WWE’s current business values (or at least what it want us to think are its values)—virtuous, moralistic and family friendly.
His character shouldn’t change unless the WWE, as a whole, changes with him. When Cena eventually turns heel, it will represent such a landmark change in the marketing philosophy of the WWE that the entire product will change radically.
Turning Cena heel essentially means that the WWE can no longer be “good, clean, wholesome fun for the whole family,” which is the foundation of its current business model.
So that begs the question, when should he turn heel?
Whether or not it goes back to Attitude Era levels of ‘pushing the envelope’ is unclear, it can’t and won’t stay PG forever. Turning Cena heel is the perfect catalyst for such a change.
It’s very difficult to tell exactly why WWE has gone PG, particularly when its biggest demographic remains those aged 50-plus. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism against much of the media and public's uninformed notion of professional wrestling being a steroid and testosterone fueled death-sport.
Maybe it’s legitimately the most profitable business model at this time for the company. But that’s another argument for another article.
Regardless, WWE has kept Cena such an honorable good guy for so long that when he finally makes the switch, it won’t simply be a wrestling angle—it will signify a paradigm shift in the WWE’s business model and media-relations philosophy.
Cena’s eventual heel turn will usher in a new era in WWE, but with PG still in full force, 2013 won't be the year it happens.