“Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world. Look at something and think what else it might be…”
- Roger Von Oech (Author/Inventor)
“This is something that I’ve talked about at length with my friends; we need to figure out exactly what pro-wrestling is… the equation has changed somewhat over the years. I truly believe that wrestling can still be entertaining, and full of drama, excitement and athleticism, which are all things people want to escape to when watching entertainment.”
- Austin Aries, September 2012, Fighting Spirit Magazine
In the global arena known as the world of sports, promotion is the key component of any output. Creating intrigue and consistently drawing in new audiences is one of the toughest areas of sports production, and when done successfully, a product can become an element of national identity (see ice hockey in Canada or soccer in the UK).
Generally speaking, every field of sports requires a unique selling point to help sell its product. Soccer accentuates and relies on the drama of tournaments such as the UEFA Champions League in order to achieve ratings; whilst Mixed Martial Arts’ main attraction is the concept of the planet’s most dangerous men competing in a winner-take-all environment, and uses this to earn monstrous pay-per-view buy rates.
The professional wrestling industry, by and large, is no different. As is well-documented (often to its detriment), the business is pure work, and as a result, is reliant on its high-profile companies to conjure up unique and innovative marketing strategies to camouflage the dreaded “fake” handicap and help sell its product to burgeoning audiences.
Vince McMahon’s WWE promotion currently sits atop the pro-wrestling mountain, and is a powerhouse in terms of commerce, with fabled events such as WrestleMania earning extraordinary buy rates and an abundance of mainstream media through the inclusions of celebrities such as Mike Tyson, Mickey Rourke and most recently, the home-grown talent of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
In recent years, however, a sense of ambiguity has emerged around the professional wrestling product. In 2013, as a result of companies flippantly switching internal focuses, fans are divided in a manner that has never been seen before. For example, WWE—a company whose average viewer is over 30 years-old (via Cageside Seats)—is currently in an overly child-friendly creative stage (christened the “PG Era”) that has alienated long-term fans through the conflicting messages that it often produces. Having poster boy John Cena deliver deliberately inoffensive monologues one minute (“I’m going to win the whole fudging thing!”) and promoting overtly violent Street Fights the next (Cena/Lesnar, Extreme Rules 2012), WWE is unnecessarily confusing its audience through unclear messages, resulting in valued customers switching off in droves.
In the ruthless business of professional wrestling, the relentless pursuit of television ratings is key; and, as deceased organizations such as Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling can attest, driving viewers away from your product is the first desperate step towards company ruin.
In effect, the ambiguity of the current pro-wrestling product, if unaddressed, could be the beginning of its own downfall.
Sport & Spectacle
“There’s wonderful human drama in sport. People who love sport, regardless of what sport they follow, are pulled into that human drama.”
- Bellator MMA’s Sean Wheelock, Fighting Spirit Magazine
In its origin period of the late 1800s, "wrestling," as it was simply known, did not need to use marketing techniques in order to attract audiences. Similar to the fights promoted today by MMA companies such as the UFC and Bellator MMA, wrestling began as a showcase for the world’s toughest athletes competing in Greco-Roman style shoot contests for prizes (typically money or bragging rights).
At the turn of the 20th century, however, the sport witnessed the first glimpses of spectacle in the famous series between Frank Gotch and "The Russian Lion" Georg Hackenschmidt. The highly-anticipated 1911 World Heavyweight title rematch between the two drew a record 35,000 spectators to Chicago’s Comiskey Park (via InterMat Wrestle), and suddenly promoters began to see big money in the wrestling game. What followed was an amalgamation of carnival trickery and the invention of kayfabe, leading to the eventual birth of what is now known as "professional wrestling."
For years, professional wrestling thrived under its new scripted nature, largely due to its pre-determined outcomes being kept an incredibly guarded secret. This enabled promoters to bill showdowns between such characters as the colourful Gorgeous George and Lou Thesz as legitimate sporting events, when in fact they were anything but. This was rewarded handsomely in financial terms, with “the matches” frequently selling out venues, including the Thesz/Rikidozan NWA title clash in Osaka, Japan drawing over 30,000 fans (via Pro Wrestling History).
This established practice continued through the territorial system of the 60s, 70s and early 80s, up until the expanding World Wrestling Federation’s Vince McMahon set the record straight in 1989. In front of the New Jersey State Senate, as reported by SLAM! Sports, McMahon confessed to the scripted outcomes in a successful attempt to “get around taxation on his house shows and pay-per-view events.” With the truth finally revealed, professional wrestling found itself abruptly needing clear marketing approaches that didn’t rely on the traditional connotations of sport.
Alas, the term “sports-entertainment” was coined, and with the success of larger-than-life characters such as Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, the field of professional wrestling entered a boom period that turned the industry into a multi-million conglomerate business.
Today, professional wrestling is in a very different situation. Interest in the product is waning at an increasingly worrying pace.
In-house fan attendance, television ratings and pay-per-view buys are rapidly declining. Key companies of the late 90s prosperity period such as WCW and Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling no longer operate due to bankruptcy and the crippling loss of TV deals.
Although WWE, sports-entertainment's leading product by far, is still making incredible amounts of money (Vince McMahon and wife Linda earned the healthy sum of $30 million in 2010, via Newstimes), the company is still wary of this business downturn. As a result, WWE rebranded its image as entirely family-friendly (starting with the ban of blood and overly-violent spots in late 2008) in a practice that continues to this very day.
Whilst this new style of marketing is undeniably good for business (the PG Era has paved the way for lucrative merchandise deals with the likes of toy giants Mattel Inc., via Variety), the current version of WWE has alienated a large section of long-time fans and, as Cageside Seats contributor Eddie Mac noted, “for the select few that have stuck around, today’s WWE is simply not working.”
“Pro-wrestling has drifted from the concept of important titles, national pride and major collisions, in order to offer more variety show entertainment than sports drama.”
- Will Cooling, Fighting Spirit Magazine
It is worth noting that the adult fans from periods such as the Attitude Era still make up a considerable amount of the WWE audience. In fact, 53% of the current regular viewership comes from fans above the age of 35 (via WWE Corporate), and this in itself puts the company in an awkward situation. By promoting child-orientated characters such as John Cena and Santino Marella, the product appeals to youngsters at the expense of older fans who have been giving their custom to WWE for the better part of 20 years.
Realising this, the creative team occasionally attempts to please older viewers by presenting gimmick matches made famous by the lesser child-friendly characters of yesteryear (for example, the Hell in a Cell showdown between Undertaker and Triple H from last year’s WrestleMania was an obvious nod to the fans from the Attitude Era). Whilst this is a clever strategy from McMahon and company bigwigs, it is a clear contradiction of the PG rules, and as a result, WWE emits a contradictory message to its audience.
Succinctly, WWE is beginning to confuse the fans by being unsure of who to promote its product to. In 2013, the disgruntled, yet somewhat loyal, older viewers are effectively tuning in to look for the non-PG moments that are becoming less and less frequent in today’s product, culminating in over half of the regular audience being routinely let down.
Working the Indies
Somewhat surprisingly, the independent scene in the US is currently doing an admirable job of selling professional wrestling. This can be attributed to the need for promotions to differentiate its product from others in order to stand out and engage potential audiences. Philadelphia’s Combat Zone Wrestling is a strong example of this, as the company—similar to the tactics used by ECW in the mid 1990s—heavily emphasizes its extremely violent content as its main attraction whilst, in a similar manner, CHIKARA Pro relies on its unique blend of puroresu, lucha libre and comic-book style gimmicks to draw people to their shows.
The Ring of Honor promotion, also based in Pennsylvania, is widely considered to be the third biggest pro-wrestling company in America behind WWE and Dixie Carter’s Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling. RoH’s approach to marketing is fairly simplistic, as it suggests that the lack of WWE and TNA style production values is greatly compensated by the consistently top-notch matches by some of the best athletes in the world.In the past, this approach has helped nurture the careers of big-name talent such as CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, and is looking to continue its success with the emergence of quality wrestlers in Kevin Steen, Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards.
TNA, on the other hand, is often criticized for presenting its programming as “WWE-Lite.” The result of Dixie Carter and company’s former over-reliance on talent that rose to fame in New York, the TNA main event scene is full of ex-WWE names, with performances such as Hulk Hogan, Jeff Hardy and Kurt Angle often the focus of the weekly Impact Wrestling show.
In fact, up until roughly 18 months ago, TNA’s reputation was less than favourable indeed. For years, the TNA product suffered from nonsensical booking and a distasteful desire to replicate WWE, with aging performers such as the lumbering Kevin Nash routinely stealing the limelight from young, home-grown talent like the impressive AJ Styles.
“There were problems aplenty, from old run down fossils getting too much time in the spotlight to the incessant need to cram in 58 segments in just two hours of television… It was a mess, really, and sorting it out took more work than it ever should have.”
- Geno Mrosko, Cageside Seats
Back in 2010, Paul Heyman was rumoured to become a backstage advisor to TNA. Although the deal ultimately fell through, Heyman later revealed his strategy to steer the company towards success: concentrate on youth and differentiate the product from WWE. Despite never working for the company, Heyman’s presence was seemingly influential as over the past year and a half, a lot has changed.
TNA, in concepts such as Open Fight Night and the Gut Check Challenge, now has its own attractions to market, and no longer relies on the success of WWE to draw viewers. Additionally, youth is rising to the top of the card, with such performers as Bobby Roode and Austin Aries holding heavyweight gold over the last year.
TNA is now at an interesting stage of development, as it no longer needs WWE outcasts or stale storylines to promote pay-per-view buys and merchandise. Along with the major announcement that the company is to take Impact Wrestling on the road permanently in 2013 (via PWInsider), TNA may be in the first stages of creating a true alternative to WWE.
As a result of professional wrestling’s growing complexity, it is notable that the business is not as straightforward as it used to be, and herein lie today’s issues. WWE, for the most part, seems to be somewhat confused in terms of promotion now that the pro-wrestling landscape has changed, and that in itself is a clear contrast to how intelligent the WWE’s marketing schemes were at the peak of its most prosperous business periods.
In 2013, is the company purely PG and aimed towards children and families? That question is hard to justify when the Undertaker is brutalizing Triple H with a sledgehammer in a bloody Hell in a Cell Match at the most-viewed show of the year. Conversely, is the product made for teenagers and adults that are looking for breath-taking action and athleticism? Again, another questionable business stance when Tensai and Brodus Clay use valuable air-time to dance with the 60-year-old Honky Tonk Man. It could be argued that there is something for everyone in today’s WWE but, due to the ambiguity surrounding the output and the continual stop/start of various focus points, there is no longer a guarantee that the “something” will be entertaining.
In years gone by, WWE publicly thrived when the company knew exactly what it was promoting, be that the cartoon/superhero antics of the 1980’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling days or the famous “Car Crash TV” of the Attitude Era. Today, in terms of marketing, the McMahon dominion is suffering from a lack of clear direction. Admittedly, this has been acknowledged by Stamford moguls and considerable efforts have been made to counteract the rotting interest in the WWE.
The borrowed celebrity status of The Rock and Vince McMahon’s willingness to hand Brock Lesnar an olive branch are obvious attempts to use Attitude Era drawing power in order to drive up curiosity in the product (and result in improved TV ratings and pay-per-view buy-rates) and, to this point, it has been successful.
The marquee affair between The Rock and John Cena at WrestleMania XXVIII in April 2012 drew a PPV record of 1.3million buys (via Hollywood Life) and this year’s blockbuster rematch, scheduled to appear at the top a card that will also feature appearances from past stars such as Lesnar, Triple H and the Undertaker, is widely expected to topple its own record. However, as has been mentioned numerous times over the past few years, WWE cannot rely of past talent forever.
“Look at Brock Lesnar, Batista, John Cena, and yes even Chris Benoit, all were launched to main event status at WrestleMania. Now? WrestleMania is used as a spectacle to make big matches with former stars. Sure, that is all fine and dandy for business now. But long term? It could be a problem. What stars have been made at WrestleMania in the last few years? None.”
- Justin Cameron, Top Rope Report
Although no longer in existence, Paul Heyman’s ECW can make a case for being the quintessential pro-wrestling company that prospered under a simple approach to promotion. Often referred to, rather aptly, as “the Architect of Attitude” and acknowledged by WWE.com as the “smartest” Superstar in history, Heyman excelled in the marketing of his product, and through various techniques implemented a strategy that cut straight to the core of ECW’s appeal.
Arousing taglines and slogans such as “EC F’N W” and the “Hardcore Revolution” intrigued the fans of the early to mid-90s and drew in a curious audience that had grown tired of WCW and the WWF’s increasingly flat output. Clearly, while it was a company that offered much more than just garbage wrestling, ECW‘s stark and to-the-point emphasis of hardcore violence acted as its unique selling point, and subsequently earned, for a time, a healthy reputation as one of the hottest promotions in the United States.
Good Times for a Change
In the ever-changing industry of professional wrestling, it is apparent that several groups, with WWE being a particular example, are in desperate need of adaptation.
In this writer’s honest opinion, professional wrestling fans need to be able to once again invest in the suspension of disbelief. In a society where reality is key, professional wrestling (and industry leaders WWE in particular) has become a laughable form of theatre, despite the "cool" factor of the late 90s once making the business one of the most celebrated in recent memory.
With the dust settling on the success of reality television shows such as Fox’s American Idol and MTV’s Jersey Shore, WWE needs to recognize the need for some form of legitimacy within its product in order to even attempt to scale the heights of 1998-2002, and to eradicate ridiculous events (Mae Young/Hornswoggle etc.) that alienate potential audiences.
Briefly, Vince McMahon and co. seemed to understand this necessity. The short-lived “Reality Era” of 2011-2012 promised to usher in an internal change, with the outspoken champion CM Punk as the inspirational spearhead. Alas, as part of a worrying trend that is engulfing a significant amount of current angles, the program ran out of steam quickly, and the definitive end was emphatically delivered by The Rock at this year’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view.
Today, pro-wrestling needs to be something that fans can believe in. Can the average 35-year-old believe in WWE when performers make continual apple-polish attempts at child-level humour? Can parents invest in a supposedly PG company that pokes fun at extremely serious issues such as an on-screen heart attack in order to receive crowd heat? The obvious answer, to both, is no. This ambiguity is detrimental to its own product, and is only leading to one conclusion: a declining audience.
The message is clear: professional wrestling needs to change, or the steady decline will intensify. For the sake of everyone involved, from Vince McMahon to the children that worship the squared circle, we can only hope that the relevant ears are listening.
Thank you for reading!
Comments welcome below and on Twitter: @matthewtsquires
Matt Squires is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and covers other sports for websites such as This Is Futbol. For more on Matt, please visit his personal website Matthew T Squires.