Examining the Role of Nostalgia in WWE Programming

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2014

Ric Flair
Ric FlairWWE.com

WWE recently dipped back into its past on Old School Raw, reminding us just how seductive and disappointing nostalgia can be.

Retired Hall of Famers, former champions and wrestlers who made past generations cheer never really leave WWE. The past is seemingly hooked onto the present, a relationship that allows the power of memory to strengthen the current WWE experience, creates new possibilities and allows unending indulgence.

On Jan. 6, WWE continued the tradition of inserting the "old school" theme into an episode of Raw.

This is certainly not the only time the company relies on nostalgia, though. Generations consistently collide on WWE programming.

Ric Flair appeared last year to pass the figure-four leglock down to The Miz. Mick Foley challenged Ryback. Roddy Piper called John Cena out

The past showing up to face the present is part of what makes WWE special.

It's the company's way of tapping into what's worked before and making use of stars whose legacies are already established. Nostalgia is a powerful and easy way to better ratings.


The Good Old Days Show Up in the Present

Fans often start their love for WWE as kids. Whether one's childhood coincided with the Bruno Sammartino days, Hulkamania or the Attitude Era, there is always a special place in the heart for the time when we first grew to love the spectacle that is pro wrestling.

With as often as fans pine for the heroes of their youth, it's no surprise that WWE brings men like Piper, Flair and Foley back so often.

Seeing Piper bear his teeth against The Shield pleases the portion of the crowd who so fondly remembers "Hot Rod" smashing a coconut on Jimmy Snuka's head or going on some manic rant.

The past will always remain attractive and over time, we tend to forget its warts. Doug Larson once wrote, "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days."

For WWE, that makes culling names from the past an appealing proposition.

A team like Too Cool is appreciated more now that it's no longer around. Having them reunite to take on 3MB in 2014 is an easy way to get a big reaction from the crowd and to entice viewers.

Old School Raw, per PWTorch.com, garnered Raw's highest rating "since the night after SummerSlam in August." That's proof that the promise of nostalgia clearly works.

WWE can always turn to its history the way that TV sitcoms use big-name cameos to drum up interest.

Edge can return to Raw. Shawn Michaels can hype a title bout.

Once a wrestler has established his or her legacy, the bond with the audience is permanent. It's getting to that point that is difficult. Wade Barrett or Antonio Cesaro aren't going to lure folks in at this point of their career.

Should at some point they reach fans the way that Michaels and Edge did, they will be welcomed back again and again long after they no longer wrestle.

The limitations of this is that Edge will never be what he was. After we've seen Sgt. Slaughter make enough appearances, the novelty begins to wear off.

WWE's legends aren't just limited to showing their faces and waving to the crowd, though. It's the merging of generations that sparks the most interest.


Dreams, Fantasies, Unmet Expectations

In sports, big names from the past are limited to throwing out the first pitch or being honored at halftime. In WWE, dream matches and fantasy confrontations are a regular part of business.

WWE can turn barroom debates into something we see on-screen. Dan Marino is never going to challenge Peyton Manning on the field, but Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock was a reality the company could turn to.

That WrestleMania X8 match was no wrestling clinic. It was neither man's best in-ring work, but the power of nostalgia made it a momentous meeting.

Seeing Hogan return to the spotlight to face the top star of a new generation had the kind of electricity WWE dreams of creating.

Merging old with new is moving, exciting and special. WWE is fully aware of that. That's why many of the matches rumored to be discussed for WrestleMania XXX rely on nostalgia's power.

Per PWInsider, via WrestleZone.com, WWE is hoping for Michaels to come out of retirement and wants him to be in "a singles match against Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania." Hogan's name has been talked about, per PWInsider, via WrestleZone.com, as being part of potential bouts at that event involving John Cena, Piper and perhaps The Real Americans. 

It doesn't matter that Goldberg is 47 years old or hasn't been part of the company for a decade. Some fans still hold out hope that he'll be in the ring for WrestleMania.

Steve Austin vs. CM Punk will remain a match many fans hope for. It's another case of two eras colliding, one where the excitement level would surpass any match with Punk and one of his peers.

Would Piper, Hogan, Austin or Goldberg be able to put on a better match than the top current stars? Not likely. 

Age and an accumulation of injuries has a way of making even legends underwhelm.

Vince McMahon and company will always leave the door open for marquee names like these, though, regardless of how long ago their prime was. It doesn't matter that Austin vs. Punk or Cena vs. Hogan promises to be less thrilling than we had always imagined.

The fantasy is almost always better than reality, but fantasies persist.

Trotting out heroes from the past will always have a place in WWE's spectacle. That place is set to expand in a major way.


The Network Satiates

Come Feb. 24, WWE fans will have the past available to them 24/7.

Once the WWE Network launches, its subscribers will be able to make themselves sick with nostalgia. The streaming service will carry every WWE, WCW and ECW pay-per-view ever produced.

No need to pine for Austin's heyday. Fans can relive it anytime. The portion of the audience who bemoans WWE's shift to PG can travel back to a time before blood and chair shots to the head were banned.

The WWE Network also allows newer fans to acquire wrestling history lessons and connect with the past.

Foley doesn't have to just be the guy who plays Santa Claus and appears on panels. He can be the deranged folk hero with legendary fearlessness. For kids who have seen Flair only as an old man with a loud mouth, his past greatness awaits.  

WWE is set to cater to those in search of the good old days more so than ever before. The archives offer a way for fans to enjoy the product with no regard for timeline, offering the choice for fans to completely immerse themselves into the era of their liking.

It's possible that leads to a disconnect with today's product, that some fans forego what 2014 has to offer in search of 1989, 1997 and 2002's greatest hits.

As exciting as nostalgia is though, there is something uniquely exciting about something that's happening live.

Seeing Piper come back to Raw is certainly appealing, but there is a different kind of energy to watching Dean Ambrose take hold of the mic. Fans wonder what will happen next, what this Superstar will become and wonder if they are watching a legend being born.

Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III demands to be rewatched, but there is no uncertainty about it. Bryan vs. Cena II offers something new. Greatness that sneaks up on you while you watch the latest Raw or pay-per-view is a different experience altogether. 

The future that NXT points toward and the thrilling present that today's WWE offers will always be married to the appeal of the past. Nostalgia is undying and forever powerful especially in WWE's world.


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