A war has been waged for years in professional wrestling fandom, a mostly silent battle for the very heart of an industry.
On one side were the casual fans, the kids, their parents and, gasp, some women. These were salt-of-the-earth folks, the kind of fans who cheered their lungs out without cynicism, who picked their favorites and stuck with them through thick and thin.
The casual fan is the woman I once saw nearly break down in tears when Lex Luger lost a random Monday Nitro match at the Georgia Dome, makeup running as she dabbed her eyes. The cheers you hear for The Great Khali or Brodus Clay? Casual fans. They are every kid Bret Hart ever gave a cheap pair of sunglasses to.
They are Cena Nation.
Across the trenches are the internet fans. Overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly young, likely more often than not wearing an ironic t-shirt, these are the endo and ectomorphs, the same crowd that might otherwise be playing Magic: The Gathering at their local comic book shop.
They know the history of the sport, know all the moves, and if they are really good, know what they are called in Japanese, too.
For these fans, what happens in the ring is paramount. They are fans who want to be part of something, who know all the insider language, the private and functional shorthand that has followed the business of wrestling from the carnival circuit to the corporate boardroom. Heels, babyfaces, heat and shoot names are just a part of their patois. They don't want to simply watch a show—they want to be part of it.
They are Paul Heyman guys.
In recent years this secret war, this push and pull for the WWE's soul, has gone very public. You can hear the battle cries every time John Cena walks to the ring. The cheers, slightly higher in pitch, slightly frantic, desperate to show their hero love are matched, and often surpassed, by the deep-throated boos. In the right arena, the calls of "Cena Sucks" can drown out even the best efforts of the most ardent fans.
Make no mistake—there is a war. And, with the recent unveiling of the WWE Network, it's a war John Cena fans aren't likely to win. It may not happen immediately. It may not happen by choice. But, over time, the internet wrestling community (IWC) will finally have their way. This network is nothing less than the ultimate empowerment tool for the wrestling nerd.
In some ways, this development is a little like kissing your sister, even for the most myopic fanboy. The WWE Networks is a win, yes, but it's also the harbinger of very bad news. Hardcore fans are having their way; the ascendance of Daniel Bryan and the Shield are proof of that, but mostly because casual fans are disappearing in droves.
The tens of millions of fans that categorized The Attitude Era and the Hulkamania years have dwindled into the millions. In their wildest dreams, the WWE will sign up a cool million of them to their new pay network. These won't be the many—these are the few, the fans for whom wrestling is everything.
Pay-per-view, once designed to convince the casual to take a chance and open up his wallets, or his parent's, will now be on the internet. Symbolically, the WWE has to come into the belly of the beast. Traditionally least friendly, less in sync with the work-rate fanatics than any other major promotion in modern history, the WWE has swallowed its pride and gone where the fans are.
The internet fan has home-court advantage.
CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were just the beginning. With this move off of television and onto the internet, the WWE is tacitly admitting casual fans are a dying breed. This is the era of the internet. More than ever the IWC will drive the decisions and direction.
Wrestling television will no longer build to a mega-event, one designed to attract casual fans. It will be a unified product, one designed to get wrestling fanatics to sign up for six months of a service. That's a different paradigm, one requiring a new way of thinking.
After years of being taken for granted, the hardcore fan is finally having his day. It's been a long time coming.