Surviving Life Support: How the Survivor Series Has Become a Dying Art

Benjamin BenyaCorrespondent IIOctober 11, 2010

We all heard the reports in the beginning of 2010. A controversial quarterly meeting for Vince McMahon where he revealed to his main executives and stockholders that the Survivor Series, a WWE pay-per-view institution, would be discontinued this year.

McMahon has been accused of a lot of things over time, but one of the most common is that he’s simply out of touch.

His claim that the Survivor Series wasn’t doing the numbers anymore was due to the format of the show, with team elimination matches no longer working the way they used to, was errant at best considering the main event of the program hasn’t been an elimination match in five years (and even that contest was a springboard for the Undertaker’s 300th comeback).

So while many of us were forced to accept the fact that the WWE was simply abandoning one of their best tried-and-true gimmick matches during a renovation of pay-per-view insanity, we were hopeful that the Series would again find relevance.

Quietly, the WWE kept the event on their schedule and all comments made by McMahon were seemingly rescinded. And with just a month to go before the 24th Survivor Series event goes live, the WWE still doesn’t seem to embrace the Thanksgiving tradition. The times may be changing, but recent history indicates that WWE is doing more to destroy this event than anyone else ever could.

Before we get too much into detail, allow me to first say that I love, and always have loved, the Survivor Series. The concept of 5-on-5 and 4-on-4 elimination matches are second only to the Royal Rumble in my mind, if simply for the systematic process in which the fray narrows down and heroes are born. Crowds across the country dive deep into Survivor Series tag matches, investing the time for 20-25 minute affairs in hopes of seeing their favorite survive a test of raw endurance and team chemistry.

To say, however, that this tinkering with the November event is unexpected would be a jaded statement from a fan who doesn’t remember history. A potential loss of Survivor Series, as well as the new climate surrounding it, makes this officially the fourth time that the WWE brass has attempted to change the formula, almost as if it is on a cycle to refresh.

In 1992, one year after the World Wrestling Federation’s first non-elimination match appeared on the card (a World Title match between Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker), the entire formula disappeared without warning.

There was one 4-on-4 contest, but the rules had been structured to act more like a 2-on-2 elimination match. No drama, no build, just four tag teams with nothing else to do on a pay-per-view loaded with several other ridiculous matches (like Coffin matches and Nightstick-on-a-Pole Matches).

It would draw the lowest buy rate in Survivor Series history to that date. Serving as a ripple effect, the numbers wouldn’t even exceed that marker for 12 years. Had not it been for an exceptional contest between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, the event would be a total wash.

The WWF would continue making minor adjustments over the next few years, adding and subtracting numbers from elimination matches while also introducing us to the Wild Card concept (in which tag teams of heels and faces fought together rather than against each other) and, sigh, the Jerry Lawler/Doink little people match.

Despite all of these wacky, outlandish variations on a basic, flawless concept (as was the trend of the WWF at the time), the matches still kept interest and desire.

In 1998, the Attitude Era was in full swing and the WWF had a trick up their sleeves: they would abandon elimination matches altogether and instead conduct a 14-man tournament to crown a new WWF Champion, reminiscent of WrestleMania IV’s entire card. And just like WrestleMania IV, the whole thing was a train wreck from start to finish.

Mick Foley defeated a hapless Duane Gill in 30 seconds. X-Pac and Steven Regal fought to a double count out, eliminating both men. The Big Boss Man was eliminated twice, the second time in the shortest match in WWF history.

And after the dust had settled on 13 underwhelming matches previous, the end was a total screw job a la the year previous (except staged this time, instead of the Montreal incident), with The Rock turning heel and joining Vince McMahon and the Corporation. All in all, the night was mediocre and met with a  resounding thud in the wrestling community.

It was business as usual the next few years, with Survivor Series matches taking a backseat to World title affairs and grudge matches until the excellent (if not horribly booked) conclusion to the Invasion angle in 2001. With a renewed love and prosperity in the tag team elimination combat, the WWE did what anyone logically would in that situation: abandoned it again.

Sure, 2002 was the debut of the Elimination Chamber match, which, in itself, took aspects from Survivor Series lore. But the mystique had almost completely faded away at this point in favor of a quick buck or quick rating jump. Thankfully, the 2002 event was far superior to the 1998 event and actually carried itself off nicely despite missing any contest that the Survivor Series was named for.

In the years that followed, the WWE did some impressive new things with the concept match. They created a mini-streak for Randy Orton’s main event career to feed off of, giving him sole survivor status three times. They had their first 5-0 sweep in 2006, in which an entire team was decimated by their opponents without even one winning casualty.

They even booked future World Champions to look strong by surviving their respective matches. In the year or less before winning their first big belts, John Cena, Chris Benoit, Randy Orton, Jeff Hardy, Bobby Lashley, and Sheamus would all be pivotal survivors in their outings. Others became bigger stars for their efforts (Kofi Kingston, Drew McIntyre, and The Miz last year).

But the buy rates didn’t turn around for one of the big four and the WWE was looking for reasons as to why. When McMahon blamed the format, he clearly wasn’t reading his own fine print. There are several factors contributing to the death of this great pay-per-view, the biggest of which is just the business direction as a whole.

Pay-per-view purchases for the Survivor Series are down; this is a known fact. But all pay-per-view rates are down for the WWE thanks to a fledgling economy and over saturation of the market.

In between WWE’s flood of an inexplicable 14 pay-per-views a year (instead of 12, one per month), there are competing UFC, MMA, Boxing, and TNA events that cost nearly the same price. With the advent of High Definition Television on PPV, prices are skyrocketing.

Most fans are incapable of spending $49.99 per month (or more) for just three hours that may or may not live up to expectation. More fans than ever are watching the events, and not just because there are illegal streams being intercepted on a weekly basis. Sports bars from coast-to-coast that broadcast the event are flooded with patrons gathering in groups to watch the big dance as if it was a social event.

When the regular fan looks at the price difference, they’ll pay half as much to see the event and they’ll get to belly up with some onion rings and a pitcher of High Life. What do you get at home with your 50-buck purchase? Additional food and beverage purchases and any other nominal fees you may incur during the day.

Even with this economic trend towards WWE events, the biggest, and most important issue facing the Survivor Series is the importance as viewed by the public. In a year where Vince McMahon proclaimed the team elimination format a dead issue, the WWE had no problem headlining another of their biggest cash cows, Summer Slam, with a ridiculously large 7-on-7 elimination match.

This comes just under a year after the introduction of Bragging Rights, a pay-per-view taking place three weeks before Survivor Series that, again, emphasizes teams facing each other for a big prize. And yes, this and last year’s Bragging Rights main tag match will be 7-on-7.

How can you expect fans to enjoy and, more importantly, purchase the Survivor Series if you’re giving it away on several other pay-per-view cards? What’s next? Will we get three Royal Rumbles in the coming year, each slightly tweaked so as to appear like something new? How about taking the seven current Nexus members and sympathizers into a team to face seven from RAW and seven from SmackDown! In a 21-man feldspar of elimination?

These ideas are, of course, ludicrous. But given the recent trends and the complete and total lack of foresight, the future of Survivor Series may be just as ludicrous.