It is a common idea in business that competition brings out the strongest product in the competitors. Wrestling fans certainly know this to be true. In the 1980s, the full demise of the territory system, with its unwritten rule of no competition, created a wrestling business environment that thrived on competition. While different promotions may have experienced declines in popularity, despite competition, there was never an extended period of significant non-growth in viewership. However, in 2001, once WWE purchased WCW and all rights to a bankrupt ECW, real competition in American professional wrestling ended. Seven years later, the popularity of professional wrestling has yet to reach anywhere near the levels it enjoyed during periods of the 1980s and 1990s, and ratings and buyrates have not significantly grown in this decade. This begs the question: With no real threat of competition, will WWE ever be forced to evolve, or will it rest comfortably as a profitable, but somewhat stagnant, entertainment company?
It can be argued that competition in professional wrestling, and all the benefits and problems it created, truly began in 1982, when Vincent K. McMahon purchased WWF from his father. The younger McMahon believed in the idea that professional wrestling could expand from the standard territory system and into a national entertainment product. In doing so, he evolved his newly acquired Northeastern territory into a national company. The NWA, specifically the territories owned by Jim Crockett Promotions, had a national cable television outlet and had run large shows, specifically their Starrcade show beginning in 1983. Building off the idea of national cable outlets for professional wrestling and supercard events, McMahon created WrestleMania in 1985, adapting professional wrestling from a regional pseudo-sporting event into a national entertainment product.
WrestleMania solidified the WWF's position as the number one wrestling promotion in the nation, but it still faced competition from Jim Crockett Promotions, who, though not technically but for all intents and purposes, controlled the NWA. The first Clash of the Champions, which aired against Wrestlemania IV, took the idea of placing a pay-per-view quality match, the NWA World Title bout between Ric Flair and Sting, on cable television in order to reduce the amount of viewers that would pay for a WWF pay-per-view. Again, a professional wrestling organization, this time the NWA, was forced to evolve their product in order to compete and be successful.
When Ted Turner purchased the NWA territories owned by Jim Crockett Promotions, and rebranded them as WCW, WWF was still clearly the number one promotion in the nation. However, both companies struggled to maintain the successes they had reached in the 1980s. The product was not evolving. WWF was growing stagnant, utilizing their same stars, such as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior, with fading fan enthusiasm toward them, while WCW was experiencing both creative turmoil and business mismanagement. The introduction of WWF Monday Night Raw in 1993, and the New Generation of WWF Superstars, a product of steroid abuse allegations within WWF, moved the product in a new direction, but interest still did not greatly rise. The move of stars such as Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage to WCW, to join and face stars like Ric Flair and Sting, did little more than provide a short-term boost for WCW, before quickly returning it to its previous levels of success. The introduction of WCW Monday Nitro in 1995, the first live weekly television program, finally created the competition the industry needed to grow in not only popularity, but in innovation.
The Monday Night Wars, perhaps the most famous period in American professional wrestling, was the first great leap forward in professional wrestling since WWF created sports entertainment in the 1980s. The introduction of the nWo in 1996 and the once unthinkable decision to make Hulk Hogan the biggest heel in the company provided WCW with its first sustained growth. After more than a year and a half of WCW having a legitimate claim as the top wrestling promotion, with the highest television ratings and the highest ever pay-per-view buyrate at Starrcade 1997, WWF had to evolve its product in order to avoid possible bankruptcy. The still family-friendly New Generation became the edgy Attitude Era, with new stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mankind, and Triple H being created and given freedom to gain support from the fans. Family entertainment was dropped in favor of young adult and adult storylines and characters. Television ratings, which had grown to new heights in the WCW/nWo storyline, grew even greater in the Attitude Era. Combined, WWF Raw and WCW Nitro were reaching over 10 million viewers a week during parts of 1998 and 1999, more than double the viewers they had reached in 1995.
While much has been written about the continued problems WCW had internally, and the quick downfall in popularity it had from 1999 on, professional wrestling as a whole still remained very strong, and even WCW was frequently getting ratings in the 3-4 range, the current rating WWE Raw receives. The final edition of Nitro in March 2001, though no doubt bumped in ratings due to its significance, gained a 3.0 rating, while WWF Raw received a 4.7 that same night. Even at the end of the Monday Night War, professional wrestling received a 7.7 rating. The following week, WWF Raw, now the only nationally televised wrestling show, jumped up to a 5.7 rating, no doubt helped by the fact it came a day after Wrestlemania XVII. The 5.7 would stand as the highest rating Raw has received since then, matched only once in July 2001 in the middle of the WCW/ECW Invasion storyline, a storyline premised on competition, despite McMahon owning everything.
Since the end of the Attitude Era, the Monday Night Wars, and the Invasion storyline, it has been hard to give a name to the era of American professional wrestling from late 2001 until today. The mid 1980s started the Rock and Wrestling era of WWF, the early 1990s even provided the New Generation, and the mid 1990s provided the Monday Night Wars involving the nWo and Attitude eras. Now, without any competition, distinct evolutions in professional wrestling stopped. While the Jarrett family, now along with corporation Panda Energy, created TNA Wrestling, its creation was not large enough to seriously compete with WWE. Even with increased popularity, and a national presence on cable television and montly pay-per-view, ratings, attendance, and buy rates are a fraction of what WWE has. More importantly, TNA has not evolved professional wrestling like WCW did when it was in a similar position in 1995, and thus its popularity has not surged upward like WCW's did.
Most importantly, the lack of real competition has caused WWE to not evolve its product. While WWE has been able to create new stars in John Cena, Batista, Edge, and others, its product has not changed much in the last seven years. In seven years, between 1994 and 2001, WWF went from New Generation to Attitude to its current more family-friendly state. Since then, no real change has taken place in how their television or pay-per-views are produced. WWE as a business has grown and strengthened, ensuring that it would never fall into the financial problems that hurt it in the past and that killed WCW. However, the creative aspect has not grown. Television ratings have not grown. With the exception of WrestleMania, due to WWE's increased ability to brand and market that event, pay-per-view buyrates have not significantly grown.
The lack of sustained growth is not meant to be a condemnation of how WWE runs itself. The company continues to be a profitable business with a strong infrastructure that guarantees its continued existence and success. Its current strategy is a safe one, and anyone who runs a successful business knows not to tamper with what is working. However, the greater question remains whether a time will ever come where WWE forces itself to change its way of thinking in order to grow the product to its previous heights. The theory of wrestling going in cycles has been disproven in the 2000s. The great surge of the mid to late 1980s and the mid to late 1990s does not appear to be repeating itself as we progress the mid to late 2000s. What separated those decades from the current one was the presence of real competition. Without it, will the WWE ever force itself to evolve?