The first time I watched wrestling, I was nine years old and it was a WWF special on USA network showing Bob Backlund vs. Jimmy Snuka for the title. I sat there with my dad and enjoyed every second of the two going at it, raking their faces across the fence-like cage and all the way through Snuka’s dive off the top of the cage, only to miss.
A new wrestling fan was born, and it was a blow to find out that it “wasn’t real" when I was that young—but I remained a fan nonetheless. I subscribed to Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Inside Wrestling and the Wrestler (the IWC of the times) and attended the first two Survivor Series as I lived near Richfield, Ohio. I idolized them as a kid and it eventually was a driving force into my passion for lifting weights. I always wanted to look as big as those larger than life personas on TV.
I was as strong and passionate a fan through the years as any IWC member today. As an adult, I moved to Florida in an area where many wrestlers live and I have done more than see them about town—I became friends and acquaintances with several. I would see them at the gym or at the nightclub where I worked security and definitely at the popular beach hangouts during the weekends. It really wasn’t all that uncommon. Through one person or another and even directly, I got to hang out with some pretty big names including Horace and Hulk Hogan, Sean Waltman, Andrew “Test” Martin and others. It offered a perspective into a world that I grew up idolizing and I learned more about the real workings and the politics of the business than I ever realized.
Not by coincidence, my interest in the product declined to being someone who watched part time, coming back when DX reunited, etc.
I watch the WWE only once in a while now though and the product really is not good at all. An industry that used to consistently churn out new stars now simply cannot create any new personalities that transcend the business.
Many people refer back to the wrestling boom of the 1980s as the greatest era while others refer to the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars as the best age of wrestling. The truth is, their peaks created valleys that might kill off pro wrestling altogether.
Vince McMahon's national expansion killed off the regional territories where talent spent years developing, finding their niche and perfecting their characters so that when they went to the big stage, they were ready to perform.
Hulk-a-mania, despite WWE propaganda, did not originate with Hulk Hogan winning the WWF title. He was using the gimmick before that in the AWA promotion, along with his trademark style.
Hogan, despite what most observers say, could "wrestle" but it was better for his character to brawl. He also knew how to work a crowd, implementing a slight delay before noticing why Elizabeth was asking him to come out to the ring, hesitating on the hand shake with Randy Savage, setting the crowd up for his overwhelming "no" to Ted DiBiase's desire to buy the WWF title. These acts of working the crowd are learned over time. Hogan couldn't do them in 1980, but by 1984 he knew how to get over.
Almost every performer up through and into the Monday Night Wars had spent years working smaller crowds and regional promotions learning the same art, but applying what worked best for them. The series of territories gave opportunities to go elsewhere for a fresh start if things weren't working out where you were.
But those territories slowly went out of business. The NWA soon became exclusive to Jim Crockett Promotions, but they mismanaged and soon were only saved by Ted Turner's love for wrasslin'. Verne Gagne and the AWA and Fritz Von Erich of World Class soon were to go under as well—despite being the areas that first brought Shawn Michaels, Vader, Scott Hall, Sherri and others to the bigger stages.
With the consolidation of the promotions, wrestlers were left with little choice on where to work. And once they were there, nothing was guaranteed—not a spot, not money, nothing. It didn't matter who you were, you had to know how to work backstage to get your shot. Bret Hart was originally going to be put in a Cowboy gimmick, Steve Austin was named The Ringmaster (you think he would have been biggest draw in WWF history if he were not Stone Cold but the Ringmaster?)
WCW lured top WWF talent away by providing guaranteed contracts. When the WWF attained the profitability the Attitude Era brought and so did Vince. But something happened that would change the future of wrestling. New stars no longer had small promotions to establish themselves. Dwayne Johnson was a prodigy that was able to make the leap quickly but a talent like him just doesn't happen twice.
By the time Stone Cold and the Rock decided to move on to other endeavors, the pipeline of new talent that would inherit the mid-card was seriously lacking. The stars of "tomorrow" had spent no time in small promotions. They barely earning a living and had to pay their dues, sticking with it because they truly loved it. The WWE was set to build around stars like Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg, who simply didn't love the business and left.
The Attitude Era brought high ratings and compelling characters but also crash storylines. It began a wave of short title reigns that slowly made each belt less significant. Winning the WWF Title in 1997 was a big deal. A career changer. Doing the same thing in 2011 brings almost zero reaction. The IC and Tag Titles are meaningless and there is no chance of bringing them back.
The IWC complains of the same storylines and boring Monday Night Raw episodes and criticize the creative team, but the real complaint needs to fall on the wrestlers themselves. Performers have to want to stand out, refuse to be labeled with a lame Cowboy or Ringmaster gimmick and force their opportunities. The problem is that they are getting paid very well. In a recession, no one can blame any of them for playing it safe and just do what you're told. Why should R-Truth and Miz complain that Cena beats them up and weakens their characters if they are getting paid bigger money than they used to and are completely content with it? Compare that with the days of pre-Attitude Era. Guys had to do something extraordinary to stand out of the crowd. Receive a push and get paid.
Triple H said it best. In pro wrestling, you either make friends or make money. While the majority of the IWC complains about the Nash vs. HHH angle, watch it more closely and see how they craft their history and knowledge of the business against each other. They both have been on the bottom and top of the card and everywhere in between.
The only guy who has been willing to take the risk of the new generation is CM Punk. He turned down a very nice offer because he cared more about personal desires than financial. One can argue he took a calculated risk with not signing and pulling that promo and that he always intended on re-upping. Either way, he did something that absolutely showed he was willing to go for it and in the lose it all in the process. There just isn't enough of that mentality in the business today. They don't have the savvy, experience or desire to take that risk, so we don't see new stars and we don't see better story lines.
Ratings are down, buy rates are down, and Vince McMahon is getting older. He now wants to launch a WWE Network? All of McMahon's ventures outside of wrestling have failed—WBF, XFL, WWE Studios. They all are a drain on the resources of a publicly traded company where the glory days of $25 plus per share are long gone. Vince won't be around forever, neither will be the savvy of how he avoided going under in pro wrestling when many long time successful promoters failed.
Throw on the expenses, declining returns, expensive PPVs, consumers with less ability to buy—this is not the time for expansion. It should be the time to focus on your core product and stabilize to be positioned for the time when the economy recovers—after $40 trillion of private debt is de-leveraged and a new wave of young people are able to earn more money and consume more.
It seems unthinkable now, but Bank of America is still around only because the government has saved it. GM was given a free pass on bankruptcy by the current administration, much to the dismay of the GM bondholders. The next decade is going to be much slower economically, and though there will be a recovery, we haven't went through the worst of it yet.
Meanwhile, the WWE is paying out large salaries, decreasing revenue and increasing expenses. This a formula for failure.