How WWE Must Continue to Evolve in Order to Keep WrestleMania a Mainstream Event
What is the end goal in professional wrestling? This is a sport that goes year round and is built on the blood, sweat and tears of generation after generation of passionate athletes. The only true conclusion for a wrestler is retirement.
Except there is something that comes before. Retirement may be the end of the story, but it is not the climax. What wrestlers seek ultimately is a legacy that lives beyond, a moment that will forever be spoken about long after they step out of the ring for the last time.
While WWE may not prescribe to the notion of professional wrestling anymore, using the term "sports entertainment" instead, that notion of seeking a lasting moment is woven into the DNA of even the company's biggest event, WrestleMania.
It goes by so many names: The Show of Shows, The Grandest Stage of Them All, The Showcase of the Immortals, The Greatest Spectacle in Sports Entertainment, The Granddaddy of Them All.
The message is always clear: This is where legends are made.
WrestleMania has such a unique legacy that everyone looks upon it with awe. No one wants to miss it, and everyone wants a chance to create their moment.
Along the way, though, the event's legacy has faltered. It often hasn't reach the heights expected of a showpiece that is so monumental. The moments that define wrestling have been less pronounced than in eras past.
This is the reason WrestleMania must continue to evolve. The Superstars of WWE need this event more than any other, to create a legacy that will far exceed their own mark. They need a night that feels as big today as it did in each era that preceded it.
So, how does WWE keep its marquee pay-per-view relevant? Read on for some ideas.
The Essentials of WrestleMania Impact
WWE cannot sit on its laurels and expect everyone to get excited about WrestleMania by reputation alone. The world is always changing, and few would buy tickets to watch a show like WrestleMania 2 in 2021.
The company has to adapt and that begins with reshaping the focus of the event. WWE is more pervasive than ever before, with seven hours of television content every week on top of special events each month.
Fans are no longer just seeking matches between top stars. They want bouts they cannot see at any other time. They are seeking the spark that came with Shawn Michaels' incredible late-career run or the magical streak of The Undertaker that lasted 21 straight years.
Nothing on this year's card has that same momentum. WrestleMania 35 was the last to carry that energy and spark by rewarding years of work with fresh opportunities as the women's division main-evented for the first time and Kofi Kingston was finally rewarded for a decade of work.
While the coronavirus pandemic did reshape WrestleMania 36 without crowds, it shouldn't stop WWE from building that kind of pay-off every year. There are so many ways it can do something new and fresh on The Grandest Stage of Them All, but time ticks away without strong attempts.
WrestleMania can promise so much: long-term stories, matches unlike anything else in the 12 months prior, moments that could never happen anywhere else and legacies that live forever.
However, none of that has really happened in recent years, and that must change to ensure wrestlers do not fall by the wayside in their journey for greatness.
The Return of Long-Term Storytelling
What WrestleMania can do better than any other event is carry a legacy. It helped Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, John Cena, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and many more to build their legacies over the years.
Those legends carved a unique mark on the industry by telling tales that went far beyond just one year, though. It is hard to get excited about WrestleMania unless you create and mold the type of long-term storytelling that makes it truly feel like The Showcase of the Immortals.
When The Rock was announced as the host of WrestleMania XXVII, it was important because he had returned home. But he also crafted a fresh angle that carried over three WrestleManias with Cena.
Even though The Rock and The Champ did not have the jaw-dropping classics their promos would have promised, they carried the legacy of the event forward each year. They built to future matches with massive hype, announcing their first match at WrestleMania XXVIII the day after XXVII.
Stories like this can be tough to sell on their own, but they are possible. WWE just has to trust the talent to build toward that future. The Undertaker won 21 straight matches at The Show of Shows because he was trusted with that legacy and carried a longevity unmatched in WWE history.
Not every WrestleMania has to be defined by one big match announced a year in advance, but more of the show must be determined long before WWE gets into the new year.
Reshuffling the card at the last minute feels too similar to every other WWE events these days. Fans buy consistency.
The Spectacle of It All Is Not Enough
WrestleMania has stood the test of time and is approaching its 37th edition on April 10-11. That type of longevity breeds a sense of importance, but it is not all that WWE has to give to make The Grandest Stage of Them All special.
WWE has tried so many different avenues for WrestleMania. It has brought back legends and found the biggest stadiums possible to house the event.
The company cannot rely on spectacle alone, though.
WrestleMania 37 is light on celebrities and legends, but it will include the in-ring debut of Bad Bunny and stars such as Edge and Shane McMahon competing.
The singer's appearance is WWE's primary casual-fan driver, and it has worked. He has a respect for the business and has trained for months to get to this spot.
However, he alone does not feel like enough for this show to match up to so many prior. That is because the rest of the card is not filled with showstoppers. So much of the two-night event is built on familiar matches between familiar opponents without strong clear stories.
If WWE is to continue to use celebrities and legends to keep the event strong, it is important to respect the talent involved and let them tell the biggest stories that keep that mainstream audience's attention.
WrestleMania's Achilles' Heel Is Pacing
Drawing fans is important, but keeping them invested is vital. Over the years, The Show of Shows has grown progressively longer, pushing beyond seven hours of content in a single sitting. This is too much for even the most devoted fans.
While we now live in a society where stream-bingeing is a common practice, most at least need breaks along the way to keep focused. In order to keep the audience invested, fans do not just need breaks, though. They need consistent quality to not tune out.
WWE cannot just give fans a break with a random musical number. No one in attendance or watching at home is going to excited to watch a sudden three-song concert from Flo Rida or Kid Rock. Beyond bringing in a live performer for a wrestler's entrance, musical performances don't work.
The idea of the "cool down" match has never worked on this stage, either. For years, women's wrestling was stuck in that spot, and it just came off an insult to the competitors. No one wants to be the bathroom break of WrestleMania.
WWE moved to a two-night format last year, and that has worked wonders on the surface. It allows the company to spread out the event, putting on two normal pay-per-views rather than one overlong event.
In order to make that work, the company needs to consistently deliver matches throughout both nights that are worthy of the WrestleMania stage.
Based on WWE's marketing for WrestleMania 38 and beyond, the company appears to be moving back to a single night of wrestling in 2022. That is fine as long as the company has learned that variety is vital.
The Matches Must Show a Constant Variety of Styles
WrestleMania 36 was a case study all its own for WWE. Despite a card that was limited due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the company put together one of its most satisfying small WrestleManias in history because of a simple premise.
WWE needed to sell a show to audiences without a crowd. The trick was spreading out the card over two nights and making each card distinctive. Night 1 of WrestleMania 36 was completely different from Night 2 because WWE tightly composed the show.
The first night included an athletic women's tag team opener, a brutal triple threat ladder match and the Boneyard match.
The second night included a physical opener between Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley, the culmination of Otis' story with Mandy Rose, the obtuse Firefly Fun House match and Drew McIntyre's crowning. No two matches felt the same.
The show was overstuffed with matches that did not land as expected, but that variety helped WrestleMania flow better than even some of the best cards in recent memory. WWE must continue to thrive with the help of a varied and deep roster.
Continue to use cinematic matches to take the place of non-essential segments. Tell different stories that can lead to great moment and great matches throughout the night. Make the main event, the true closing contest, memorable.
Fans will lose track of how many hours they have been watching if there are different emotions that come from each segment. It will especially be clear if fans are invested through the reliable pushing of unique talent in every division.
A Few Small Ideas That Could Help WrestleMania Thrive in the Modern Era
- Let the talent be the guides of the show: The host role has often been used by celebrities and legends, but WrestleMania 37 could have been so much more interesting with Bayley or Elias as the host.
- Get interactive: Most people have access to social media. Why not make part of WrestleMania be defined by the fans who will be watching? Polls can decide smaller matches on the card, like WWE used to do with Taboo Tuesday/Cyber Sunday.
- Let celebrities interact outside the ring: Instead of forcing a celebrity into the squared circle, they could also be useful at ringside. Help them build a star like Bad Bunny has for Damian Priest but end with the wrestler in the ring and the celebrity just on the sideline.
- Announce stipulations early to create buzz: As much as the concept ultimately did not land fully due to the ending, there is no doubt that All Elite Wrestling's recent Exploding Barbed Wire deathmatch built hype. People are interested in seeing things they have never seen, no matter who's involved.
- Keep cinematic matches: With live crowds returning, WWE is likely to shy away from the cinematic style, but it was a huge hit last year and is clearly popular with fans when done right.
- Find new names for top WrestleMania matches: There is a difference between the closer of the night and every other contest. WWE should find fresh ways of establishing other big matches beyond the co-main event.
There are a number of major areas that will help WrestleMania stay relevant, but there are also plenty of smaller points to consider.
These are honorable mentions for what WWE can do to continue to develop the talent and the card in a way that will satisfy all types of fans:
Respecting the Performers Is the Ultimate Key
No matter what era, the ultimate goal in professional wrestling should be respect. Respect the talent on the roster by giving them chances to thrive with their talent. WrestleMania is established as the ultimate respect. You get to that show because you are considered one of the absolute best.
That respect can be shown in a variety of ways. Not everyone can make it onto every Show of Shows card, but WWE must learn to establish and develop talent forward to the next opportunity. It is vital that past accomplishments are not thrown away for the sake of immediate gratification.
Kevin Owens ran with the Universal Championship 188 days but lost his spot before WrestleMania 33 to the returning Goldberg. KO has yet to get a featured match on The Grandest Stage of Them All and even missed out entirely two years ago despite being in full health.
Becky Lynch, Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair headlined the event two years ago, but the women's division has not closed a pay-per-view since then, although there have been calls for the Sasha Banks-Bianca Belair contest to main-event Night 1 of WrestleMania this year.
The ultimate goal should be to build talent. A star should know their hard work will be rewarded with a chance to establish a legacy.
The tag team division remains the most underrepresented part of 'Mania every year. The men's midcard is basically thrown around to fill spots at the last minute. These are not genuine chances to thrive.
WrestleMania is as big as WWE lets it be. The talent can build the era, but WWE holds the keys to lasting success. Nothing will make The Show of Shows more special than featuring the best wrestlers in the world being allowed to compete at that highest level with booking behind them that makes their match special.