Does WWE Have Enough Big Surprises to Keep Up with AEW?

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2021

Credit: WWE.com

Something, something, desperate times and desperate measures. 

We have all heard the antiquated phrase before but as WWE finds itself in the midst of a war for supremacy with All Elite Wrestling that it insists isn't one, it sure feels like a company experiencing pressure from all sides to keep up with its competition.

Over the last two months alone, we have seen Brock Lesnar and Becky Lynch return, Big E cash in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE Championship and Roman Reigns pop up on Raw in an attempt to reverse a new trend of AEW Dynamite beating WWE's flagship show in the 18-49 demographic, per Wrestlenomics' Brandon Thurston.

As AEW prepares for its Dynamite Grand Slam special from New York City, featuring appearances by major new additions CM Punk, Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole, does WWE have enough surprises to keep up with Tony Khan and company?


A Shallow Talent Pool

The days of WWE throwing limitless amounts of money at Superstars to come backsome against their better judgmentappear to be over.

For seven years, fans waited for the moment when Vince McMahon and/or Triple H would sit down with Punk to flesh out the problems between the parties and get the former WWE champion to come back to work.

AEW, though, provided a new platform for The Best in the World without the distrust and hurt of years prior. He didn't have to swallow his pride and limp back into WWE, because AEW provided an alternative place for him to ply his craft without wondering just how long the artificial goodwill and boatloads of money would keep him relatively happy.

Bryan Danielson, seeking an opportunity to expand his horizons beyond WWE, had the chance to do that without sacrificing his own monetary value. Ditto Adam Cole, who also reunited with some old friends in the process.

Sure, WWE can open its wallet and attract The Rock back from Hollywood for one last major match with Roman Reigns that will pop a buy rate and generate excitement, but once that is done, it's back to the drawing board.

Then what does it do? Recruit AEW talent whose contracts are up? Dust off a few icons for a "Legends Night" on Raw or SmackDown? Again, all desperate ploys for momentary buzz.

The fact of the matter is that talent no longer has to feel beholden to WWE. They can go elsewhere and still benefit financially. With more options available, there are less options for WWE to choose from when recruiting surprises in an attempt to keep broadcasting partners happy, entice advertisers and generate buzz among its own fanbase.

If there is a decided lack of talent to pull from to pop a rating or trend worldwide on social media, the only other option is to change up your product. A report from Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful Select suggests that may well be the direction McMahon and Co. are looking to go.


Attitude Change

"Among the points Fightful heard that were brought up included NXT 2.0 targeting more of a P18-34 demographic, including everything from in-ring work and aggression to harsher language and the like. Another point that we haven't verified was more lenience on female character gear, though it wasn't specified what exactly that means," Sapp noted.

One of the most consistent criticisms of WWE over the last decade has been its creative efforts to keep things family-friendly and how that often turned off fans in the demographic. Why would adults aged 18-34 want to subject themselves to cheeseball comedy and one-dimensional storylines aimed at selling John Cena T-shirts to kids and families? 

With no other alternatives, they simply stopped watching. Now, with another show for fans that features the edginess they once loved during the Attitude Era, WWE appears to be looking at the possibility of returning to a grittier, more adult-oriented product and will smartly test things out on its NXT brand.

NXT 2.0 is the perfect setting to work out the kinks and figure out exactly what WWE wants an Attitude Era reboot to look like. Maybe it even pops ratings for the maligned brand. 

The question is whether even that extreme would win the company momentum.

Initially, sure. Give fans something they haven't had in a while and they will respond favorably. But at what point does the 50-50 booking where no one fully gets over, the lack of character development and repetitive matchmaking eclipse foul language and controversy?

Maybe this is where WWE has to focus its attention first and foremost.

Don't worry about surprises and changing the tone of the show, fixing those foundational issues is more important. Give fans something to get excited about at the core of the product by making matches meaningful instead of putting the whole show on a creative treadmill.

Perhaps that will help turn momentum back in WWE's favor while it investigates a return to the attitudinal or dusts off Hulk Hogan for another ill-advised one-off.