As we enter the calm before the twin “storms” of AEW’s launch on TNT and Fox’s introduction of SmackDown live to broadcast television, the WWE is beginning to focus on how they want their promotion to look and feel to new and expanded audiences. We’re being told that Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff have taken over Raw and SmackDown respectively. This intimates that Vince McMahon will not have an iron grip on both shows as he’s had in the paste. As we’re being told these two are taking over their respective shows, word keeps coming out that scripts continue to be torn up at the last minute. This means that Vince McMahon is not willing to trust the gut instincts of men he has paid well to do their jobs. On the surface this would appear to mean Heyman and Bischoff are being minimized, but it also means the large staff that makes up Creative is largely being marginalized as well.
I realize most folks don’t care about whether business principles are being applied in the WWE (or in the wrestling world at large) but one key principle is being ignored. A company should always push a task down to the lowest paid individual who can still do it well. One could argue that the CEO of a company is paid way too much to be re-writing a television episode. One could also argue, based on the ratings slide of the last two years (in reality the ratings slide of the last two decades) that the CEO isn’t writing episodes particularly well. Can anyone tell the CEO that? Apparently not.
Let’s be fair to Vince, when it comes to CEO work, he does well. Heck he's great! To this observer, Vince McMahon has proven that he is indeed a shark in an ocean of minnows when it comes to negotiating television and promotional deals. His deals with Fox (for SmackDown), NBC (for RAW and NXT on USA Network) and with the Saudi Royal Family have brought the WWE billions of dollars. If I’m sitting on the WWE Board of Directors, I want Vince McMahon at the negotiating table on just about any issue my well developed imagination can concoct.
The evidence is there in black and white with the WWE signing a five year deal worth $205 million a year with Fox for SmackDown. Amazing numbers. When you consider his five-year extension with NBC (USA Network) for $265 million a year to continue showing RAW, McMahon is looking like the greatest negotiator on the planet. I don’t think that is hyperbole. When one considers that the highest rating of Raw was 8.1 back in May of 1999 and the latest rating for Raw on Sept 9th this past week was a 1.71 and they got over a billion dollars to extend their contract? In fairness to the WWE, in the month of May there is no competition from the NFL, but even with that considered – it is proof perfect that you want Vince negotiating a television contract.
One could argue that the reported 10-year $450 million dollar deal with the Saudis is another great negotiation. In the profit and loss column, it’s hard to argue that point. In the court of public opinion, those dollars are problematic for some viewers. Many Americans don’t want politics playing into their entertainment. The behavior of the Saudi regime in terms of masterminding the murder of a prominent journalist and the long term issues with human rights and the treatment of women means that this money comes with considerable strings attached. My guess is that in the future, Vince might be a bit more cautious in making similar deals with authoritarian regimes, but he’s probably not willing to turn his back on half a billion dollars. Would any of us?
My premise is that the Board should try to “corral” Vince McMahon. Keep him focused on CEO-level tasks and responsibilities. Plus, he’ll have the XFL to worry about and there are reasons to worry about that. Even the NFL’s own spring football league didn’t last until its second weekend of games. There’s no reason to assume that Vince will automatically succeed in this endeavor. But, the bottom line is to keep Vince focused on CEO-level tasks. That’s what the WWE pays him for and that’s what he’s best at. It’s time to “force” the CEO to back off on the writing and directing of WWE television product.
It’s time to see if Vince can watch the WWE without a headset connecting him to the announcers, referees, and the show runners that he appointed. It’s time for Paul Heyman (Raw), Eric Bischoff (SmackDown), and Paul Levesque (NXT) to earn their pay. More importantly, Vince needs to let the responsibilities of booking the wrestlers and storylines to go to his three successors as Show Runners. The characters in the WWE have been shredded recently – not through the actions of the wrestlers but through the scripting (or the interference in development of scripts) spearheaded by one Vincent J McMahon. A booker with better insight into today’s audiences is needed for RAW, SmackDown, and NXT.
As much as folks might be surprised to read this, whether AEW can capture the hearts and minds of wrestling fans is largely irrelevant. The WWE has the contracts in place to compete via strong revenue streams no matter how well AEW does. Additionally, there are no guarantees that AEW will be able to pull off producing a two-hour live show 52 weeks a year when they’re starting essentially from scratch. AEW does represent one risk to the WWE that is a bit more existential - Paul Levesque (who is both known as the WWE wrestler Triple H and Vince’s son-in-law) is looked at as the heir apparent to Vince’s throne. He is also the man who created and nurtured NXT to become a third WWE brand. In this case, Triple H created a brand that is capable of jumping from the WWE Network to cable television.
This elevation to a higher level gives the WWE the narrative to declare NXT the “underdog” in their battle with AEW when both go head-to-head on Wednesday nights beginning October 2nd. Of course, it would be better from the WWE perspective, if NXT were to defeat AEW. It would be understandable if AEW were to come out on top. The WWE would make the case that NXT was the considered the WWE’s “minor league” just a few months ago. Make no mistake, it would be disastrous if Vince were to panic and take the reins of NXT away from Triple H if the results aren’t as good as Vince believes they should be. With Wall Street looking on, it would make the WWE appear to have no real replacement for Vince in the organization.
The AEW vs NXT showdown will be a fun one because of the fact that NXT is the best booked WWE property by a wide distance. Triple H runs the book and Vince has no real effect on NXT storylines. All Vince really does is to take NXT stars and bring them to the WWE’s main roster – usually to horrible initial results for the wrestlers involved. Vince doesn’t watch NXT, so the wrestlers often have little or no connection to their NXT characters when they appear on the WWE rosters. Talk about confusing for NXT viewers. Talk about disappointing for WWE and NXT viewers.
AEW is going to have their work cut out for them. It’s hard to predict how well they will do. It is yet to be determined if AEW will attract viewers who aren’t currently watching WWE product and if they do, how many viewers will that be? Many watching the early booking of Kenny Omega, have concerns that the one character who could have the breakout potential similar to that of an Stone Cold Steve Austin or a Hulk Hogan should be winning. Of course, we will have to see what story they are trying to tell. Maybe it will pay off.
One has to admit, it’s been amazing to see Chris Jericho demonstrate his ability to re-create his character yet again. His name value and long career make him an easy choice to be the first ever AEW champion. Will they build to a clash of Jericho and Omega in the spring to battle against WrestleMania’s hype? It seems like a weak answer, but in reality only time will tell on so many questions associated with AEW. As I noted earlier, it’s hard for we fans to really understand how hard it is to produce a weekly live television show. Although Vince’s meddling with his Creative writing team actually makes it look even harder than it is - but don’t underestimate the fact it is still a very difficult task to pull off well.
On RAW, it’s clear that Heyman has his work cut out for him. Ratings are down, though at least they seem to be leveling off a bit. Scarily enough, chances are that the NFL will continue to negatively affect ratings as time moves forward. Fans point to the fact that Paul has been steeped in WWE activities backstage, knows the wrestlers, and Paul is famous for owning and leading the ECW promotion of the 90s and early 00s. This promotion gave Vince a few competitive headaches before he acquired the promotion. ECW was crazy original, crazy violent, and almost impossible to predict - so high hopes for his RAW tenure are largely justified.
Bischoff was the brains behind the WCW’s NWO era. He led WCW’s Monday night show, Nitro, to 83 straight weeks of beating RAW in the ratings in the late 90s. The WWE responded by making stars of Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock. This produced the Attitude Era – thought by many to the high point of professional wrestling. Can Bischoff recapture those days? He couldn’t replicate that “Midas Touch” at TNA a decade ago. He hasn’t watched WWE in years. Now, he’s charged to produce great SmackDown shows for Fox right out of the gate beginning October 4th. There’s a lot of risk here. Is Vince really going to give Eric the power to implement any changes? Is he just there to deal with Fox executives? To be fair, that is a skill set and Bischoff is accomplished at dealing with network executives. We will see what Vince’s intent was with the hiring of Bischoff very quickly.
The biggest danger to the success of RAW, SmackDown, and NXT is the booking of Vince McMahon and the distance that has grown between Vince’s instincts and the likes of the WWE fan base. While he didn’t create Hulk Hogan, Vince was willing to give Hogan the face turn and world title that longtime AWA promoter Verne Gagne was unwilling to do. While McMahon didn’t think much of Steve Austin, he gave Austin the freedom to create the Stone Cold Steve Austin persona that along with Hogan, Flair and probably Gorgeous George make up the faces that would sit upon the wrestling Mount Rushmore for this author. Is Vince capable of allowing such freedom for today’s wrestlers when Vince has clearly decided the WWE brand is the key, not the reputations of individual wrestlers. Will this preclude the creation of a Hogan or Austin for this generation?
Vince has saddled his two new show runners (Heyman and Bischoff) with a has a variety of bad storylines and character “development” to overcome. Here are just a few headliners:
Roman Reigns – the man that the WWE fandom hates to see win because when he does fans perceive it is because of a push that comes from the WWE and not the will of the people (think Cena). Whether this is true or not, Reigns has been pushed and it has cost other wrestlers their characters credibility as they have flipped from face to heel to make sure that Roman gets cheered. Recently, the tables have turned as Reigns is now the wrestler making largely illogical decisions. After having Rowan try to murder him with a car (assuming that Rowan did it, as Rowan is without any true motive), Reigns is trying to “win the battle” by pinning Rowan in a wrestling match. Murder is a bad booking tool. Wrestling pales in comparison to attempted murder.
Kevin Owens – the most talented wrestler on the microphone in the WWE and maybe anywhere. He was on fire just a month or so ago after becoming a Stone Cold-lite baby face. That was until Vince decided to make him a sniveling coward to Shane McMahon’s Authority figure. Nothing says “Stand Up Guy” like groveling at the feet of another McMahon character. KO had a face turn negated less than a year ago and this latest swerve has made him largely a character with no credibility who betrays his friends because he’s afraid of the Authority. Yuck.
Seth Rollins – his character has been forced into a heel role when fans wanted him to be a face (see this as Reigns being protected by keeping fans from cheering Seth as Vince’s obsession of Reigns being the Rock Part II continues). Recently, he looked like the sidekick to “the Man” Becky Lynch when their relationship was integrated into RAW storylines. The mess has been dropped (thankfully) but when you add in the years of being “Roman’s little brother” it hasn’t helped Seth’s standing at all with the fans.
Daniel Bryan – is he pulling the strings on Rowan’s murder attempt? Was it not Rowan? Did Rowan do it and lie to Bryan making Bryan look foolish? Bryan is a magnificent talent both in the ring and on the microphone. His heel turn was both impressive and fun to watch as he turned environmentalism into a bad thing. He looks a bit weak and foolish now.
Luke Harper – a wrestler that is looked at as one of the most underutilized both by those in the WWE and those outside of the promotion. Sadly for Luke Harper, Vince doesn’t “get” his character and so a mobile Bruiser Brody-like giant menace sits at home. (EDIT – as I type this up Luke Harper has shown up on Clash of Champions. I love it!)
Finn Balor – one of the most charismatic wrestlers on the planet. Vince thinks he’s too small, too boring, and smiles too much. Balor is amazing in the ring and was the first WWE Universal Champion. Once he was injured, that was it for him.
Those are just a few big names. I didn’t go through others off the top of my head like the Ascension (never broke out of the comedy role Vince put them in), the Revival (too much like the BrainBusters from the 80s), Booby Roode (why was he a good guy with a Nature Boy gimmick), Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka (jingoistic Japanese characters – Vince doesn’t do ethnic very well), Dolph Ziggler (who’s gimmick is now that he’s good on the microphone but he always loses when it counts), Samoa Joe (fantastic guy on the microphone who just loses to show others are tough), Resuv (hugely popular a year and a half ago only to be cooled off because Vince didn’t know what to do with him), Cesaro (pound for pound the best athlete in the WWE but Vince thinks he’s boring), EC3 (who knows what happened there), and the list goes on and on.
The WWE has quite possibly the best roster in the history of the sport. No promotion has ever been this deep in talent. No promotion has ever had more wrestlers sitting at home doing nothing. Not because they are not talented enough to contribute. Not because they are unwilling to contribute. Instead, they aren’t contributing because of one 74-year old man is in a position of power and no one questions him. Or at least no one questions him and keeps their job.
This is the time for the WWE’s Board of Directors to limit Vince McMahon to doing what they pay him to do, be CEO. No one wants to see Bob Iger show up on a Marvel movie set and feed lines to Robert Downey Jr. No one wants to see Iger show up on set and demand the re-write of a script that he personally approved just days before. And I’m sure no one wants Iger to be writing and approving scripts period.
CEOs should be doing what CEOs do. Vince is amazing at his negotiating skills. He is an icon that both fans and corporate partners value. Keep his contributions in that arena. Give Triple H, Heyman, and Bischoff the latitude to create their shows in a way that will take advantage of the talent that is on the roster – both those being used and those sitting at home in Vince-forced exile. This won’t happen unless Vince steps back and lets the talent that he hired step up and do their jobs.
Vince needs to lead the right way. Or get out of the way. Period.