The WWE is reeling from the declining ratings for Friday Night SmackDown. After their third show, the WWE finds itself having lost 1.5 million viewers who’ve switched over to other channels after peaking at a total of 3.9 million viewers on the premiere episode. If anyone in senior WWE leadership hypothesized the debut on Fox would magically rejuvenate the WWE’s fan base or somehow allow the WWE to “inherit” a sizable (if any) portion of Fox’s viewers was crushed by the reality of the ratings decline of the first three episodes.
WWE isn’t in any danger of going out of business. Enormous revenue streams from 5 year deals for USA’s RAW and Fox’s Friday Night SmackDown along with the 2 annual shows in Saudi Arabia (reputedly at least an 8 year deal) make that a certainty. The revenue assures the WWE will stay healthy financially for the next five years, so is there a reason to panic over the ratings disaster? This columnist thinks there is a very real issue that the WWE needs to combat. To do so, the real battle will take place in the WWE boardroom where it needs to be recognized that the ratings indicate extreme dissatisfaction with the WWE’s wrestling product. House show revenue has also dipped, providing another data point indicating fan apathy or even fan anger. These behavior changes threaten the ability of the WWE to maintain their impressive revenue stream in the future. This fan frustration is also contributing to the WWE’s NXT from hitting its rating stride as well. There are quite a few fans that are so tired of Vince McMahon’s vision of wrestling that they’re not watching NXT – the WWE’s former developmental federation – and many fans know that NXT has almost no influence from Vince McMahon. This anger at McMahon means that AEW is clearly the winner in this situation. Any viewer switching to upstart AEW’s wrestling show is a loss for NXT.
What can the WWE do to turn the ship around?
Short Term - Take Vince out of Creative
Separate Vince from dealing with Creative and get him off the road to allow the shows to televise without his direct input. Elevate Bruce Pritchard the booker of SmackDown and Paul Heyman booker on RAW. Both Pritchard and Heyman should report directly to Paul Levesque (Vince’s son-in-law, Triple H). It’s time for both RAW and SmackDown to have new and truly independent Creative visions. It’s clear that regardless of the talent of the Creative staff and regardless of the talent of the wrestling roster, Vince being the final arbiter of what gets on the air is a losing proposition. It’s not hard to conclude that the ratings dive is proof that Vince has lost touch with the wrestling audience. My diagnosis is it’s time for him to step back from any Creative input.
Long Term – Change from the NFL to the NBA in Marketing Styles
The NFL markets the league and its teams more than they do individual players. This has a lot to do with two reasons. First, NFL Players have shorter career spans due to injuries. Second, helmets make it more difficult to see the faces of NFL players. A person can stand in line next to an All Pro offensive lineman at Wal-Mart and not know who he is. Compare this to baseball, soccer, or basketball players who have much more facial visibility and you can see why these sports have an easier time marketing their stars.
Like the NFL, the WWE has similar issues with injuries. The term “sports entertainment” is laughable, but the wear and tear wrestlers deal with is incredibly hard on the human body. It’s risky to invest in stars who could be injured tomorrow, but the WWE has opportunities to move stars into other roles such as announcers, managers, or even good will ambassadors. There’s no reason to assume that an injured star is automatically a wasted investment.
Even under the competitive pressure that is building, the WWE is still by far the biggest wrestling company on the planet. It’s easy to understand why Vince has been hesitant to market stars only to have them leave to add their star power to another organization upon leaving. In the late 90s, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall exiting the WWE helped power the WCW’s rise. Three big stars forming the faction called the nWo was a game changer in the wrestling world. Seeing Chris Jericho go to both Japan and now AEW, may have even steeled Vince’s resolve to avoid making more individual stars. It may be more important to Vince to keep everything revolving around the “WWE Universe” as he calls it.
The argument to counter this is the while the current WWE roster is as talented as it’s ever been – particularly from an in-ring wrestling standpoint - there aren’t any big stars that translate outside the pro wrestling fandom. Maybe Brock Lesnar, but that's because he is former UFC champion. John Cena is the only WWE-created star that has transitioned into the mainstream consciousness in the last decade. Could it be that Cena had a character that was close to his true self? When a character is more realistic, it’s easier and more comfortable for a wrestler to perform. Cena had a strong voice in how his wrestler spoke. This would translate to credibility with fans and a more passionate presentation. The wrestlers who resonate as “real” to the audience have a chance to become fan favorites. It’s important to believe in what the wrestler is saying. Everyone believed Ric Flair was a party monster. The key was that Flair didn’t have to act, the character and wrestler were nearly one person. The fans loved him and believed it was him.
The WWE needs to move towards the NBA model. Market the wrestlers hard. Have the wrestlers be a big part of what the WWE is and stands for. Give wrestlers more input to contribute to the promos that they deliver. Allow the characters to find their own voice by taking their own personality traits and amplifying them. Have the characters motivated by winning titles, moving up the card, and avenging losses/defending their place in the pecking order. Those motivations are easy to sell, easy to explain, and easy to follow for an audience that generally follows competitive sports.
The most important factor is to allow the wrestlers the freedom to develop characters. Characters that look and feel real are the characters fans will care about. When the fans respond strongly, push that wrestler. It’s not a sin to give the fans what they want. What a wonderful ride it was for fans who cheered for Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock. Organic support and organic heat are the way to go. It’s too difficult to manipulate crowds to like and hate who the corporation decides to push. Modern era fans have more avenues to enjoy the product and are more sophisticated than even Attitude era fans. The WWE needs to go to a wrestler-based marketing model to create stars. Create the stars and the talented wrestlers will be able to motivate cheering fans to turn on their televisions.
If the WWE can attract huge dollars with declining ratings, what could they do with ratings increasing? The path is there. Will Vince get out of the way? Only time will tell.