There has been no shortage of coverage on WWE’s dwindling ratings for both Raw and SmackDown! over the past six months. There has also been no shortage of discussion on why the ratings are declining. Bad booking, illogical storytelling and a failure to create new stars are among the top complaints.
The first two are clearly a huge issue that everyone would agree on. The third is a little more of a tricky situation. Creating a true crossover star in WWE isn’t an easy or common practice. As much as we all love certain wrestlers from all eras, I honestly believe there are a handful of true crossover stars. Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Roddy Piper, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Steve Austin, The Rock and to a lesser degree John Cena.
If you really think about it, the first eight mentioned were and still are household names. Almost anyone you ask would immediately know who they are and probably could even attempt some sort of impression of these stars. John Cena, for as much as he’s hyped and for as long as he’s been on top, just doesn’t have the same level of star power or name recognition outside of the wrestling community. Just being the face of the company doesn’t make you a huge star. And just racking up wins and titles might position you successfully within WWE, but not necessarily in the mainstream.
If we are being honest, star-making isn’t just at a premium in the professional wrestling industry, it is a plight suffered across all media platforms. I remember when Michael Jackson died in 2009 thinking I would never see a star that big again. I don’t think anyone has come close in pop culture to the King of Pop in the six years since. Some have reached a large degree of success like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Beyonce but none have reached the fevered heights of Michael Jackson.
So why is it so hard to create a megastar these days? I think it is honestly due to the fact that so many artists and projects are focused so much to certain demographics. No matter your tastes in any art form, you can find something that appeals to your specific desires. There is also an on-demand culture that allows us to consume whatever we want whenever we want in almost any form we want. It leads to a lack of attention span required to build a superstar to those levels.
In addition to the lack of attention span, the potential audience is flooded with options and spread far too thin to ever approach Attitude Era levels of interest. I wish I could remember where I read this a couple weeks ago but statistically, the WWE audience is skewing older, which is another bad sign. That means fans made in the boom of the 1980’s or the Attitude Era are the ones holding on while the next generation isn’t.
If a true superstar is harder to create than ever before, where does WWE find one? If an audience is harder to attract, where does WWE find new viewers? I think the answer to both questions is women.
The next crop of women wrestlers, especially Sasha Banks, Charlotte and Becky Lynch, along with NXT talents like Bayley, Alexa Bliss, Emma and Dana Brooke, seem poised to change the game. As far as viewership, women are an almost untapped market for WWE. And women being portrayed as an attraction for viewers may be the next step in the evolution of the wrestling business.
Over the last decade there has been more success and more support for women’s sports. In the last Summer Olympics women actually accounted for two-thirds of the gold medals for the United States. We are all also aware of the U.S. women winning the World Cup over the summer. On an individual level, we may be witnessing the greatest female athlete of all time in Serena Williams and arguably the biggest sports star today in Rhonda Rousey.
Aside from the success of these women, they are actually garnering a significant amount of attention from TV viewers. The women’s World Cup final received the highest soccer rating in United States’ history. With the women’s gymnastics and soccer teams winning gold medals, they were the two most viewed events of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
There is a definite opportunity to seize a new audience with female performers. Also, since there has never been a true female star in WWE, they can actually do something different by using these talented women in a way viewers haven’t seen before. These women aren’t just the swimsuit model types of the past. They are beautiful in their own right, but they are mastering their craft in the ring and on the microphone while also developing genuinely compelling characters. They also display a refreshing level of desire to continually raise the bar.
Another benefit is that hardcore wrestling fans have embraced the women so there certainly wouldn’t be any blowback if WWE were to take this approach. I know WWE doesn’t feel the need to appeal to the hardcore fans, but they at least need to avoid insulting them and pushing them away altogether. Really, the worst thing that can happen is it doesn’t move the needle at all and you’re still treading water.
I think it’s time for everyone to accept that the Attitude Era is gone and is never coming back. The days of beer drinking, middle finger slinging and pie eating were great but they will remain in the past and in the WWE Network archives. The product isn’t great right now which hurts with ratings, but WWE isn’t the only thing on TV suffering from a lackluster product.
As revered as the NFL is, the game isn’t nearly as fun or entertaining as it was 10-15 years ago. Hard hitting has been basically outlawed. Attacking the quarterback is no longer a viable game plan. With instant replay and little touch penalties littering every game and extended commercial time it’s almost unbearable to watch live in the stadium and it drags on TV as well. What is saving the NFL is gambling, fantasy sports and NFL RedZone.
WWE doesn’t have those features to rely on. They have their narrative storytelling and their talent. That is really it. Better booking, better storytelling and better character development will help, but it won’t be enough to cause a groundswell. The partnership with ESPN should make WWE at least register with more people, but on it’s own it won’t create a sea change. Thus far the “Diva’s Revolution” has been pretty uninspiring, but the talent in the division is capable of much more. I believe these women have a chance to be the next real stars of WWE. I think the fans and public are ready and I think specifically Sasha Banks has what it takes to be a huge draw.
In the 1980’s the wrestling industry evolved by adapting to the emerging cable television market. In the late 1990’s it did the same by growing up and reflecting a darker, more complex time in our society. Now, women are becoming more powerful and more accepted in positions they never were before. WWE can evolve and put the focus on an emerging talent pool that can attract a demographic it has never really sought out. The Twilight and Hunger Games movies along with boy bands thrive on the unrelenting passion of young girls. It couldn’t hurt WWE to appeal to those young girls with new heroes for a new generation. Perhaps doing something new is what it will take to attract those coveted new viewers.