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Is World Wrestling Entertainment Confusing Their Universe? By Hank McAllen

Like many, I’ve noticed myself seeing the lack of fan support/interest during the cruiserweight matches that RAW has been giving us. To be honest it’s been quite mind boggling to me. Having the likes of TJ Perkins, Cedric Alexander, Rich Swann, Tony Nese, etc. giving us high impact matches only to see fans in the background bored, not clapping and disinterested was a head scratcher to me. Maybe it’s because the fans don’t know them or maybe it’s because they get treated differently by bringing in those stupid looking purple ropes? It’s almost like the fans are being prompted to think, “these guys are different, and I don’t know them, so I don’t care about them.” Maybe another possible cause for a lack of interest is the confusion with the cruiserweights as they are seen on RAW, 205 Live and NXT. We don’t know when or where they’ll pop up, yet there is a specific show that was created for them. Again, confusion occurs amongst the viewers. You can almost hear some of the fans thinking, “wait a minute, isn’t this guy supposed to be on that other show?”

To add to the confusion of the WWE Universe, you have heel wrestlers doing nice things (Titus O’Neil MEGA Celebrity Dad of The Year and Natalia setting up a marriage proposal), cameras back stage that we are to believe the wrestlers don’t see, which are the same cameras they look into when they cut promos. You almost get the impression WWE really buys into that whole episodic TV crap they’ve been shoveling out to us for years. They treat the talent more as actors on a TV program that they can just pop in and out of their shows ala Newman in Seinfeld. Hellloooo Cena! The also make our heads spin when talent is haphazardly assigned to either RAW or Smackdown without any rules (Bayley to RAW and Mickie James to Smackdown).

I’ve always felt that there are two types of fans who are watching RAW, Smackdown and the main brand PPV’s. You are either a wrestling fan or a sports entertainment fan. Trust me, there is a HUGE difference. But, I guess at the end of the day, I really can’t blame fans for being confused about how to watch WWE these days. Look at all of the different programming options McMahon and company are giving us. You almost don’t know what you are watching anymore. So hey, Vince, Steph and Trips what are you selling us?

Back in the day you had wrestling, and just wrestling. No music intros, no backstage segments, no rehearsed overthought promos, just wrestling buy guys and gals who told a story in the ring. When they weren’t doing their work in the squared circle, they (or their managers) were cutting riveting promos that made you want to go to your local arena (which were always sold out) to see the score settled in the ring.

Come the mid 1980’s rock and roll and Hollywood met wrestling and we started seeing the early stages of sports entertainment. The focus of the product though was still in the ring despite the wrestlers entering the ring to the blaring sounds of rock music of the day. We still had managers, we still had great matches, and we didn’t have God awful 50/50 booking.

Then in the 1990’s came the attitude era, and the full blown introduction and transformation of sports entertainment. In WCW, classic cruiserweight and tag team matches were constantly being overshadowed by what the NWO was doing. Same could be said over in WWE with pillow fights and lingerie matches, DX, anti-Canadian and anti-American battles and while some will still say the work in the ring was great, you could see that it was definitely taking a back seat to segments and promos. ECW still focused more on the wrestling product, however some of the talent was perceived more as daredevils and masochists than they were wrestlers, which diminished the product in the eyes of many.

Come the 2000’s you have the WWE global takeover of both WCW and ECW, leaving only WWE as the major player and allowing Vince McMahon to basically force any wrestling agenda he had on the fans, knowing there was no viable alternative. So we had even more segments, over rehearsed promos and Divas introduced to us. TNA gave us a brief glimpse of hope of great wrestling and being a possible alternative from 2004 through 2006, until Dixie Carter took over and drove the company into the ground by trying to become WWE lite.

Now though, over the past couple of years, it seems like wrestling, yes wrestling, is becoming the focus and the desire of the fan base again. We have seen numerous independent companies popping up throughout the world. Ring of Honor has done an amazing job in continuing to build their promotion, aligning themselves with New Japan and CMLL. New Japan itself now has a foot print in the United State with weekly programming. You can also find wrestling from England on the Fight Network, and Lucha Underground on the El Rey Network. The problems that have hurt ROH, NJPW, Lucha and others is the lack of consistent programming on the various cable television providers. Depending on who your provider is, you may or may not be able to see these shows. One can only wonder how their ratings would be if given a prime time slot say on a TBS, if they were interested in getting back into the rasslin’ business.

With the influx of wrestling promotions giving the fans more of the in ring action they want, the problem WWE now has is what do they give their audience? They seem to think that a solution to this issue is providing a bunch of different shows, with different kinds of programming. I disagree. Live 205 is different than RAW, which is different that NXT, which is different from Smackdown, which is different than Total Divas, Holy Foley, and all of the other non-wrestling content WWE likes to provide to make them feel like more of a real production company as opposed to a wrestling company. The bottom line is, with all of this programming is there is too much to watch, which wears out and confuses the fan base. Sometimes Vince, less is more.

One other thing that having so much programming has given us is the dreaded 50/50 booking and a return to the ridiculous constant title changes (no need to go into detail about the title changes, it’s just weak and lazy booking). Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s you had enhancement talent. The job of these wrestlers was to put the star over and make them look strong. You’d get maybe one match, always at the end of a program, that would have two stars or two good tag teams in the main event. Rarely, if ever did we get a TV match between the two main combatants in a feud until they met at the main monthly or weekly show in the territory. Now with the explosion of programming WWE gives us each week, every match seems to feature two top tier talents taking each other on each week. The only exception to this style of booking is NXT. Isn’t it ironic that NXT has been the WWE’s best TV and PPV product the past two years? And why do you think that is the case? It’s because they use the old TV booking formula I just mentioned.

To me, the reason that New Japan, Ring of Honor and the litany of independents around the world are doing so well is that they are wrestling centric shows. Lucha Underground, while it has its fans, me being one of them, has still struggled financially part in parcel to their well-documented huge production costs and lack of house shows and PPVs. While I find the office segments with Dario Cueto entertaining, it’s the actual wrestling matches including the likes of Prince Puma, Fenix, Mil Muertas and Sexy Starr to name a few, that has me watch each week. They can save a lot of money and bring more cash into the company by sticking more to wrestling and putting the show on the road.

I think a major mistake that WWE makes is that they really believe they would lose fans by making their shows focused strictly on wrestling. Quality wrestling sells the product more than any other resource WWE has. Fans lose interest when the matches are poor. It’s easy to see the positive impact guys like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk and AJ Styles have made to company in recent years. All three of these men helped bring some of the old school fans interest back into the company because we have seen their work on the indies and smaller companies. They are perceived as wrestlers, not entertainers. Even look at Chris Jericho, who is maybe having his best run of his career. Yes he has been great on the mic as always, but now Chris has gotten refocused on his matches again and not losing to the likes of Fandango and putting younger guys over for no reason. His matches have been some of his best in years. Isn’t it ironic that he is having possibly his best run while stepping up his in ring work again?

Now can you have some entertainment mixed in with wrestling, sure! Case in point is the aforementioned Chris Jericho. His work with Kevin Owens has been spot on. They don’t overdo their segments/promos and they keep them focused on their feuds or upcoming matches. On the other hand, I for one, am so done with Enzo Amore and these ridiculous skits with Lana, the New Day who seem to have no idea when enough is enough at times leading to awkward moments of silence or stares amongst themselves in the ring, and finally the over use of Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley on RAW. The most frustrating thing is watching these 5 – 7 minute diatribes then cutting to the ring and starting a match, only to cut to a commercial 3 minutes into the match. It is without a doubt, not only mine, but I truly believe, most WRESTLING fans number one pet peeve about WWE broadcasting. Like I’ve said before, the NFL never cuts to a commercial in the middle of a team driving down the field unless there is a timeout.

So what does WWE do in order to have an overall better product? Do they try to please everyone? That approach doesn’t seem to be working. Even McDonalds has cut back on their menu offerings. Too much variety just adds to the confused consumer. I think WWE should take the approach of stick to what you know. They know wrestling. They fool themselves into thinking they are more than that but at the end of the day that is what the fan base is wanting to see. Also, maybe it’s time to rethink your audience. It’s great seeing the kids at the events (by the way is it just me or is this new approach of cutting to the crowd reactions during matches really ANNOYING, especially when you miss a move!), but maybe it’s time to rethink making the focus on the 18-35 age group. Now I’m not saying you need to go to the complete other end of the spectrum of the PG rating and go back to having Edge in a bed with Lita in the middle of the ring in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but maybe it’s time to make the action a little more physical and believable.

I realize that the kids are a fan base WWE likes to have as they are a big reason for merchandise sales, and heck I became a fan at 8, but is WWE giving us a double standard by saying “don’t do this at home” yet they want little kids to watch. Are they sending a mixed signal when you ram a person’s head into a steel barrier and they don’t bleed? Maybe it doesn’t look so dangerous after all and someone will try it at home. My point is that since kayfabe is gone, maybe it’s time to make the action in the ring more believable and the focus of the product. WWE has maybe their deepest roster (in ring performer wise) ever. These men and women have made a name for themselves with their athletic abilities in the ring. Use them in that capacity and that capacity only.

When it comes to WWE’s original content for the WWE Network, the old roundtables they use to do were GREAT. The recent ECW special was awesome as well. The road trips, the tables for 3, the wrestling focused stuff is great. Heck, I even liked Legends House. But Holy Foley, Camp WWE, Swerved, etc. are a waste of time and resources. Please stop cluttering the network with this programming and continue to expand the wrestling library content you purchased. Why buy the rights to these old wrestling companies libraries (AWA, NWA, Memphis, Mid South, etc.) when you are not using them? It’s a huge waste of money.

Speaking of legends, maybe another cause of fan confusion is what happens around this time of year, every year. Certain legends and part time wrestlers start popping up again. This past RAW, we were “treated” to appearances by Mark Henry and Big Show. We also saw where Seth Rollins magically wants Triple H again. Hmmmmm I wonder why? Oh yeah I know, because Seth forgot that HHH screwed him over 3 months ago and instead of wanting his revenge then, why not to get back at the guy now and challenge him to match at WrestleMania! Makes sense, no? Talk about revenge!!! To quote Pat Patterson, PUH-LEEZE!!!! This is just telling the fans again that making guys like Trips, Big Show and Mark Henry magically relevant around this time of year means that guys we invest time and emotions into all year will be relegated to either the Andre The Giant Battle Royal or a what feels like a 60 team tag match on the preshow.

If WWE kept their focus on WrestleMania being the company’s main WRESTLING show of the year, they could continue to focus on their day in and day out talent, build interesting story lines and use the actual guys we’ve been following all year to develop new legends. I mean shouldn’t ‘Mania and matches like the Royal Rumble include the guys who deserve the big payoff matches for all of their hard work? What are you telling the fans when WWE gives us Shaquille O’Neal in a ‘Mania match or a possible Shawn Michaels appearance in the Rumble, yet leave the likes of Dolph Ziggler on the bench? To me it just causes more confusion. Also, please don’t think I’m hating on HBK. He’s one of my all time favorites. The Rumble however should only be for wrestlers who have a legit claim to challenge for the WWE title. That’s the premise of the match after all. If you want HBK in a match again, then do some DX thing with him and HHH against the Wyatt’s or somebody else at the Rumble.

So please WWE, as I mentioned, stick to what you know. Stop confusing the fan base. It’s time to rethink the wheel and go back to what has worked since the day the business was created. Give us consistent wrestling centric programming.