Is WWE In Better Shape Now Than A Year Ago? by Matt Corton

Let me start by saying Happy New Year, and thanks to everyone who has read my columns in 2015, it’s a pleasure to be able to write for you guys.

Now I’m going to talk about tools. I have a toolbox at home. Each year I buy a new tool to put into that toolbox. I don’t necessarily need that tool right now, but one day I might and if I do, I’ll have it ready.

The WWE has a toolbox as well and it’s filled with wrestlers, writers, media managers, corporate guys and a hell of a lot of other things that one day they might need. As the year turns into 2016, I’m looking at the WWE’s toolbox and wondering if what’s in puts WWE in a better position going into 2016 than it was going into 2015.

When you’re managing something, your toolbox is fairly simple. You need to plan, organise, lead and control. That’s really it – plan out what you’re going to do, organise your resources to make sure you have everything you need, lead by motivating your team so they’re on board and control by constantly evaluating results on the way and changing if necessary.

Easy, right? Well actually yes, if you do it properly and have the right tools in your management toolbox it should be easy to improve what you provide every year. So is WWE better placed now than a year ago?

Let’s start by rolling the memory tape.

The vague, fuzzy memories of the last Raw of 2014 on my memory titantron show me guest GMs, Rusev in a feud against Ryback that I can’t even remember, short, pointless Divas matches every week and Rollins having just engineered the Authority’s return to power. None of that was good going into 2015. What was good? Seth Rollins was holding the briefcase, so we could anticipate something good coming from that, Daniel Bryan had just been announced for the Rumble and Mizdow was entertaining everyone with the Miz.

Look at the list above, and let’s compare it with what we have now.

Vince is back as an authority figure which is great (if it’s for the short-term – this week proved it’s not all gold), the Divas are getting more TV time and longer matches and they’ve managed to engineer some fan approval for Reigns winning the title, which is what they wanted all along. What’s bad? Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Orton and Bryan are out injured long-term, the Authority (without Vince) is staler than six-month-old bread, the booking is still mired in 50-50 wins and losses and the announcing has somehow got even worse.

As the WWE starts to better understand the tools it has at its disposal, gets new tools such as Owens, Neville and Breeze and learns how to use them in the right way, you should see a constant improvement in the end product those tools are used to create. Only that’s not happening.

For instance, you can wave around a chainsaw like you’re Leatherface all you want, but the best application of a chainsaw is to cut trees. It’s what the tool is for. If anyone in the WWE is like a chainsaw it’s Roman Reigns, and if Roman Reigns is going to be felling trees he needs to know in what direction the trees are going to fall. For a lot of 2015 they had Reigns cutting the trees so they fell on himself. He was going to get crushed under the weight of his own push, but now he’s got his lumberjack shirt on the right way and is cutting through the forests put in front of him. A few cuts on the old, gnarly Triple H tree was all it needed and the WWE has a tool that is buzzing away as they always intended it.

They’ve also got John Cena right, but then John doesn’t need any tools. As a virtual wall in wrestling everyone eventually slaps up against, Cena is his own tool, but walls like that are very useful when you’re building something. Roman Reigns will eventually have chopped down enough trees to build his own wall, but he’s not quite there yet.

The thing about both Cena and Roman is, although they’re the biggest tools you have, a wall is pointless if you don’t use it to build something around and unless you use it, the wood Roman Reigns is chopping is just going to rot on the ground.

That’s where planning comes in and that’s where they haven’t improved at all since 2014.

A lot of the noise I hear about WWE (and I have no inside knowledge on this whatsoever, I only ‘know’ what I read on websites and hear on podcasts) tells me that the best laid plans can be in place, only for one man to change them at, quite often, the last minute. Now that’s all well and good, but it makes it hard to ensure continuity and depth to anything and if true, is probably the main reason things fall flat or seem superficial.

Talking of superficial, look at what’s happened to one of the shiniest new tools WWE has, Rusev. He should be used like a wrecking ball and was, for a time – then came the love rectangle debacle. That was the sort of mess that makes me wonder if anyone involved in that knew anything about what they were doing. The storyline was bad to begin with, never mind all the things that happened to throw it off course, like Lana cutting through the fourth wall with her engagement ring. Good or bad though, they dropped the storyline like a hot potato and everyone has come out of it worse.

The biggest thing WWE needs to learn for 2016 is that they do in fact have a whole toolbox at their disposal, not just a chainsaw and a brick wall. The useful spanners and wrenches like Ryback and Barrett are just as important as the rest. They’re focused so much on building around the two big walls that they’re forgetting you have to have something to put inside the walls.

For another example, look at the Divas Revolution.

Unfortunately for everyone reading this, I’ve actually quite enjoyed the Divas Revolution. I enjoy watching Nikki’s matches these days and her last few matches as champion were good. That said, I like there’s new blood in the division that look and act like wrestlers not models and I like that we’ve had longer women’s matches on TV, even if a crowd holding up a “Push Sasha” sign in front of Vince McMahon is then promptly dead for the Sasha match that followed.

The ‘Revolution’ was only ever going to be a way to introduce new people to the audience and we’ve already seen Team PCB fade away. The Bellas are still there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t see Alicia Fox any more in the run up to Wrestlemania (now I’ve said that she’ll be in a prominent match on Raw).

I think they used the tools quite well and did a very WWE thing in overblowing something in order to get something smaller out of it. It’s quite common – you see it every time a new wrestler dominates and goes on an unbeaten streak only to become a nice little part of the midcard after a few months. Same principle with the Divas Revolution – you make it a huge thing, then at the end of it you have a nice little thing which is better than what you had before.

Even if the Revolution was the right or wrong thing to do, though, it’s been plagued by the same disease that permeates everything the WWE does – a complete lack of depth. I don’t know why Becky Lynch is a goody two shoes any more than I know why Dean Ambrose isn’t bothered he isn’t the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. I’ve spoken about this for weeks on end so won’t go on about it more, but the lack of character depth means the WWE doesn’t really know what’s in its toolbox at all, because it doesn’t really know what the tools are. Maybe Ryback really could be the next John Cena, as he thinks he can, but how will we ever know if he’s only ever treated as a spanner?

They don’t seem to want to learn. They haven’t evaluated the results and have no control. The same mistakes are made over and over again to the extent that you have to start thinking the WWE doesn’t think they are mistakes at all. But if you’re asking the question whether the WWE in better shape going into 2016 than it was a year ago, there’s one more thing to address before you can categorically say ‘no’.

There’s the biggest tool in the WWE’s toolbox – the wrestling.

I could, and will, put my answer to the question above quite simply based on just that. I don’t watch Raw live ever, because I’m in England, it’s on here at 1am and I have to work. So I always watch it recorded and I can say categorically that the past few weeks aside, I haven’t fast-forwarded through anywhere near as much of Raw this year as I did in 2014.

Why? Because the wrestling has got a lot better. The WWE are using the tools they have in terms of great in-ring competitors to put out good matches each week on Raw. The match quality of WWE in general at the moment is superb and that makes for a better show.

So how can they understand the tools in their toolbox so well that they put on good matches every week, but can’t understand how to use those tools to drive interest in those matches?

I have an uncomfortable answer. In 2015, the number of network subscribers is up nearly double. Digital media views have more than doubled. Social media followers are constantly rising. Live Event attendance hasn’t dropped as much as people think, on average. Online sales have gone up markedly.

They’re making money.

I’m not saying they don’t care about the rest and I imagine they certainly care about the poor TV ratings, you wouldn’t be seeing Vince at the moment otherwise, but until it really impacts the money, I doubt anything will change.

So cutting to the chase, is it in better shape or not? I think so. We might not get the wrestling product, with the depth we want to see, in 2016 – but I do think we’ll get closer to it and I think we’ll get a better product in 2015, simply through the WWE picking more of the right tools for the right jobs – and that includes WWE Creative because at the moment they’re doing nothing more than trying to tighten a screw with a hammer.