The WWE’s Next Big Thing? by Matt Corton

If you build a sports entertainer from the ground up, apparently, you get would get Randy Orton. I have that on good authority. Or do I just hear it a lot? Is that the same thing as it being right?

I hear other things too. I hear that the WWE isn’t building new stars, that there’s nobody to take Cena’s ball and run with it and yet this is the best roster for many a year. I hear these things from different sources, naturally. Much like Varys in Game of Thrones, I have little birds who sing to me.

The song I’d like to sing today is about success.

Have you ever watched a WWE movie? I think a lot of us probably have and having watched them I think we can all safely say that they’re not going to be the next big thing in Hollywood. Does that mean they’re not successful? Not at all. Or, perhaps, yes. Because how do you measure the success of a film when the margins are so small? We’re not talking blockbusters and we’re not talking flops. There are intangibles.

It seems to be the way WWE has been focusing its marketing strategy recently as well, although probably before Mr Smiles came on board as a management consultant sales adviser. It’s another intangible in a way how much mainstream media coverage adds to the WWE product and the output of WWE Studios can definitely fall into the category of the intangible mainstream. Intangible or not, the WWE has definitely been pushing for mainstream coverage since launching Wrestlemania all those years ago and they’re right to. Mainstream equals national consciousness, for good or bad, and now Linda’s own bid for a different kind of mainstream success is taking a back burner, the focus is on the juggernaut once more.

With John Stewart, The Rock and Brock Lesnar all bringing mainstream coverage every time they appear, Stephen Amell appearing in a match and the seemingly never-ending homages to Christian with legends having ‘one more match’ to grab headlines, it’s all got marketing strategy written all over it.

There’s a flock of crows flying overhead spitting down at me saying it all detracts from the product and that it’s the very thing preventing new stars from breaking out. That spots that could go to the up and comers are going to part-timers.

Similar flocks of birds say WWE shouldn’t bother with films; they should focus instead on their bread and butter. Which I guess would make wrestling a sandwich.

Because that’s what it is – it’s part of the filling of the sandwich that is WWE – part of an entertainment empire and they’re always going to do whatever is going to make them the most money that quarter or what will make them the most money in the future.

So why was I singing about WWE films? Well, they form quite a useful little analogy to my perception of how WWE is handling its perception of its own success. I think the similarities between the film industry and WWE have always been stark. Leading men, storylines with the odd plot twist and romances both on and off screen and scriptwriters shoving in changes at the last minute that often ruin the whole damn thing.

Unlike movies, however, WWE doesn’t have countless takes to get it right. They can’t suck it and see on a bad shot, they have the one in front of a live crowd to put the pieces together and somehow come out with a product people will pay for. By and large I think they do a great job, but if the crows are right then there’s a glaring hole in the WWE’s future that they just don’t seem able to address.

Who is going to be the next big thing? Who’s going to take John Cena’s mantle and push the company on? Who’s going to be the leading man?

I don’t know about you, but I’m often wondering not who is going to be the next big thing, but if I even want there to be one. They’ve done the leading man shtick to death over the years with Hogan, Stone Cold, The Rock and Cena and the reaction last of that list gets at a lot of shows should tell you that quite a few people agree with me without needing any birds to sing the tale to you.

I wrote an article last week, part of which was about how WWE often forgets to build a show around their strategies, or at least that’s how it seems, and I think that sometimes they forget to build a good show around their stars too. I also think that unlike whether people want a leading man, whether they want to see the good guy triumph or whether they want to hail the anti-hero, every single person watching wrestling wants to watch a good show.

So should that be the WWE’s next big thing? The show? Well if so, which show? Raw is the flagship. SmackDown is…well actually, I’m not sure any more to be honest. Then there’s NXT. Now a lot of people describe NXT as the best show the WWE puts out for a variety of reasons none of which are the substance of this article.

One thing NXT does have, though, is stars. It builds shows around them, as it did with Kevin Owens when he was champ.

I come back to my chorus here and go back to films. Not WWE ones – James Bond. Everyone (at least in the UK) is wondering who the next James Bond is going to be. With the new film coming out, countless column inches have been devoted to this speculation. Just as, over time, countless column inches have been devoted to who is going to be the next John Cena.

How about nobody?

I don’t care any more about the next big thing than I care about who’s going to be the next James Bond. It doesn’t matter to me. Not because I don’t like Bond films, I do – but it wouldn’t matter which actor played James Bond if the film was a bad film, it would just be a bad film. What the film makers would be aiming for is creating a successful film, no matter who was the star. They might build the film around him but it’s the film’s content that matters.

Similarly, WWE might build a series of shows around a star, but if the star is just making poop jokes then you’ve got Scary Movie, not Scream.

Even if a show is built around a star, there’s also no reason to think that star has to be the same one year-in, year-out. The part-timers, at least in the short term, can handle the big box office, mainstream media smash hits at Wrestlemania and Summerslam and they’ll bring in the cash because the part time viewers will come with them. The star of the rest of the shows should be the shows themselves.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – a team of 30 should be pushing out 8 or 9 out of 10 shows every time. A 7 should be the mid-point on their appraisals.

I’m not sure you need a leading man for that. You need show stealers, both in terms of storyline and matches. They’re not great at building new leading men, anyway. They tried it with Lashley, Kennedy and Swagger and they all failed. They tried it with Roman Reigns and it sprang back to hit them in their faces with a superman punch, but like the fighters they are, they’ll try that again.

Brock Lesnar, The Rock, Triple H even – they’re all box office leading men because you don’t see them wrestle every week. You pay to see it because it’s rare. I wouldn’t pay to see Cena wrestle because I see it all the time. I’d pay for a great story involving Cena though.

I’ve never liked bridges in songs, so I’m going to go straight for the in-your-face key change and say that once again I think WWE is getting its marketing right. It’s getting the buys in for the big shows and it’s raising its brand awareness on an international scale with things like the televised live event in Japan and its flagship shows worldwide. They’re shilling the WWE Network for all it’s worth and it’s paying off (remember the “this will never work” articles in 2014 you saw everywhere?) because they’re following the trend in TV watching.

Who’s going to be the next big thing?

What if the next big thing isn’t a star but the person behind the show, bringing together the part time box office with the compelling storylines, along with great matches, great moments and creating an 8 or 9 out of 10 show that appeals to everyone.

I just need to find a little bird to tell me how to do that.