If you were to ask anyone what the first thing they think of when they hear the words pro wrestling, odds are they will mention WWE. How could they not? For something like half a century, the fed has been one of the only wrestling shows on television, and therefore in the collective unconscious.
Think of the iconic names of WWE’s glory days: Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, John Cena, Dave Bautista, Chris Jericho. Many have been the wrestler who has permeated into the cultural zeitgeist thanks to their exposure in WWE’s product. In more recent times, Mercedes Varnado, aka Sasha Banks by her ring name, landed a role in the acclaimed series The Mandalorian, all by virtue of her fame as a WWE women’s champion.
And yet, one were to ask the average Joe his thoughts on pro wrestling, you’d probably get a none-too-positive picture deriding the mere concept of the sport under the oh so prevalent banner of “It’s fake”. Riveting take, Joe. But, fair enough. Yes, we all know it’s scripted—some would say that’s the entire beauty of it. It’s really not so different, after all, than going to see an action movie. You watch a story unfold, with hopefully fleshed-out characters, duking it out in the most spectacular way possible, to advance a plot. So why are so many, outside of the sports’ core audience, so dismissive of the sport? (And do they even consider it a sport these days?)
To answer that, let’s double back a moment and talk about WWE.
WWE was born from a consolidation of what was originally a series of separate territories under the jurisdiction of the National Wrestling Alliance. Its owner, Vince MacMahon, strapped a rocket to the promotion’s back and became the monopoly on professional wrestling in the United States. Monday Night Raw, their flagship TV show, has been on the air, basically uninterrupted, for almost 40 years. In that time there have been highs and lows in their overall viewership, but the last few years, the trend has absolutely been one of steady decline. From having a viewership of nearly 5 million weekly in their heyday to currently boasting only 1 million and change, it would appear to be dire straits. Yet WWE is more profitable now than it’s ever been, and last year the company reported record-high revenues of over 1 billion dollars! How is this possible?
Let’s back up further. Vince MacMahon inherited the company from his father Vince Sr. At the time of Vince Sr., the company was called Capitol Wrestling Corporation and it had joined the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) sometime in the ’50s. They had business with the rest of the territories, promoting other territories’ champions and titles and exchanging talent. But when Vince Jr. inherited the company, he started to gain more and more control over the booking of the wrestlers in the NWA, on account of his own promotion’s success. This was all fine and good, so long as one simple rule remained intact: you did not poach other promotion’s talent.
So, what did Vince do? He poached all of the talent. By acquiring the likes of Hulk Hogan and many others, alongside a national TV deal for his now named World Wide Wrestling Federation, he quickly ran the rest of the entire US wrestling world out of business, uniting everything under his own company.
At its most basic, pro wrestling should be about a tale between two wrestlers or teams, wanting to beat each other up for a variety of reasons. Revenge for a perceived slight or an outright betrayal. The pursuit of their dream to become a champion in the sport they dedicated years of their life to. So on and so forth. You have the wrestlers deliver soliloquies or verbal confrontations (promos), stating their goals and reasons; then you have them wrestle each other on TV, or getting into physical altercations leading up to the big event, usually a Pay Per View. The quality of the promos, the characters, and the in-ring stuff will ultimately determine how successful that storyline is. The more successful the angle, the more the audience will root for one wrestler over another, the more they will spend to see them, the more merchandise of said wrestler they’ll buy. The more one wrestler is successful, the further up the card they’re pushed, as they’re relied upon to draw a crowd to the shows, driving the company’s revenue. But WWE all but forgoes this formula.
WWE became a publicly listed company in 1999. That should mean that since then, its sole goal would be to benefit investors and shareholders. Which in turn would mean a renewed effort in making sure the shows and wrestlers be of great quality. Unfortunately, one simple theory stands in the way of such a given: Vince MacMahon doesn’t like pro wrestling. Theory being a generous term he has said so himself. His biggest desire would be to create soap operas and movies. In fact, they have released a number of—admittedly terrible—movies under the WWE Studios banner. And said terrible quality translates into the wrestling product itself.
Vince MacMahon seemingly doesn’t care for the wrestling fan too much either. He apparently loathes that they have an opinion on the story he’s trying to tell. If he decides he’s going to have a particular wrestler be the main star of the show, all signs point to the fact that he doesn’t care that you will literally change the channel rather than watch said wrestler. In fact, if you’re in the actual arena when either RAW or Smackdown are aired live every week, and decide to boo the wrestler in question, Vince MacMahon will mute the crowd and pump in fake cheers for the TV audience.
During the pandemic, with no crowds present, WWE created what they dubbed the Thunderdome. A dome of screens showing the faces of the live audience watching from home—but with no audio. The boos and cheers were predetermined by the big boss. Like a laugh track on a sitcom.
At this point you might be wondering how a company which refuses to cater to its audience and has actively driven crowds away from their shows for more than two decades manages to make record revenues? Simple. WWE reportedly gets paid truckloads of money by the TV channels just to have weekly, episodic, and most importantly, live content on their network. This means no matter how bad the show, or how dwindling the audience, WWE already makes bank. What incentive is there to better the product if the revenue is no longer driven by merchandise or PPV buys. WWE stopped having PPV events altogether when it launched its WWE Network.
To sum things up: WWE does not seem to even like pro wrestling, but wants to create easy, fast content that will amass major contracts with TV networks. In turn, said contracts will remove any incentive to make the shows better, and the stories told and characters promoted must cater only to one man: MacMahon. (Where is the Showtime series about this behind-the-scenes dramedy?) Furthermore, the entire structure of the company’s storytelling no longer revolves around building up a feud, with a blow off at a PPV event, as they no longer really exist, and when they do, they’re mostly free and happen once a month.
It is no longer rare to see a match between the same two wrestlers happen every week for three months straight. The semi-regular viewer might be forgiven for thinking WWE has suddenly begun airing reruns and go back to watching videos. Being battered with the same matches, same promos, and same contrived ending to the matches so as to not allow one particular wrestler to appear too dominating over the other is, needless to say, utterly boring.
In their effort to monopolize the pro wrestling viewer, WWE also went on a spending spree over the years, acquiring what is basically the entirety of the top wrestling stars in the world, regardless of having no real use for them other than stopping others from utilizing them. Wrestler hoarding. These days, if a wrestler is to make it on the air, they will need to bend over backwards to adapt their character to MacMahon’s vision, which, unfortunately, is usually an insulting parody of themselves: From being Chad Gable, former Olympian, to being Shorty G. From being an athletic, funny brute of a man, to becoming a Popeye caricature made to chase the beautiful blonde for the laughs of a 70-year-old man.
All this perhaps to say, for the love of wrestling, I urge you to seek out other promotions throughout the world. Pro wrestling is a ton of fun and can present some very good stories. AEW and the character of their current champion Hangman Adam Page, the Anxious Millennial Cowboy—for one.
May we all enjoy good pro wrestling in the future. Your viewership and fandom may yet save tomorrow’s televised wrestling.