What happened to the Survivor Series I grew up on? Why isn’t Survivor Series as important as we all remember it from our youth? Why does the WWE no longer care about it?

These types of questions and this overall discussion is a common narrative around this time of year. The narrative does have validity, Survivor Series has felt like the lesser of WWE’s “Big 4” (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam, Survivor Series) pay-per-views over the last few years.

This “feeling” isn’t totally out-of-touch either— the build to this year’s Survivor Series has been called one of the worst builds to a major PPV ever (I’d argue this, but it’s in the running).

Most casual fans couldn’t tell you what the build towards the John Cena vs. Alberto Del Rio title match has been and most hardcore fans were disappointed that The Shield/Wyatt vs. Usos/Rhodes/CM Punk & Daniel Bryan was given away for free on this Monday’s Raw as opposed to being saved for the PPV.  Fans that may have bought the event for that match, were treated to a free showing. Does it mean this year will do awful, we’ll have to wait and see but I’d venture to guess there will be a disappointing buy number for the 2013 Survivor Series.

Is this disappointment a string of bad booking, a lack of direction or a directive to treat Survivor Series more like Payback than SummerSlam? It’s hard to say. Survivor Series has felt,over the last couple of years, as the bottom of the barrel of the “Big 4” PPVs.

This begs the question: should we even consider Survivor Series a “Big 4” anymore? Have the Royal Rumble and SummerSlam outgrown their young brother?

I channeled my inner Chris Harrington and looked at buy differentials between Survivor Series, the “Big 2” (SummerSlam and Royal Rumble) and “B Shows”. This data comes from Harrington himself (indeedwrestling.blogspot.com) and a buys/buyrate database curated by ProWrestlingHistory.com.

I left WrestleMania out of the data because it’s not statistically relevant for this discussion. It’s obvious Survivor Series is in a different class all-together from WrestleMania, so there’s not much benefit to studying their buy differential.

What I’m hoping to find out from this study is:

  1. Does Survivor Series still draw enough to be considered a “Big 4”
  2. Was Survivor Series losing ground as a “Big 4” draw a self-fulfilling prophecy, was the show not built well enough to draw on the same level as the Royal Rumble or SummerSlam?

The graph above looks solely at Survivor Series buys. Without context of average buys across the rest of the rest of the PPV landscape, there’s not much to gather here. We see a huge increase in 1998 that doesn’t fall substantially until the late 2000s but again, context matters here. 1998 was a boom period for the WWE; anything they put on PPV was bought in mass, so it’s hard to truly compare say the 1998 Survivor Series to 1994.

It is worth noting, Survivor Series 1998 is the most bought Survivor Series ever and it was one of the first to feature no “traditional” Survivor Series matches. This was the one-show WWE Championship tournament (The Deadly Game) famous for its insane booking including a Shane McMahon heel turn, a Mankind/The Rock double turn and the first WWE Championship for “The Great One”. Even as PPV buys increased across the board in 1999 and 2000, 1998 still stands above the rest.

We also see a substantial spike in 2011, which makes sense given this featured the return of The Rock in a tag match with John Cena against R-Truth and The Miz.

What we initially see with this graph is that Survivor Series as the “Big 2” stayed in the same buy territory for much of their early tenure. We see a bit of a gap in 1991, which is surprising given Survivor Series 1991 was the first Survivor Series to feature a WWE Title match (The Undertaker vs. Hulk Hogan). I would think this would be a significant draw, but SummerSlam and Royal Rumble were simply more popular that year. Perhaps people didn’t buy that Hogan could lose the title and it’s a bigger PPV in hindsight, who knows.

The 1994 Survivor Series pokes out from the “Big 2”, mostly due to a disappointing buy number from the 1994 Royal Rumble headlined by a casket match between The Undertaker and Yokozuna. Survivor Series 1994 wasn’t a particularly great looking card on paper, but did feature a return match between The Undertaker and Yokozuna and a WWE Title match between Bret Hart and Bob Backlund.

Let’s jump ahead to 1999 where we see the first significant gap between the “Big 2” and Survivor Series. This makes sense when you look at what was offered on the 1999 Survivor Series, which had an advertised Stone Cold vs. Triple H vs. The Rock match, but little outside of that main event. As you may remember, Stone Cold was advertised for the event but appeared only to be run over by a car (later revealed to be driven by Rikishi on the blessing of Triple H). Big Show replaced him in the main event and won the WWE Title in what was an extremely disappointing PPV. Big Show would find himself in Ohio Valley Wrestling less than a year later.

1999 is the significant turning point. Survivor Series never recovered from its place a second-class citizen to the Royal Rumble and SumemrSlam. We see a few close years including 2003, which featured one of the best traditional Survivor Series matches ever in Team Austin vs. Team Bischoff, The Undertaker vs. Vince McMahon and a Triple H vs. Goldberg main event.

We also 2004 as a relatively close year, this was particular interesting because the 2004 Survivor Series (which I’ve never personally seen) looks like an awful event on paper. Maven is in the Main Event, that’s all I’ll say about that. The Undertaker vs. Heidenreich also found its way onto the card. Sounds like a barnburner, huh?

The 2004 offering was fresh in the minds of buying individuals as 2005 saw the “Big 2” runaway from Survivor Series. This is mostly due to a crazy big buy number from WrestleMania 21 (at the time, a record 1,090,000 buys).

The 2005 Survivor Series was nothing to write home about either. This string of poor Survivor Series cards is where we start seeing the self-fulfilling prophecy. These cards aren’t very attractive on paper and the buys reflect that clearly. The 2005 version was headline by Team Raw vs. Team Smackdown, Kurt Angle vs. John Cena, Triple H vs. Ric Flair and, of course, Teddy Long (with Palmer Cannon – no memory of him whatsoever) taking on Eric Bischoff. Survivor Series wouldn’t return to true competition until the aforementioned 2011 event which featured a stacked card and the return of The Rock.

Looking at the data, it’s hard to say Survivor Series deserves to be a part of the “Big 4” anymore. It just hasn’t competed on a pure buy level since 2004 and didn’t consistently draw in the same ballpark as those shows since 1999. When looking at the event lineups, it’s hard to say this is purely coincidence. WWE clearly didn’t intend for these shows to be barn-burners and begs the question if traditional Survivor Series matches draw well anymore.

The other question is did the PPV itself stopped drawing? The 2002 Survivor Series not only featured zero traditional Survivor Series matches but also featured the very-first Elimination Chamber match (which was eventually won by Shawn Michaels, only a few months after his return to the ring). At the time, I remember this being built up huge and the names involved in the Chamber were the top stars of the time.  This seems like it should have created a significant bump in buys, but we don’t see it.

There’s also something to be said about early year and summer PPVs versus Q4 PPVs, especially during a time of the year when people are:

  1. Focused (or obsessed) with football, specifically the NFL
  2. Cash-strapped with the impending Holiday season. It wasn’t a problem for the early part of Survivor Series’ life, but it’s clearly an issue now.

What do we make of Survivor Series, do we consider it a “B Show”?

Here we see a graph of Survivor Series buys alongside the average buys for WWE’s “B Shows”. These “B Shows” include the themed-PPVs (Elimination Chamber, Hell in a Cell, etc.), the In Your House series and early 2000s shows like Taboo Tuesday and Cyber Sunday. What we see from an initial view of the data is that Survivor Series still outclasses “B Shows”. We see “B Shows” beating Survivor Series in 2000, which was due to huge buys for Backlash 2000 (650,000), Unforgiven (605,000) and No Mercy (550,000). The 2000 Survivor Series was a decent card headlined by Stone Cold vs. Triple H, Kurt Angle vs. The Undertaker and The Rock versus the recently-heel Rikishi.

Survivor Series runs neck and neck with the “B Shows” until 2003, when it finally shows its dominance with the great Team Austin vs. Team Bischoff headliner.

2009 is interesting as the “B Shows” catch up, which seems to be a direct result of the introduction of themed PPVs as 2009 saw Tables, Ladders and Chairs and Hell in a Cell replace the less-popular Cyber Sunday and Armageddon. The move clearly paid off in the short term. By 2010, the shine was off and Survivor Series jumped ahead and never looked back.

What does this all mean?

I’m not entirely sure. I was hoping there would be some more clarity but we’re left with what I assumed — Survivor Series isn’t in the same class as WrestleMania, Royal Rumble or even SummerSlam but it’s far ahead of the Capitol Punishment’s of the world. It’s in this odd class of its own, closer to the themed PPV of recent vintage which you could argue it really is.

While it has the history of the Royal Rumble, it just doesn’t stand in comparison. For now, it’s probably best to continue considering it a “Big 4” PPV given its historical significance. It seems to fit more into that category than a “B Show” although the build to this year’s event may put the writing of the wall.