So far, I’d seen John Cena and Seth Rollins tear the house down in Toronto, and found the unanimous cheers for Roman Reigns, the impetus for “the search,” in Cleveland. But as often the case with WWE, there was no satisfying end. They draw you in for more. Following this company’s story and its eccentric culture is a journey that goes on forever.
To contrast the house show experiences, I felt surely I needed to follow them up with attending a TV taping live, to see first-hand in the same few days any of the discrepancies between those supposedly disparate worlds. Conveniently enough, RAW was in my hometown on the following Monday.
Buffalo, New York
I drove downtown, my check engine light now lit from the weekend’s activities, and found an obscure place to park: a lot somewhere among Buffalo’s anonymity and rust-colored vacation, somewhere around the curls of the thruway ramps that spiral downtown through the mercurial maze of one-way streets. In another era, Buffalo was a major city with prosperous industry. No one chooses to live in Buffalo today; it’s only a place you get born, hired or married into. Despite the economic discontent and infamous winters, though, it remains the forgotten beating heart that enables all the indie suburbs that have sprawled away to escape the harsh realities of a City, and to form their own dream-state libertarian niches. Meanwhile in the city proper, many rotted brick buildings, once promising and alive, linger, long ago emptied out and voided of their personalities like so many WWE Superstars.
Heading south on foot down Michigan Avenue toward First Niagara Center I walked over the old railroad tracks and under I-190 rumbling overhead. To the west, through the pedestrian cage on the overpass, with the clouds too thick that evening for the sun to rightly set, was a view of Buffalo’s lone skyscraper standing faintly at dusk. I somehow knew then I was finally in the same ZIP code as Vince McMahon.
McMahon (understandably) doesn’t go to most house shows; only to the all-important TV tapings, which by many accounts he micromanages. The last time he actually appeared live before the audience at RAW was almost a year prior in this very city, looking aged as he announced stipulations and gave away his next pay-per-view for free. Often the most important heel character on his own programming, McMahon used to appear weekly in key roles, and before that as an announcer. Likely due to his disdain for age and his love of youth, McMahon has weaned himself from the spotlight. Now we only know that he’s there, somewhere, meddling and controlling the direction of his mighty company, an unseen and powerful hand weathering in the shadows.
WWE Monday Night RAW
September 28, 2015
First Niagara Center
Buffalo, New York
Untarped seats are about 90% full pic.twitter.com/JJGlltA8YR
— Brandon Howard (@adecorativedrop) September 28, 2015
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported this show drew 8,500 fans, 62% of capacity (13,625).
In this over-lit glee, between arena-only commercials for action figures and the WWE Network, you could sense an aura emitting from behind RAW’s gigantic, curving LED walls. When you breathed the air you sensed you were now sharing it with a man of extraordinary self-confidence; whose veins were pumped with tuna fish, high-powered energy drinks and perhaps one or two other things. Secluded, mounted in the Gorilla Position atop television equipment: McMahon’s reckless bravado, his indignant ambition radiated throughout the arena, lighting the whole set a bit more defiantly.
Now for the first time during my project, “the big audience” was there. The hard cameras were ready, backed by many yards of black tarp covering up unsold arena seats that would never be seen on TV, reallocating as many fans as possible to make the arena appear full to RAW’s large but dwindling viewership.
I won’t try to rundown RAW segment-by-segment. Sean Flynn already did a better job of that than I could ever hope or want to do. I’ll only try to make a few points that were clearer upon live attendance.
When watching the show back on TV, the crowd reactions don’t feel as strong or as electric as they actually were. We often find that smaller promotions like Ring of Honor fail to mic their crowd properly. You’d think WWE is the most expensive operation there is and that they’re doing the highest quality job possible with audio. Still, the Buffalo crowd on TV felt muffled compared to my memory, and I was sitting at the highest point in the arena possible specifically hoping to get the most objective perception of the crowd reactions.
When John Cena opened the show and reached for the microphone, the arena trembled. Cena, holding the US title over his shoulder, was visibly warmed with joy over this response. The crowd was set on fire, the impassioned boos drowning out whatever other reaction he might have gotten. Here, Cena demonstrated his incomparable poise. For whatever praise or criticism Cena gets, I haven’t seen it recognized nearly enough the completely undisturbed, welcoming bearing Cena handles these situations with. Most others, Roman Reigns included, do not have the charismatic security to not just deal with these situations, but accept them and use them as fuel to hype the crowd even further.
However great he is, has John Cena been on top too long? For all the deserving criticism of WWE and Cena’s place in it, little of the blame should go to Big Match John himself. Cena is the best all-round performer today in his culture. The real problem isn’t him, but rather that the company he is so proud of has lost its eye for talent and is unwilling to get behind someone who satisfies both the company’s (i.e., Vince’s) standards as well as that of a wide cross-section of the audience (i.e., the casual masses and the hardcores).
I’m going to mention some stagnation and decline in WWE’s business metrics further down in this article, but the root cause to all those problems is right here. Why are the ratings down? Why is house show attendance flat? Why isn’t the WWE Network subscriber number higher? It’s not Cena’s fault. It’s not even Seth Rollins’ fault. Rather, it’s that WWE doesn’t have anyone who can join Cena, and it’s not because the talent isn’t there — it’s because WWE has lost the ability to harness that talent and promote them as personalities who actually matter to their business. The reason for that is much more complicated and harrowing.
As Cena stood there in the ring, Big E extolled, curiously: “New Day is here to make WWE great again!”
I find New Day a really revealing byproduct of this era of wrestling. An endless source of fun, the three-man team ironically and absurdly mocks themselves. You at home would usually do the mocking and smart-commenting, to ease yourself through this 190-minute marathon. But New Day does this work for you. And that, in large part, is why their act succeeds. They are a postmodern sort of laugh-track. And, indeed, WWE needs someone to make it great again. I’m not sure a New Day alone will do the trick. Perhaps a new CEO.
Roman’s WWE RAW Pop
When wrestlers appear in backstage skits and their first appearance onscreen is greeted with a roar from the crowd, I always thought those were manufactured cheers. I was being overly-cynical. Maybe the crowd reactions are enhanced at times, but at least on this night, each member of the disbanded Shield got significant reactions as they entered into the video-screen frame for their backstage segments. First Rollins, followed by a segment with Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns. Of the three, Reigns’ pop was slightly louder than that of either of his former stablemates.
If it gives you any indication of how the maligned Divas’ Revolution is going, the cheers for Team Bella, heels (right?), were stronger than the pop for Charlotte and Becky Lynch as they were introduced for the Miz TV segment.
Even 20-year WWE veteran Kane was over on this show. His contrived “performance evaluation” angle culminating with him laying out Rollins and — of all things — hoisting the WWE title overhead got the kind of energetic cheers that surely made whoever booked the angle feel completely vindicated. If this was your first encounter with WWE programming, you wouldn’t know any better than to think Kane would make a great champion.
These three crowd reactions are examples of what is the greatest source of the disconnect between hardcore fans and supposedly savvy WWE decision-makers. The decision-makers are there live every week. They can feel these crowd reactions to their fullest. When they say, dubiously, “We listen to the people,” this is what they mean. Meanwhile, the hardcores are watching through the insulation of TV, seeing what the mass audience actually sees, and at the same time taking the temperature of other fans, and discussing and often hyper-analyzing every segment. If you were just in the arena, you’d think that the right call was made to go with Roman Reigns as a top star. If you’re just on the internet, you might think that he’s been definitively rejected. Neither are true.
Neither of those origins of perspective are inherently flawed: but neither should be totally relied on. I think wrestling “critics” on the internet should spend some time at WWE live events really listening to the crowd and the everyday fans around them. Likewise, those in WWE would do well to listen with an open mind to the more intelligent crop of their critics — as threatening as that may be to their pride, and as offending as that may be to the justifications of their jobs.
In Steve Austin’s WWE Network interview with McMahon late last year, the WWE chairman comes off as someone whose philosophies and status quo are not often questioned; who was being held up to the light by a questioner with too much credibility for McMahon to swagger away from and dismiss.
McMahon literally said in the interview, “I don’t listen to critics.” I’d speculate McMahon is not regularly faced with serious critical thought against his vision. Meanwhile, as their business metrics remain stagnant, it’s increasingly obvious WWE is long overdue for a complete creative overhaul. As Todd Martin once imagined, say WWE is a sports franchise. You might think of these metrics as akin to their win-loss record over the years:
Or consider the recent tailspin of RAW’s TV ratings:
WWE is a sports franchise that’s been mediocre since 2003. Since September they’ve been on a bad losing streak; arguably since WrestleMania this year. Post-Mania RAW was the last time the show scored a 3.0 or better rating. If any other sports franchise went through a long period of mediocrity, the owner would fire the head coach within a few years, and bring in someone new with fresh ideas. But not WWE where the team owner and the coach are one and the same.
Is This for Us?
In the last couple episodes of the Voices of Wrestling flagship podcast, Joe Lanza has raised a worthy question: is this product really for us? Us, being the hyper-conscious, deeply-entrenched wrestling fans who know everything about the history of WWE, who are aware of every wrestler and promotion all over the world. We’re the kind of fans who might spend the better part of an afternoon considering which candidates are truly Hall of Fame-worthy, or then there’s the even more neurotic among us who pore for months thinking hard about WWE’s use of language.
Isn’t this product really for the families, especially the kids? Go back and listen to Lanza’s heartbreaking account of the NXT house show experience of a young Bayley fan. Aren’t these shows really for people who are merely acquainted with WWE’s brand of entertainment, who just want a fun night out with family or some friends, or who just want to relax and watch something on TV after work?
Yes, WWE is for those people: but it can be for us, too. I don’t believe it’s so impossible to serve the masses and the hardcores with the same hand. It’s not as if most other forms of entertainment have such a widening disconnect between their casual and passionate audiences. Triple H in his conference calls appears aware that the NXT audience is supported by the hardcores, and that a balance needs to be struck between what hardcores (most of whom are adults ages 18-34) and what the masses want when it comes to the creative direction on the main roster. Yet main roster WWE has shown with their lack of new stars who really matter that they don’t know how to strike that balance. As the hardcores’ voices get louder and as the man on top ages and becomes no less set in his ways, and as John Cena and other important talents age, what was once a nuisance is becoming an evermore urgent problem.
Besides the fact that we see more young adults at TV tapings as opposed to house shows, there’s something else that should be concerning to WWE about their live audience demographics. It’s the fans of theirs who don’t attend these shows at all.
By WWE’s own investor presentation, there are significantly more WWE fans over the age of 50 than any other age demographic.
That age group grew over last year. Their similar slide in 2014 showed the 50+ demographic as making up 35%.
Where are these 50+ people at live events? I only have anecdotal evidence, but I can tell you pretty confidently that the audiences at the three shows I went to for this series fell well short of being 37% 50-year-olds or older.
Again, I can only go on anecdote, but it’s not like you don’t see plenty of 50+ people at other forms of live sports and entertainment to the degree you don’t see them at WWE events. So why the conspicuous discrepancy between WWE’s self-reported demographics and its ticket-buying audience? We see lots of WWE products directed at kids (action figures, cartoon movies, Slam City, etc.) and the NXT brand targets the young adult hardcores. What about the older audience? Does anyone at Titan Towers spend time thinking about this?
The Grandest Story of All
It's on my wall and symbolic of my voracious appetite for life. pic.twitter.com/AuitV4M31C
— Vince McMahon (@VinceMcMahon) October 17, 2013
At some point in 2013, heir to the throne Paul Levesque gifted his father-in-law a fearsome dinosaur skull, the sort of hyperbolic gift only the very wealthy attract. McMahon predictably loved it, mounted it on the wall in his office and tweeted its picture to the world. What was the thought behind this gift, though? Is Levesque in fact the greatest worker the business has ever seen? Was the giving of this gift, unbeknownst to McMahon, Levesque obliquely showboating toward the future? Is it a double entendre, a subliminal message to the Twitterverse? Is there a subtext to this story? Maybe not intentionally.
WWE and Vince McMahon have demonstrated they’re incapable of producing meaningful stars in the current era, that they’ve lost their touch. I’d go further and say another thing hindering them is an inability to even create compelling storylines for a very overarching reason. Pro wrestling is essentially a morality play of heroes against villains, moral characters against immoral characters. And how can you tell stories like that effectively if the writer of such stories doesn’t have a strong sense of morality? I’d argue a lack of moral center is evident in the actions of head of creative Vince McMahon and throughout the company.
This is the man who heard apologizing business rivals tell him, “It’s nothing personal; it’s just business,” and responded, “Business is personal.” McMahon supposedly works very long days and barely sleeps. Besides bodybuilding, he has no known hobbies. This is his life. For him, the success and dominance of his business seems to be the ultimate ethical object.
Paul Heyman appeared on the WWE Network out of the blue last February to troll NBC news anchor Brian Williams (likely as retribution for a critical comment about Linda McMahon during her campaign for U.S. Senate) for either exaggerating or misremembering an experience during the Iraq War. Heyman espoused a philosophy he shares with McMahon:
It really doesn’t matter if you’re a comedian, a politician, a newscaster or someone who makes a living at World Wrestling Entertainment. If you’re on television, you are, by definition, an entertainer. – Paul Heyman, “WWE Breaking News,” 2/6/2015
Dave Meltzer went on to explain, based on actual conversations with McMahon himself, that this is McMahon’s all-purpose justification for his own dishonesty.
Vince’s thing is he believes the entire world is entertainment, and news people are entertainment… So the feeling that this established, righteous newsman [Brian Williams] was a liar… makes it easy to justify that there’s so much dishonesty in the wrestling business so that you feel that, ‘See, it’s everywhere! So we’re not so bad.’ – Dave Meltzer, Wrestling Observer Radio, 2/10/2015
This is the company that neglected to independently drug-test their wrestlers for ten years (1996-2006), and only adopted a “wellness policy” after Eddie Guerrero died while under contract to them, which became a mainstream news story.
Their idea of attending to gender equality is to brand a Divas’ Revolution with still no self-awareness to their shallow, stereotyped presentation of women over the years. This is evident in the language the women are still scripted to use and in the way their motivations are still described on commentary.
If you’ve made it this far through this series, you’ve read quite a few criticisms of WWE. Hopefully you’ve also seen how the promotion’s problems are even more complicated than you might have thought before, as I have. Still, it seems there’s a lot to dislike about the largest pro wrestling company in the world. I apparently think WWE is an amoral organization with an out of touch CEO. So why bother paying any attention at all? Why not just pay attention to something else? Am I not just a hater, a critic?
Besides hoping that WWE will become a lot better someday, there is a larger story being told, the one that’s not scripted week-to-week. By far the most compelling thing I find about following WWE, is actually following its business and marveling to understand the psychology of the greatest, most successful and eccentric pro wrestling promoter of all-time.
Following the real story and history of Vince McMahon, to me, is as fascinating — and perhaps ultimately as tragic — as the best works in film, literature or theater. We are now in the latter stages of the epic novel where the man of incredible ambition, achievement and hubris complexly and sadly declines due to the very same stubbornness, ruthlessness and lessons that helped him win the kingdom.
In this story, Vince McMahon is the patriarchal villain; all the great talents who supposedly fail to grab the brass ring are the babyfaces; Roman Reigns the unwitting and tragic pawn; John Cena the extremely talented but blindly loyal soldier; Stephanie McMahon the princess and minister of propaganda; Triple H the morally ambiguous heir; Dave Meltzer the omniscient narrator, and we the chorus.