2015 was loaded with graphs and tables of ambiguous data: steady and fragmenting attendances; ambitiously hopeful streaming video subscriber numbers; well-devised conference call answers; TV ratings scribbling like an inpatient’s critical but stable vitals; five-point system star ratings with heavy distribution in the upper percentiles; lingering pay-per-view buys; brands that draw; dozens of OTT services; PivotShare; MLBAM; YouTube; Dailymotion; free content; premium content; and too much wrestling to watch.
I’ve taken a liking this past year to visual representations of pro wrestling business metrics. I admit at times I find this more interesting than the wrestling itself. For example, on the occasions I try to get through a three-hour Monday Night RAW, I divert my attention to the archives, pull their data and enter it tediously into manic spreadsheets. This gives me some comfort, some hope that this supposedly campy but actually complex medium can be boiled down into some sense, some sound arguments.
Most everyone supposes themselves to know something about the wrestling business. The legitimacy of wrestling arguments ultimately come down to facts: things often bullshitted about, taken inaccurately for granted or importantly misunderstood. Surely, you — reader of “the internet” — have come across the many devout opinions of half-informed lay commenters, or even the well-worshipped and mistaken declarations of wrestlers themselves.
“The ratings are down.” But how far down?
“There’s been so much good wrestling this year.” But just how much?
“Lesnar’s a draw.” “Cena’s a draw.” “No, the brand is the draw.” Which is it? Is the right kind of data even available to conclusively say?
Let’s take a look at questions like these and more in an overview of statistics from pro wrestling in 2015.
Star Ratings: Best Matches, Most Outstanding Performers
The data in this spreadsheet is actually for December 1, 2014 through November 30, 2015, so the two matches listed above from December (Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn and Go Shiozaki & Kento Miyahara vs. Jun Akiyama & Takao Omori) are actually from December 2014.
The “VOW rating” column indicates star ratings from reviews from voicesofwrestling.com. “WON rating” indicates star ratings from Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “Alan4L rating” indicates star ratings from Alan Counihan’s Match of the Year tracking list (only matches rated **** or above).
Including Alan‘s ratings helped make this data set more comprehensive because he rated a wider variety of wrestling than the other two parties did. While he only recorded ratings for matches he rated **** or higher, he rated anything from major promotions to U.S. indies to European indies to a lot of Dragon Gate that the other two missed.
In producing the above list, I filtered out any matches that were rated by only one party — because of that, Dragon Gate and any Mexican promotion suffered. Voices of Wrestling and Meltzer seldom rate anything from Mexico. Voices of Wrestling only sometimes rate Dragon Gate; Meltzer rated almost no Dragon Gate matches this past year (although he did verbally give the Masaaki Mochizuki vs. Shingo Takagi match high praise on his audio show).
After collecting all 2,909 star ratings from the aforementioned sources for the time period, we have enough data to get an idea of who were the most outstanding in-ring performers in 2015.
There are endless ways to sort the data. I think the best way to sort it when considering who had the best year in-ring is to count the actual number of outstanding performances a wrestler had over the time period. This is better than considering average star rating, because not every match truly has the opportunity to be an outstanding performance. I don’t think we should penalize wrestlers who had **3/4 matches on WWE Main Event by taking average star rating as a factor in ranking the most outstanding performers. Likewise, it wouldn’t be fair to rank someone #1 who happened to be in one ****3/4 match and in nothing else on the spreadsheet.
I’ve counted up the number of ***1/2 or greater and **** or greater matches. Special attention is given to one-on-one matches, where it’s less debatable (as opposed to matches with greater numbers of participants) that the wrestler in question deserved credit for the star rating.
Star ratings are obviously based on subjective judgments, so this analysis is by no means objective. This analysis does, however, take into consideration three different parties’ star ratings, using the black “Avg rating” column as seen in the above table for the entire data set.
EDIT: Mike Bailey was initially overlooked and left out of the above ranking.
As you might notice, those who wrestled in a wide variety of promotions appear to have performed best. Everyone in the top ten besides Akira Tozawa wrestled regularly for multiple promotions.
Wrestling for Pro Wrestling Guerilla boosted these counts as well. Zack Sabre Jr., the Young Bucks, Roderick Strong, Ricochet, Will Ospreay, Tommy End, Matt Sydal and Chris Hero all benefited from working for PWG. An astounding 29 out of the 75 PWG matches were rated at least ****: more than one-third of that promotion’s matches from this period.
Another issue with the analysis is that, again, those who wrestled a lot or exclusively for Mexican promotions didn’t get proper attention, since the three parties didn’t rate that much from Mexico.
Nonetheless it’s hard to deny that those above had amazing years in-ring.
You’ll notice no WWE performers appear in the top 25 above. The highest ranking performer when sorting the data that way was John Cena at #29, followed by Kevin Owens at #38 and Seth Rollins at #39.
WWE RAW TV Ratings
It’s a common misconception that cord-cutting contributed significantly to the ratings decline for WWE RAW last year.
The TV rating metric is importantly different from the viewership metric when it comes to discussions about cord-cutting. Both the rating and viewership metrics are reported on wrestling news sites. Usually viewership is the metric that is released first.
The viewership number is easy to understand: that’s the number of people in the country who are estimated to have watched the program on traditional television broadcast. The rating, however, is actually a percentage (despite it never being written with a ‘%’ by the figure). A TV rating is the percentage of people in the country who watched the program out of those live in a home with access to the channel the program is on.
For example, the rating for RAW on December 28 was 2.47. That means 2.47% of the people in the U.S. who live in homes that have the USA Network included as part of their cable/satellite package actually watched RAW.
Let’s say the USA Network is available in about 96 million homes, and let’s say a given RAW is viewed by exactly 3 million viewers. To actually determine the rating, we need to know how many viewers per home are watching. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say every RAW viewer is watching alone. 3 million divided by 96 million is .03125. Round that number out to a percentage and that means the rating is 3.13. Let’s say the following week there’s a huge surge in cord-cutting; let’s say 10% of USA Network’s subscribers are lost, leaving the channel available in just 86.4 million homes. If RAW viewers cut the cord at the same rate (10%), and the 2.7 million RAW viewers who remain continue to watch Raw the next week. So if 2.7 million viewers watch Raw by themselves, divided by the USA Network’s 86.4 million homes, then the rating for RAW remains exactly the same: 3.13.
Unless cord-cutting is affecting viewers of RAW at a significantly disproportionate rate compared to television viewers overall, then the ratings for WWE RAW are not affected by cord-cutting. Furthermore, to excuse the decline in RAW ratings this past year, not only would cord-cutting need to be affecting WWE viewers at a disproportionate rate as compared to the general U.S. population, but it would need to be disproportionately affecting WWE viewers at least at the rate of decline that RAW has suffered in 2015 compared to 2014 (10%). The fact that WWE’s pay-per-view business has remained a significant source of revenue (more on that later) in the era of the WWE Network is a clue that at least some WWE fans are resistant to technology change, and therefore might be resistant to cutting the cord.
The ratings for Monday Night RAW in 2015 were on par with the ratings of 1996 and 1997 — a time when RAW was opposed head-to-head by another wrestling program pulling competitive ratings (WCW Nitro). The media landscape in 1996 or 1999, however, is far different from that of 2015. Perhaps we’re violating the Gunsmoke Rule by looking at these ratings over so many years.
Still, the average rating in 2015 (2.65) dropped 10% from the average for 2014 (2.95). This was the biggest year-over-year drop in RAW’s TV ratings since 2002 when the company was cooling off from the hottest era in its history. In 2015, the show did not decline from one of the most popular periods of all-time, but rather from previous years of stagnation.
You might think declining ratings are an indicator that other business metrics are falling at a similar rate, yet there’s no sign of live event attendance falling off.
We’ve entered a weird paradigm for WWE on television. It seems weekly TV is less important than ever to their fan base, viewership wanes — yet meanwhile the company is paid far more than ever for the rights for their programs, and attendance and other metrics seem healthy enough all the while. WrestleMania breaks business records each year, and the event in 2016 could be the most successful pro wrestling event ever. Ratings indicate there are fewer WWE fans than ever, but those who remain are more hardcore, spending more per person as premium ticket prices continue to rise. Perhaps the wrestling business, the supposedly mainstream WWE included, is becoming more niche.
There’s no denying, though, that something happened around Labor Day that can’t be explained away by the Gunsmoke Rule, cord-cutting, an increase in DVR use, media fragmentation or any other technological phenomenon. I don’t think the decline can be fully explained by Monday Night Football competition either.
RAW fell twice as hard against Monday Night Football in 2015 compared to 2014. The average rating for RAW against the NFL in 2014 fell 6% compared to the previous 17 weeks. In 2015, the rating fell 12%.
Were Monday Night Football ratings up in 2015 from 2014? Could that explain RAW’s decline? No. Monday Night Football ratings were slightly down. NFL on Monday nights averaged an 8.13 rating in 2015, down from 8.30 in 2014. That’s a 2% drop for Monday Night Football, which also suggests TV ratings are not down “across the board” to the extent that RAW’s ratings are down.
So what happened to RAW to cause this decline? Were all the injuries and absences a factor? True, in late October, Seth Rollins and John Cena both went on hiatus, but the rating was down to a new normal before then. Maybe kids going back to school was a factor. Maybe new fall programming. Who knows. But the greatest key factor of all is obviously WWE’s inability to create new stars that people care about so much they are compelled to watch. Until WWE figures out how to fix their broken star making machine, I think these ratings will continue to slide along a gradual decline. It remains to be seen, however, whether any future decline in ratings will affect other important metrics like live event attendance or WWE Network subscriptions.
ROH vs. TNA on Destination America
The above line graph accounts for the entire time period when Destination America aired both Ring of Honor and TNA Impact. This data shows the viewership for first-run airings, only. For just the first eight weeks of Ring of Honor’s run on Destination America, and for Impact’s entire run on the channel, the episodes were replayed later that same night. Viewership for the replays are omitted here to get a better “apples-to-apples” comparison of how the two programs performed.
Impact outperformed Ring of Honor every single week on Destination America. However, it’s likely Ring of Honor’s program was seen by more weekly viewers overall as its program is in syndication on about 146 local stations throughout the U.S. Numbers for ROH’s syndication viewership aren’t publicly available anywhere that I’m aware of. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer suggested on his audio show in 2015 the weekly viewership is around 400,000-500,000.
The final episode of Impact on Destination America aired on December 16 to its lowest first-run viewership ever. Impact switched to PopTV on December 22, where its debut “Best of” episode was watched by 111,000 viewers. The first proper episode on PopTV was watched by 255,000 viewers in the first run. 90,000 watched a replay later that night, for a total of 345,000 viewers.
The WWE Network subscriber number as of December 31, 2015, will be revealed probably at the end of January when the next quarterly financial reports are released. It will be interesting to see whether the subscriber number grew at the modestly successful rate it did during Q3 (June 1 to September 30): a net increase of 77,000 subscribers, or a gain of 7%. I will be surprised if it did, considering the pay-per-view buys of Q3 compared to Q4 (October 1 to December 31).
PPVs for Q3 were Battleground (Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins), Summerslam (Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker) and Night of Champions (Seth Rollins vs. both Sting and John Cena). PPVs for Q4 were Hell in a Cell (Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker), Survivor Series (WWE Title Tournament) and Tables, Ladders and Chairs (Sheamus vs. Roman Reigns).
Pay-per-view business is now far less important since the Network was launched, but if we look at the U.S. and Canadian buys from each of these PPVs, we can get an idea of how much hype there was surrounding these events, which could plausibly translate to Network subscriptions, as well:
Night of Champions: 31,000
Hell in a Cell: 23,000
Survivor Series: 17,000
Tables, Ladders and Chairs: Not yet released
We don’t know how TLC did on PPV yet. Anecdotally, it felt like one of the weakest PPVs for hype beforehand in a long time, despite it being a good show in actuality. Therefore, I would be surprised if it did more buys than Hell in a Cell, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did fewer buys than Survivor Series. It’s notable that Q4 also included the October 3 Network-only special, featuring Brock Lesnar vs. Big Show.
The average U.S./Canadian buys for a PPV in Q3 was 30,667. The average for Q4 for the two PPVs we have data on was 20,000, a 33% decline from Q3. So, say Q4 did 66% of the number of buys of Q3. If this translates neatly to net additions to Network subscriptions, we can expect about 50,217 subscriptions (66% of the 77,000 added during Q3) added to the Network as of December 31, for a total of 1,283,217. We’ll see, though I could see it performing slightly better than that thanks to the holiday season.
WWE Pay-Per-View Buys
Again, while pay-per-view buys aren’t as important to WWE as they once were, I think we can still look at U.S./Canadian PPV buys for a suggestion as to interest in the WWE Network since PPVs are the Network’s biggest selling point, and from these metrics perhaps we can get an idea of what top matches were most valuable to PPV as well as the Network, and which ones weren’t.
I’ve chosen to look at only U.S./Canadian buys (and to exclude international buys) because there are inconsistencies in international markets as to whether a PPV is offered as an actual pay-per-view event or whether it’s played for free on TV. All of these PPVs were offered as actual pay-per-view events in the U.S. and Canada, so it gives us a consistent metric to examine.
It’s most remarkable that Night of Champions was by far the best performing B PPV since WrestleMania 31. It did 31,000 buys, several thousand more than the B PPVs before and after, and almost as many buys as Summerslam. Most of the credit has to go to the special appearance of Sting, in just his second WWE match (the first being at WrestleMania) as he faced Seth Rollins for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The only other notable attraction on the show was Rollins also defending the U.S. Championship against John Cena, the third time those two met one-on-one on a PPV in the previous twelve months. Chris Jericho was also on the show, but his appearance was unadvertised as he was revealed as the mystery partner to Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose.
This data also calls into question whether Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker, who main evented Summerslam and Hell in a Cell in 2015, are the big draws they are commonly thought of as. The performance of Summerslam 2015 looks disappointing by this metric. The show did 36,000 buys, 50% better than the average of the three B PPVs that preceded it (23,667). Summerslam 2014 did 74,000 buys or 88% better versus an average of 39,333 buys for the three PPVs that preceded it. That’s even as theoretically the then-newer WWE Network was converting customers away from pay-per-view at a more accelerated rate in 2014 versus 2015 — so if all things are equal, the average buys for the three shows before Summerslam should have been even closer to that of Summerslam itself in 2014 than in 2015 since the WWE Network in 2015 is theoretically closer to a “steady state”.
Buys for the Lesnar-Undertaker rematch at Hell in a Cell were also disappointing, at 23,000. Lesnar’s match with Rollins at Battleground in July (featuring Undertaker’s unadvertised return and run-in on the main event) did better at 25,000. Money in the Bank in June (24,000) did slightly better; it featured Ambrose vs. Rollins in a ladder match, John Cena vs. Kevin Owens and the namesake match between Roman Reigns, Sheamus, Randy Orton, Kofi Kingston, Kane and Dolph Ziggler.
Disappointing PPV buys themselves, though, finally matter a lot less. Through the first nine months of 2015, PPV generated $17 million in revenue for WWE, while the Network generated $101.6 million. The company expects, probably rightly so, that the customer will subscribe to the WWE Network and just stay subscribed, rather than pick and choose which PPVs to order. In this way, it’s “more okay” to have an unattractive PPV as long as there’s enough else to keep the subscriber from cancelling.
The following discussion of attendance will reference data collected largely from Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the New Japan official website and from cagematch.net. Most of the attendance figures reported in the Observer are round numbers that do not appear to be exact. Meltzer says he gets round numbers reported to him by WWE itself for some events, usually the bigger ones, as well as for some house shows. Some attendances are reported based on information from venues or from correspondents who attended the events.
Below when I look at attendance for U.S. and Canadian house shows, the data is mostly complete: I found attendances from 145 out of the 155 events of that type.
So who’s a draw? That’s the question everyone wants to ask.
It’s hard to unpack whether any one WWE talent is a greater draw than another. Let’s take the best available apples-to-apples metric, U.S and Canadian house show attendance for the year, and look at how the shows did with top star John Cena and compare them to those without.
It seems Cena is the top draw for WWE in 2015 when you look at that data, and he probably is. U.S. and Canadian house shows do about 18% better when Cena is on the card. But looking good in studies like this are at least as much determined by the opportunities a wrestler is given to draw as it is determined by that wrestler’s actual drawing power. Cena is often tasked to main event in the largest markets, while the tour without him often works the smaller market cities.
As Chris Harrington uncovered last April, WWE grades their cities based on drawing potential, with a letter grade: A, B+, B or C. Based on the information he found, we know the letter grades for most (108 out of 155, or 70%) of the U.S. and Canadian cities WWE ran house shows in in 2015. Chris explains the letter grading as follows:
Starting 6/28/15, WWE also assigns letter codes to each city (A/B+/B/C).
It appears it’s an indication of the relative overall drawing power of the city based on the last visit.
(If we assume that the percentage is in relation to the overall building’s capacity.)
A: 70 examples (minimum: 3,500; maximum 15,913) – average: 9,235
B+: 32 examples (minimum: 3,122; maximum 14,481) – average: 7,608
B: 48 examples (minimum: 2,626; maximum 12,717) – average: 6,496
C: 61 examples (minimum: 2,230; maximum 6,996) – average 4,546
Overall Average: 7,002
The above table looks at the attendance performance of wrestlers who appeared in house show main events in U.S. and Canadian cities.
Cena has the best attendance average, but he’s also the one who was booked in the most “A” cities. Essentially he had the greatest opportunity to draw. That said, his “A” city average is also the best. His “B” and “B+” city average is the best among those who worked more than 4 main events in cities of those grades. His “C” city average is among the weakest, though.
For most of the house shows in 2015, there was a “Cena tour” and a “Reigns tour”. There were only four house shows all year where Cena and Roman Reigns both appeared on the same card. Cena’s average was better than Reigns’ average in “A” cities and “B”/”B+” cities, but not in the smaller “C” cities, where Reigns toured more than twice as often as Cena.
The truest test of Cena’s drawing ability could be in the coming months when he’s not around, as he’ll reportedly be out several months recovering from a shoulder injury. All the “A” cities will be run without him, with someone else (likely Reigns) to carry the load. Will the overall average attendance for U.S./Canadian house shows suffer without him? If it does suffer, then we have greater evidence that Cena is a meaningful draw for WWE. If that attendance metric doesn’t suffer, then we have greater evidence that the WWE brand is truly the draw above any one star.
Since WWE is perhaps the only remaining brand in the world that runs the same main event in city after city, we can compare the runs of their most frequent house show main events. Here’s a table of every house show main event series that ran at five or more events in 2015:
The Reigns vs. Sheamus house shows top the list, but that’s misleading because three of their matches took place on the post-Christmas Holiday Tour, which did exceptional business for John Cena vs. Alberto Del Rio main events as well, as many tickets were likely bought as Christmas gifts. If you take away the three Holiday Tour shows, the Reigns vs. Sheamus series drew an average of 5,529 per show, putting it in third place in the above chart, which is still mildly impressive. That would leave the main event of Daniel Bryan vs. Kane — of all things — at the top of the list, suggesting Bryan had some legs as a house show draw before being sidelined with concussion problems, although that series might have been helped by taking place during the WrestleMania season time frame of January to March, which is a hot period of the year for WWE in multiple metrics.
Cena’s best-drawing opponents were Rusev and Kevin Owens, followed by his WWE Title matches with Seth Rollins. Though the differences are small, it probably says something about the potential Rusev had as a main event heel, which seems to have been squandered for now.
The only main event on the list that did not involve Cena or Reigns is the series between Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt, who main evented seven times and drew about as well as the much more frequent Reigns-Wyatt series.
Again, the differences in drawing power of the wrestlers and main events analyzed above are relatively small. The biggest differences in attendance we can find are among event types.
Fans clearly know which events are the important ones. Pay-per-views are where real consequences happen, followed by the three Network Specials this past year, and the flagship TV program, RAW.
It should be noted that the majority of attendances for SmackDown were missing from Observer records. The data I collected for SmackDown for 2015 is only 37% complete. Having data for 19 of the 52 SmackDown tapings from the year however is probably still enough of a sample to give us an idea of how well that show is drawing: only a little better than U.S. and Canadian house shows. This seems like an indictment of how unimportant that show is seen by fans: a televised SmackDown can barely draw better than shows that aren’t televised at all.
The Google Sheet used to collect this data lives here.
For more stats and stories about New Japan, check out the Voices of Wrestling NJPW 2015 Year Book: https://payhip.com/b/Y7Ru
Like with WWE attendance stats, looking good in the table above depends on opportunity as well as star power. Hiroshi Tanahashi appears to be the strongest draw for New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2015, carried largely by main eventing Wrestle Kingdom 9, as well as six G1 Climax shows that drew more than 3,000 fans, including the final night, which sold out Sumo Hall.
It’ll be interesting to see what this list looks like in 2016 with Kazuchika Okada apparently elevated above Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 10, and even more, with the likely absence of Shinsuke Nakamura and A.J. Styles, who are strongly rumored to be headed to WWE.
Will Okada be positioned as the top star above Tanahashi? Can anyone fill the roles that will be vacated by Nakamura and Styles? Will New Japan acquire any new outside talent to help fill the void? Will Kota Ibushi return from injury and become a bona fide top star for New Japan? Will Kenny Omega emerge as the new top foreigner? Many questions remain to be answered for New Japan in the new year.
Of course, Wrestle Kingdom 9 on January 4 was the biggest show of the year for New Japan. It was attended by about 36,000 fans in the Tokyo Dome, main evented by Tanahashi’s defeat of Okada and semi-main evented by Nakamura beating Ibushi, for the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Titles, respectively. The previous year’s Wrestle Kingdom did virtually the same attendance: 35,000.
New Japan usually books Osaka Prefectural Gym (6,000-8,000-seat capacity) for their annual early summer pay-per-view, Dominion. In 2015, they moved it to the larger Osaka Jo-Hall (Castle Hall). The move succeeded and drew their second-largest crowd of the year: 11,400. The event was main evented by Okada capping off his road to redemption following his Wrestle Kingdom loss, by defeating Styles and regaining the IWGP Heavyweight Title. The show was also supported by Hirooki Goto retaining the IWGP Intercontinental Title over Nakamura.
The aforementioned first- and second-best drawing shows for New Japan for the year were also the only two events that featured both IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Title matches. For the rest of the year, matches for either of New Japan’s two major titles stood alone in main events as the promotion tried to draw an additional big house by having the titles defended on separate shows.
They even twice experimented with putting the NEVER Openweight Title on its own. This was the first year the NEVER Title was given the opportunity to draw on top in buildings larger than Korakuen Hall (which seats about 2,000). On April 29, Tomohiro Ishii lost the title to Togi Makabe before 2,460 in Kumamoto, and on September 23, Makabe successfully defended against Ibushi before 3,160 in Okayama.
IWGP Heavyweight Title matches without an Intercontinental Title match on the card averaged a draw of 9,176.
IWGP Intercontinental Title matches without a Heavyweight Title match on the card averaged a draw of 5,476.
The two NEVER Title matches on their own averaged a draw of 2,810.
Styles’ IWGP Heavyweight Title defense against Ibushi on April 5 is the only event in the top ten highest attendances for the year that did not involve either Tanahashi or Okada. It drew 9,500 to the Sumo Hall, ranking an impressive fourth.
The Google Sheet used to collect this data lives here.
NXT is already a stronger drawing brand than Ring of Honor.
Even if you exclude the 95 small house shows NXT ran in Florida and the TV tapings at Full Sail University, the remaining 21 non-free shows they ran outside of Florida drew over 59,500 fans. That’s about 20,000 more fans than ROH drew. That “Outside Florida” number for NXT is slightly higher than 59,500 because I’m missing data for the San Antonio house show on September 19.
I estimated that the Florida shows (again, to include TV tapings at Full Sail) drew about 30,361 fans, or a little more. Of those 95 shows, I found 63 attendances (66%). That means we’re missing 32 attendances. I estimated 26 of the 32 of the missing attendances based on the average for attendances that I did find for shows in the same city that year. The remaining six had no other show in the same city with an available attendance (Bartow, Daytona Beach, and two shows each in Sebring and Winter Haven), therefore I had no data to make an estimate with. So for the shows inside Florida, as well as outside, this number could be higher by several hundred.
NXT only became a real touring brand in March. Until then NXT ran only small shows in Florida, which they continue to run, primarily to give developmental talents experience, not necessarily to draw any money. On March 5 and 6, NXT ventured outside Florida for the first time, going to Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio, drawing crowds of 1,000 and 1,100, respectively. They’ve followed that show up with 19 more shows of their own that drew paying fans. By far their largest success was a sellout of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, drawing 13,400, on the night before Summerslam as Bayley memorably defeated Sasha Banks for the NXT Women’s Title and Finn Balor retained the NXT Title over Kevin Owens in a ladder match.
Their attendance numbers were topped off greatly at the end of the year by their tour of the United Kingdom, which drew about 25,000 fans over seven shows, or 41% of their “Outside Florida” total attendance.
It’s notable that as the NXT brand has become more successful and they’ve drawn crowds of several thousand fans, the NXT performers do not receive bonuses for these appearances like their main roster counterparts, who are bonused for each show they perform on. NXT talents are merely paid the “downside” guaranteed by their contracts, although, some talents have received raises as the brand has grown stronger.
The success of NXT points to a shift in the makeup of wrestling fans, which has been underway for some time, and which WWE has finally tapped into. The most loyal fans are often frustrated by WWE’s main roster programming, for a variety of reasons, many well-justified. In NXT, Paul Levesque has cultivated a brand that diverts that frustration and offers a genuine alternative to the main roster product which is flagshipped by exhausting and bewildering three-hour long episodes of RAW. Levesque seemed well aware of the effect NXT is having on fans as he stood under a spotlight in London in December and bellowed, “This is your brand.”
However boastful Triple H’s Takeover-opening speeches might be, NXT is succeeding at something main roster WWE is sorely failing at, or maybe not even attempting to do. In the era where the brand is the draw far above any performer, the NXT brand itself is very over; the WWE brand, while still far and away the most recognizable in the industry, is not remarkably well-liked alone as a brand. It’s a cool thing today for fans to wear NXT logo shirts. Fans are proud of that brand. Meanwhile you almost never see fans wearing a WWE logo shirt. The NXT brand has good will with its fan base; the WWE brand, with some fans, especially its most loyal ones, does not. Probably not since ECW has anyone been so successful at promoting enthusiasm specifically about a pro wrestling brand.
Meanwhile Levesque is careful. One of Triple H’s nicknames was the “The Game”, probably for all-too-real reasons. Today, he still seems ever tactful, and well-calculated. On pre-NXT Takeover conference calls with the wrestling media, he only betrays the most pluralistic comparisons between NXT and the rest of WWE, being sure to utter apologetic metaphors like “It’s chocolate and vanilla,” and “RAW is pop music; we’re alternative rock.” He’s performing quiet renovations, without rocking his billionaire father-in-law’s boat.
Eleven NXT shows outside Florida (and one inside the state which will likely draw a large crowd in Orlando the day before Royal Rumble) are already scheduled for 2016. I expect NXT will run considerably more shows this year, and that their total annual attendance will significantly grow. Whether NXT eventually grows into a full-time brand that tours outside Florida every weekend is an interesting prospect, but it’s unclear when or if that will come to fruition.
Ring of Honor’s 2015 was what Dave Meltzer called “its most successful year”. Meltzer also partly credited A.J. Styles for being “a difference maker in many markets”. I collected attendance data for every Ring of Honor event from the year to see how true that is, and decided to look at any difference the Young Bucks made, as well.
To some degree, it’s true for both: A.J. Styles and the Young Bucks were difference makers for Ring of Honor in 2015. This bar graph tells us that ROH attendances were 20% higher when Styles was booked, versus when he was not; and that attendances were 26% higher when both the Young Bucks were booked, versus when both of them were not. Styles worked 16 shows for ROH throughout the year while the Bucks worked 21. (Matt Jackson also worked an additional three without his brother. Those instances are not counted here.) While I believe Styles and the Bucks were indeed positive difference makers for ROH in 2015, when you look at the data more closely, that argument becomes somewhat less strong than the above graph suggests.
One might wonder, given their high profile, whether Styles and the Bucks were booked on the most-hyped shows, TV tapings and pay-per-view events with the best lineups surrounding them to help the show draw. So let’s look at a slightly different metric. Like when we look at U.S./Canadian house shows for WWE attendance, to cut down on extenuating circumstances (like the attraction of TV tapings and PPVs), let’s look only at ROH house shows.
Still, the difference appears significant. This bar graph tells us Styles made a 16% positive difference, and the Bucks made a 14% positive difference. However, of ROH’s 19 house shows, Styles worked just four of them. One was War of the Worlds Night 1, featuring special appearances by New Japan wrestlers like Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Shinsuke Nakamura and Jushin Thunder Liger, who I would say superseded Styles’ importance to the draw. Styles wrestled Adam Cole that night in a match that eventually was aired on TV anyhow. If we take that show out of the equation, Styles suddenly makes just a 5% positive difference in house show attendance.
The Bucks worked seven house shows for ROH, also including War of the Worlds Night 1. If we take that show out of the equation for them as well, the Bucks made just an 8% positive difference in house show attendance.
We can look at repeat markets, too. Doing so, we get not a lot but some evidence that Styles and the Bucks were difference makers.
ROH ran Baltimore three times. A TV taping on March 7 with Styles and the Bucks drew 1,000 fans. When they returned for a PPV on July 24, without Styles or the Bucks, they drew slightly less: 900. The TV taping the next day, again without them, drew 600.
ROH ran Dearborn, twice. A TV taping on January 30 without any of the three drew 900. A house show on September 11 with the Bucks (no Styles) improved to 1,000.
A TV taping in Hopkins on April 25 drew 1,000 without any of the three. A house show on July 11 with Styles (no Bucks) fell to 800, though. Another house show on November 14 with Styles and the Bucks went up slightly to 850.
ROH ran their Anniversary Show PPV in Las Vegas on March 1 with all three and drew 1,000. A return for a house show on July 17 with only the Bucks was way down to 600.
Styles and the Bucks appeared to have made a difference in Milwaukee. A house show there on March 13 drew 800 with none of the three. A return house show on November 13 with all three drew 900 for a sellout.
ROH went to Nashville three times. A TV taping on January 3 drew 900 without any of the three. A house show on June 6 drew 800, also without any of the three. And a TV taping with the Bucks (no Styles) continued the fall, to 700.
ROH ran four shows in Philadelphia. A TV taping on January 24 with all three sold out before 1,200 fans. Shows on May 12 and May 13 for War of the Worlds sold out, though, as mentioned, those featured New Japan talent. Another TV taping on August 21 featured the Bucks (no Styles) before 1,100, just short of a sellout.
ROH ran Chicago twice, but each show drew 1,200, so we can’t say what difference the Bucks made in the show they were on versus the show they weren’t on.
ROH also ran New York City three times. Two of the shows were a two-day PPV and TV taping run where all three were booked. Those two shows drew 1,100 and 600, respectively. The third was Field of Honor with just the Bucks, but also Nakamura and Okada. Field of Honor was ROH’s biggest show of the year, drawing 2,000.
It’s hard to say with a small number of samples, but based on what we have, it looks like Styles and the Bucks had a positive effect, though not a huge effect, in most of these return markets. Styles appears to have had a positive effect on attendance in Baltimore, Las Vegas and Milwaukee, but not in Hopkins. Meanwhile the Bucks appear to have had a positive effect in Baltimore, Dearborn, Hopkins, Milwaukee but not in Nashville.
The Google Sheet used to collect the NXT and ROH data lives here.
Wrestler of the Year
With many 2015 awards ballots coming up due, a lot of people are thinking about who was the most valuable wrestler of the year. After looking at this data, the three that jump out to me are (in no specific order) John Cena, Hiroshi Tanahashi and A.J. Styles. The criteria for any all-around MVP or Wrestler of the Year awards (like the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Ric Flair/Lou Thesz Award) are about as ambiguous as selecting an actual candidate.
Big Match John had an outstanding year in-ring. He had very good matches on RAW and PPVs with opponents like Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and Cesaro. Some who saw his house show main events said those were excellent, too. Considering the questionable business performance of the two Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker matches, I think there’s an even clearer case for Cena as the most economically valuable performer in WWE. Having the best average attendances for most breakdowns of the house show data further solidifies that. It’s unusual, though, that the MVP of the company in 2015 might be someone who didn’t main event a single PPV, nor did he hold the promotion’s top championship — although you could argue for some time while Cena held it, the U.S. Title was the most protected belt in the promotion. This didn’t feel like a winning year for WWE, though. TV ratings genuinely declined, house show attendance remained flat and the Network and pay-per-view segment of their business did just OK. Though WWE remains by far the largest pro wrestling company in the world, which draws by far the most money, this certainly didn’t feel like an upswing year for the promotion, which hurts the MVP candidacy of any WWE wrestler.
As Kazuchika Okada was built to be coronated at Wrestle Kingdom 10, Hiroshi Tanahashi proved he was the New Japan ace he claimed to be in promos. Tanahashi had a quiet spring after losing the IWGP Heavyweight Title in February. He came back with an outstanding G1 Climax, main eventing eight of the eighteen shows on the tour and having some of the better matches of the year, including his G1 Final with Shinsuke Nakamura which sold out the Sumo Hall. New Japan’s business, though, still led by Tanahashi, just seemed to do OK this past year, like WWE in that sense. It probably says something when we’re looking at 3,000+ attendances as a benchmark for what defines a big show from the top promotion in Japan. If anything 2015 felt like the other side of a peak that New Japan had been scaling for a few years.
A.J. Styles had the benefit of working prominently in 2015 for both Ring of Honor and New Japan, where he helped draw in main events as discernibly as about anyone in wrestling, all while putting on excellent matches. It can’t hurt that he was also one of the most sought after names for independent promotions in the U.S. and U.K., although it’s hard to extract exactly what kind of draw he was for those smaller promotions which are next to impossible to find attendance data on. As outlined above, he was a difference maker for ROH — to at least some degree. His main event IWGP Title matches with Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi and twice with Okada drew relatively well for New Japan on four of their biggest events of the year. Despite troubling ethos, I think Styles makes the strongest case for Wrestler of the Year on a Flair/Thesz Award type of criteria thanks to his outstanding performances all over the world and his ability to help draw in the #2 and #3 promotions in the world. It will be an interesting year ahead, for sure, as Styles finally enters the #1 promotion in the world in 2016.
What a Time to be Alive
I’ve been a wrestling fan as long as I can remember. I definitely haven’t followed wrestling each year as closely as I followed it in 2015, so I can’t say for sure whether 2015 was the best year for wrestling ever, but I can certainly say I never had as much fun with it as I did in the past year. Thanks to Voices of Wrestling for giving me a place to write and learn so much this past year; the incredible knowledge and statistical skills of Chris Harrington for inspiring a lot of the work I’ve done; as well as the amazing prose and thoughtfulness of Ru Gunn and Sean Flynn, for opening my eyes to just how good wrestling writing can be.