Since going to three WWE events last fall, I’ve gone to three more, each in the same city, but each event type different from the one I had last seen there: this round, a pay-per-view in Cleveland, Network special in Toronto and house show in Buffalo. In the last six months, I’ve visited the same three markets, the same venues, and felt remarkably different moods in each compared to the last time I’d been there.
At the house show in Toronto in September, Cena was overwhelming revered; at the Network special, Enzo Amore and Big Cass were instantly recognized and cheered despite having barely ever appeared on RAW or SmackDown.
At RAW in Buffalo in September, Roman Reigns received a mixed reaction; at the house show there this March, he was the most over wrestler of the night, receiving overwhelming cheers.
The WWE audience is dividing. One section of the audience, heavy on kids, produces the intended reactions. The other part of the audience, heavy on adults, does not. WWE seems to have spawned a beast in the Hulkamania era which went through puberty in the Attitude era, and the beast is now an adult WWE can no longer tame. The audience and therefore the industry are evolving as the company tries to keep up. This is the most compelling story about WWE at the moment: the one they have no control over.
After the show in Buffalo two Saturdays ago, I started to leave the building. When you walk out the west side doors of the arena and look over South Park Avenue, you face a point where the Buffalo River splits into two streams. Over the water and under an overly-ambitious and intrusive stretch of raised highway, you’ll see a set of abandoned grain elevators standing over the river and the traffic with all the might and history of some old revered wrestlers who no longer work house shows. You notice them most of all at night. As they stand there in obsolescence, they are now sprayed in colorful light, illuminated in deep blue or by animated floral designs. The idea is to organize attractive public events or businesses around the elevators rather than tear them down, to accept the decay, decorate it and celebrate the history. The elevators’ lack of utility has been forgiven, and they’ve been reunderstood as monuments. This city, like the world’s biggest wrestling company, at a stagnant time, looks to the aid of nostalgic backdrops. Meanwhile the modern buildings are up the street, theorized for years, and often just that.
By far the project WWE’s been most dedicated to building in the last two years has been Roman Reigns.
I saw him receive cheers before 4,700 fans in Cleveland. When that attendance was tripled in the same venue five months later, before 14,406 at Fast Lane, he was passionately booed. Early in the show, the ad for the Tap Out clothing brand featuring a few WWE stars played. Reigns’ momentary appearance on the video screen instantly provoked a reaction that should belong to the biggest heel in the company: they responded as if they were too full of disdain, and needed to offload some of it at the very first opportunity, the first sight of him. While other heels on the show got mixed reactions, Reigns was booed in the pay-per-view main event with a ferocity well above any heel on the card: the last wrestler left on Earth with real heat.
Heading into another WrestleMania main event, he’s been booed regularly on RAW.
It’s not completely fair. Reigns has done a lot right in wrestling. He has an excellent athletic background; he made his way through developmental; he’s become a good in-ring performer; he has a unique look and a mystique in an era when few do; he’s reportedly well-liked by his peers; by any account he seems like a decent person: a father, a husband, a proud member of one of pro wrestling’s most celebrated families. He does what he’s told; although as Wade Keller pointed out, his performances come off just that way.
WWE’s documentary on him last year showed he has a mother who watches his matches with equal parts support for her son’s success and dread for his safety. Whether or not it’s clear on Monday nights, he’s an actual human being who retreats to hug his daughter and wife after matches, a man brought to tears by the probable legitimate emotional toll taken by WrestleMania 31.
But in media interviews to promote WrestleMania, if a heel turn is not in the works, Reigns does himself no favors. He paints his detractors as drunk adults who flip him off in front of kids.
“I’ve seen grown men flip me off and there were children right there,” Reigns told the Orlando Sentinel. “There’s a guy who got kicked out of one of the shows because I’m pretty sure he was drunk.”
“Typically if you hear the boos, it generally is grown men my age and I’m not really in this business for the grown men. (laughs) I’m in this business for the families. That’s what we are; we’re a PG product. We’re a family-based product. We’re here to entertain families and give them enjoyment. If you’re a 30-year-old man and you want to flip me off at a kids show, then, hey, like I said, you paid your money but just be careful because you could get kicked out.”
He doesn’t offer any evidence he understands why a large part of the audience rejects him. He seems unaware of any reasons, other than superficial ones, for why he gets so many boos.
“[T]here is no one answer. There is no one reason why someone would want to boo me. Maybe they don’t like what I wear, how I sound, maybe I did something to offend them, but for me, it’s hard because I’m under the microscope and I’m dealing with a lot of different things and there’s a lot of things flying my way. For me, I can only continue to stay within myself and worry about the things I can control and the things I can control are, Am I healthy?; Am I showing up to where I need to be on time?; Am I here to perform and do my job? If I do that, then our fans, they can cheer me, they can boo me, as long as we all show up to the arena, everything will be fine. We’ll be able to create that awesome experience, create that energy… As for the reasons why these things happen, I don’t know. I do know I have a lot of supporters.”
The problem is that he was chosen. At the very least he could acknowledge that is the perception, and that many fans believe that and don’t agree with the choice. He is a star whose rise, since the disbanding of the Shield on June 2, 2014, has not been organic. The problem is either he’s been endorsed by a promoter who no longer knows the rules of the business he dominated, or that Reigns is the ultimate pawn at the center of a game between opposite ends of a creative team at odds — probably some of both.
And the problem is not just that he was chosen. It’s all-too-convenient to chalk the problem up to the idea that we are simply now in an era where the fans who boo Reigns are contrarians who will reflexively boo anyone they can tell the company has gotten behind. That would ignore the fact that there are other personalities the audience relates to more closely and more universally, who have not been given similar opportunities. The problem is the audience is evermore aware of all these facts, aware enough to rebel. The problem is the audience is diverging, and the promotion doesn’t know how to deal with it, and is too proud to admit their error.
It’s a shame because Reigns could be an excellent player in a role that does not absorb so much of WWE’s creative effort. Maybe even by now, he might’ve achieved his intended popularity and acceptance, had all the eggs not been put in the Roman Reigns basket, had he not been thrust so unilaterally ahead of so many others who have been accepted more willingly and completely, often despite being afforded far less creative care.
Just over a year ago, Vince McMahon referred to the fans who responded negatively to Reigns’ Royal Rumble 2015 victory as “a vocal minority”. The implication is that WWE’s audience by-and-large accepts Reigns; it’s just the hardcore fringe of insatiable fans who complain on the internet and who show up at RAW tapings and particularly at pay-per-views who boo him; whereas he’s cheered at house shows — and who knows what his reactions are really like on sound-sweetened SmackDown.
A study I did of WWE attendance in 2015 shows house show attendance is about half of RAW and PPV attendance. Reigns is cheered on house shows in the U.S. and Canada, but often when the audience of those events is doubled, he’s booed.
House shows can only draw a section of the audience in a given market while the remaining half of the audience stays home. More than anything this tells us there’s an opportunity to enhance house show business, by figuring out ways to make those events more consequential.
— Brandon Howard (@adecorativedrop) March 20, 2016
However as the responses to the tweet above showed me, while there are a vocal set of fans opposed to Reigns, there are those too who are passionate fans of his — even on the internet, even on Twitter.
I believe Reigns is booed by about half of the audience, or at least half of the audience willing to go to events. Most of the fans who boo him aren’t as eager to go to house shows because they’re savvy enough to know nothing of consequence ever happens on them. Likewise, those fans, probably largely adults with disposable income, are willing to travel further distances to events that they’ve learned actually are consequential to WWE storylines: RAW tapings, pay-per-views, and especially WrestleMania, where this year Reigns will probably be booed by one of the biggest wrestling crowds of all-time.
I strongly believe the parting of the audience is enabled by new media: the internet, social media, the increasing number of evermore specialized places for fans to place their attention and become aware of themselves, each other and WWE’s own motivations and philosophies — media used by the majority, the vast majority, of the audience. With little end in sight of our societies’ growing engagement with new media, especially if the creative force behind WWE can’t keep up, more challenges like the Roman Reigns problem are on their way.
The unquestioned presumption is that the preferences of the endless casual audience and those of the finite loyal audience are in conflict, and that fact is counterproductive to WWE maximizing their business.
But that’s a moot point because I doubt in this case the satisfaction of one portion of the audience must be sacrificed at the expense of the other. All conventional signs leading up to June 2, 2014, probably confirmed WWE’s belief — if by self-fulfilling prophecy — that Reigns had the makings of the next top star. But instead of just one new top star, WWE could’ve tried to create multiple new top stars, Reigns included among them, but they didn’t. They could do something to make their house shows more meaningful and more interesting to their fans at-large, but they don’t. There’s a real dilemma WWE is facing, but they’ve responded to it with the usual hubris, pining to outsmart the fans, lest it be the other way around.
Void of any logical story that draws heavily on actual history and relatable emotion delivered by WWE itself, the fans who reject Reigns have perpetuated such a story against the company’s will. The most interesting showdown to me at WrestleMania 32 is not Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon with all the stipulations, or even Triple H vs. Roman Reigns for the WWE title; it’s Vince McMahon’s showdown with a stadium full of his most ardent fans. Following in the pattern of the last two WrestleManias, it’s the third and maybe not the last chapter in this resentful but dependent relationship between loyal customer and ambitious proprietor.