They are regarded as the most venerated of demographics by a majority of industry experts and respected members of the media. All that exists must begin or end with them, all roads that do not end with them is a path to failure, or at the very least a missed opportunity. Their habits are intensely monitored; interrupting that which makes them tick is nothing short of best-practice. They are often mysterious and inexplicable, yet they live among us and share many of our same views, our same hopes and our same dreams. It’s likely you know a few of these people. Perhaps your neighbor or a colleague with whom you casually socialize is one of them. It’s possible a few of them are in your very own family, maybe one of them is even your significant other.
No, I’m not talking about independent voters, they’re importance is merely cyclical. I’m talking about a collection of individuals whose value stretches far beyond a national election held but once every four years. I’m talking about, wait for it…casual pro wrestling fans. That’s right, a group of imperative television viewers with the collective ability to shift WWE’s balance sheet by leaps and bounds, or so the popular narrative goes.
Casual pro wrestling fans can transform a stagnant 3.0 television rating into a beefy 3.5, or better yet a respectable 4.0. Casual pro wrestling fans can increase the number of WWE Network subscriptions by several hundred thousand during the peak WrestleMania season. Casual pro wrestling fans understand what compelling television looks like, much more so than unsophisticated loyal viewers like you and I. The uncanny abilities casual pro wrestling fans possess make them a fragile bunch; they must be handled with the utmost of care at all times. Failing to display the proper respect toward a casual pro wrestling fan comes with catastrophic consequences — they will change the channel. And if the level of disrespect is particularly egregious casual pro wrestling fans will outright refuse to tune in next week as requested.
The last four weeks of WWE television, Raw in particular, has been some of the most compelling post-WrestleMania programming the company has presented in recent history. Stale angles and repetitive scenarios of the past year have been replaced by new stories with intriguing possibilities. Likewise, a coordinated restructuring of the main roster has allowed for the debut of several new characters, which in turn has created fresh matches more suited for episodic storytelling.
During this enjoyable period we’ve seen the WWE Intercontinental Championship scene reinvigorated by The Miz, Maryse and Cesaro. The tag title picture has been recharged by a number one contender’s tournament, which has correctly placed the spotlight on Enzo and Big Cass and The Vaudevillains respectively. The long-desired program between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn is finally starting to take shape. Dean Ambrose and Chris Jericho appear to be on the precipice of an exciting program. The newly-minted Women’s division is being presented with the same consideration as the male roster. Even the main event scene has some juice as Roman Reigns’ character appears to be evolving into something less superhero-like.
WWE fans have something to be excited about these days. Sure, that excitement could easily be extinguished by a hollow WWE Payback event this Sunday or a failed episode of Raw in the near future; all of WWE’s habitual sins have hardly been remedied. Old habits like lazy storytelling, tired plot devices and outdated tropes are more resilient than a Twinkie after a nuclear blast – or at least they are in the WWE universe. Nevertheless, a great many fans have embraced the positivity brought about by the early signs of a potential renaissance, as well they should be. Being positive allows for hope. Hope brings excitement. Excitement is fun. Fun pro wrestling is my preferred brand of pro wrestling.
Do you know who hasn’t been having very much fun these days? You guessed it, casual pro wrestling fans. Post-WrestleMania television ratings have failed to reflect the tangible buzz among WWE’s ardent fan base; in point of fact Raw has underperformed in the ratings in each of the last three weeks. The casuals turned out in droves for WrestleMania 32, both live and on the WWE Network, but apparently they didn’t like what they saw – at least not enough to stick around after the fact.
The failure to attract casual fans to the product with any consistency highlights just how much Vince McMahon is out of touch with the modern television audience. It exhibits why WWE continues to struggle in achieving strong ratings or sustained network subscriptions. It also proves that WrestleMania 32 was a categorical failure. The most important attribute a show the magnitude of WrestleMania 32 must have is the ability to elicit the question, what’s next? Creating drama so compelling, athletic theater so damn entertaining, that casual viewers have no choice but to come back for more. Keep them coming back long enough and some of those casual viewers may even crossover and become fully integrated into the fan base…dare I say, formal pro wrestling fans.
Actually, none of that is true. It makes for juicy newsletter prose or podcast conversation, but facts and historical evidence prove otherwise. The real truth is this, casual pro wrestling fans do not matter. What they enjoy and what they dislike does not matter. Why they decide to start watching and why they decide to stop watching does not matter. Nothing about casual pro wrestling fan’s viewing habits are substantive or consequential.
I know, I know, this is an outrageous declaration that goes directly against decades of ingenious pontifications made by respected analysts. So was the notion that the earth was flat so you’ll just have to get over it. Unlike the flat earth theory, however, the importance placed on casual viewers was once absolutely correct. The WWE as we know it would not exist if casual fans had not jumped aboard the Hulk-a-Mania bandwagon in 1985, making McMahon’s product a significant cultural phenomenon of the decade.
That was 30 years ago.
Since then pro wrestling, more specifically WWE, has experienced a multitude of ebbs and flows as it pertains to mainstream popularity. As Hulk Hogan’s message of saying prayers and taking vitamins began to wear thin so too did the casual audience’s willingness to stick around, particularly after they learned the Hulkster’s vitamins of choice. Like so many fads of the 80s, the bubble eventually burst. Only the WWF didn’t fade away into extinction like big hair and shoulder pads, quite the opposite. The rise of characters like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Razor Ramon, Yokozuna, Owen Hart and other characters modern fans hold in such high regard took place, building a foundation for a future roster universally loved today.
Ask a casual pro wrestling fan to reminisce about the epic Steel Cage match at SummerSlam 1994 between the brothers Hart and you’ll likely get little more than a blank stare. Ask a casual pro wrestling fan about the slew of Undertaker matches against monster heels, many of which were hardly in-ring masterpieces but served as important early chapters of a face turn for the most beloved character the promotion has ever produced. How many casual pro wrestling fans do you think bought WrestleMania X and experienced the ladder match between Shawn Michaels and Ramon Ramon live? Simple arithmetic tells us the number is significantly less than the amount of people who claim it’s one of their favorite matches of all time today.
Are these characters and their stories any less significant to WWE’s never-ending narrative because fewer people saw them as opposed to the five million viewers watching Val Venis get castrated on an August 1998 episode of Raw? Was the emphasis on the naked female anatomy in the late 1990s a better booking direction than establishing a credible women’s division? Ratings certainly indicate as much; of course common sense and a modicum of human decency says otherwise.
In the late 90s edgier content presented under the banner of the Attitude Era brought the casual demographic roaring back in larger numbers than were originally present in the 80s. Just as the HulkaMania era tapped into America’s obsession with bold colors and eccentric personalities, the Attitude Era fed of off the rebellious counter culture so dominant in the late 90s. At the height of the Monday Night Wars close to 10 million Americans were watching pro wrestling every week.
Want to hear a dirty little secret? The product being sold by both WWF and WCW during that monumental period in pro wrestling history was largely terrible; little more than hot shot booking, lazy storytelling, gratuitous violence and trashy television designed to attract the largest possible audience. For every memorable Steve Austin segment on Raw during that period, there were three dreadful matches that wouldn’t hold up to the standards of an episode of Superstars or Main Event today. On the very same night Hogan betrayed WCW and joined the nWo, John Tenta and Big Bubba competed in a silver dollar-filled sock on a pole match.
Still think casual wrestling fans are so much more in step with compelling television practices? The fact of the matter is that casual pro wrestling fans are so difficult to corral and even more difficult to preserve for one very simple reason, they don’t particularly care for pro wrestling. A casual pro wrestling fan that has seen one match has seen them all. Aspects like work rate, episodic booking and psychology are hardly taken into consideration; instead an unbalanced importance is placed on peripheral attractions like sex appeal, violence and crazy stunts combined with the desire to be hip to the latest television craze of the day. WrestleMania is not regularly the high water mark for WWE every year because casual fans want a chance to be brought back into the fold; it earns that distinction because people are afraid to be the one who missed something that will be all over social media the next day.
Why on earth would the opinions of any such group dictate how a company presented its product on a regular basis? How could playacting to such a demographic improve whatever product is being sold while still maintaining the essence of what makes that product what it is? Pro wrestling is a niche art form not unlike the musicals presented on Broadway, low budget horror movies or foreign language films. The most successful offerings in any niche market are successful for the very reasons that make them niche products rejected by the mainstream in the first place.
WWE is a billion-dollar publicly traded company with a global presence and an ironclad television deal. The week to week ratings of its flagship program have not been relevant for almost 20 years. Entrenched pro wrestling reporters (and believe me I use that word incredibly loosely) continue to report weekly ratings with the same tenacity as they did during the dog days of the Monday Night Wars; they continue to chase a story that ended the night WCW met its ultimate demise. Likewise, hardcore fans routinely concern themselves with ratings data in what amounts to little more than desperate musings that only succeed in nourishing an obsessive inferiority complex.
WWE is not without significant fault in this mess. McMahon’s fixation on casual viewers has created a product designed to appeal to all, but actually appeals to few — least of which being his most enthusiastic fan base. The solution to the wide-ranging creative problems infecting WWE’s product over the past several years does not involve casual viewers, if it did NXT would not benefit from the success it currently enjoys. Understanding what the core audience desires – allowing that demographic to dictate narrative and forcing casual fans to either accept or reject those narratives as they will – is the only sensible answer. Something WWE has done well in the month since WrestleMania, time will tell if the company will display the proper trust and patience needed to make it work on a more permanent basis.
Dismissing popular opinion is a difficult endeavor. On the surface, denying the importance of casual fans is as crazy as a politician dismissing the importance of independent voters. Outsiders and speculators reside on the surface. Innovators inhabit the dark ocean floor, where nuance and innovation thrive. Basing success on the views of the most fickle, unreliable, unpredictable, easily distracted and even more easily manipulated group of people makes about as much sense in producing compelling pro wrestling television as it does in electing the next leader of the free world.