The stark contrast between the routine undercard and the jaw-dropping main event at WWE Survivor Series reignited a familiar narrative throughout pro wrestling’s portion of the internet ether: WWE’s glaring inability to create stars on the full-time roster magnifies the creative incompetence and backwards thinking that has proven to be detrimental to business and directly responsible for the lack of sustained enthusiasm in the product.
Pundits who are consistently critical of WWE’s offerings have this narrative permanently simmering on the back burner of the talking points stove; ready at a moment’s notice to serve it to an audience all too eager to echo the sentiments on wrestling message boards or social media outlets.
Pundits who use this narrative as supporting evidence for WWE’s so-called deficiencies fail to see the greater story at play and do their audience a disservice by ignoring the reality of the situation.
I’ve attempted to articulate the flawed logic behind this would-be truth for several months. Admittedly some of my attempts missed the mark. Too often I allowed emotion and debatable historical trends to dictate my prose instead of simple facts; a strategy that may make for an entertaining read, but one that ultimately hasn’t won hearts and minds.
In what will be my final attempt to change the direction of this important conversation (at least in 2016) I’ve realized that the argument must be attacked from multiple intersecting angles based on the most common complaints at the heart of the ‘lack of star power’ argument. Understanding the real objections baked into the broader argument exploits the weakness of the argument while, at the same time, identifies how WWE’s current model has indirectly reshaped the American pro wrestling market right under the noses of these vocal critics.
Who’s Your Hero?
Conventional booking wisdom dictates that a notable hero character is the foundation in which any territory must rest upon; a character whose journey is universally supported by the viewing audience. Whether the hero is a supreme hero (Bruno Sammartino to John Cena) or a pursuant hero (Dusty Rhodes) speaks to creative preference and is relatively inconsequential to this discussion. The motivations of this hero character are less important than his or her very existence.
I wrote my first column under the Voices of Wrestling banner in March of this year. My debut piece discussed the unprecedented abandonment of what I call The McMahon Doctrine, an unofficial law that has shaped WWE’s creative direction since the promotion’s inception in 1963. Since the latter half of 2015 a supreme hero character has not dictated WWE’s overarching creative narrative. In the eight months since that column was written no such supreme hero has been presented.
Critics use WWE’s lack of a top hero character as damning evidence to support the lack of star power charge. The pro wrestling business model starts at the top of the card and works down; without the presence of a top star the product becomes inherently insipid and the audience will not invest.
It is true that WWE lacks the presence of a so-called top guy, but the character slot has been intentionally left vacant. WWE has not failed to create a new star as John Cena inches closer to retirement; Vince McMahon has made the calculated business decision not to replace the role (the failed Roman Reigns push included). Because of the integral nature of the role, supreme hero characters attract a disproportionate amount of influence in terms of the creative value associated with a promotion’s product. While a hot hero like Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin can spike business to previously uncharted levels, the flip side of that scenario creates unhealthy dips in business when top stars chose to part with the company as The Rock and Brock Lesnar chose to do in the early 2000s.
Recovering From Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan’s meteoric rise from indie fame to global superstar status underlines the negative impact a top star’s departure can inflict on a promotion in today’s market; one that goes beyond juicy personality quirks McMahon may or may not exhibit when choosing which talent to push. Bryan’s abrupt departure shortly after winning the title at WrestleMania XXX – the result of a serious injury – ultimately led to his untimely retirement, sending WWE’s creative structure into downward spiral; a negative trajectory of which WWE has yet to fully recover.
Though Reigns was ultimately chosen as the character to physically replace Bryan on the roster, the manner in which Reigns was originally booked (as well as the subsequent resets of the character) provides more than enough evidence to support the notion that The McMahon Doctrine was not long for this world.
The restructuring of the WWE roster, from a character strength perspective, allows the promotion the creative flexibility to interchange characters up or down the card with relative ease depending on the direction of a particular narrative. The days of nine month storylines and long-awaited payoffs are over; today’s viewers, whether they are viewing pro wrestling, fictional TV dramas or even the news, demand instant gratification. The strategic restructuring of WWE’s roster is the only way to achieve compelling stories (assuming the creative material is sound) while still maintaining a product that flows at the pace of modern television. This process has allowed stars like Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn, Dolph Ziggler and yes, even Roman Reigns to be elevated to compelling roles in relatively short order.
At any given time any number of potential characters can be inserted into the main event picture with minimal creative material required to bridge the gap. By diminishing the gaps between tiers of performers on the roster (using infamous methods like 50/50 booking) McMahon has increased the overall stability of his product’s most valued asset (the talent) while mitigating the risk assumed by constructing his roster in the more traditional manner. Increasing stability while mitigating risk…it’s almost as if WWE was a publicly traded company or something.
Wall Street aside, professional sports leagues, most notably the National Football League and the National Hockey League, spent the better part of the last decade developing strategies to institute the sort of parity WWE has successfully instituted. Likewise, long-running television shows, like the popular daytime soap General Hospital, have established similar creative parody among the program’s core cast, which has largely remained the same since the early 1990s.
The Lucha Underground Comp
But you needn’t look to other mediums for proof that times have changed, just look at the current practices of other successful pro wrestling promotions that have adopted the same creative model. Few American promotions have garnered more buzz as of late than Lucha Underground. The promotion burst onto the scene in the fall of 2014 and has since benefited from a cult-like following that makes TNA fans look desultory.
Tell me, who is the ‘top guy’ of Lucha Underground; the supreme hero in which all else in the underground universe revolves around? The answer, of course, is no one. Sure characters like Prince Puma, Fenix and Sexy Star have each been positioned as notable babyface characters, but as the promotion approaches its 100th episode no primary protagonist character has been established.
Instead, a rotating cast of heroes have been pushed using various creative devices; no one babyface holds a disproportionate amount of creative value. The gap between headlining characters like, Prince Puma and consistent mid-card characters like Killshot or Son of Havoc is minimal. Tenets of 50/50 booking methodology are quite common in Lucha Underground to the detriment of …well, no one. New babyface characters often lose in their debuting effort inside The Temple; hero characters are not afforded the traditional protection against a spotty win/loss record. Babyface against babyface matches are equally as common with no real creative purpose other than to present entertaining competition; the losing party hardly suffers irrevocable damage from such losses.
What About Ring of Honor?
Likewise, the Ring of Honor product has achieved similar roster parody in favor of the singular protagonist method. After almost a year as ROH World Champion, Jay Briscoe was immediately shifted downward for various singles angles or back to the tag team scene with his brother, Mark. This transition was executed with little to no push back from the audience; the move was not viewed as inconsistent with the natural progression of the character’s journey whatsoever.
Imagine Bret Hart making a triumphant return to the WWF in the fall of 1996 to declare he no longer had interest in reclaiming the title he lost at WrestleMania XII, but instead was focused on once again reclaiming the tag team or the Intercontinental titles. It wouldn’t feel right; the gap between the character’s creative value and the value associated with the undercard titles would have created an inconsistent narrative based on the structure of the WWF’s roster at that time.
No such gap exists in ROH’s creative hierarchy, which is why characters like Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly, who spent the majority of 2016 as mid-card talent, recently starred in the main event of last week’s Final Battle pay-per view with little creative effort needed to transform the personas into acceptable main event characters.
Favoring an ensemble cast over a top-heavy roster is not the only aspect of WWE’s new business model that secondary American promotions have absorbed. WWE’s conscious decision to place the primary point of emphasis on the brand itself (as opposed to individual stars in the flesh and blood) has strengthened the value of the WWE product to an all-time high. This despite the argument to the contrary that the heightened emphasis on the brand has stifled the company’s ability to create compelling stars (an argument that normally attaches itself to the McMahon family’s involvement in fictional narratives).
Strategic branding has allowed WWE to penetrate previously untapped areas of the mainstream attention; ESPN now covers the company both on television and online. Outlets like Rolling Stone and Forbes provide similar coverage. Here in Philadelphia, my hometown, WWE has been integrated into the regular online coverage of the Philly.com website, which hosts content from the city’s two major newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. In terms of creative value, the branding approach continues to serve as a viable storytelling device to create conflict or drama (see Seth Rollins recent face turn and Kevin Owen’s rise to Universal Champion status).
Brief side note: if those storylines aren’t for you then WWE’s product is most likely not for you – a perfectly acceptable stance but one that should not be confused with honest creative critique. For all the negativity among WWE critics, numerous actuary studies suggest no tangible correlation between WWE’s branding strategy as compared against the pedestrian ratings of its’ weekly television offerings.
Branding or Stars?
Promotional branding strategies has becoming exponentially more important than individual star power across the secondary wrestling market as well. Once again, I can turn to the acclaimed Lucha Underground product as an example. The underground universe as presented by the brilliantly production methods, the mystique of The Temple itself, the unique persona assigned to the believers (the live audience), the magical laws of nature and the powers those laws provide characters within the creative framework; these are the real stars of the show. The wrestlers themselves are but interchangeable pawns. Furthermore, the main character of the program is not a wrestler at all, but the malevolent proprietor of The Temple, Dario Cueto. But wait, I thought heel authority figures were creative black holes?
Further down the spectrum promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, based out of Reseda, California and AAW, based out of Chicago, Illinois have significantly expanded their reach beyond traditional local promotions based on the strength of the respective brands alone.
Much like LU the PWG brand is largely the star of the promotion; the quaint American Legion hall location; the small but radically passionate live audience; the unconventional commentary approach. There is virtually no roster hierarchy to speak of at PWG, the characters of the promotion are presented almost as equals up and down the roster; their creative narratives largely forged on the credentials they’ve accumulated while working in other promotions. The combination of roster parody and brand strength allows PWG to run events like Mystery Vortex, where fans purchase the show with no prior knowledge of the matches they are paying to see.
If that isn’t a titanium-strength brand I don’t know what is. The post-NXT market has influenced promotions like AAW to follow suit; branding has become a necessary form of survival for companies who no longer have the luxury of relying on consistent rosters – at least until Triple H is no longer interested in running his Performance Center at maximum capacity.
Failing to recognize the obvious shift in the American scene as dictated by WWE’s most recent evolution exhibits a fundamental rejection of the evidence, or at the very least a refusal to accept change. Like football purists longing for the return of the fullback position after their team fails to convert a short-yardage play or baseball enthusiast still making the argument against inter-league play; it makes for an interesting philosophical conversation but little more. These arguments are no longer relevant; the proverbial toothpaste has already been squeezed out of the tube. The American market has undergone a drastic shift the size and scope of which hasn’t been felt since the collapse of WCW and ECW in the early 2000.
Not surprisingly, the majority of critics have been slow to recognize this shift.
Critics, no matter the medium, are usually last to the party when change is involved; go read an old review of The Godfather or Star Wars if you don’t believe me. There are plenty of WWE creative missteps and curious booking decisions that are worthy of honest critique; pro wrestling consumers deserve to hear those critiques articulated in an intelligent and honest manner. It’s time for the pundits to take that simmering pot of tired talking points off the stove and recognize the new world right in front of their eyes, otherwise they risk slipping behind the times and out of touch with reality…a point of irony Vince McMahon himself would likely find particularly amusing.