For the last fifteen years there have been two pretty commonly held beliefs in wrestling. The first that on the whole the wrestling audience is ageing and the other being that you can’t truly make it without being in WWE. The Elite are currently busting those two trends in pretty spectacular fashion.
Let’s look at those two ideas.
The Attitude Era Is Dead And Gone
To say the wrestling audience is aging is probably a little reductive. The wrestling audience is certainly changing – leaning more heavily on children and parents than adults aged 18-35. That’s not to imply that children making up a considerable portion of the pro wrestling audience is a new phenomenon but it is a natural extension of the PG family friendly environment WWE has sought to create for the best part of the last decade. Regardless a wide variety of different people watch wrestling at all levels. But there are some noticeable trends.
Most analytics would suggest that WWE’s television audience has been rapidly aging over the last 15 years. A recent SportsBusiness Journal article reported that the wrestling audience has aged from a median age of 28 in 2000 to 54 in 2016. While part of that is the medium – younger viewers consume media predominantly online rather than linear television – that aging rate is greater than nearly any other sport. The people that watch now were likely watching 15 years ago, they’re just older now. That younger (predominantly male) audience that buoyed the Attitude Era has gone elsewhere, many finding solace in the UFC instead. WWE’s pivot toward younger viewers was likely every bit a reaction to that trend as it was the catalyst.
Which is why when I attended OTT’s ScrapperMania, headlined by The Elite vs. Will Ospreay, Ryan Smile and Lio Rush, a few months back I was particularly struck by the makeup of the audience. That 18 to 35 predominantly male audience had shown up in droves. That is not unusual for OTT, that’s more or less the usual makeup of their audience, but the sheer numbers made it stand out. Those people, the majority of whom clad head to toe in Bullet Club and Elite merchandise, were there for Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks. To that audience they were superstars and on that night, that audience showed up in en masse.
It’s not the first time that younger audience has been drawn back in (NXT audiences have certainly appeared to skew younger) but it is certainly the first time it’s happened on a such a large scale outside of WWE. The Elite have broken through a barrier that seemed lost to modern wrestling. They are reconnecting with a group that seemed like they had moved on. Their unique mix of incorporating modern culture into their act, playing a little (sometimes a lot) toward ’90s nostalgia as well as being leaps and bounds ahead of the curve when it comes to marketing and branding themselves has opened them up to the audience in a way that most acts outside of WWE don’t come close to scratching the surface of.
Being the Elite has allowed them to control their own narrative. Regardless of what any particular company is doing with them, they connect directly with their audience as themselves. No middle man. No interference. It’s just them, their personalities, their stories all filmed on their phones. All that coupled with consistently world class performances over and over again across the globe has resulted in them connecting on a level few others are right now or have in quite some time. And if you’re at a show that has The Elite in any form, be it as a trio or just The Young Bucks it’s fascinating and striking to see the sort of reach and influence they have right now.
They are truly doing something special.
Some may look at much of what The Young Bucks, Omega, CODY, Scurll and company do and cringe but what they do is so finely tuned to the sensibilities of the audience their targeting that it’s masterful. They have such a strong understanding of what those people want and deliver it to them in exactly the right tone and in a way that makes them look like a cause worth fighting for.
A Roman Reigns Tweet might seem like the most face-palm worthy thing imaginable—but for The Elite its further ammunition that they are the rebellion against the overbearing tyrant.
— Roman Reigns (@WWERomanReigns) October 15, 2017
They are the alternative for the people who rejected Roman Reigns long ago.
WWE Is The Only Show In Town
There has long been an implicit suggestion that you haven’t really made it until you’ve made it in WWE and that is not entirely unfounded.
WWE has the longest reach, the greatest visibility and the largest earning potential of any wrestling company on earth. Just take a look at how AJ Styles has exploded in the public consciousness over the last 18 months. He has been one of the very best wrestlers in the world for 12 years now and yet it took that WWE magnifying glass for the masses to sit up and truly take notice. The exposure WWE offers far and away dwarfs their nearest competitors.
There seems to exist a considerable barrier for fans to invest in wrestling other than WWE. That gap between WWE and even Impact or ROH seems insurmountable – a bridge too far for the vast majority of fans to cross. Some of that is likely the number of content hours WWE produces – you can get more than your fill of wrestling for the week watching Raw and Smackdown alone never mind NXT, 205 Live, Main Event and the various other supplemental programs – but for the majority of people, WWE equals wrestling. They are simply interchangeable synonyms for the same thing.
Even when TNA was averaging 1.5 million viewers every week people would be surprised to discover that Kurt Angle or Christian Cage were still wrestling after WWE. And even if they knew that they’d probably spend more time tweeting about how they should go back to WWE than they would be watching them do what they happen to do elsewhere. And while certainly some combination of Impact, ROH, Japan and regular indies supplemented by merchandise can earn a living outside of WWE, for the vast majority it certainly wouldn’t match the higher end of WWE’s pay scale.
And yet The Elite has broken down that barrier too. They, and by extension companies they work for, poke their heads above the mass indistinguishable clouds and suddenly the audience that has been oblivious (or indifferent) to the existence of any other wrestling for the last fifteen years stands upright and pays attention. Their merchandise is sold in Hot Topic, their YouTube show averages 100-150k views and the companies they work for are doing some of their very best business. In a way that GFW, Lucha Underground or most other indies anywhere right now aren’t doing, The Elite are breaking through to exist and thrive in that middle space between WWE and everything else.
And that terrifies WWE.
WWE lives and dies and thrives on the idea that when push comes to shove they’re the only show in town. The idea that without the WWE, without their scale and marketing machine The Young Bucks have broken through the usual “You guys should go to WWE!” barrier that seems to exist for so many fans scares WWE so much that they have to combat it. People are leaving WWE because its not the promised land, meritocracy they like to present it as. People are seeing that there is a path to relevance outside of WWE and it can be a damn profitable one. CODY has spent the last year and half turning himself into the hottest commodity in wrestling. He’s worked everywhere, pops house all over the place and has had his pick of where he wants to settle down. He means more to the broader pro wrestling landscape than Stardust ever did, regardless of how you feel about his work.
Everybody in wrestling right now should be studying what The Elite are doing. From how they position themselves, how they market themselves, how they attempt to reach a variety of different audiences through a multitude of mediums and of course how they outwork just about everybody else going at the moment – they are creating a template to follow for how to excel (and one would assume profit) without the amplified platform WWE offers. They are smashing through a ceiling that has existed for more or less fifteen years – and they are charting a path every modern wrestler should be desperate to follow.