WWE returns to the road and live crowds tonight with SmackDown, but did the company learn anything over the past year and a half?

Looking at the landscape today, the reality of WWE’s on-screen product remains grim. The company remains burdened by the same problems, issues that have been further exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic. An old roster has gotten older, and the inconsistencies in storytelling and character development have ensured that almost no new stars have stepped up over the past 17 months to bring new life to the product.

Hardcore WWE fans will insist that the product is still hot, that the company has created new stars, but the early returns on live attendance sales, as well as the clear and obvious frustrations coming from Vince McMahon hismelf, tell a different story.

If Bianca Belair was really a big star, SmackDown ratings wouldn’t be near record lows and live attendance wouldn’t be in the tank.

If Roman Reigns was actually really hot, more than 7,500 people would have bought tickets to see him at Madison Square Garden for the first time in years.

If Bobby Lashley or Matt Riddle or Drew McIntyre were really connecting with the audience, RAW wouldn’t be losing to Dynamite in key demo statistics.

The fact is that WWE will be returning to live audiences with the same kind of problems that caused house shows to lose money in prior years. The company has failed to create real stars or storylines that create interest from fans beyond a diminishing stable of loyal hardcore fans. As the company gets further and further away from the Attitude Era, the last real period in company history where they created a sizable amount of new fans, the general interest and relevance of the product wanes.

The solution to WWE’s sluggish business coming out of the gate as they return to touring seems to be a continued reliance on past stars. Again, the company hasn’t learned anything over this time period. SummerSlam appears to be built around two matches, Roman Reigns vs. John Cena and Bobby Lashley vs. Bill Goldberg. In the case of Cena and Goldberg, they are expected to leave immediately following SummerSlam and not return, meaning that one of the biggest shows of the year is going to have a minimal impact on the product after SummerSlam, since the stars of the show will be off in semi-retirement.

It says something about the current state of the WWE product that the main selling points of the upcoming shows in front of live fans; SmackDown, Money in the Bank and RAW, is that the company is going to likely have some surprises (Goldberg is all but confirmed to appear on RAW). Fans are not particularly excited for any matches at Money in the Bank, or to see the reactions to any stars who have come of age in the empty-arena era (again, there are basically none).

Instead, they are excited mainly for the idea that something could happen that could make the product not complete shit. John Cena could come back and feud with Roman Reigns! Brock Lesnar could challenge Bobby Lashley! Becky Lynch will return! Nobody is focused on any storyline or wrestler that is currently doing something on WWE television; the only space for optimism in the WWE Universe is in speculation about what could be happening in the future and not for what is happening in the present.

When comparing the WWE return to live audiences with AEW’s return to touring, the differences in how the respective companies plan and promote new talent are on full display. When AEW hit the road, it was not surprising that a new wave of wrestlers were over with the live crowd. Sammy Guevara, Jungle Boy, Britt Baker, Eddie Kingston, Ricky Starks, and of course, Hangman Adam Page, were all names who were carefully cultivated during AEW’s time in Jacksonville, and when they hit the road they were much more over than when they were last touring.

Who in WWE can we expect to be more over with the live crowd today than they were before the pandemic? Belair, Lashley…and? Maybe Matt Riddle? WWE is a company devoid of any hot acts and that is reflected in their poor ticket sales to start their return to touring and sagging ratings. The company has done a piss-poor job of elevating new talent and presenting them like real, major stars that are important.

AEW is not faring better than WWE in that department because their roster is more talented; WWE has a roster full of amazing wrestlers. The difference is one company understands how to put younger wrestlers into a position to get over and the other company doesn’t have a damn clue.

WWE administrators still haven’t gotten the message though; Vince McMahon, apparently in a panic over the crappy ticket sales, made the decision to quickly call up several NXT talents this past week because he felt like the roster lacked new, exciting names. The new names will not make a difference at all, because just like in the past when a new crop of NXT names get brought to the main roster, they will not be booked to succeed. They will either be booked to look like geeks (Ricochet, Shayna Baszler), end up in an endless midcard feud that isn’t over (Apollo Crews, Shinsuke Nakamura) or just disappear from television completely (Keith Lee).

The company returns to live performances ice cold; and while a live crowd helps with the atmosphere, WWE doesn’t seem to be expressing any ability to combat the long-term problem of not having any hot programs or stars. The problems the company had going into the pandemic remain the problems of today, and the solutions (relying on older stars and recklessly calling up new names from NXT) are the exact same. Does anyone actually think they will work?

In this edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@Jesse Collings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) talk about the famous Nexus angle from 2010. The guys go over the original debut, what went wrong at SummerSlam 2010, the weird post-Nexus careers for the talent involved and how the angle paved the way for future instances of WWE failing to elevate younger talent.