WWE pushing Roman Reigns is nothing new; in fact, it has probably been the only consistent booking philosophy the company has had over the past five years. No matter how the crowd reacted to Reigns, or who else got over on the roster, the commitment from WWE has always been to make Reigns look like the biggest star in the company.
The difference over the past year is that the company has taken that philosophy to new heights. While Reigns was clearly pushed as the face of the company in previous years; ever since Reigns’ return at SummerSlam last year the company has truly attempted to position Reigns as an unbeatable force. He has been the world champion for almost that entire period and looked completely dominant in his biggest matches, with clear, dominant wins over Edge and Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania, John Cena at SummerSlam and most recently, Big E at Survivor Series.
The company has also opted to finally turn Reigns heel, a late decision that has proven beneficial since Reigns playing an arrogant bully role is better suited to his charisma, plus the addition of heel underlings in The Usos and Paul Heyman as the mouthy manager compliment the act. Over time the character has shifted; while it originally seemed like Reigns was playing the role of a secretly insecure bully; someone who was keenly aware of their past failures and afraid of them submarining his career, to a more generic, ultra-confident guy who chokes people out on a regular basis, rarely sells, and never appears vulnerable.
That shift has been key because it fully hammers home the damage that the years and years of stubbornly pushing Reigns ahead of all other talent has caused. Nobody on the male side of the roster is worth emotionally investing in, because ultimately everyone is subservient to Reigns, and if somebody organically gets over, it is viewed as a threat to the perceived top name in the company and WWE will try to cut them down. Time after time a name can get some momentum, start connecting with the audience, and WWE will either purposefully or simply through sheer neglect, reduce that person back to looking like a midcard geek.
The WWE roster is a nuclear wasteland. Some things that were once nice are still around, but they are contaminated by radiation due to being in the company that has so stubbornly pushed Reigns. Whether it is Sami Zayn, booked to look like a complete jobber so that Reigns can look strong, or Big E, who despite winning a world title had to do a clean job to Reigns at Survivor Series to remind fans exactly where he really stood in the hierarchy of the company, all talent is shown to be beneath one guy. Every male star on the roster is in some ways compromised by how Reigns has been booked throughout his career.
Fans who desperately want to see their favorite wrestler, whoever that may be, succeed have been met with disappointment after disappointment. Fans just want to see their wrestler reach the top of the mountain, but it has been difficult to envision that happening when Reigns has been elevated on to a pedestal above everybody else. The fact that the company is chaotic with week-to-week booking and so many start-and-stop pushes doesn’t help matters; it’s hard in general to invest in anyone when they could lose their push at a given moment.
This has created a really strange dynamic in the company in that Reigns is currently supposed to be this top heel figure, but functionally he is really the biggest babyface in the company. The fact is that if you don’t really like Roman Reigns, you probably can’t stand WWE’s product. Nobody on the male side of the roster is worth investing in, the only person who ever really feels like a big star is Reigns. Faith in other wrestlers is almost never rewarded by seeing them do well; instead, they are stomped into the ground. You have to basically be really into seeing Reigns beat people to truly have any positive emotional connection with the current product.
There are fans out there who really enjoy this version of Reigns, who are consistently entertained by his presence each week on SmackDown and appreciate his PPV matches. Each week they will tell you how great Reigns is. That’s fine, those people probably really enjoy the product, and don’t see a problem with how Reigns has been presented.
Personally? I think it sucks. His original heel character, the one that was way more vulnerable, was very good because it played on his real journey as a wrestler and opened him up to being a more productive figure in helping other people get over. Now I find each segment and match redundant and boring; week-after-week Reigns makes the same threats, Heyman makes some faces, and The Usos run-in during his matches. His work, likely by design, has gotten worse as most of his matches rely on him doing rest holds, or getting heat on his opponents while operating at a snail’s pace so that he can monologue during the matches in some bizarre combination of a WWF Superstars squash match and a rendition of Shakespeare in the Park.
The value of having a heel in Reigns’ position is that they can look dominant, and when they eventually lose it will mean a lot. That significant victory would tremendously help a babyface get over as a legitimate star because Reigns has been protected and his loses are so rare. The issue is that the up-and-coming babyface doesn’t exist. I don’t even know who would be a good option at this point; fans have been conditioned to not really care about non-Roman figures on the roster, so nobody is really getting over at that organic level the way stars once did.
The focus of his current title reign has not been to eventually elevate a new babyface star. Instead, it is just the same old playbook WWE has run for years: Get Roman over at any cost. The goal is to have these money matches with John Cena, and Brock Lesnar, and presumably The Rock, and if everyone else on the roster is made to look like an insignificant loser in the process, so be it.
With all of that being said; everything could be justified if Reigns was a legitimately big business attraction, and WWE was reaching new heights in popularity. Killing the rest of the roster, teaching fans to not invest in talent, all of that could be considered the cost of doing business if Reigns was just a gigantic star that could carry the company forward. After all, Hulk Hogan was largely pushed in the same way in the 1980s; a star without any peers, and that did some of the biggest business in the history of wrestling.
The issue is that Reigns isn’t doing that. While WWE benefits from an industry surge in television rights that grants record deals to established entities, despite declining consumer metrics, the company has wilted in overall popularity since his push began. Reigns does not bear all that responsibility alone; there are many reasons that go far beyond his popularity that have contributed to that. However, it’s also pretty clear that despite the constant elevation of Reigns above everybody else, his actual presence doesn’t lead to that much of an increase in business metrics for WWE.
It’s tough to untangle just who is and who isn’t a draw in wrestling today; especially WWE, which has pretty static viewership lately for both RAW and SmackDown, and we don’t get the number of PPV buys anymore. However, I want to look at two very recent examples that highlight the general lack of impact that Reigns’ has had on WWE’s business; examples that make you question if pushing Reigns so hard is worth the cost.
Roman at the UBS Arena
On September 18, WWE was hosting RAW at the new UBS Arena on Long Island, New York. WWE had distributed 2,365 tickets to the UBS Arena show following the pre-sale (all data courtesy of WrestleTix). By October 12, they had only distributed 2,837 tickets, so they announced that Roman Reigns would be on the show. This was a great test for Roman’s drawing ability, since we would be able to directly see what kind of impact his presence would have on ticket sales, since he previously wasn’t announced for the show, and fans wouldn’t have expected him to appear on the show before he was announced.
On October 24, two weeks after Reigns had been announced for the show, WWE had distributed 3,169 tickets to the show. So Roman’s presence only led to an additional 332 tickets being distributed. 332!
At that point, WWE instituted a two-for-one deal for tickets. They did end up distributing a lot of tickets, and by October 28, the show had distributed 3,913 tickets, although on their Patreon page, WrestleTix noted that they believed WWE had comped a large section of tickets, which led to whole sections being removed from the seating charts. One could credit Reigns for moving 1,000 tickets over that three-week span, but that would require ignoring both the likely-comped tickets and the impact of the two-for-one deal.
WWE continued to heavily gimmick the show, offering a “buy one, get three tickets at a reduced price” deal on Nov. 3 and on Nov. 27, Edge was announced for the show as well. In the end, the show ended up distributing 5,887 tickets.
One could make the argument that Reigns helped move approximately 3,000 tickets for the show, since that was the difference in the final total compared to how many tickets were gone when he was announced. That would be an EXTREMELY generous interpretation of things however, because it would ignore comped tickets, as well as the impact the various discounted sales had as well as the last-minute addition of Edge, and any other traditional local advertising the company would have done leading up to the show.
Even if you credit Reigns for all 3,000 tickets; that still isn’t good! A crowd of under 6,000 for a RAW show in New York City, in a brand new area, is not a good thing for business. John Cena, who is a legitimate business mover in a way the company desperately wanted Reigns to be, was routinely selling 5,000-7,000 extra tickets for the shows he was announced on during his tour over the summer. WWE’s rivals are doing close to 10,000 fans in the same arena a week later.
RAW since WWE came back to touring this summer is averaging approximately 7,000 fans per show; so this show that had Reigns actually did WORSE than the typical RAW has done this year, which obviously don’t normally feature Reigns. Plus they were in the biggest market in the country; and although they had run frequently in New York City in the previous few weeks, that still isn’t an excuse. It’s New York City and a brand new arena on Long Island.
If one wants to credit Reigns for all of the additional tickets moved for that show; that is still pathetic! They have spent so many years pushing the guy, sacrificed so much to the point that everybody on the roster is a joke, and he still doesn’t impact business that well. Whether he sold 332 extra tickets (the low estimate) or 3,000 extra tickets (the high estimate) it’s still incredibly lousy. There is no other way to look at it.
Roman and Brock fares poorly on SmackDown
Currently, the only long-standing angle with any real focus in WWE appears to be the Roman Reigns vs Brock Lesnar feud. Since Lesnar’s credibility as a major star was established before WWE seriously started pushing Reigns to the moon, he is one of the few remaining WWE figures who fans actually believe could beat Reigns. The Lesnar vs Reigns feud is really being counted on to carry business for WWE over the next several months.
On Dec. 3, WWE had what appeared to be a major show lined up for SmackDown. Lesnar was announced as being on the show, and the show kicked-off with a segment where Lesnar was in the ring, calling out Reigns. On top of that, there was a world title defense between Roman Reigns and Sami Zayn, and while nobody would expect a title change in that match, Lesnar announced he would get involved, which in theory should be a draw for fans.
The results however, were poor. SmackDown was down considerably from previous weeks, raising a lot of questions of whether or not the Reigns vs Lesnar program is a genuine draw to fans. SmackDown should have done well since the company had been holding off on a Lesnar vs Reigns confrontation for about a month. If any angle in WWE right now should be counted on to deliver interest, it should be a show-wide angle between Lesnar and Reigns, and yet the show tanked.
According to Wrestlenomics, the show produced the lowest 18-49 number since July 9 for a SmackDown on FOX, and viewership in different demos was down across the board from the previous month’s averages.
- P2+: 2030 (-3%)
- P18-49: 666 (-9%)
- M18-49: 403 (-7%)
- F18-49: 264 (-9%)
- P18-34: 195 (-21%)
- M18-34: 101 (-24%)
- F18-34: 95 (-2%)\
- P35-49: 471 (-2%)
- M35-49: 302 (+3%)
- F35-49: 169 (-15%)
- non-P18-49: 1364 (-1%)
- *P25-54: 803 (-4%)
Now SmackDown did face some unusual competition in the PAC-12 Championship game, which was running on ABC head-to-head against SmackDown, but still, to have such a big angle announced for the show and to be down so considerably has to be seen as a massive disappointment.
Perhaps that was an aberration, and SmackDown over the next few weeks will be way up as they build towards the Reigns v Lesnar match at Day One. But it should be very concerning to WWE that the program that so much has been sacrificed to get over did so poorly.
There are people out there that will insist that Reigns is a huge success. They will say he “feels like he’s on another level” and they will point to how he sells the most merchandise, how he gets the biggest reactions at live shows and how he gets the most YouTube views. Clearly, to these people, Reigns is a huge superstar and everything has gone great with pushing him as the top star.
What those people are missing is that all of those points come within the context of how Reigns has been presented in WWE. Of course, he sells the most merchandise, he is by far the only seriously pushed male star on the roster. Of course, he gets more views on his YouTube videos; fans have been taught he is the only person whose angles really matter. Of course, he is getting the biggest reactions at arenas; he is the only one who is worthy of having any emotional investment in.
Reigns is a big star, really the biggest star in wrestling today; but all of that is mainly because WWE has pushed him so hard that anyone who could have competing popularity with him has been cut off at the knees. Simply saying that he is the biggest star in WWE does not justify the long-term damage the insistence of pushing him ahead of everybody else has caused. Half as many people watch RAW today as they did in 2017? Why is that? You can cite competition from streaming all you want, but really it’s because nobody on that show is a legitimate drawing card to fans, and that is largely because everyone has been compromised to make sure Roman is the top star.
If Reigns DIDN’T feel like he was on another level above everyone else, I can’t imagine how disastrous that would be because the company has worked tirelessly to ensure that is the case. His title run may be seen by some fans as a success because within the context of WWE it is, but that ignores just how interest in WWE and the prominence of other figures on the roster has fallen over the past few years. All this reign has done has driven the gap between Roman and the rest of the roster, and I don’t think business has been strong enough to justify the long-term consequences caused by those decisions.
In the latest edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast,, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) each give their 10 best wrestlers under the age of 30. They talk about the most exciting young wrestlers in the world, what has caught their attention, and what they expect they can do in the future.