If there isn’t one already, there should be a college course on professional wrestling. At the very least, its impact on the entertainment industry should be discussed. From its initial boom in the 1980s to its precipitous fall and mainstream comeback in the 1990s to the tragedies of the early 2000s, wrestling has stayed in the public eye.
The last decade may be the most interesting in the history of the sport. It is way too early to know AEW’s impact. The entire industry has tried to keep up with every changing technology. The indies scene reached never-before-seen heights before falling further than it ever had. The resurgence of New Japan has been fun to watch but it pales in comparison to the WWE’s decade.
One day, Bushiroad’s purchase of NJPW may be seen as one of the biggest moments in wrestling history. In the seven years since being finalized, the ownership change has managed to affect every promotion in the world. From Chris Jericho leaving WWE to the creation of AEW, a strong argument can be made that neither happens if not for Bushiroad.
Two storylines dominated the past decade, however. The two have been a looming specter over every decision or misstep made. They have been examined questioned and scrutinized. There is some overlap that may tell fans where pro wrestling in general and WWE in particular is headed in the next ten years. By far, the two biggest stories of the decade are the WWE Network and the record-setting revenues in the face of low attendance and ratings.
The Network is a dream come true for many wrestling fans. It was a one stop shop that promised new content, old school rasslin’, and original content. There truly was going to be something for everybody. It did not quite work out that way — the classic content never seemed to be enough. The originals was more miss than hit. The new product was becoming increasingly difficult to digest. That being said, some of the classics were absolute gems, like the Last Battle of Atlanta and the Tom McGee/Bret Hart match. The original programs that worked tended to be excellent. There was the always reliable NXT to satisfy current needs.
What has been most hotly debated has been moving away from the PPV model and giving everything away on the Network. Charging $10 a month for the B shows is fine — Great Balls of Fire probably was not going to do big PPV numbers anyway. If well booked, the smaller shows could even be used as gateways to regular viewing.
Giving WrestleMania away may have been a mistake, however. The smaller shows were a no brainer and one could even make a good argument for putting the Royal Rumble, Summerslam, and Survivor Series on the Network. Mania is on another tier. Any random person person on the street knows WrestleMania. No matter wrestling’s popularity, the show garners mainstream attention. There was always going to be those who would pay to watch the WWE’s biggest show on PPV. By devaluing Mania to basically $10, it is not a stretch to say Vince McMahon’s company lost millions of dollars in revenue.
There is the argument that those who intend to sign up for just Mania may forget to cancel. This could lead to $10 a month for as long as it takes for the subscriber to remember to end their subscription. It is also likely the PPV model would have been replaced by streaming networks anyway. Still, it looks like the WWE left millions of dollars on the table.
The irony is that the company is making record profits despite this. This is the second biggest wrestling storyline of the past decade. Despite, arguably the lowest interest in professional wrestling ever, WWE is making more money than it ever has. House show attendance is so low, some question the worth of having them. Raw ratings seem to set a record low each week. So how does the company proceed to make more money than ever?
The main reason has been the large contracts the company has signed. The much-maligned deal with Saudi Arabia has been a cash boon for WWE. (At least, theoretically. Rumors persist about whether Vince is actually getting paid as promised.) Still, if the deal continues to last the agreed upon eight years, WWE will makes hundreds of millions of dollars.
A bigger deal for Vince’s company has been their new deal with Fox. Not only does it bring the company $1 billion over five years, it also gives the company national broadcast television exposure. With one deal, the promotion is able to gain financial rewards and the ability to get more eyeballs on the product than ever before. It seemed like the catalyst to force WWE to correct its often criticized booking.
It’s up to the individual fan to decide whether the writing has improved. What cannot be disputed is the sport is at one of its lowest points. Perhaps it is the company’s prevailing idea of no person being bigger than the brand. Even when given two potentially era defining stars in CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, WWE made sure neither was positioned to be bigger than the company they wrestled for.
The decision seems to have negatively impacted the bottom line. It was thanks to Hulk Hogan that men like the Big Bossman and Demolition became familiar names. While some wrestling fans may not want to admit it, there is no ’80s wrestling boom without the Hulkster. Hell, without Steve Austin and The Rock, Triple H would be lucky to be a footnote in wrestling history. It’s on the backs of stars that wrestling promotions thrive.
Maybe it’s too soon to judge WWE’s model. They have never tried to produce a product without one top star. The Roman Reigns experiment proved that forcing someone to be the tippety top person may not work. But that does not mean whatever the promotion does next will also fail — history has shown that discounting Vince McMahon is never a good idea.
Two storylines have dominated the WWE and in turn, wrestling, the last ten years. The WWE Network and the company’s ability to reap financial success in the face of dwindling interest and attendance have both been fascinating to watch. How things play out in the next few years will be even more interesting. Hopefully, ten years from now wrestling fans will be talking about how the WWE has returned to greatness.
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