On the heels of this year’s WWE Superstar Shakeup, and amid growing concern over low ratings and attendance figures, it seems like a perfect time to consider options for how the WWE can freshen up its presentation and get fans re-engaged with the product.
I am using this year’s Shakeup as the starting point for this piece. It is a perfect example of an event that should be special, but which is losing meaning in the current WWE landscape. What was once a story driven event, with GM’s or authority figures drafting teams, ended up feeling more like a shuffling of the deck than a refresh of the roster. Nobody was given any agency or motivation for their new placement. AJ on RAW? Sure. Roman punching a 74-year-old man on SmackDown Live? Okay. Everyone else more or less shuffling into the same spot on the card, except maybe with new partners for the next Ride Along taping? Pretty much.
Stop me if you’ve seen this match…
Because you have. And so have I.
I have seen the “one half of the tag champions loses to one half of a challenging team” match. I have seen the “I want competition,” so out comes Braun match. I have seen the handicap match against a tag team that never wins match. And I have seen every Baron Corbin match that I ever want to see for the rest of my life.
What is the difference between a B-Team match on RAW and a B-Team match on SmackDown Live?
Nothing. Because we just saw them on RAW and we know what to expect.
The imagined split of RAW vs SmackDown Live viewers is barely a real thing. If you watch WWE, it’s more than likely you watch both shows. I don’t have a poll to back this up, but I would be shocked if any more than a tiny slice of fans identify as a fan of red over blue or vice-versa. We all watch the same product. When a guy is moved from one brand to another without any plot surrounding said move, there really isn’t anything to get all that excited about. In fact, in the case of Roman Reigns joining SmackDown Live, I think most fans actually feel that his presence will harm their preferred brand, based on his RAW track record. We know that Roman is Vince’s guy. One way or another, he is going to get shoved to the top. Whether that path leads through Elias or Drew McIntyre, it’s the same story and pretty much the same match. Lots of punching, a few headlocks, thirteen Superman punches, “Hooo-ahhh”, spear, and go home.
And it’s the same on the rest of the card.
I’m not saying that there aren’t tried and true tropes of the genre, but with formulaic booking layered on top of a stagnant roster, it’s tough to generate interest.
The Injury Bug
WWE performers work one of the most grueling schedules in all of entertainment. They criss-cross the country, sometimes the entire globe, at a breakneck pace, with live TV broadcasts to attend every Monday or Tuesday. In between, they complete house show loops, charity appearances, Network special tapings, media promotions, events, and a PPV once a month. Oh, and they probably have families and lives.
Doing all this stuff as a regular person is hard enough. Toss in maintaining a superhuman physique while getting bumped and banged up all over the place, and you have a perfect recipe for injury.
This year’s injury list was so severe, Vince McMahon cited it as one of the reasons for the decline in viewership and live event attendance during 2018. Whether you think Vinnie Mac was being sincere or just making excuses, if the chairman of the board says injuries are a problem, then let’s agree with him and try to solve that problem.
Give these guys and gals a break.
The no-off-season, off-season
Athletes in every sport in the world get an off-season. A time when they get off the road, rest up, heal up, and spend real, prolonged quality time with their families and couches. This, of course, has never been the case with WWE Superstars. They work all year round including travel, if not a show, on most holidays. A group of performers that willingly inflict brutal punishment on themselves for our entertainment are always one missed flight from a missed payday, keeping them grinding and rolling along without rest.
While some have suggested that an actual off-season, where the entire WWE takes a month or two off to rest is what is needed, I fall into the camp of those that understand that an entertainment machine like the WWE can’t afford to stop. Their business model starts at the top with Vince “Sleep is the enemy/you can be sick at home or you can be sick at work” McMahon and his three hours of sleep work ethic. If the boss doesn’t rest, why you should you? Especially if you want to stay in the hunt for a better spot on the card. Unfortunately, this means that as a viewer we never get to miss our favorite stars because they never go away. A break from any other sport allows fans to follow other interests, catch up on their reading, or build up anticipation for the return of their local sports team.
If WWE can’t make that work for everyone, what if they just made it work for some?
What if, instead of a brand split between RAW and SmackDown Live, the WWE instituted a split between active Superstars and off-season Superstars?
12 months, three rosters, one set of champions
In my re-imagined WWE brand split, one-third of the active roster at a time, male and female, are not on TV. The performers are still paid, albeit less than while making towns. They’re still available for network specials, charity events, and promotional appearances, but they are not involved with matches or storylines on TV. They spend most of their time at home, training, healing, learning new holds, and giving fans a breather from their work.
The other two-thirds of the roster remain on TV and do their thing. Storylines are developed with the knowledge that certain talents have their break coming up, so that creative can develop programs that have a three-act structure, with the third act being a write off from TV. This process can be officially laid out as part of programming. A talent’s break time is announced with a send-off match. Or, it can be a kayfabe process with injuries and other angles utilized to explain absences. It could be a fusion of both with different rules for divisions or champions, but the end result is the same: characters get written on and off television on a rotating schedule to allow for fresh matchups and to keep viewers from being oversaturated with certain performers.
In addition to the rotation, I would eliminate the repeat championships. One world title, one women’s title, one set of men’s and women’s tag titles, the IC belt, and then the US title (although, honestly, I could get rid of that last one). Champions float between brands. Wrestlers underneath them compete in ranked matchups, working to earn a title shot before their next off-season. Competitors with winning records get title matches and Royal Rumble appearances. Losers go home and gear up for their next run. Wild card battle royales can elevate talent in an instant while crushing defeats can be enough to have a Superstar decide they need some time off to regroup.
This doesn’t mean that if a certain talent or champion is on a super hot roll, they are forced to the sidelines. If the next Steve Austin or Rock breaks out of the pack and are setting things on fire, they can skip a rotation. But even they get a break when a point arises in their story that it makes sense.
Look, we all love Game of Thrones. But, would we love it as much if it was on twice a week, for five hours every week, and Jon Snow was on every single night having the same battle with the Night King? Yeah, maybe we would. But replace Jon Snow with Roman Reigns, and the Night King with Baron Corbin, and that math changes considerably.
The Lesson of the List
The last point I want to make on this topic ties into the work of AEW wrestler and former Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla, Chris Jericho. Without question, one of the great successes of Jericho’s career is his ability to go away and come back changed. However long his breaks from WWE were over the years, whenever Jericho came back, something was different. A scarf, a haircut, a mustache, even a freakin’ clipboard and a clicky pen. Jericho takes his breaks, does other things, freshens up his look/act, then returns to an audience that has missed him.
While I am not suggesting that there is more than one Y2J out there, having someone like a Seth Rollins or Bobby Lashley go away for a while and come back looking a little different, or with some new moves or a change in attitude, wouldn’t hurt. It’s been burned down for a while now, Seth. Time to rise from those ashes and give us something new.
Not knowing what to expect is a huge way to generate interest in the product. Wrestler A is working his last match of the season. Can he/she leave on a high note? Wrestler B has just spent the last two months training in a top secret location. They have a brand new look and a devastating new finisher. How do they feel about their former friend and tag partner, Wrestler C, now that they are back? Wrestler D is refusing to take time off and is headed for an injury. Can anyone save them from themselves? There are lots of stories to tell and lots of ways to tell them.
All new, all different WWE
By giving talents a guaranteed off-season and making it part of their creative planning for the year, the WWE has the opportunity to freshen up potential matchups, re-package talents that aren’t getting over, and earn some valuable positive press for their updated and improved approach to working with the human men and women that put their bodies on the line day in and day out. There would be growing pains and challenges that an armchair booker like me wouldn’t think of. But, when things look as they do right now, a change would clearly do everyone some good.
Just as injuries sometimes force the hand of WWE creative to take a chance on new talent or direction, so would the no-off-season, off-season force them to do the same thing. New matchups, new champions, new faces on the top of the card. Wrestling fans love to get behind the hot new thing, but first, it has to exist.
Til someone can explain to me why, if wearing body paint makes Finn Balor win, he doesn’t do it all the time, I’ll see you marks around the loop.