Why am I blogging about wrestling two posts in a row; especially WWE’s brand of wrestling (sports entertainment)? I haven’t watched WWE seriously in a very long time but the latest storyline, involving wrestler CM Punk spilling the beans about the real-life, backstage drama of the WWE, are shaking things up. On this Monday’s Raw CM Punk gave away their new media strategy, their thesis statement by saying, “I’m making wrestling relevant.”
Wrestling hasn’t been relevant in a very long time. Its arguable professional wrestling hasn’t been relevant since people discovered it’s a hoax; maybe it was the Hulk Hogan/Vince McMahon steroid trial in the early ‘90s – who really knows? I know I haven’t looked at wrestling as real ever (my father shattered that illusion immediately and I am thankful for that one) but there’s something about professional wrestling that’s fascinating. In my previous post about TNA’s Destination X I discuss how Barry Blaustein’s documentary Beyond the Mat really puts wrestling into perspective when it states, “professional wrestling is theater at its most base.”
Is CM Punk’s, and ultimately Vince McMahon’s, latest stratagem going to legitimize professional wrestling? Of course not. Even watching Raw right now I don’t see it gaining any legitimacy; it still contains the contrived scripted storylines featuring John Cena and others. However, the product isn’t going to change overnight and it’ll take time for the product to grow – just like its audience. For the last few years, and especially during Linda McMahon’s failed Senate campaign last year, WWE has been shying away from its Attitude era, where the blood spilled regularly and there were scantily clad women everywhere. The product has been rated TV-PG for quite a while now. Why?
Although I can’t confirm this I’m certain it has something to do with rebranding. Wrestling’s ratings, especially WWE’s, plummeted in the early 2000s. The big names of the 1990s – Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and so forth – have left the business, leaving it in the hands of a new group of entertainers. Other promising wrestlers (Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Rob Van Dam, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle) either died, retired, or went to other promotions. That left them with in-house talent, talent necessitating building. People like John Cena didn’t just pop out of the back selling shirts, action figures, and other paraphernalia; they needed to become mainstays of cable television through product awareness, exposure, and the such. Building a brand doesn’t happen instantly and WWE was losing its long-term viewers who were growing up, beginning families, and outgrowing wrestling. Where does that leave McMahon’s empire?
It leaves it in a stagnant position where profits decline. What does one do in this situation? They could either go for more shock value tactics or recreate the product – beginning with children. Impressionable children looking for role models respond to John Cena, Rey Mysterio, and other larger than life personalities. My girlfriend used to take school pictures and always saw wrestling shirts for either John Cena or Rey Mysterio; sometimes she’d ask the children which wrestler they liked most so they’d smile on camera. Well, those kids are entering middle school and high school and the childish, cut and paste storylines (where good is good and bad is bad) that permeated the wrestling world for so many years don’t cut it anymore.
In essence, the fans WWE has cultivated over the last few years have hit puberty and WWE wants to tag along for the ride. These kids have discovered masturbation and WWE wants to provide them material.
Of course puberty, for young men, is rife is testosterone and the brutality associated with wrestling will fill that void wonderfully – as long as it grows with the audience. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if wrestling begins featuring even more adolescent geared sexuality in the upcoming years. Imagine what would happen if WWE garnered the fandom of millions of teenagers growing pubic hair for the first time and kept them devoted for the next 15 years or so. It would mean dump trucks full of money for the McMahon family, a higher wage for the wrestlers, and large sums of money for their parent networks. It worked before with the Attitude era, which attracted the men who watched early Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan, and other such performers, so why won’t it work this time?
I can’t verify if it’ll work (aside from a lack of prophetic abilities) but it’ll take more than one pissed off wrestler. Honestly, there’s a part of me that’s convinced it’s too little too late. After all, the internet has been a source of behind the scenes wrestling data for well over a decade and the WWE has tried to quell these various reports by dismissing them and ignoring them. Over the last year or two (and even going back to the mid 2000s with the interactive pay-per-view Taboo Tuesday) the WWE has been using social media to reach its fans and has been implementing the latest technologies in data mining and acquiring marketing information from willing participants to determine the stronger aspects of its product. Fans can now like wrestlers on Facebook, letting the WWE know in a bastardized democratic way who fills seats and who doesn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if WWE had a bunch of focus groups over the last year or two.
Maybe it’s too late; maybe they missed their window and their position’s been usurped by Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC, Youtube, and the countless other distractions out there. We’re a culture exposed to reality television for a long time now and maybe it’s become part of our media expectations. Wrestling is a con from the very beginning and it’s possible this doesn’t sit well with the upcoming generation. It’s possible it could’ve worked if they embraced the internet’s democratic leanings a long time ago but now I’m not so certain. It’s also possible the media paradigm shift we’re currently living through is changing the product’s viewership and nothing will change the tides. Maybe it’s a culmination of all this. All I can say for certain is that WWE’s ratings and attendance have declined over the last decade and it’s uncertain whether their brand building project over the last few years will surrender future profits.
While over ¾ of WWE’s product this Monday night has been as lackluster as what I’ve seen sporadically over the last few years I am curious where it’s headed. In that respect it’s worked a little – it peaked my interest. I doubt I’ll labor through Raw each week but I’m interested where the product is headed over the new few months and years. What’ll it be like when its adolescent fan base starts driving; what about when they’re in college; what about when they get married and await their first child? Honestly, who knows if professional wrestling will last that long? After all, it’s an outdated form of entertainment trying to survive in a new media environment where content is flowing at unprecedented levels. Does television even have the power to withstand the next few decades of technological leaps?
In the meantime, we’ll have to see what happens with CM Punk, the next week or two of matches, and wonder whether wrestling is about to hit puberty with its tween and teenage viewers. This whole scheme, where wrestlers begin integrating more aspects of their real lives and the drama making internet trolls notorious into their characters may work, will take time to play out and maybe the fruit of their labors will take years to ripen. Maybe CM Punk will become the next big thing in professional wrestling. Only time will tell.