Between plummeting attendance figures, negative press and the meteoric rise of AEW, we analyze whether WWE are precariously close to losing their iron grip over the wrestling industry.
For the first time in a long time, the top brass of WWE have found themselves besieged by panic and uncertainty. Hailed as the standard bearer of professional wrestling— or sports entertainment as they insist on calling it— three generations of the McMahon family have presided over this empire of blood, sweat and spandex for nearly 70 years, weathering the storm of rival territories, federal trials and scandals that’d derail less resilient companies. Given their seemingly indestructible grasp over the industry, the fact that each pay-per-view show or episode of their flagship TV shows gets underway with a signature that reads “Then, Now, Forever” didn’t seem boastful but more of a foregone conclusion. Yet in 2019, WWE find themselves on the defensive in a way that would’ve been unthinkable at any other time in the past 20 years. Swept away on a tidal wave of bad press, organizational malpractice and consumer apathy, the all-conquering titan of the wrestling universe may not be earmarked for the scrapheap anytime soon but they could be in grave danger of losing much of their audience.
Across May and June, Raw and Smackdown! Live tapings garnered some of the worst attendance figures in history while the paid attendance for last month’s Stomping Grounds pay-per-view at the Tacoma Dome was estimated at around 4-4,500 and led to large sections of the 20,000 capacity venue being shrouded from public view. Coupled with the negative fallout from their most recent trip to Saudi Arabia that featured Undertaker Vs Goldberg’s borderline life-threatening bout at a combined age of 106, newly surfaced claims that the talent's morale is "the worst that it's ever been" must make for disconcerting reading to the company's board and stockholders.
As if the all internal strife and fan disinterest wasn’t enough to contend with, this tumultuous period has coincided with the birth of the first wrestling organization that could be a viable competitor in over 18 years. Ever since its brash CEO Vincent Kennedy McMahon bought the charred remains of WCW (World Championship Wrestling) back in 2001, the company has remained relatively unchallenged in the commercial realm. While independent organizations such as Ring Of Honor and the hard-hitting New Japan Pro Wrestling have propelled the in-ring competition to new heights, no company has had the financial backing to try and unseat Vince at the top of the mountain. Bankrolled by Shahid Khan-- owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC-- All Elite Wrestling is a new promotion that not only has a prime-time TV deal on TNT Drama starting in October but is helmed by a lifelong wrestling fan in the billionaire’s son Tony. An aspiration of his for many years, the newly minted company has snapped up an impressive array of talent that varies from former WWE mainstays such as Chris Jericho, Cody Rhodes and Dean Ambrose (now known by his previous name of Jon Moxley) to stalwarts of the increasingly fertile independent world such as The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Hangman Page, Joey Janela, The Lucha Bros and many more.
Cody Rhodes at the WarnerMedia 2019 Upfront - Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Dubbed “a damn revolution” by Cody, the son of the legendary “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes is one of several wrestlers/turned Executive Vice Presidents of the company and the success of its first two shows— Double Or Nothing and last weekend’s Fyter Fest in Daytona— has WWE officials on the brink of declaring a state of emergency.
However, what needs to be established is whether all of this adversity spells dire straits for the McMahon family’s once great wrestling superpower or if these obstacles will give them the jolt of energy that they need to snap out of their prolonged funk. Levelled with accusations of creative stagnancy over the years, much of the blame has been placed squarely on the musclebound shoulders of none other than 73-year-old Vince McMahon. As reported by The Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer, the legendarily idiosyncratic businessman’s resolve to cocoon himself within his own personal playground of WWE is exasperating those on the writing staff as well as having a detrimental effect on the product that they’re presenting to the fanbase:
“They’re like, ‘How can someone be so out of touch’ and the thing was-- and I’ve heard this from a lot of people-- ‘Vince really doesn’t know anything about wrestling outside of WWE — AT ALL!’. I mean that’s been the consensus of people in and around that company across the board. ‘Wow, we know he doesn’t follow wrestling and he doesn’t watch wrestling, but he doesn’t know anything about wrestling anymore outside of his walls.'"
Now, as reports of ill-feeling between Vince and his son-in-law/Executive Vice President Triple H pick up steam, the notoriously insular company is being forced to look outward at the wider wrestling world in order to prevent the loss of their market share. However, history has taught us that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and could result in an explosion of popularity for not just WWE and their newfound competitors but the industry as a whole.
Stephanie McMahon, Triple H, The Rock, and Vince McMahon attend the WrestleMania 29 Press Conference, 2013 - Taylor Hill/Getty Images
From what we know of AEW thus far, the product that they’re offering is packaged as a high-impact, more athletic and less sterilized alternative to WWE.. While they’ve only had two officials to speak of thus far, it’s hard to argue that they’ve lived up to this bill. Just the other weekend, a combined streaming audience of 300,000 fans were treated to acrobatic displays from tag teams such as Private Party, SCU and the Young Bucks, a barbaric unsanctioned match between Jon Moxley and Joey Janela that saw them enlist everything from barbed wire to thumbtacks and a controversial unprotected chairshot to the head of Cody Rhodes that harked back to the lawless days of WWE’s fabled “attitude era.”
Said to be fretful over dwindling viewership among the teenage-college age demographic, it is the spirit of those profanity-laden glory days that WWE steered towards this past week on Monday Night Raw and Smackdown! Live. In what is likely an attempt to negate the “alternative” aspect of AEW’s branding, reports have suggested that WWE are beginning to loosen the reins on the “PG” rating and move towards the edgier days of the past. Punctuated by commentator Corey Graves’ using the phrase “holy shit” on-air, Maria Kanellis making remarks about carrying Becky Lynch’s child and Kofi Kingston giving WWE championship challenger Samoa Joe “the finger”, this shift away from the family-friendly direction has came in conjunction with the appointment of former WCW head Eric Bischoff and ECW’s mad scientist Paul Heyman as Executive Directors. While sceptics have claimed that this is scarcely more than an honorary position that’s intended to make them ineligible as prospective AEW employees, it may also be a sign that Vince McMahon is finally dispensing with the penchant for totalitarian control that led him to rip up entire scripts on the day of shows as late as early May.
Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch at the 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards - Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
As Triple H retreats from the main roster’s frontlines in order to focus on the consistently phenomenal NXT, Vince’s decision to overhaul his product in order combat the rise of AEW bears resemblance to the conditions that created the storied “The Monday Night Wars.”
For a period of 83 weeks, WWE— then known as WWF— found themselves embroiled in the losing end of a ratings battle with WCW. Aired on the same timeslot, Monday Night Raw and WCW’s Monday Nitro waged a battle for supremacy that the latter was running away with due in large part to the rebellious New World Order stable. Centred on the trio of “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, their portrayal as an invading horde that intended to destroy WCW made for incredibly compelling TV. In response, WWE knew that they had to move away from the cartoonish and lethargic product that they were producing and created the Attitude era that spawned The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, D-Generation X and hours upon hours of legendary content.
Now that the rise of AEW has placed the industry leader on the backfoot, Vince and co must prioritize the production of an innovative product that’ll bring those disenchanted fans racing back. With an incredibly talented roster at their disposal, all it takes is for WWE to take decisive action and bring their fans engaging shows that aims to best AEW and it’ll spell anything but the company’s demise. Instead, we may just have a new wrestling golden age on our hands.