For a while now, I have concluded that the WWE has not been a pro-wrestling company for some time. Instead, I describe them as a marketing company, specializing in a specific vertical. The problem with the WWE’s vertical has been shrinking for some time and the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted some hefty punishment that puts a light on some of the key weaknesses of the WWE that should be examined as the company looks towards their future.
At this stage, most people probably associate the WWE with the McMahon family, especially Vince Jr. in terms of what the WWE means. Despite Stephanie McMahon and Helmsley as the probable heirs to the WWE, many people do not necessarily have the same confidence in them as they did with Vince Jr. whether it’s due to work ethic, belief system, etc. The current direction the WWE has been heading as Stephanie has been taking more of an operational lead in the organization has been worrisome with regards to the traditional wrestling aspect where writers rather than talent have become the keys in presenting the product.
However, I think wrestling as most people have known it is for the most part a dying thing in general. Bobby Heenan once said that the future of pro-wrestling will be small independent shows where local, homegrown talents will be having matches in gyms, bars, etc. once again. While that take might not be wrong, it is an issue as the golden era of wrestling may seem to have long passed.
It’s highly doubtful that the slow disintegration of the notion of kayfabe will suddenly disappear from the minds of smartened up fans as things like the internet and information archives with numerous talent opening up about the closed off business of pro-wrestling will remain around. And while stupid people will be a consistent part of society, it’s doubtful that the same targeted group will likely fall prey to the carny tricks of how kayfabe would be used to sell pro-wrestling in the same fashion.
If that part is true, then what will pro-wrestling be like in the next 10-15 years? This has to be the driving question of the WWE in how they groom their product and begin planning for a post-McMahon world. Some people point to AEW as being a possible threat to the WWE’s dominance due to having a major financial backer. Yet at least at the moment, the presentation from AEW should not be a concern from the WWE. AEW simply is too infantile to compare to the history, experience and infrastructure that the WWE has to be even considered a true competitor.
Even the UFC should not be considered an actual competitor to what the WWE abstractly might have in mind. And that’s because the UFC has managed to gobble up the portion of the fans that wanted a realistic format of pro-wrestling .
The real competitors to the WWE are companies like EA Sports or Twitch. It may seem surprising that I point to the digital world where the next level of the battleground will be fought but if look at kids today, everyone of them has some form of mobile device and that’s exactly where I would be aiming as a company looking towards the future.
South Park had done a great piece with (* VOMIT *) pewdiepie (I can’t believe I even used the true devil’s name here) where they parodied how Stan and Kyle’s desire to play games rather than watch and comment on a channel like YouTube has become the de facto “cool factor” among kids and that their wish to return to the living room to be a family and play on a console was the equivalent of being “old and uncool.”
Having been with Twitch for some time (before they shit themselves with the ad explosion bull), the thing I and many others had come to realize is that they had hit a nerve with the public that many people failed to see. While social media has proven to be an indispensable tool for the generation, Twitch had become a major force for streamers and viewers where streamers could earn money while viewers could bully them with money.
As strange as that sounds, the symbiotic relationship between streamers and viewers is not unlike the wrestling audience of old, except more convenient with the higher potential of dollars. Many wrestlers had started to discover Twitch and even find some level of success there (although the WWE did end up cutting many of them off).
However, if the WWE is smart, they should take a serious look at these forms of digital media and figure out how to incorporate them into their core business model. In fact, (and here’s where I’m going with this) the WWE ought to straight out become a technology company and completely embrace the digital age.
Here’s the thing. While pro-wrestling might be at the center of what the WWE is known for, pro-wrestling itself is becoming outdated without becoming a version of Broadway, which has limited appeal not to mention being costly and high risk in a variety of ways. However, in the current vision of pro-wrestling, people are (namely the wrestlers) portraying it similar to the way a video game is played out rather than the old morality play. As Jim Cornette has pointed out numerous times in his podcast, the moves that we see in wrestling matches have diminishing returns as wrestlers end up exposing the business from using phony looking gymnastics to create the illusion of a fight.
But the thing is that it’s truly impossible to believe that people will suddenly crave to see 30 minute headlocks inside smoked filled bars or clubs while sipping on root beer and eating hot dogs just because ones home theater provides far more ample comfort and convenience. Not to mention you add the cost of parking beyond the sky rocketing ticket prices and how the experience itself is more about taking the selfie at the event to brag to ones friends at work and getting likes as opposed to actually rooting for a particular wrestler, the entire situation starts to break down for the individual fan.
Worse yet, as older wrestling fans age out, get discouraged by the current product, or that newer wrestling fans cannot be created as a result of the general lack of appeal of modern wrestling, it’s hard to see wrestling being sustainable without that major paradigm shift I’ve described.
So I look towards the virtual realm to be the next stage. Sure, there are games that are modeled on wrestling but it still is not at the level that can be a true paradigm shift. In my vision, I see this fusing of VR with games, players and actual wrestlers where the person embodies the wrestler and becomes part of the simulation. So they get to experience the dropkicks, the moonsaults, the high spots, power bombs and even the adulation of the crowds just as though they were the wrestler themselves. Or perhaps they might be.
Fans might become the virtual viewer similar to a Twitch account. In fact, I think the WWE should build their own version where fans can directly support the wrestlers. That way the WWE gets their cut (which is what I think the discrepancy was originally about) and that the WWE can use the data from chats to mine information.
Private virtual parties also would be a thing I would invest in. Have tiered levels of participation and activities for fans and support that replaces what Cameo provides. Rather than suspect OnlyFans type of situations, you can have legitimate rules that allow fan directed content to create unique experiences.
As the digital realm grows, I think one thing that it would allow is hopefully the increased safety of the wrestlers. I can see the ongoing improvements of a VR realm how situations like an Owen Hart falling from the rafters, Brian Pillman not pushing himself in the ring and focusing on healing his body at home, etc. being prevented over time.
Right now, the WWE is so far ahead of the game that they can afford to take a risk like this. But they also have the capitol to handle a venture like this and potentially succeed. Rather than spending money on things like the XFL, they should be investing far more into converting their infrastructure over into the digital world, including the wrestling itself.