WWE making record profits, but declining ratings and Vince McMahon's creative bankruptcy threatens company's future
While Vince McMahon was a pioneer who took his company to new heights, his storytelling skills have long since turned to dust.
In July, WWE posted its most profitable quarter ever of $43.8 million. And, thanks to the massive new TV deals that have kicked in this month, hundreds of millions of dollars are set to flow into the company's coffers till 2024.
So why does the company feel like a sinking ship?
Perhaps because the company's creative is in a death spiral and its television ratings are in free fall.
While the year of our lord 2020 has witnessed a sea change in the landscape of professional wrestling with the emergence of a true alternative and a potential future rival in the form of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), one thing has not changed: the world's premier
wrestling sports entertainment company has churned out some truly terrible content under the stewardship of its owner and CEO Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
McMahon's influence over the WWE, a company he took from a powerful promotion within the industry to a behemoth on the world stage, cannot to be overstated.
From overseeing storylines, signing off on his wrestlers' scripted verbiage to producing the announcers, approving payroll and even rewriting the script just hours or even minutes before the show goes on air, McMahon literally does it all.
Which is why he must shoulder the blame for its stale product.
McMahon's fabled touch has deserted him
While McMahon was a pioneer who took his company to new heights, his storytelling skills have long since turned to dust.
For now, let's examine just his 2020 output:
The main 'heel' (villain) faction on the company's flagship show Monday Night Raw in 2020 is an Antifa-type group known as 'Retribution'.
While the storyline of an invading force seeking to destroy the company from within is nothing new in professional wrestling — the most famous such example came in 1996 in World Championship Wrestling with the New World Order, which itself was inspired by a similar angle that occurred in Japan — what stands out is the unintentionally hilarious and nonsensical way in which the group were introduced and incorporated into existing storylines.
To start with, the WWE actually tweeted that a new faction would be debuting on their show.
— WWE (@WWE) October 6, 2020
It was awful nice of the hostile invaders who wanted to destroy the company to give its social media team advance notice of their plans.
The WWE also recently announced that these invaders, who were shown beating up their talent backstage and literally throwing Molotov cocktails, were being signed to full-time contracts. While most people under siege would call the authorities, the best McMahon and his creative team could come up with was to bring this rogue group into the fold. With pay.
Sidebar: While the WWE maintains that the group is 'not political', it is surely no coincidence that US president Donald Trump, who McMahon has donated heavily to and whose Cabinet his wife Linda serves in, has ranted about Antifa (the term itself means anti-fascist) and threatened to designate it a 'terrorist organisation', a threat legal experts have scoffed at.
The company has also had a slew of other notable misfires in 2020:
Raw Underground: Everyone knows professional wrestling is fake (except perhaps the current US president who once called to see if McMahon was okay after his limo blew up on TV). So how about putting on 'real fights' during a show about fake fighting. For no discernible reason. Oh, also those 'real fights'? As fake as the fake fights. But everyone involved, from the contestants (who are the WWE superstars) to the commentators must pretend that these fights are real.
And that, dear reader, is the concept of Raw Underground.
Confused? Don't try thinking about it too hard. They clearly didn't.
Lana/Rusev/Lashley love triangle: A love triangle between Lana, Rusev and Bobby Lashley that saw Rusev, the real life husband of Lana, constantly losing, being humiliated and forced to watch his wife repeatedly make out with his opponent.
Rusev, after losing the feud and being 'buried', was let go during a round of company wide lay-offs. The worst part is that McMahon, at one point, wanted Rusev to reveal that he, in storyline, had Erectile Dysfunction. Thankfully, Rusev refused.
One can only imagine what was going through McMahon's warped mind as he penned that storyline.
Roman Reigns vs Barron Corbin: Meanwhile, in early 2020, Roman Reigns, the biggest star in the company, spent months engaged in a dull as ditchwater feud with Barron Corbin (who McMahon sees as a star, but fans do not).
The highlights of that rivalry included dog food being poured over a captive Reigns, whose nickname is 'The Big Dog' (get it? get it?) and a mascot dressed like a dog being brought out to mock Reigns (no really).
This was McMahon's plan for the man he wanted to make the biggest star in his company.
But what is most telling about McMahon's creative bankruptcy is a plan that did not come to fruition.
Get this: With America roiled by protests against police brutality and the killing of people of colour, particularly black men, there were reports earlier this year that McMahon, in his finite wisdom, had decided to recreate the 'Nation of Domination' stable.
For those not in the know, the 'Nation of Domination', inspired from the 'Nation of Islam', was a group of militant black men seeking to impose their will on their opponents and the company.
While the group did provide a launching pad for one Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, the group, in the 90s, were villains.
McMahon reportedly dropped the idea after an internal backlash.
Yes, a group of strong, black men fighting for what they believed in and to be taken seriously would probably be cast in the role of villains. In 2020.
McMahon, since buying his competition in 2001, has basically had a stranglehold over the business for nearly two decades.
An examination of that period does not paint him in a flattering light.
Years of creative malaise
The company has, for nearly twenty years, been living off the fumes of its fabled 'Attitude Era' through putting out countless DVDs and video games, not to mention bringing the old legends back whenever needed to draw ratings or PPV buys.
Outside of John Cena and Brock Lesnar (who made himself a draw after his UFC run), the WWE hasn't had a single mainstream star for the past twenty years. Cena, Daniel Bryan, and CM Punk, the three biggest names post the Attitude Era, are men whom the company saw absolutely nothing in at the outset of their careers.
Cena, who would go on to become the franchise and face of the WWE, was on the verge of being cut from the promotion when Stephanie McMahon heard him freestyle rapping on a bus during an overseas tour.
Cena, who has often spoken about the rather negative first impression he made on McMahon, was given a second chance in his avatar as a white rapping 'thug'. Cena took his shot, turned it into gold and never looked back.
While Cena never became a stature of The Rock or Steve Austin, he carried that company on his back for years and is now pursuing a career in Hollywood.
Like Cena, CM Punk was never really thought of as having a chance to be top dog. Punk spent years toiling on the indie scene and building a name for himself. After floating in the WWE midcard for years, he turned himself into a main event act through his mic skills and his persona, which seemed to strike a real cord with the hardcore fans.
Unlike Cena, Punk's rise was limited. After years of being booked as second banana to the real top stars — Cena, Triple H, The Undertaker and Lesnar — Punk quit the company, and professional wrestling in early 2014.
Which opened the door for another name who was quickly catching on with the fans: Daniel Bryan. And while historians will debate exactly when the WWE's creative ship hit the iceberg, one need look no further than this period when Bryan, with his scintillating in-ring style and everyman underdog persona, was on the ascent.
WWE vs fans
Developing a connection with fans that harkened good guys of an era bygone, Bryan quickly became the most popular star in the company. But the WWE and McMahon, no matter what its apologists and its revisionist history would have you believe, were dead set against it.
Bryan, the man who journalist Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (think The New York Times or Wall Street Journal of professional wrestling) rates as 'great and kind of a genius inside the ring', was thought by McMahon to be too small to be the face of the company.
McMahon had already made up his mind: he simply couldn't envision Bryan as the type of performer who could headline Wrestlemania. That honour would be reserved for Randy Orton and a returning Dave Batista. Fans disagreed. Vehemently. To the point of literally hijacking McMahon's shows.
Only when McMahon was threatened with his highest-profile show of the year degenerating into farce did he give way. By telling the fans exactly what WWE management thought of their hero.
Bryan was, on air, tagged as a 'B plus' player by the villainous 'The Authority' (his son-in-law Triple H and daughter Stephanie), inserted into the storyline and handed the championship. But that was a cornered McMahon simply throwing the fans a bone.
In reality, he'd already begin to look past the fan favourite, decreeing that Bryan would be decimated in devastating fashion by Lesnar. All in service of setting up his next golden boy: Reigns.
McMahon spent years and multiple Wrestlemanias trying to get Reigns cheered by the fans.
From saving legends to slaying giants and feuding with stars the audience genuinely reviled, Reigns did everything a good guy should do to try to win the favour of the fans.
Fans, even after Bryan retired from competition due to injury, unfairly continued to hold a grudge against Reigns.
McMahon refused to give up. Refused to give in. In the end, it was Reigns' real life leukaemia relapse and his fight to return to in ring action that won him admiration and cheers from the fans.
What McMahon missed is that the fans weren't actually booing Reigns. They were booing what Reigns represented. Whom Reigns represented. McMahon himself. And the WWE.
What McMahon didn't account for is that by so clearly mixing the boundaries between real life with storyline, he had put fans in the strange position of having to fork over cash and spend hours watching a company that was constantly telling them their favourites (such as Punk and Bryan) would never be good enough and that management alone (ie McMahon) would determine what is "best for business".
McMahon made a huge mistake by positioning himself and his company against his fans. He is yet to recognise or rectify that error.
After all, any company would like to paint it in the best possible light to its consumers. The goal, after all, is to keep consumers happy and paying.
Incidentally, those past five years, where the WWE has been actively struggling against its fanbase, have seen its TV ratings decline by exactly half.
The problem for McMahon is that with his WWE network — which provides great value for diehard fans but has completely devalued the product — not living up to pre-launch expectations, TV revenue is now the lifeblood of WWE.
Any future TV deal will depend upon, among several other factors, TV ratings.
Declining ratings could deliver death blow
Till 2015, those ratings were in a period of slow, steady decline.
But post 2015 is where the numbers really begin to pop.
Raw, over the past five years, has shed nearly two million viewers.
In July, the same month the WWE recorded their record profit, their flagship show was down 37 percent compared to last July. Of late, Raw has consistently hit historic lows.
Smackdown, which has recently moved to Fox and is thus available in millions more households, is down by a mere six percent.
The trouble is that Smackdown was expected to gain viewers post the move. The contracts for Raw and Smackdown are up for renewal in 2024.
And while only a fool would dare to venture a guess at the television landscape in 2024, one does not need to be Nostradamus to predict that at some point, TV companies may balk at paying WWE hundreds of millions of dollars for a fast-shrinking audience.
In July, in a story that flew somewhat under the radar, the WWE lost a long-standing TV deal with Sky Sports Italy due to a combination of escalating rights' fees and declining TV ratings.
The beneficiary? AEW.
And while Wall Street is often the last to know, analysts surely could not have missed that the share price, which was at $96 in April 2019, is now trading around the $40 mark.
If the company can't find a way to break out of McMahon's creative headlock, it might find itself resting in peace.
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