There are many constants in life: death, taxes and Vince McMahon booking wrestling. He’s been doing this since he took over the WWF from his father and founded Titan Sports, McMahon had an eye for what would draw crowds. He became a driving force in WWF in the 1970s and was a major player in booking Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki in 1976. This ability to draw crowds would cement Vince McMahon as one of, if not the, premier promoter in sports entertainment. And that is where the problem with Vince McMahon stems from.
The man who cultivated mainstream sports entertainment appeal with Hulkamania, created stars like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin & The Rock and survived war with fellow billionaire Ted Turner’s WCW deserves respect for everything he has done in the industry. But where does respect stop and expectation take over? We respect McMahon because of what he achieved in decades past, but this has ingrained a level of expectation in us, the audience. A staple of McMahon has been his ability to evolve to the times. In the 70’s and 80’s, booking the world champion sparingly would guarantee butts in seats, the early to mid 90’s saw the product geared towards children, before pivoting massively in December 1997 to introduce the Attitude Era. Since then, the WWE has felt like a train trying not to derail.
Without the competition that was brought by WCW, McMahon never had to adapt again. Creativity was stifled, RAW and SmackDown became repetitive and, most damningly today, stars were no longer being cultivated. Outside of John Cena, it is very hard to name anyone a casual audience would recognise enough to watch any WWE show. Ratings are down, hardcore fans are turning off and the product feels more and more like a slog rather than an experience you look forward to.
So what happened? How can it be fixed? The obvious answer is to look at NXT. Where RAW and SmackDown are lambasted for weak storytelling, poor efforts at comedy, under-developed characters, NXT is applauded for the opposite; fleshed-out angles, characters given room to breathe, develop organically and slightly better comedy. The question is can HHH steady a sinking ship? In short in my opinion, no. What WWE needs is much deeper than a change at the helm. In the 90s, competition bred creativity and helped push envelopes. Today, we do not have competition in the sports entertainment world.
To elaborate, wrestling is arguably at a height that hasn’t been reached in a long, long time. Wrestlers are being given opportunities. The independents have enough financial clout that wrestlers can work all over the world and make more money doing what they love instead of working in one company being left on the bench waiting for their turn. Alternatives exist globally. Alternatives and herein lies the issue. New Japan, Impact, Ring of Honor and AEW are alternative products and alternatives are not competition.
Vince McMahon was initially concerned about another billionaire getting involved in the wrestling world, hence the huge contracts he started throwing around and the freeze on releasing wrestlers he feared would be a “get” for AEW. However his concern has waived since last October. This is primarily because Vince McMahon has seen that AEW do not do sports entertainment, they do a very different brand of wrestling. They have high paced, high risk, high reward spots which clash with the vision McMahon has for wrestling. As such, AEW can’t be considered viable competition to WWE. Unlike WCW, who somewhat aped the style that McMahon promotes, AEW offer an alternative take. New Japan focus on strong style of wrestling mixing MMA and professional wrestling, a style McMahon clearly has no time for, or maybe even respect for. So, as such, they are not viable competition. The NWA, while offering free shows, are a throwback to a time that McMahon couldn’t wait to move away from. The way the promotion works in a studio environment will attract fans of the territory days but people who are accustomed to huge arenas, loud crowds and over the top characters are less likely to watch it.
So, to double back, just changing the head booker of a promotion will not change the landscape of WWE. The WWE needs competition to thrive and, right now, it does not have that. They even split the brands (again) to try and artificially create that competition, only to essentially forget that SmackDown exists and put every bit of focus on a RAW brand that is struggling to retain viewership. Vince McMahon needs to be hungry again. The WWE is a sleeping giant. It has devoured everything that ever threatened it and has no reason to wake up again. So when I ask; ‘What does Vince McMahon have to do to re-engage the audience?’, the answer is strangely, nothing at all.
Someone else has to make the move to counteract the WWE. When Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan joined TNA, a decision was made to move to Monday’s to create buzz. TNA had the biggest name in wrestling in Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff acting as an advisor on Hulk’s direction as a character. They, reverted to a four-sided ring and brought in more recognisable names. Sure it backfired, but they tried. They did something they knew would antagonise Vince McMahon. And you could say it worked. The night Hulk Hogan debuted on Impact, hell froze over and Bret Hart walked out to a rapturous response on RAW. The debut of Hogan and Bischoff was countered with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels reconciling and Vince McMahon setting up a match 13 years in the making. McMahon was faced with potential competition and he turned up the volume.
Personally I love to watch wrestling in its many guises. I have my favourites and I have people I can not watch but I adore wrestling. However without impetus, wrestling does not feel the need to love us back. It knows we will always come back. Sure, we might lose attention. We may take our interest elsewhere. We could even get angry and cancel our memberships. But something will always bring us back. Until we have a landscape that is embroiled in a war though WWE will not change. They do not need to. They are like a drug dealer, knowing we will eventually crumble. We will be back and Vince McMahon will not change until the landscape changes. For now, we have to get used to where we are. We have a smorgasbord of wrestling to peruse at our leisure but the centre piece is getting less and less appetising as the years pass.
Vince McMahon once prided himself on evolving with the times, adapting to keep us engaged, keep butts in seats and to keep the money rolling in. Today, he has no need to evolve. No desire to change a formula he sees as working. We have seen recently that any positive changes will be taken back as soon as it feels safe. Why else would Paul Heyman be “focussing on his role as an in-ring character” and Brother Love now be writing the weekly shows? McMahon will revert to type when he doesn’t feel threatened so the onus today and going forward is on every other promotion to threaten WWE. Then, and only then, we will see evolution one more time.