Joe Babinsack looks at pro wrestling's future



I’m sure this is not unique to my own self, but over the course of my life, my dedication as a fan of professional wrestling has been significant. I’ve spent countless hours watching it on TV, have attended scores of live events, have traveled to wrestling conventions and the like, and have written well over a thousand columns, reviews and articles on the subject.
There are millions of fans who have given up on the sport, millions who no longer dedicate themselves to watching, attending or talking about the industry, and probably the fewest amount of hardcore fans in, what, fifty years?
Today, there is one major promotion, and it has two touring divisions. Gone are the days of Regional promotions with similar sized rosters, offering shows many times a week. Gone are the days when hundreds of active wrestlers were working on a daily basis, from Tokyo to Mexico City, from New York to Los Angeles, from Europe to Australia, from Montreal to St. Louis, from Florida to Calgary.
And everywhere in between.
Today, there are fewer and fewer personal styles, fewer true practitioners of the athletic artform of the sport, fewer significant & successful businessmen calling this business their career.
Professional wrestling is waning these days.
I’m seeing doldrums the like of which have happened over the years, but not for so long, and not across the board. Probably the last great wrestling ‘depression’ was in the early 1990’s, when the true primes of Hogan and Flair had passed; the immediate disruption of the WWF’s domination of the industry was felt; and no big, new name had arrived on the scene.
In 2011, Professional Wrestling has become a product.
It’s been that way for a decade. If you ask me, this definitively started on March 26, 2001, when the WWE removed its last, relevant competitor. Unlike the UFC, which has done similar things with competitors, but has taken the best names, added those names to its roster, and grown because it embraced a leadership position in its industry, the WWE did otherwise.
The professional wrestling industry continues to suffer because of that.
It’s not the time to wring hands over the flaws and missteps, the missed opportunities and the often awful approach to building a business to withstand its own success. I feel strongly about CM Punks statement about Vince McMahon, that he is a millionaire that should be a billionaire, because there is a sense that resting on one’s laurels, that being satisfied with dominating the scene, that imposing his own vision on the sport was the be-all, end-all of Vince’s existence.
And yet, Vince has spent most of his life desperately attempting to escape the notion that he is the world’s greatest promoter.
He’s proven that, but he won’t let go of pro wrestling. He’s proven himself as the greatest promoter of all time, but he’s taking out his frustrations on the creation he himself built up. He’s proven nothing outside of professional wrestling, except that he is unproven in any other aspect of business.
Harsh?
Certainly, but can anyone name one McMahon success outside of professional wrestling?
What’s scary is that the success that is the WWE is scarcely a success if you scrutinize the numbers. Attendance may vary and may be up this year, but almost every aspect of measuring success has diminished since 2001. PPV Rates (yeah, except for WrestleMania), TV Ratings, Viewership as a whole, Merchandising, Magazine sales … all those are quantifiable and almost unquestionably on decline.
Those are the tangible measurements.
The industry itself is in a death spiral. Maybe the Mayans pegged 2012 for the end of the world, but maybe they predicted the end of this industry. Everything is catching up. Nothing has been established. What’s worse is that the WWE failed to establish the next generation at a time when it had great workers to put over new names, it failed to look forward when it still had big names to move forward, and it fails now to entrench anyone new because it has failed.
But then again, that’s no news to anyone following the WWE.
And still, the shifting of attention from pro wrestling to MMA continues.
Chael Sonnen completely swipes a pro wrestling approach, and it’s awesome, and everyone speculates on when Anderson Silva accepts the challenge, and when that match takes place. I read with awe and astonishment how people think that Sonnen can demand such stips, and that those stips will be held up.
Pro wrestling fans are so desperate to see an angle play out that they grasp at straws that such things will happen with the UFC!
Because, of course, the UFC is doing most things right these days.
Unlike pro wrestling, MMA in the form of the UFC is building new contenders, establishing anticipated matches, allowing its talent to shine, and is overcoming obstacles.
Who’s had more significant injuries at the top of the card – pro wrestling or MMA?
I mean, how many matchup changes, how many missed PPV opportunities, how many times has the UFC, this year, seen diminished buy rates because of injuries?
How many times has the WWE had the same situation?
Meanwhile the hardcore “anti-negative” pro wrestling fans are slinking away like most of the mainstream fans. I’m sure I’ll get the “hater” label one more time, but once again, view my track record: I’ve written about this sport for more than a decade, been a hard-core fan for twenty-five years, and have spent
But the point is that the WWE isn’t collapsing under the weight of injuries, or complete lack of talent, or an inability to find “the look” as much as it’s an inability to create pro wrestling.
(TNA, as an aside, has more former World Champions on its roster than the WWE. The ability  of TNA to actually put together interesting matches between top name players far surpasses the WWE’s ability today, but TNA is another situation entirely… Well, not really, but why digress?)
Instead of allowing talent to be professional wrestlers, the WWE bans the term. Instead of building up contenders, the WWE pretends that such avenues are not what the sport is all about. Instead of establishing the groundwork for why fans should watch every week, the WWE trots out The Rock vs John Cena as the headline match for WrestleMania 2012, and expects everyone to watch to see what happens.
That period of time may end up being like a typical RAW show, where people tune in early, tune out, tune in at 10pm, tune out, and watch the Main Event/Spillover.
But even that pattern is becoming dangerously forgotten.
Maybe WrestleMania XXVIII is destined for greatness, but what will that prove?
While the UFC offers Brock Lesnar vs Alistair Overeem as a match, on PPV, to establish a potential monster Challenge in 2012, and offers Cain Velasquez vs Junior Dos Santos as a free TV match to expose MMA to millions of new viewers, the WWE offers a guy who will not be a full time wrestler to take on a guy who has peculiar dynamics as the standard-bearer of the Company.
Cena has to win, else what does he become?
If The Rock wins, what happens to the roster of guys who get outshined by a talent mostly removed from the profession for many, many years?
What can pro wrestling do to turn things around?
1)      New Talent
New talent is hard to find when the best athletes are going to work for fewer dates and more money in MMA, plus at least a chance where their dedication and efforts are entirely meaningful.
New talent is hard to find when WWE sensibilities destroy anyone who doesn’t fit in their mold. New talent of note will continue to be hard to find when the industry, at present, has no inherent ability to fully train, fully provide experience and fully allow wrestlers to be professional while learning their craft.
2)      New Approach
 
A new approach is unmistakably needed, but no one in this industry understands how to do that, and even ROH is dropping the ball…. (Davey Richards in a free TV Championship match three weeks in?)
What constitutes a new approach? That’s the biggest problem.
Sports oriented is most logical, but that’s the last place anyone following the industry these days can imagine the decision makers and structure going.
Venues can change, overall look can change, TV Show formats can change and weight divisions are the most logical but least likely way to go.
3)      New Styles
 
New Styles would be great, but anything related to MMA pales in comparison, and the best of the bookers in this sport don’t comprehend what it takes to shake things up in terms of match durations, finishes and building up competitors, let alone allowing talent to do what they want or could in the ring. Plus, the lack of places for talent to grow and learn diminishes every year.
Lucha Libre is a viable alternative. Dragon Gate provides a distinctive style, shared to a large degree by CHIKARA, and is an evolution of the Mexican approach. The American Indy style would be quicker, riskier and more suitable to raise the attention of the audience, but risk is something the WWE runs away from as fast as possible.
Hardcore is out of the question.
Whatever new style could be incorporated, it needs to solidify a new set of finishers, establish a different set of expectations, and should be something a promotion educates the fans about…. Not just throw it out there to fail.
4)      Fewer Matches
Fewer matches should be an approach, but the mentality that more is better, the mentality that putting out guys doing the same match 12 times a year is profitable, is so far down the path of diminishing returns that any expectation of change is laughable.
The point I would make is that MMA is profitable when top tier fighters do less than a half-dozen fights in a year. The structure isn’t there for professional wrestling, but the top tier guys could play it off, and the WWE could just throw out doing the same TV matches and move to more storylines between those big matches.
The problem, of course, is that wins and losses would then be vastly enhanced, and current decision makers can’t comprehend how to approach wins and losses now, let alone when those tallies are greatly reduced.
Funny thing is, the same people who are destroying the fundamental concepts of professional wrestling are the least interested in changes that differ drastically from their own warped perspective on the business model that has become professional wrestling.
 

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