On Wrestling: what should be scaring WWE about The Network

By Joe Babinsack

Wrestling is an industry that constantly insists on having it both ways. That is an obvious statement, considering the reality of professional wrestling, but that approach has been problematic, causing issues when reality meets theory.

When sports and entertainment merge, something suffers. For decades, the sports aspect has been almost trivial: no logic, no organization, no rules and no real connection to “real” sports. Then the reality of cable and TV network negotiations suggested that sports is a valuable commodity. So “sports entertainment” pretended to be something it hasn’t been portrayed as since February 10, 1989 (or thereabouts) when the NY Times wrote the article on the then WWF’s admission about the nature of professional wrestling.

At the time, the $100,000 savings from avoiding that state’s media tax was obviously important. Over the years, that obviously saved the now-WWE quite a bit of cash, but probably not enough to make up the tens of millions lost in this timeframe, one where quarterly earnings are now public, and the attempt to portray professional wrestling on par with NASCAR and the NBA and the NHL have been quite the failure.

And so the WWE shifted gears, playing on the historic groundbreaking nature of this peculiar artform, and moving into another form of media just like it did with television in the late 40’s/50’s, with cable TV in the 70’s/80’s, with various forms that led to PPV in the 80’s, with videotapes and DVDs, and all that technology.

Professional wrestling was huge with the shift of the Internet from text to images, but the big boys only used websites to supplement the product, to sell tickets, to merchandise and to be there. Much of the buzz of the Internet was from fans, fan sites and efforts to enhance professional wrestling. Now the talk and the focus and the mixture of breaking news, analysis, and still the often irresponsible and faulty journalism are on websites.

It’s interesting that the focus on monetizing a revenue stream came a little late with the Internet, especially when the industry took its crass sleaziness to “1-800” numbers. Sure, the Internet wasn’t yet built to fully handle what professional wrestling was all about, but that was one media where professional wrestling (as a business) didn’t push the envelope until the cutting edge was much dulled.

These days, there are significant ventures on the Internet with many coming well before the notion of a “Network” came about. Many companies are streaming their product; some companies are doing product seemingly exclusive to the media (with DVD sales dying horribly as I’m told), and the biggest promotions that don’t have cable TV deals are very much reliant on the Internet.

What’s strange isn’t that the WWE is trying to get into the game, but that it’s several generations (in technology ages) late to the party. Professional wrestling was almost always in the first wave of trying something new. Promoters were always looking for the next wave. The complacency of the WWE’s dominance of the industry is definitely harming its efforts. (Also harming its efforts is its own dominance and bullying of its fanbase.)

This business is all about “nudge, nudge… wink, wink”, but in the previous millennium there was a “believability” and an approach that kept fans coming back. There was a distinct artform, a distinct interaction at the arenas, and an ongoing effort to make the fans part of the process. Without the fans being engaged, the fans aren’t going to the arenas, aren’t buying the tickets, aren’t buying the merchandise.

It doesn’t matter if the product is mostly on the television or on a computer or on a smartphone, but it does matter if the product is not wanted. I’ve spoken to several industry figures this year about professional wrestling these days from various perspectives, eras and promotions. Some of the talk isn’t just the Network, but the nature of the product. I won’t name names or quote, but the gist of the most pointed comments are that the wrestling promotions are no longer connecting to the fans.

There was a time when Vince McMahon had the pulse of his fanbase. Despite my annoyance with the Hogan era, the WWF captured a particular essence of professional wrestling and despite the inability to draw fans to the arenas, PPV (that new media approach of the time) was profitable. Something had to be, since the arenas were dying, other promotions were dying and the industry was being gutted.

Still, into the 90’s, moving past the era of the steroid trial when Vince was put into a dire situation, he still had the pulse of the fans. Stone Cold Steve Austin wasn’t an immediate success, but the era of ECW and “Attitude” drove WWE into that direction. It captured the cultural senses, the demographics of its burgeoning fanbase and Vince was always two steps ahead of the fans.

These days? The WWE is two steps behind, and getting worse. The WWE insists on telling the fans what they want, but do they want THAT?

Professional wrestling these days (be it WWE, TNA or ROH) has no connection to the fans, but wants an unrealistic transfer of its fanbase to new media. At a time when the product isn’t clicking, trying to catch the edge of a very much dulled edge of technological advance isn’t helping. The WWE is shrilly hyping a new media approach, but it is not the trailblazer. It is being dragged into the situation because it desperately wants to shore up its revenue at a time when its ability to draw its own fan base to pay for its traditional offerings are at an all time low.

Meanwhile its closest competitor, aping the same business model in many ways, is desperately in danger of non-existence. TNA lost out long ago on transferring its fanbase and TV ratings into PPV buys; TNA shows that it is unable to latch onto the appeal of MMA, let alone the synergy of being on a network that owns its own MMA promotion; nor is it able to move on from established, pathetic approaches to the concept of professional wrestling.

The problem with the WWE is one of having it both ways: the WWE itself went from being an almost purely entertainment form, running and screaming from sports, insanely distancing itself from professional wrestling concepts, and treading for years in a PG-13 to R-rated morass that alienated advertisers, saw its fanbase grow older and now has destroyed its marketability.

There’s a guy that railed against “nudity, vulgarity and profanity” and everyone scoffed. Do those people and fans who scoff think he was being moralistic, or worried about the viability of the product?)

(For a few years, the WWE pretended to be a sport, but never structured its product, its creative, its match-making, its logic to that concept. There should be no surprise that the real world of Cable TV saw the same product, sneered at it and didn’t double the contracts.

The current efforts of the WWE Network are fatally flawed as well. What fans are expected to buy this thing? The WWE wants to alter the PPV dynamics, and get those fans to sign up for the WWE Network. The biggest PPV of the year gets about 1 million buys. If the effort is to get those people to subscribe for a whole year instead of paying $60 for a one-time fee, it sorta makes sense.

But does it? There’s four million people watching each week, and that’s 25% who watch the “Super Bowl” of the industry. That PPV that is a can’t-miss, must-see, don’t-ever-miss it event. Most of those people watching WrestleMania aren’t buying the regular PPV. They come back to buying in April. They don’t seem to be missing much, or care that they are missing 11 months of PPVs.

Does the WWE want to translate those four million cable TV viewers into the WWE Network? That’s what some of the numbers indicate, and have to indicate, because the ceiling of the subscriptions, if based on PPV buys, is about a million. Not four million.
Has the WWE given up on persuading people to buy their events on a monthly basis? Isn’t that what TNA did?  How did that work out when TNA didn’t change the product, the approach or anything?

I get that they are cutting out the cable TV middleman, but they haven’t addressed the real problem, which is trying to translate the interests of people watching for free into paying for the product.

The wisdom of one of my friends, who consistently says that professional wrestling is an arena-based sport, comes even more into light. Professional wrestling is all about capturing the attention of the fans, wanting them to engage, participate and pay for the enjoyment of watching it performed.

If a wrestling promotion cannot entice more fans to watch the product for free, or to watch more of the product at a lower price, there’s a root problem that goes beyond technology. That’s the biggest problem, and pretending like the industry (let alone the WWE) can get people to pay for what they are producing is trying to have it both ways. I see that the WWE is changing a few things, but they are still giving away their product for free, to the fans, and the fans aren’t buying it at any price.

That’s what should be scaring a lot of people.

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