The “motormouth factor” in wrestling is notorious for its non-information and slagging sessions. WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is the usual subject, and any amount of facts and garbage will be in the news at any given time. The trouble is that a lot of lifers in the business are now raising some big, totally unanswered, questions about WWE, and the look is not good.
WWE is ditching big stars like a clearance sale. People are complaining about abuse, misogyny, and even long-termers are talking about not getting paid. Whatever the merits of this information, it’s a truly godawful look for the company.
Meanwhile, AEW (All Elite Wrestling) is going from strength to strength. It’s generating enthusiasm not just from fans, but from the stars. AEW actually beat WWE in the ratings recently, another milestone after the many years of WWE domination.
The facts are brutally simple. AEW is definitely making real ground, and WWE is losing ground. Even CM Punk, longtime critic and exile from WWE, returned to wrestling after a long absence and went to AEW. The fans loved it, and he brought his fans with him. A lot of released WWE stars are also showing up on AEW with their fans.
It’s a whole catalog of marketing no-brainers, but is WWE paying attention? Nobody knows. The fans definitely don’t seem to be too glued to WWE when their guys are on AEW.
Wrestling is entertainment. It’s supposed to be fun and it is when things go well. It’s also one of the most truly competitive areas of media. Becoming a star is incredibly hard. You’re competing with every other performer in the entire industry to even get noticed.
(You can be “manufactured” to a point, but even that ultra-free-lunch approach, so common in media, often doesn’t work at all. Generally, the top people are the actual top people, credible in the industry with other performers and often with astonishing backstories to tell.)
Wrestling for a living is very much no holiday for most people, particularly those starting out. Money can be very hard to find and jobs hard to keep. Even huge names like Stone Cold Steve Austin have stories of working for about $20 a night back in the day. It’s a tough career path, even by mainstream media standards. (That’s literally risking serious injury for $20, and it has happened to a lot of people, whatever the dollar range.)
WWE, the unchallengeable monopoly of the past, is now getting hideous flak as AEW rises. This is getting beyond ugly in some ways. These aren’t the usual petty gripes or personal peeves; they’re systemic criticism, targeting a lot of WWE core business.
The insiders aren’t happy. Mick Foley, the guy who marketed himself into superstar status against all odds, did a video called “WWE, we’ve got a problem”. It was a pretty low-key, friendly, video, but it clearly came from the heart. Foley got a lot of stick for that from the corporate can-kickers, but he’s Mick Foley, and you guys aren’t, in case you’d forgotten.
Foley is one of those guys who truly loves wrestling. He gave a lot to it, and the fans are still there, more than a decade after he retired. He’s famous for taking bumps nobody else would want to think about, and he’s a razor-sharp commentator. He makes a grim but entirely accurate point – The issue is trust, and talent has to balance against AEW’s spectacular level of acceptance in the business.
AEW has some of the very top, very best names in the business. The word “elite” isn’t a misnomer. AEW has been getting major talent for some very good reasons:
- Flexible contracts. Wrestlers can work on much better schedules in multiple markets, generating better income streams and of course more exposure. They can’t do that in WWE.
- No murderous year-long work schedules. WWE was notorious for a 300 day working year.
- Great enthusiasm from the company, as distinct from WWE’s bizarre, almost relentless recent demotivational moves.
Doesn’t look good, does it? WWE, for some reason, is now making this obsolete, useless, situation a lot worse. Firings of top names with little or no explanation, morale problems with performers, inept storylines, and total lack of response to criticism beyond “I didn’t do it” are tarnishing the image. Even the sponsors didn’t like some of the firings, and they’re usually pretty apathetic.
The media criticism has been ferocious. The headlines tell the story very effectively. One of the more noticeable festering issues is the ongoing, baffling, NXT story. NXT is the “black and gold brand”, originally a sort of training ground for the main roster on RAW and Smackdown. It became a lot more under the guidance of Paul Levesque, aka Triple H, Stephanie McMahon’s husband.
Levesque, who’s also just had a “cardiac event” (hell of a place to put a euphemism) was apparently replaced as the head of NXT prior to the “event”. Again, no reliable information about why, inner workings, or anything else.
A point to be made here – A lot of people hate Levesque on a personal basis, but nobody can argue with the fact the guy is in the business to the bone marrow. He’s been in it for decades. NXT was a major achievement, and it did give a lot of people a good start. It was performing pretty well, on any sort of average, against the two major brands and competitors.
Another point – NXT wasn’t broken; it wasn’t beating AEW, but then neither is RAW. NXT fans actually are brand-loyal; the revamp could be anything, but nobody asked for it. Why?
There could be business reasons for it. Maybe WWE is looking at a market image makeover for investment purposes, etc. Dumber things have happened.
The nasty side is the corporate cutoff switches which are thrown at every criticism. Nothing, apparently, however staggeringly revolting, is worth a response. Anyone who knows anything at all about American corporate culture will know that this stonewall response is also usually a sign the buzzards have arrived.
The McMahon factor
Vince McMahon has been targeted for years as the cause of all WWE’s woes. He’s the decision-maker, yes, but in many ways, it’s more than a bit unfair. WWE is the third McMahon child, and he’s always been 2000% passionate about it. His motivation is always parental, good, weird, or indifferent.
It’s hard to tell. I’ve been watching the guy for decades, and I’ve seen him looking a lot better and a lot happier. Age, schmage. When you’re doing something you love, age isn’t even worth mentioning.
McMahon is a born competitor. He loves it. He risked a lot with Wrestlemania 1, and a long tough fight against WCW, which WWE then WWF was losing. There’s something wrong with not going all-out against AEW as the competition.
The younger McMahons, Stephanie, and Shane, are pretty tough cookies. They have to be a factor in whatever happens next in WWE. They can do that. They’ve had to manage being McMahons, and the baggage that goes with those roles. That includes the usually incredibly tedious backstabbing from the business. Nobody knows what they think about any of this, and in loyalty to their old man, they’d probably clam up on principle, if for no other reason.
The question is – Where is WWE going?
Wrestling is NOT a suits-only business. (Thank god!) There are many loyal genuine fans who’ve had 3 decades plus of unforgettable fabulous shows and who wish them and the stars well.
Of all people, the McMahons and the talent know that better than anyone else. That’s why none of this makes sense.
These questions now need to be added:
- Who’s hammering the cutoff switch in communications on all subjects?
- Why is there no direction for the talent, as Foley mentioned rather clearly?
- Who’s making what money out of this ongoing cluster? These messes don’t usually happen for altruistic reasons.
Let’s just hope no worst-case scenario plays out; because whatever that scenario is, it will be terrible.