Will Nostalgia Move The Needle For WWE?
Just in case you've been distracted by events elsewhere recently, there's been a significant change behind the scenes at WWE - one that has big implications for the company's flagship 'RAW' brand.
Paul Heyman, best known to audiences as the manager of Brock Lesnar and the former owner of Extreme Championship Wrestling, is no longer a member of the creative team. Head honcho Vine McMahon had apparently grown tired of falling ratings and decided to take matters into his own hands by relegating Heyman back to an 'on-screen talent only' role. In his place is Bruce Pritchard, who also heads up the creative team on SmackDown.
It’s only been two weeks since that change was made, but we’re already seeing a new emphasis on the show - and it’s not one that bodes well for the prospects of the younger wrestlers on the roster. It’s believed that Heyman’s brief, when given the role a little over a year ago, was to develop new stars and elevate them to the top of the card. He did the best he could with that. Under Heyman’s guidance, Buddy Murphy, Andrade, Angel Garza, Ricochet, Apollo Crews, Humberto Carrillo, and Cedric Alexander were all given a chance to shine. Some wrestling websites claim that Heyman told McMahon that he’d been eighteen months to properly establish his chosen new talents. McMahon didn’t give him that long. With ratings heading in the wrong direction, he cut the cord. The future of some of those wrestlers is now uncertain.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Heyman. From an outsider’s perspective, it often seemed like McMahon pulled the rug out from underneath him just as he was starting to get somewhere. It’s open knowledge that he cooled off on Cedric Alexander’s push almost immediately. Ricochet got the same treatment after his crushing by Brock Lesnar in Saudi Arabia. Humberto Carrillo seemed to be in line for the United States Championship at one point, but he was also suddenly pushed down the card, and the rumor mill once again attributed that decision to Vince. Every time McMahon slammed the door on one of Heyman’s chosen stars, Heyman had to start all over again with another one. If all of this is true, it’s no real surprise that Heyman wasn’t able to create a new face of the company in the twelve months he was permitted.
With Heyman gone and Pritchard - a man who knows what his boss likes and doesn’t often deviate from McMahon’s ideas - has reverted to type. The younger performers are no longer at the top of the card. Within six hours of processing, it’s clear that veteran wrestlers are once again going to be used as feature attractions. Giant wrestler the Big Show, now almost 50, is back on television. Dolph Ziggler, a tenured WWE veteran of more than a decade, is back in the championship picture. A battle between 40-year-old Randy Orton and 46-year-old Edge has been positioned as the RAW brand’s major storyline. That pushes the story between Seth Rollins and 45-year-old Rey Mysterio into second place. The focus on names on the past is so intense that 46-year-old Christian recently teased coming back for one last match, only to immediately be turned upon by 71-year-old Ric Flair.
Falling back on veterans is nothing new for WWE. It’s what the company has been doing for years. Every time WrestleMania rolls around, a veteran wrestler usually comes out of the woodwork for a spotlight match at the biggest show of the year. It’s when Undertaker, well into his 50s, tends to put his boots back on. Shane McMahon, also 50, tends to have a prominent match. Triple H, another member of the fifty-plus-club, usually has a WrestleMania match as well. Goldberg and Brock Lesnar will make an appearance. All of these names take up space on the card, and younger, hungrier wrestlers are left to either perform in prelim matches or miss out on the show entirely. The company then wonders why it’s struggling to create new stars. The process is entirely self-defeating, and is part of the reason why CM Punk, wrestling’s most recent genuine breakout star, quit the company in 2014 and never came back.
The heavy focus on nostalgia doesn't just relate to the way the company presents wrestlers inside the ring. Older wrestlers tend to be the cover stars of WWE's annual video games. WWE has a range of slot themes due to be released to online slots websites toward the end of 2020, and names from the current era are few and far between. Hulk Hogan and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin will have their own online slots games. Daniel Bryan, Braun Strowman, Bray Wyatt, and many others will not. We're not pretending that online slots should be used as a gauge for the focus of the entire company, but they could be viewed as a tell-tale sign of who the company thinks is a start, and who it doesn't. From booking headline matches to trying to engage customers in other forms of media, WWE consistently tells its audience that the stars of yesteryear are a bigger deal than the stars of today.
One of the most ironic things in all of this is that pushing stars of the past is exactly what WWE used to mock former rival company WCW for. When Hulk Hogan was wrestling Roddy Piper in the main event of WCW Nitro one night in the 1990s, Triple H - then a young man - made sure to reference it and make fun of it on live television. Both Piper and Hogan were younger then than Big Show and Edge are today. If WWE isn’t able to face up to its youth issue quickly, there may still be danger on the horizon. Newer rival promotion AEW already handily beats NXT, WWE’s third brand, in television ratings every Wednesday. If RAW’s ratings slip much lower, AEW Dynamite might start beating that, too. For Vince McMahon, that would be unthinkable.
In the very short term, the move to focusing on old pros might have given WWE the ratings boost it so desperately wanted. Viewing figures for the past two episodes of RAW have been higher than the viewing figures of the eight episodes prior. They're still a long, long way down on where they were a year ago, though, and the aging stars of the past can't keep hauling their failing bodies to the ring forever. WWE needs to make a change and focus on youth soon, and if Vince McMahon can't see that, perhaps his position is one of the things that need to be changed.