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WWE is doing that in 2017, starting off with the Royal Rumble taking place in a stadium for the first time since 1997 when it consequently also took place at the AlamoDome. The ticket sales have been a mixed-bag, with an expected paid attendance to be around 40,000 with tickets on the secondary market still priced fairly low. They can comp a decent amount of people and claim a number like 60,000 or something but it is unlikely to really get higher than 50,000. That is still a significantly better number than a 15,000 paid sell-out to a smaller arena, even with higher ticket prices. Even if they don't sell-out, there will be enough people there to make the event seem like a really big deal and it should be a finacial positive.
The main event of the show is obviously the Royal Rumble match and as I mentioned in my last column, it is as unpredictable as any Rumble I can remember. The odds-on favorite right now is The Undertaker, although recently Goldberg and Braun Strowman have also been the top pick in Las Vegas. According to several reports, the plan right now is to have The Undertaker win the match and challenge Universal Champion Roman Reigns for the title at WrestleMania. That would also indicate that Reigns is going to win the Universal Championship at the Royal Rumble from Kevin Owens. That does seem like the predictable finish, as WWE wants to move towards Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho facing off at WrestleMania and by having Jericho somehow cost Owens the title that sets them on that path.
Reigns vs The Undertaker is a really intriguing matchup because it only works if Reigns turns heel. They can't have The Undertaker wrestle Reigns and then put him over on the mic and tell everyone how great and tough he is because they have already tried that with Daniel Bryan, The Rock and AJ Styles and it hasn't led to him getting anymore support. The worse case scenario is that Reigns remains a babyface but still beats The Undertaker at WrestleMania because that would just cause fans to turn on him even more.
The solution to this is to turn Reigns heel, which would easily make this the best prospective match at WrestleMania and if Reigns were to beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania he would really build great heat and quickly become the top heel in wrestling. It seems like a no-brainer but WWE has been unbelievably stubborn in keeping Reigns a babyface so you can't count on them ever actually turning him heel even if that is clearly the right direction to go in.
If they are committed to making Reigns the top babyface they shouldn't have 'Taker win the Rumble and then face Reigns at WrestleMania. I still think the best idea is to have Samoa Joe debut, win the match and wrestle Reigns at WrestleMania. Joe is the kind of heel Reigns can have exciting matches with and he is talented and physical enough to get heat against Reigns. By pushing Finn Balor into the Universal Championship just weeks after he debuted on RAW, WWE has shown they are not afraid to quickly pull the trigger on a guy coming up from NXT and very few people doubt Joe's ability to do the job that is assigned to him.
Interestingly enough, both Brock Lesnar and Goldberg have emerged as trendy picks to win the Royal Rumble. Since the plan is still to do Lesnar vs Goldberg at WrestleMania, that would seem to indicate if one of them did win the Rumble, the other would have to become Universal Champion before WrestleMania, or it would be a multi-man match at WrestleMania with Lesnar, Goldberg and the champion. That just doesn't make much sense to me because Goldberg and Lesnar do not need to have a title in their match to make it a big deal, so why not leave the Universal Championship out of the match and use it to promote another match that needs it? WWE could still book either Lesnar or Goldberg to win the title because their philosophy has been that the part-time stars are booked to look stronger than the full-time guys, but it would be a total mistake to do that.
The Royal Rumble match has 22 declared wrestlers which leaves about eight spots open that will be filled by surprise guys. Chances are they are going to be mostly regular main roster guys, but there is always the potential for a big return, an NXT star or one of the UK guys to show up. Tye Dillinger would seem like a perfect candidate to come in at #10, in fact if they didn't have him in at #10 they better put someone like The Miz or Chris Jericho in that spot because the crowd will tear that person apart. Kurt Angle could also return and show up and if he were to do so he would get one of the biggest pops in WWE history--really any wrestling fan should be praying for that to happen just because it would be such a powerful moment. There is also the chance that Finn Balor returns, but the reports around his shoulder injury are tepid and really he shouldn't rush anything; even if that means sitting out for longer and missing WrestleMania.
Someone that could also make a surprise appearance is Triple H. Triple H and Stephanie managed to screw Seth Rollins out of the Royal Rumble match despite Triple H not even appearing on RAW, but it would make sense to have Triple H enter the Royal Rumble and have Rollins, who otherwise has nothing planned for the night, to come out and eliminate Triple H because he just can't wait to get his hands on him. If Seth was smart and WWE had any creativity whatsoever, my friend Ken Hill mentioned to me the idea that when Triple H is at NXT on Saturday, Rollins should emerge and jump him. This would compound the complex image that WWE has created for Triple H in that on RAW he is an evil bastard but outside of that he is a fan favorite who creates wonderful things like the UK Tournament and the Cruiserweight Classic; but it would make Rollins look way better than showing up on RAW and calling out someone who isn't going to be there.
In regards to WrestleMania, right now there do not seem to be any definite plans for either John Cena or AJ Styles at WrestleMania. Since Cena is challenging for the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble, you can still stretch out their feud until WrestleMania if they need to. Cena was originally planned to wrestle The Undertaker, which would have been an enormous match, but that match got nixed and now Cena has no clear plans. The looming storyline in Cena's career is that he is one title reign away from tying Ric Flair's "not a real record but in WWE it is" record of 16 career world title reigns. What I could see WWE doing is have Cena win at the Royal Rumble and then lose the title at Elimination Chamber, either to Styles or someone else, and then win the title back for the record-breaking 17th time at WrestleMania. That is hotshotting the title around for sure, but nobody gets to 17 world title reigns without some blink-and-you-missed-it title reigns. I think Cena wins at the Royal Rumble and even if he doesn't, there is no logical way for Cena to leave WrestleMania without holding the title.
Also on the main card is the RAW Women's Championship match between Charlotte and Bayley. Charlotte has been tremendous in her role as the top heel champion, but I can't help but think that her character would be even better if she didn't have to swap the title with Banks a couple of times during the fall. It is more difficult to take someone seriously as a dominant heel champion if they hadn't already choked away the title a couple of different times. Bayley is the perfect opponent for Charlotte because her shy attitude is a perfect parity to Charlotte's cocky attitude, and together they can have a program that may be better than Charlotte and Sasha Banks from last year. I will say that they have to be careful with Bayley's character and avoid putting her in situations where she doesn't come across as too corny (like the cringeworthy poetry segment) and build her as a believable hero. They are clearly trying to mimic the Daniel Bryan storyline against Randy Orton, but they have to be mindful that Bryan was a uniquely talented individual and you can't just recycle that storyline and expect it to have similar results.
The last match on the main card is Neville vs Rich Swann for the Cruiserweight championship. The Cruiserweight division has been on quite the odyssey since it returned to RAW last fall. TJ Perkins was the original champion but they soon flipped the title to Brian Kendrick and it looked like he was to be the top heel in the division, but he was knocked off by Rich Swann. Now they have pivoted once again and it looks like Neville is now going to be the new ace of the division. To their credit, Neville as a heel has really spiced things up in the division and if they are given enough time they can have a show-stealing match. Neville and Swann are probably the two best pure athletes in the whole company, really they can have a match that will get people talking as one of the best WWE matches of the year.
One thing made abundantly obvious in the build-up to the Royal Rumble is just how clearly this is a RAW-dominated event. Despite the fact that SmackDown has been generally received as a better show and has crept up on RAW in the ratings, WWE is going out of their way to make sure everyone knows RAW is more important. This is a repetitive issue for them; instead of riding the wave of fan support and promoting the hell out of SmackDown, they are going to fight their own fans and show them that they really should be watching RAW and not SmackDown. Out of the 22 listed participants, 14 of them are representing RAW and 8 are from SmackDown. On the main card (not counting the Rumble) there are 3 RAW matches and only 1 SmackDown match. Not to mention all of the big part-time names (Goldberg, Lesnar, Triple H, The Undertaker, Angle if he comes back) are all RAW stars, ensuring that RAW will always have more star power. If you were running a pizza shop and you were selling a lot of subs, you wouldn't go out of your way to make sure everyone knew pizza was what the business was all about. Any reasonable business person would market the hell out of the subs because it looks like a promising asset to the pizza shop. That's not a perfect analogy, but you get the point--because of politics and self-fabricated image, they operate in way that often times is completely counterproductive to making money.