Many pundits blame WWE's lack of star power for the company's lackluster TV ratings and dwindling live attendance numbers. Some argue that creatively-bereft storylines and inconsequential booking are also to blame, but others point out that most of the storylines we see throughout pro wrestling history are just riffs on prior stuff already and that, in actuality, a huge star can elevate middling writing into memorable booking.
And make no mistake - since the late-2000's, around the time RAW and SmackDown ratings started to drop consequently - WWE has had a huge problem building those huge superstars.
If you go back 20 years, guys like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, and Goldberg dominated professional wrestling. Waning legends such as Hogan, Nash, and Randy Savage still had a place on the card. Young upstarts - John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Dave Bautista - were just starting to claw their way into the business, and by 2005 would be carrying the torch themselves.
And all of these guys were not only larger-than-life stars... judging by their success outside the ring (say what you will about "Thunder in Paradise") they were also larger-than-professional-wrestling stars.
So what larger-than-professional-wrestling stars are on the roster today? Brock Lesnar? Ronda Rousey? Both part-timers, and both already known for pursuits outside WWE (one who made their name in UFC, and the other who solidified a legacy there).
Not Seth Rollins, or Daniel Bryan, or AJ Styles. Randy Orton definitely isn't bigger than the business. If you go back a few years, one could argue CM Punk fit that mold, maybe. The Miz? He's a huge star, but he's WWE-branded to a fault (and while I love the dude, The Marine franchise will never make a splash during awards season).
So what's the problem? Bischoff recently touched on this while discussing Dean Amrbose:
"But in WWE right now, WWE is the star. Everybody else on that roster is a costar, to one degree or another. Stars are now interchangeable."
"Vince McMahon learned what happened when competition comes along and takes your talent, and I think he endeavored to build a company that was for the most part impervious to that. He did it by making WWE the star, and the talent less significant than the show that they're on."
Bully Ray spoke about this exact topic on Jim Ross's podcast as well
"Seth Rollins has done it all and can do it all. But how come Seth Rollins is not at Cena level? How come he's not at Rock level? How come he's not at Austin level?
I learned a very important lesson from Vince McMahon one day... We were in a hallway and he said, 'Bubba, it's very rare that the boys have leverage on me, but when they do have leverage on me and they don't use it, shame on them.'"
And if a big star, potentially with leverage, does come in? Here's what McMahon had to say (in regards to Ronda Rousey) on a recent conference call:
"Nonetheless, bringing Ronda in gave us more visibility in terms of the initiative of reaching more women. And when you do something like that it allows you to not just use Ronda's platform from a different niche to come into WWE, Ronda in of herself becomes a brand of WWE."
This mindset seems opposite of the star-driven Attitude Era - McMahon sees all wrestlers in service to his company and his brand. Nobody can have the upper hand on Vince McMahon. And so he can't allow any one person to be bigger than his company.
A Lost Generation
Unfortunately, this outlook, and its resulting 50/50 "parity" booking scheme, has stunted the growth of countless breakout stars over the last 15 years.
Dolph Ziggler is perhaps this lost generation's poster-boy. Ziggler has it all - attitude, charisma, work ethic, a dynamic/entertaining in-ring style, and impeccable mic skills. Unfortunately, despite ascending to the world championship mountaintop once before, he's still seen as a glorified upper-mid-carder. McMahon and company have never let him break through that glass ceiling.
Similarly Randy Orton is one of the biggest names in the business, and between the ropes he's one smooth operator. Yet, nothing the Apex Predator does feels special anymore. Every match is routine. Orton's legacy will be a combination of his youthfulness and feuding with John Cena approx. 15 times a year, but he'll never be mentioned in the same breath as guys like Austin and Rock who took the business to all new heights.
Kofi Kingston is a talent. But he's always been utilized in a spotty sort of way - as a tag-team member, as a high-flyer, and as that guy who does something crazy in the Royal Rumble every year. Because he's rarely been given leeway to show his serious side (other than that brief feud involving a Nascar), Kingston has never been allowed to showcase his full potential.
That's not even touching the potential breakout stars who are no longer with the company. Some mite cite former World Champion Jack Swagger here, but I'd argue his tepid promos and lisp always kept him a few beats away from being the face of the company. Similarly, John Morrison is a great talent - just maybe not the complete package that WWE needs at the top of its card.
Really, Wade Barrett will always feel like "the one that got away." He was undoubtedly everything WWE wants from its stars - he had size and grit, great promo ability, and his in-ring style gelled with almost anybody he stood opposite. Barrett, much like Ziggler, could have carried the company on his shoulders and possibly broken through into superstar stratosphere. He was just never given enough leeway to make it happen.
The Elite Future
Then there's the elephant in the room… AEW.
It's too early yet to know how much of a game-changer The Elite's upstart promotion will be. But, it's seeming like the first time in almost a decade that talent have had a real WWE alternative in terms of both platform reach and creative flexibility. In fact, this might end up being the biggest option B since WCW Nitro was on the air.
That's why guys like Ambrose and Jericho - guys who have been sidelined by WWE 2010's booking - are leaving the company and potentially going elsewhere.
And if this all pans out (that's still a mighty big "if"), it means some stars might actually - finally - be able to break through Vince McMahon's glass ceiling. It might not be on McMahon's watch, or under his WWE umbrella, but it will absolutely affect his talent pool.
And that pesky "everything in service of WWE" mantra? It might finally become a thing of the past.