The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
A few times a year, WWE fans find themselves having a rush of anxiety while watching a major match. In the halcyon old days, that anxiety might be because the heel could end up beating your beloved babyface in a match that had real stakes. Today, that anxiety comes not from the heel/face dynamic, but because WWE has consistently made enough shortsighted, self-sabotaging booking moves that when the possibility of something disastrous arises, there is a sense of dread that WWE will steam right ahead and hit the iceberg.
Today’s example is Goldberg squashing The Fiend and winning the WWE Championship, likely undoing a year’s worth of work in trying to create a new character in The Fiend in order to put the title on a star well past their prime. The sad thing about the result wasn’t that it was shocking, but rather that many fans could predict it happening and watched in horror as it unfolded on their TV screens on Thursday afternoon.
Why does WWE do this though? The problem, like almost every problem in WWE, comes back to WWE’s inability over the last 10+ years to generate new fans and establish new stars who have a defined positive impact on their business. In the case of what we saw today, despite the positive steps made in protecting The Fiend character over the past year, Goldberg is still a bigger star to the target audience WWE is looking to court, especially with WrestleMania around the corner.
WrestleMania is built on not hardcore fans who watch WWE throughout the year, but the extremely casual fans who might only watch WrestleMania each year and nothing else. To those fans, Goldberg is a big name and a big attraction (comparatively) because they remember him as a big star 22 years ago, which is when they were big wrestling fans. Those fans do not care about The Fiend, they probably don’t even know who he is, but they know Bill Goldberg. If the goal of WrestleMania is to offer the bigger matches possible, Goldberg vs Roman Reigns (or The Undertaker) for the WWE Championship is a more marketable match to WWE’s available audience than if The Fiend was in that position.
Of course this could all be avoided if WWE just developed new stars that were able to capture the imaginations of old fans, or better yet, young people who have never seriously been exposed to wrestling. A few weeks ago, I wrote about WWE’s problem courting younger viewers and how WWE’s remaining fanbase is comprised mostly of fans who first got into wrestling more than two decades ago. This is the kind of result that happens when the company doesn’t make any new fans; they have to rely on gimmicks to try and get the old fans back to tune in instead of trying to form an impression on younger fans.
I can assure you that younger fans and people who have not watched a lot of wrestling in their lives are not intrigued by seeing a man in his 50s, even if he is in great physical shape for his age, be presented as a killer and dominant force. Take away the nostalgia fans have for Goldberg (and The Undertaker) and you have guys who look like people’s parents (and for young children, their grandparents) being pushed as the biggest stars in the company. That is not productive to creating new viewers and sparking a new generation of WWE fans.
This has all created a circular dynamic in WWE. The older wrestlers are more over than the current generation because when they come back, they are fiercely protected and pushed at a certain level that the younger, regular members of the roster cannot match. When WWE needs to reel in the lapsed fans to come back for an event like WrestleMania, they bring in the older stars and push them to the moon; often at the expense of the younger wrestlers, with tonight being a shining example of that. WWE reassures its own fanbase that the older wrestlers are the real stars and everyone else is secondary.
What makes things additionally frustrating is that this is not a new issue for WWE, these are consistent mistakes repeated again and again. When Bray Wyatt first debuted in WWE, he was an intriguing personality who began to get over with the fans and seemed to be making real progress; but that began to dissipate when he was consistently booked to lose major matches. Eventually his support declined, and he had to be written off TV and repackaged into this new character. The Fiend did catch on to an extent, but WWE repeated its past mistakes with a Wyatt character and had him lose a very important match.
The fact that The Fiend lost in an embarrassing manner is another problem. While Goldberg is presented as a big star, he is still an older guy with a very limited moveset. After The Fiend had been protected in such an extreme manner leading up to this match, having him lose after a sloppy jackhammer in under three minutes added insult to injury. It was always going to be a little awkward when he eventually lost. I assumed that was going to be at WrestleMania after Reigns superman-punched him to death, but it ended up being far worse than that.
Personally, I was not a huge fan of The Fiend. The Firefly Funhouse segments were really creative and the character had a different aura that made him stand out, but I thought his matches were pretty much always bad, his character too overpowered and I was fearful that WWE would never be able to properly elaborate on his character, similar to the cult-leader Wyatt character that fizzled out.
However, my personal thoughts aside, WWE really was trying something different with The Fiend and while he didn’t really move ratings all that much or sell live tickets at a noticeable rate, he was catching on with a lot of fans and WWE really can’t afford to continue to keep pissing those fans away. Some people think that the hardcore base will watch no matter what, but I hope those people were paying attention when RAW pulled a number 24 percent lower than the previous year’s show on Monday. WWE has been losing fans for years, and there is only so much even the most hardcore fans can take before they tap out and stop watching.
Eventually, names like Goldberg and The Undertaker will become too old to perform and they will not be cleared to wrestle. WWE doesn’t appear to have any real backup plans if that happens because they consistently are focused on cannibalizing their present and future in order to try to reach back into their past to squeeze one more big show out of their fading superstars. As the rest of their fanbase ages out of the key 18-49 demo, WWE is going to regret never consistently building for the future.