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What can WWE do to turn things around? This question has been batted back and forth for more than a decade as the industry leader continues to see declines in fan interest. In recent weeks, weeks that saw record low viewership numbers for RAW, coupled with several key media articles about WWE's downward trend and aging audience, people are asking more questions than ever about Vince McMahon and WWE's creative process.
WWE has a serious problem and anyone that denies that is kidding themselves. While television revenue, driven thanks to a bidding war between FOX and NBCU, have WWE raking in record profits this year, people from all sides, from fans to current talent to the media to stock analysts, are all asking questions about WWE's future.
How does WWE plan on creating new fans? How can WWE stop loyal fans from abandoning the product? Who will be the next big start that starts a new boom period for the company? These are all persistent questions, and if you ask anybody on the internet, they are sure to tell you a list of things that WWE can do to improve.
The answer for WWE though isn't simple. There is not a quick fix that will turn things around. To put it bluntly, WWE has been losing fans since the Attitude Era ended almost two decades ago. Over that time, fans have been turned away for a number of reasons. For some fans, the retirement/absence of the key figures of that era, mainly Steve Austin and The Rock, led to their decision to stop watching. Some fans were burned by the switch to a more family-friendly product. Lately, a lot of fans have been turned away by bad booking and a lack of meaningful character development.
WWE has spent the last two decades eroding away the trust of the fans, and in order to build that trust back up again it will take years of competent booking and storytelling for fans who have stopped paying close attention to the product to return to it. Even at that point it may be too late, as history has told us wrestling fans that stop watching often don't come back.
When WCW was bought by WWE, the consensus was that fans who were still watching Nitro on Mondays would start watching RAW, since it was now their only choice. What ended up happening was that RAW viewership actually declined over the following years. The Nitro fans didn't just resign themselves to watching RAW, they just stopped watching wrestling all together and they never came back.
WWE isn't really in the position to try to bring fans back to the product, something they have constantly attempted to do by continuing to push old acts, including but not limited to, Bill Goldberg, Hulk Hogan, Triple H, Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and other names from the past on television hoping that lapsed fans will tune in to see their old favorites. It has worked at times to pop a rating for a week, but those fans don't stick around for the long term.
Instead, WWE needs to really create new fans, something the company basically hasn't done for more than 20 years. This is a massive challenge for WWE, since the company has largely been dormant from the mainstream for an entire generation. Since wrestling's popularity has been in decline for most of the 2000s, we are at the point where the average person in their 20s knows very little about professional wrestling, as compared to the generations before them. The story is the same for teenagers and young children; with wrestling being less popular than in prior generations, it is harder to build a new fanbase.
Historically the way to create new fans is by finding a business-altering superstar. During the 1980s that was Hulk Hogan, who created millions of new fans, mainly children, many of whom have turned into the middle-aged adults that carry WWE viewership today. In the Attitude Era, Steve Austin and The Rock created millions of new fans, mainly young adults and teenagers. Big stars are what drive new fans to the product.
However, that brings us back to the erosion of trust between WWE and its current fans, something that likely has an impact on WWE's ability to create the next big star. Fans have become more cynical over the years because WWE has botched so many potentially great stars and angles. When people say that WWE fans just hate the product, and don't have patience for angles, they are missing the point that the reason fans feel that way is because WWE has conditioned them to think like that.
Wrestling fans, even WWE fans, are fans because they generally like wrestling. They don't want the product they spend a lot of time watching to be bad. People who say that wrestling fans are just cynical haters and will dislike anything are ignoring that if fans are that cynical, it is because WWE has taught them that they shouldn't get invested in storylines, that they shouldn't be enthusiastic about a new wrestler, that they shouldn't care about some new stipulation, because for years and years WWE has dropped the ball in delivering on those expectations.
This will ultimately impact how WWE is going to create a new star that is going to bring business back up and make new fans. Fans have been conditioned to be much more skeptical about new names being pushed and have learned to temper their expectations for an exciting new star or angle, because their momentum could be cut off at any moment. This makes it more difficult for potential stars to build momentum and form a connection with the current fans, which makes it much harder for those stars to really break through and reach the point that they could start to bring in new fans to the product.
Would Steve Austin have gotten over to the extent that he did if he was coming into this environment? I think it is a very valid question, because as talented as he was, it would take a long time for him to get over with the fans, especially since his arrival in 1996 wasn't exactly smooth. If he was given a loser gimmick like The Ringmaster that might have been all she wrote for Austin in WWE, since fans have now been taught to dismiss talent that arrive and are immediately turned into afterthoughts, which is what happened to Austin in 1996 until his work with Bret Hart turned things around.
A lot of wrestling fans would say that the problem facing WWE right now is that Vince McMahon just doesn't have the ability anymore to build new stars, with the past two decades being pretty convincing evidence of that. Things in WWE won't really change until Vince steps away from the company completely, or he dies.
Even if you accept that premise, that only solves part of the problem. Sure, Vince's erratic booking practices have made it impossible for stars to really get over, but if Vince were to stop being a part of WWE, it leaves a massive hole that needs to be filled. Not only would WWE require a replacement for
Vince, whoever they choose to take over from Vince would have to be skilled enough to rebuild the trust with fans, and create new stars. There are plenty of people that could oversee creative and make decisions, but WWE doesn't just need a caretaker, they need someone who has real ideas that can connect with a new generation of fans and rebuild the trust with their current fans to get new talent over.
Look at what happened to WCW. When things started to go downhill in WCW, the company fired Eric Bischoff and brought in Vince Russo. Russo didn't have any answers and business-wise did more harm than good, so WCW canned Russo, there was a period when Kevin Nash was in charge, then Russo and Bischoff were brought back, etc. Nothing worked, no one WCW tried had the answers to stop the company's decline and WCW eventually went out of business.
WWE will find themselves in a similar situation, they don't just need to replace Vince, they need to replace him with someone (or a group of people) who does have answers and can turn things around. Fans might point to Triple H as the obvious successor, and maybe he does have the answers WWE is seeking. However, Triple H controls NXT and NXT has an older viewership than RAW and SmackDown, so while his approach to booking appeals to longtime fans, it does not connect with younger viewers or create new fans, which is what WWE really needs.
To summarize, WWE isn't going to turn things around with one brilliant idea or angle. Things like RAW Underground might be intriguing enough to avoid setting a new all-time low each week, but for WWE to really recover it is going to take a long time. The company has been doing damage to its fanbase for years and years, and it is going to take years and years for WWE to be able to repair that damage and to get back on track.