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The average age of a wrestler in the men’s Royal Rumble match that took place two weeks ago was 39 years old, making it the oldest match of its kind in WWE history, breaking the record set the previous year. WWE’s reliance on stars from a previous generation has been well-documented, but that reliance has extended beyond just the occasional match or appearance by Goldberg or The Undertaker, and has become a larger problem throughout the roster, and also shines a spotlight on the company’s poor developmental track record as well as the improper utilization of young talent that has prevented WWE from expanding its audience, especially with younger viewers.
If you take a closer look at the details from the Royal Rumble participants, it becomes easy to draw some conclusions. The first is that the match contained a bunch of older wrestlers, an astonishing 16 wrestlers in that match were over the age of 40. What is even more troubling is that the match contained very few young wrestlers, only Otis and Dominik Mysterio were under the age of 30, and they lasted a combined 2:53 in the match.
Age of course is just a number; and many of the wrestlers that are 40 or older are still in great physical condition, capable of being full-time wrestlers and performing at a high level. However, WWE has really struggled to attract viewers in the desirable 18-34 demographic in recent years, and I think a major part of that is the company fails to create characters that would be appealing to younger audiences. WWE is always going to have a tough time connecting with younger viewers when creative is being led by a man in his 70s, but the simplest way to try and establish wrestlers that appeal to younger fans is to push wrestlers who fall into that demographic.
For example, take a look at the Attitude Era, which was the last time WWE was able to create a giant new generation of wrestling fans, many of whom were teenagers or in their early 20s. Who were the wrestlers that were the stars for the WWF during that time period? Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, The Undertaker, Mick Foley, Kane, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, etc. Every single one of them were 35 or younger when they first received their big pushes to the top of the card, and some, including The Rock and Triple H, were still under 30.
What made those wrestlers successful was that they had a strong connection with the audience that the company was growing at the time, the younger viewer who was interested in the over-the-top violence and aggression of those characters. Those wrestlers having some control over their character and being close to the same age as the young audience made the company hip and attractive to members of the 18-34 demographic. It is naturally going to be more difficult when all of the wrestlers are over 40.
Looking at the Royal Rumble participants alone does not tell the enitre story; after all Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre are the two world champions and they are both 35, but it does give a good impression of the WWE roster as a whole, at least on the men’s side. The company simply does not have many young faces on the roster. Even “new” names such as Braun Strowman (37), Riddle (35), Keith Lee (36) and Damien Priest (38) are all older than the Attitude Era guys when they first got their push.
For the women’s side, it is a different story. In almost all of women’s professional sports, the age-range for peak athletic performance is earlier than in male sports. In addition, there is less of a historical standard to look at, since WWE has only seriously pushed women’s wrestling for a handful of years. Still, probably fewer names than you think are under the age of 30; in the women’s Royal Rumble only Peyton Royce, Liv Morgan, Rhea Ripley and Alexa Bliss were main-roster wrestlers who were under 30.
Why is the roster so old? For years, Vince McMahon did not like older wrestlers, and once a wrestler was approaching 40 he was quick, oftentimes too quick, to phase them out. This was a key part in names like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, etc. finding their way to WCW when they were still very capable of drawing big money. Over the years, McMahon has become more open to pushing older names and now he is at the other end of the spectrum; consistently pushing older names over a younger generation of wrestlers.
A big part of this is because WWE’s popularity has been in decline for years, and in order to stop the streak, Vince has relied on names from the past over and over again to provide a short-term boost to viewership and interest. It has become a running joke that after a particularly bad viewership number for RAW, WWE will announce a special “legends night” for the following week, hoping Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan or Shawn Michaels can pop a rating.
Vince’s reliance on old names has been particularly apparent when it comes to the biggest positions in the company, such as the main event of WrestleMania. Not since 2011, when John Cena wrestled The Miz, has WrestleMania been main evented by a match that featured all full-time performers. The one exception would be WrestleMania 35, but that match had Ronda Rousey who served basically the same-function as the part-time former stars like Triple H, Brock Lesnar or The Undertaker. Not once in the past ten years has Vince shown the confidence to headline his biggest show with two wrestlers who are actually part of the current generation of performers. It has always been a nostalgia trip to the past.
There is a tremendous bit of irony that comes from this happening to Vince McMahon. To go back to the Attitude Era, when Vince let Hogan, Savage and Piper walk to WCW, it appeared that at first he had made a tremendous mistake, because all of those guys drew big money for WCW. However, Vince had the last laugh, because he built new, younger stars that ultimately drew even more than the legends he let walk away; while WCW continued to clutch on to its past nostalgia and never created new stars, and the company quickly collapsed. Today, Vince has found himself as the guy who can’t create new stars, constantly relying on the old names to draw interest for him, to diminishing returns.
However, there has been plenty of coverage of WWE’s reliance on older names to pop business. What probably flies under the radar is how old the general age of the roster has become. We are not talking about one or two special attractions getting a big match at WrestleMania, we are talking about the entire WWE roster shifting towards being over the age of 40.
A key element of why WWE’s main roster is so old is the lack of success that has come from the WWE Performance Center. The Performance Center was established in 2013, costs WWE approximately $20 million per year, and has been home to hundreds of recruits, and what does the company have to show for it? In the Royal Rumble match, only Elias, King Corbin, Otis and Strowman were true trainees from the Performance Center. Strowman is the only one that could be considered anything close to a star, and it isn’t like there was a ton of talent outside of the Royal Rumble match that fans could point to as potential stars either. Maybe Chad Gable, Montez Ford and one or two others. The Performance Center simply hasn’t produced stars the way WWE hoped it would.
If you expand that thought to FCW, which didn’t have anything close to the kind of financial investment that the Performance Center has had, things don’t look much brighter. For a territory that was around from 2007 to 2012, the only talent broken in that could be considered relevant main roster talent is Reigns, Big E and The Usos. Obviously Reigns has emerged, by sheer attrition, as a big star, but if you look back at the last 14 years of WWE developmental, the only true big star the company has produced has been Reigns. Everyone else was pilfered from the independents or larger companies (NJPW and TNA). Even if you throw in women’s wrestlers, the only “big” stars you can point to WWE developmental for are Charlotte, Bianca Belair and Alexa Bliss.
Unbelievably, OVW, which stopped being a WWE developmental territory in early 2008, had a bigger influence on the Royal Rumble than the Performance Center and FCW combined, with Randy Orton, The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, John Morrison and Bobby Lashley all participating in the match. It is simply incredible to think that 20 guys training in a cold gym in Louisville from 20 years ago has a greater impact on WWE’s main roster today than the WWE Performance Center, which has cost WWE hundreds of millions of dollars over the years.
Part of the reason the main roster is so old is that Vince and WWE have dropped the ball creatively when it comes to making new stars. That is certainly a factor, but in most cases, Vince has blown it with promising names from the independents or other promotions; Ricochet, Matt Riddle and Andrade being some recent examples. With the exception of Chad Gable, is there any true WWE-trained guy that WWE has really dropped the ball with? Most of the trained talent that has flopped on the main roster simply has not been up to the standard set by the main-roster.
At Elimination Chamber, Drew McIntyre will defend the WWE Championship, against The Miz, Jeff Hardy, AJ Styles, Sheamus and Randy Orton. All of McIntyre’s challengers are over the age of 40. With the exception of Styles, all of whom have been in the company dating back at least 10 years. The Elimination Chamber would be a good chance to put in a younger, fresher face and give them a few elimination spots before coming up short; instead WWE is relying on names from previous generations to carry the match.
Year-after-year, it seems like the company is in a spiral where they rely more and more on talent that is aging out of their primes. It’s great to have veteran talent, but if WWE wants to create a new generation of fans, they need to push talent that younger fans can identify with. Pushing talent that is the age of their parents is not going to get it done, even if that talent can still perform at a high level. WWE needs to do a better job presenting talent that is closer in age to younger fans if they want those fans to become invested in WWE’s product.
In the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@Jesse Collings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss the career of CM Punk. They go over what made him so successful in WWE, the forces that ultimately led to his departure from the wrestling industry, the influence that he had over WWE’s product throughout the 2010s and his possible future in the industry.