Vince McMahon is in the news a lot lately.
The XFL crumbled (again), he somehow made WWE “essential” in Florida amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and now he’s an adviser to the President of the United States.
No, seriously, that last part is true.
Of course, he wouldn’t be in the news in the first place without WWE. Love him or hate him, McMahon turned an old wrasslin’ territory into a global phenomenon.
It’s such a phenomenon and makes so much money, in fact, that it doesn’t even have to worry if it’s any good anymore. For years, fans have either been interested in or excited by the prospect of WWE’s life after Vince. Who will succeed him? What will the product be like? Will it finally be halfway watchable?
Wrestling fans who can’t wait for Vince McMahon to vacate his spot as WWE CEO often crow about how much better the company would be without him. But there are a lot of variables that – believe it or not – could leave WWE in a world of hurt when McMahon steps down.
For one thing, there will be one major question to answer.
Who Inherits The Throne?
Triple H. It has to be Triple H, right? Who else could succeed Vince McMahon?
Well, a lot of people, honestly.
For more than a decade, McMahon has clearly been grooming Triple H to fill his shoes. The thing is, though, this isn’t Game Of Thrones. There is no defined “next in line,” at least not as far as the public is concerned. Any public company worth a damn has a plan and probably a contingency plan behind that when it comes to succession. And Triple H may well fit into those plans. But it’s not a sure thing until it’s a sure thing.
WWE is run by a Board of Directors. And it’s the board who will vote to decide Vince McMahon’s successor when the time comes. Triple H may be the best-suited and most qualified to run a wrestling company.
Who’s to say the board will want it run like a wrestling company?
In 1988, Ted Turner bought Jim Crockett Promotions. The crown jewel territory of the National Wrestling Alliance. And he turned it into World Championship Wrestling. For WCW’s whole existence, Turner brass was determined that “wrestling guys” not run the company. And when wrestling guys did assume charge, they didn’t stay there long. Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and Bill Watts all got chased out of town.
Bean-counters and pizza chain execs traded the keys to WCW before the company settled on Eric Bischoff. It’ll come down to the lay of the land. If the market suggests that a wrestling guy is what will turn a profit, the board will vote to appoint a wrestling guy. However, when the time comes licensing could be bringing in the big dollars.
So Triple H or Stephanie McMahon – despite being members of the board themselves – succeeding Vince McMahon is not a guarantee.
Vince McMahon has carried a lot of “yes men” with him for a long, long time.
Why yes, I was thinking of Bruce Prichard. But we’re not going to talk about him in any detail.
For this point point, let’s talk a bit about Kevin Dunn. Dunn is the Executive Vice President of Television Production for WWE. And for more than 20 years, he has been Vince’s guy in the truck. He has been the producer and director for just about every major WWE event for two decades.
He defined the look, feel, and pace of WWE programming. Oh, and everybody hates him, as this piece from WhatCulture illustrates. Wrestling’s resident “old man yelling at cloud” Jim Cornette has very publicly said some terrible things about Dunn. And Triple H and Stephanie McMahon reportedly aren’t his biggest fans, either. When the guard changes, Kevin Dunn will be among the first to go.
But he won’t be alone.
Whoever succeeds Vince McMahon will have a lot of sycophants to remove from Titan Tower. There will be a corporate culture to refine (more on that in a minute), and the ones most closely married to McMahon’s vision will likely be let go. It won’t just be Vince McMahon in need of a successor. Maybe Bruce can get his gig with Impact back.
Clearing a senior staff of McMahon’s disciples is something just about any fan will agree is necessary. But let’s not pretend it won’t be disruptive.
An Audience Of One
“Okay,” you’re saying. “Regardless of succession, WWE’s creative will be better without Vince McMahon.”
Let’s explore that.
It’s true that the worst thing about WWE creative is how heavily-scripted it is. Wrestlers don’t cut off-the-cuff promos anymore. They read verbatim from tight scripts. The superstars “act,” if you can call it that, in bad sitcom vignettes. WWE’s reliance on scripting has left it void of spontaneity. None of these things are in dispute.
But consider also the horror stories of Vince McMahon tearing up the script for Raw or SmackDown. Mere hours or even minutes before show time.
WWE writers are writing for an audience of one. Scripts are written this way or that because “Vince will like that.” Or “Vince will think that’s funny.”
It doesn’t end with writing.
Vince McMahon has a stranglehold on every aspect of his production. The camera operators have been trained to capture the angles that Vince likes. Announcers have Vince in their ear all night long, tell them exactly what to say. And how he wants them to say it.
The point is, when Vince McMahon is gone, no one is going to know how to do anything. The product is so closely-groomed to be exactly what McMahon wants that the company’s entire culture will have to be rebuilt from the ground up.
Do I believe a post-Vince McMahon WWE will be a better WWE? Absolutely.
But let’s not pretend it’ll magically get better overnight.
For better or worse, Vince McMahon has his fingerprints all over WWE. When he abdicates the throne (or if the board ever realizes he should be overthrown), there will be a vacuum. Even if they fill the seat immediately.
Pro wrestling is a painfully cyclical business. It comes to and goes from the public consciousness in waves. But for 38 years, Vince has been there for every ebb and flow.
Neither Rome nor WWE was built in a day. World Wrestling Entertainment won’t be rebuilt in a day either.
All images courtesy of WWE.