For the first time in a long time, WWE might need to brace itself for an attack.
In 2001, Vince McMahon became the undisputed king of professional wrestling.
WWE bought out WCW and ECW and set up their own development territories (that now exist as NXT), and Vince McMahon had what he always wanted. He was truly the worldwide leader in sports entertainment.
If we’re being realistic, though, nothing is going to bring WWE down at this point. The company has been nearly invincible for 18 years, but there are some cracks beginning to show in Vince’s armor. There are plenty of factors at play, both internal and external, that suggest WWE might want to batten down the hatches.
Here are five reasons why WWE is the most vulnerable it has been in years.
5. Jumping Ship
In recent weeks, several WWE performers have made it clear that they’re not happy working in Vince’s International House of Beefcakes.
The ship-jumping started with a bang in January. Weeks before the Royal Rumble, Bodyslam.net reported that the Revival asked to be released from their contracts. Weeks later, just after the Rumble, Bleacher Report posted that Dean Ambrose would part ways with the company. Ambrose did not sign a new deal with WWE when his contract expired in April.
Immediately after WrestleMania 35, rumors started swirling that Sasha Banks wasn’t happy with the company. And just recently, Luke Harper asked for and was denied his release. Not only was he denied, but the company tacked on another six months to his deal to make up for time lost due to injury, as covered by Uproxx.
Oh, and remember the Revival? Dash Wilder also had time added to his contract — two months — to make up for his own injury time. Bodyslam.net reports this is to make up for a wrist injury. From 2017.
It’s okay, though, they’re independent contractors. Vince McMahon says so.
All of this amounts to a disgruntled locker room, which is nothing new in and of itself. What is new is that it’s been a long time since wrestlers have had a viable place to jump to. Enter All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
Sure, in years past, wrestlers could head to TNA or go back to the indies. But AEW is owned by a billionaire who can match Vince McMahon dollar-for-dollar. And given that the Revival were reportedly offered contracts worth $500,000 over five years by WWE that they have yet to accept, as reported by Fightful, it’s clear that Vince is going to have to do more than offer his locker room just enough money not to leave.
The inmates are getting restless, and for the first time in a long time, WWE might actually have to try to make them happy.
4. The Ratings Cliff
Since the end of the Attitude Era, the general consensus has been that television ratings don’t matter as much as they used to.
People don’t watch television now in the same way they did in 1998. They watch YouTube clips to catch up on what they missed. Or it’s on their DVR. Or they stream it on Hulu.
But ratings are an indicator of how many people are interested in your show enough to catch it live. And WWE’s ratings are low enough to suggest that rank-and-file television viewers just don’t care anymore.
The April 29, 2019, episode of Raw averaged just over 2.1 million viewers, which was a 9% drop from the previous week’s show. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the show lost viewers the longer it went on. About 2.3 million tuned in for the first hour, 2.2 for the second, and by the third hour the show had just shy of 1.9 million people watching.
So not only are fewer people watching, but those who are watching lose interest.
WWE can take comfort in the fact that they have a base of around 2 million viewers that won’t desert them. What they should consider, though, is that USA Network is paying them to keep them on their air for ratings.
And the money USA is paying WWE for their programming is chump change compared to the $1 billion (yeah, with a B) over five years that Fox is paying WWE to air SmackDown Live starting this October, as published by The Hollywood Reporter.
In other words, there’s a lot of money riding on WWE being able to deliver viewers. And the trends should definitely trouble Vince and his band of charlatans.
3. All The Old Familiar Places…
Television is all about familiarity. It is the Applebee’s of the entertainment industry. We want the same thing we got last time because we know we like it.
And WWE is certainly familiar. In fact, it’s formulaic. WWE hasn’t changed so much as a pair of socks in more than two decades, so it’s no surprise that their format is the same now as it was then.
Opening 20-minute promo, lower card match, backstage interview, mid-card match, middle-of-the-show 20-minute promo, etc.
Break it down further, and even the same basic layout of the feuds are the same as they were when WWE was carving up its competition. Look at the most hyped and most well-received storyline leading up to WrestleMania 35: Kofi Kingston vs. Daniel Bryan.
Kofi’s battle against Mr. McMahon for a title shot was a copy of Daniel Bryan’s 2014 program with Triple H to earn a title shot of his own. And that was, in turn, a diluted copy of Austin vs. McMahon, the signature Attitude Era feud, centered around Mr. McMahon’s idea of the perfect face of the company.
It’s a copy of a copy of a copy.
AEW is about to show mainstream and casual wrestling fans acts they’ve only heard about from friends-of-friends-of-friends. Finally getting a look at this Omega guy your buddies keep talking about might be enough to make you ditch the by-the-numbers sameness you’ve been watching for 20 years.
And while you’re at it, Applebee’s does serve other things, Carl.
2. The Beast Inert
Okay, Vince. We get it. You have a Brock Lesnar fetish.
In fact, you’re so into Brock Lesnar that you’re perfectly fine with throwing whatever money you can find laying around at the giant lug.
It’s true that Lesnar has already fulfilled the obligations of his current deal, having competed at Royal Rumble in January and at WrestleMania 35, but CBS Sports reports he’s also been confirmed to appear at WWE’s next PR disaster in Saudi Arabia.
Lesnar has been in a prominent match at every WrestleMania since 2013. Brock Lesnar conquered the streak at WrestleMania XXX (you probably hadn’t heard about that). He somehow managed to hold the WWE Universal Championship for 4,392 days in 2018 alone.
Vince McMahon sees dollar signs attached to Brock Lesnar’s name. And he’s more than willing to put dollar signs and lots of zeroes on Lesnar’s checks.
See, Lesnar’s WWE contract is unique. In simplest terms, he’s guaranteed a shitzillion dollars for making a set number of appearances. And if WWE wants him to do more than that number of appearances — let’s say they want him to wrestle Dolph Ziggler at Great Balls of Backlash Grounds or whatever — then they have to pay him an extra half-shitzillion dollars per extra appearance.
In other words, Vince McMahon allows Brock Lesnar to pretty much keep him by the balls.
And for what? Because he’s an “attraction?” We just covered that ratings suck for the company, and given that Lesnar works about six times a year, he won’t be able to move the needle there.
He’s a financial drain on the company, he doesn’t care about the company, and Vince is irreversibly convinced he’s a game-changer all the same. And assuming he was one, let us throw up a reminder of something we said earlier: AEW is owned by a billionaire who can match Vince dollar-for-dollar.
1. That Sweet, Sweet Saudi Money
Like most businesses, WWE’s goal is to make money. And they’re really good at it. Like, really good at it.
I can scream until I’m blue in the face about disgruntled talent, poor investments, and bad ratings, and WWE will make money hand-over-fist in spite of it. Vince McMahon never met a dollar bill he didn’t like.
And that becomes a bit of a problem when that dollar bill comes from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Taking money from Saudi Arabia is problematic in and of itself, but if history has shown anything, it’s that Vince doesn’t give a shit about “bad press.” In fact, he only responds to it if there’s a danger of losing money (thanks again, Snickers).
The problem with the Saudi deal is that it encompasses all of WWE’s vulnerabilities in one convenient package.
While WWE is able to get the superstars that the Crown Prince wants to see, like Undertaker, Lesnar, Goldberg, etc. (the Crown Prince has a thing for the elderly, I guess), Daniel Bryan and John Cena both actively refused to go along for the last show, Crown Jewel, in late 2018. Those two may have the clout to skip such a show. But what about everybody else?
Not everybody can cite perfectly valid personal reasons for missing a show without facing retribution. Sounds like the kind of thing to make someone want to request their release.
And given the nature of the superstars the Crown Prince likes (y’know, the elderly ones), the Raw and SmackDown Live before a Saudi show typically means that creative has to put whatever ongoing stories they have in process on hold. Who wants to watch an episode of a continuous series (that boasts it has no off-season) that has no bearing on anything else?
Perhaps worst of all (or best of all, if you’re Vince’s wallet), WWE is stuck with this deal. For a decade. If the Crown Prince wants Vince’s ramshackle carnival show, for a few extra bucks, he gets it. And WWE has to deal with all of the above all over again.
It’s an ample opportunity to make talent, TV networks, and the fans wonder what kind of shitshow they signed up for.
All images courtesy of WWE.