So the real reason you may not have heard about it recently is something else entirely - it’s been awful.
Save for one or two bright moments, the WWE has not really wanted to push itself to be better without fans in attendance to cheer the efforts along. Instead, it’s been on autopilot, driving an already stale product to breaking point.
Ratings have hit record lows, mainstream media interest is non-existent, and fan unrest is rampant, particularly as WWE has also chosen to use the pandemic to justify large employee layoffs (despite record profits).
But, this Friday’s Smackdown will finally see the return of live fans, and all being well signify the start of touring again. This represents the company's best chance in maybe a decade to hit the reset button.
So, if given Vince McMahon’s job, here are the changes I’d make to right the ship, and deliver an output that appeals to fans on all levels. I’ll keep them realistic, but they will get more fanciful as we continue.
For context, I have been a wrestling fan since the year 2000, and previously wrote for the excellent Prowrestling.net for years. However, I haven’t watched Raw or Smackdown weekly in almost 5 years. I ducked out the last time the product was floundering, and now with access even more limited given the switch to BT Sport, I’m in no rush to come back.
Thanks to the efforts of YouTube wrestling outlets, WrestleTalk in particular, I have kept up with everything happening though, and still watch every PPV. I do however watch NXT every week, and duck in and out of NXT UK whenever good matches are advertised. Recently, I have also become a pretty consistent watcher of AEW, the WWE’s first true competition in North America in 20 years.
I give you all this context so that you can see where I am coming from. Feel free to use this info to either back up or immediately discredit any opinions I’m about to give.
1. Accept you’re a wrestling company.
Recently, it was reported that higher ups in WWE are making moves to make the company “the new Marvel” - a crossover phenomenon across multiple mediums. And to be fair, the two companies have a lot in common - a large cast of colourful and over the top characters who solve issues through physical action, they both nearly went bankrupt in the 90s, and the gratuitous use of Dave Batista.
So my first and most fundamental change is a reversal of these intentions, and embracing fully the fact that the WWE is a wrestling company. Nothing more, nothing less.
No more will the primary drive be to push out to seek new mainstream attention and fans, which the company has never been shown to be capable of doing anyway without coming off as cringey or desperate. Instead the focus will be insular, with the idea being that by becoming the best wrestling company in the world, the attention and fans they seek will be drawn in any way.
And although I really don’t want to carry on the layoffs the company has been carrying out, I’m shutting down the God forsaken “WWE Studios”, the film arm of the company that has made *checks notes* 58 MOVIES. Which amounts to the actually good Fighting with my Family, a bunch of Flintstones and Scooby-Doo crossovers, sequels to Jingle All The Way and Surf’s Up, and 50 more nondescript, straight to DVD "action" or """comedy""" movies. Get rid.
2. Stop trying to be other TV shows
It’s almost impressive to be going backwards under those circumstances. And the WWE themselves have pointed to their large social media and YouTube following as a way of excusing these drops, claiming people are just changing how they consume their content. Which is fair, but the TV channels carrying their shows aren’t going to be happy about record lows every week.
And again, I believe this goes back to the notion that WWE doesn’t want to be a wrestling show, but a variety show. Vince McMahon doesn’t want to compete with sport - he’s more concerned with This Is Us than UFC. Why else would he insist on hiring TV writers from outside of the business, who aren’t even 100% sure what wrestler’s names are sometimes?
So again, we’re going back to being a wrestling show. To do this, there will be new head bookers at the helm, with more decentralised powers to do what they want. Bruce Pritchard, who is currently the creative lead for both Raw and Smackdown, will instead act as a go-between for the two shows to ensure some continuity. Instead, we’re placing Triple H in charge of Raw, and Paul Hayman in charge of Smackdown.
Triple H's tenure as the behind the scenes leader of NXT led to that showing being the best week-to-week wrestling show of the last 10 years. He is more than ready, and long overdue a crack at the big time.
Heyman has had some rocky moments as a head booker in recent history, but when his stuff is good it’s untouchable (see the current Roman Reigns saga for proof). He’ll have the likes of Pritchard and other writers to smooth some of his quirks out, but otherwise he is free to work his magic.
They don’t need to have a CV composed entirely of the lyrics from John Cena’s entrance theme, nor have “Death to WCW” tattooed on their eyelids. But wrestling is a strange beast, and trying to get guns-for-hire writers who don’t like the sport to understand its appeal can be a very hard thing indeed (as anyone with disinterested partners will attest to). If these writers are already fans, adapting their experience to suit this unique art form will be a lot easier.
But perhaps more importantly, we’re going to start hiring with diversity in mind. The company has made some strides forward in its relationship with LGBTQ+ wrestlers and fans, but their first stab at a lesbian storyline involved two female wrestlers who are both straight in real life, so, you know, still some big hurdles to clear. LGBTQ+ writers don’t need to exclusively write storylines involving wrestlers from their community, but will be put in charge when those storylines are pitched.
And above all else, we’re going to be hiring women. The increased importance and visibility of women’s wrestling in WWE the last few years has been fantastic, but it’s easy to tell that for the most part they have been booked and scripted by men. Most promos basically boil down to who can say “bitch” with the most volume and frequency. Getting authentic voices in there will help a lot with this, and maybe open the product to be more accessible and appealing to women. Which brings me nicely on to my top, albeit long shot, choice to replace Triple H as NXT’s head honcho - AJ Lee.
Women head bookers are few and far between. Mickie James is heading up a women only PPV for the NWA, and Maria Kanellis is taking charge of ROH’s women’s division, but considering both had less than smooth releases from WWE recently, the likelihood of them coming back seems unlikely.
AJ Lee may not have that experience, but she’s a very talented creative writer, who recently wrote a Wonder Woman story for DC. People forget that her departure from the company was no where near as hostile as her husband CM Punk’s was, and lest we forget that time (and money) heals all wounds. The prospect of being WWE’s first female bead booker may be enough to turn her head, and they have the experience in NXT to cover for her initial inexperience, including the likes of William Regal and long time friend of CM Punk, Samoa Joe.
4. Less scripting, more ad-lib
A long time criticism of WWE by those who have left in recent years is the existence of an atmosphere of stifled creativity. More and more, every word a wrestler says is scripted for them. Long gone are the days where wrestlers were trusted to go out there with just a microphone and a few bullet points from the writers to say what they wanted. Instead, your dialogue, mannerisms and character arc are taken out of your hands.
This new WWE we are building will cultivate an atmosphere of choice. If a wrestler is confident in their ability to go out there and make their dialogue up on the spot, with a little bit of workshopping with a writer beforehand, they are free to do so. Obviously there are downfalls to this, but I’m sure those taking up with option will be quite happy to live and die by the sword (or microphone) if it means they can be free to sculpt their own character.
And those who aren’t confident can be scripted. There is no shame in admitting that talking isn’t a strong point - lest we forget this is a sport first and a soap opera second. You wouldn’t avoid hiring a great footballer if they sucked at post-match interviews, would you?
When you find a situation where a person happy to ad-lib is feuding with someone who isn’t, you find a work around. Collaboration will only help both performers grow.
5. Cutting content
There is no reason outside of advertising money to make a Lord of the Rings length episode of Raw every week, on top of the other 4 hours worth of content you run a week. It burns out everyone, be they wrestlers, writers or viewers, and makes each show structured to be somewhat missable, which tells your viewers that your content isn’t important.
TV contracts can’t be changed that easily, so if a 3rd hour is required until contracts renew, then turn the last hour into a clip show. The WWE has the world’s biggest wrestling content library at its disposal, so use it to recap classic feuds, hype upcoming PPVs and in general push people towards the Network.
And whilst we’re making oft-mentioned changes, we’re also going to reduce PPVs by a lot. Again, I understand the economic pressures to not do this, but I do have a compromise that I’ll get to in a second. The big headline is that all but 6 PPVs are going, all spaced with roughly 2 months between them - WrestleMania, Money in the Bank, Summerslam, Survivor Series, Royal Rumble and one more that will either be Elimination Chamber or a 6th one to be mentioned later.
This saves a lot of match gimmicks from over saturation. No mandatory TLC matches, no mandatory Extreme Rules matches, and above all else, NO MORE MANDATORY HELL IN A CELL. The devaluing of WWE’s biggest and best feud ender is a biblical tragedy, and we’re going to rest it for a few years to start the rebuilding process.
So how do you make up for that shortfall? My master plan revolves around network specials from all around the world. Not PPVs, but network exclusive shows, to both counter balance the time differences and to incentivise more people to get the Network. Instead of an American crowd that are accustomed to WWE shows coming to their area on the regular, you put on 3 - 4 shows a year in front of hot to trot international audiences. These shows aren’t narratively important, but instead set up to either be exhibition match heavy or centred around tournaments.
And not just safe choices like the UK and Australia either - go to places like India, South Africa and Brazil. Japan is always a unique place to hold WWE shows, and why the hell don’t they run big shows in Mexico?!
But not Saudi Arabia. We’re getting out of that cursed contract ASAP.
6. Sign that New Japan deal
It makes sense for WWE to pursue this - AEW is already putting in place working agreements with the likes of Impact and AAA in Mexico, so why shouldn’t they try to do the same, which if successful would also deny AEW the chance to do the same, robbing them of a major feather in their cap. They would also make an ally of their equivalent in Japan, making them no longer a rival but a partner.
This opens up a lot of options for the wrestlers. In my perfect world, talent exchanges would be limited, both in terms of numbers and time, but done with goals in mind. Talent wouldn’t just float freely between the companies - anyone swapping sides are doing so with a somewhat set in stone plan for 6 or so months.
Kazuchika Okada coming to win the WWE title to cement his place as an all time great? Yes please. The glorious return of Shinsuke Nakamura to the house he helped build? Sign me up. Alpha Academy being the all conquering gaijin of the New Japan tag ranks? Sounds sweet. The partnership may even be enough to tempt Daniel Bryan to resign, which is worth the effort alone!
All of this feeds into my idea for that 6th PPV of the year - a once a year showdown between WWE and New Japan for all the world to see. Alternate which country it is held in, and have it mimic what Survivor Series has become, with both companies vying to be the overall winner on the night.
7. Buy Ring of Honor
I know, as a wrestling fan, that this just removes another business for guys to work for. This decision is purely selfish - I loved ROH, but it is next to impossible to follow as a UK fan, and it’s teetering on the edge of obscurity. It is owned by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, so money won’t ever be a problem for them, but there are upsides to WWE in making this purchase.
For one, the video library would be so valuable, not least because dozens of big names in WWE - Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Samoa Joe, CM Punk and more - cut their teeth in ROH. The Network, and any future documentaries, would benefit hugely from this influx of content.
Secondly, with NXT morphing into a proper 3rd brand and moving away from its roots as a quasi independent promotion for hardcore fans, ROH has the chance to be moulded into what NXT used to be. Sure those still developing their craft can feature on the show, until they are ready for NXT proper, but you can also make it the home of technical, gritty wrestling, stripped bare of all the glitz and glamour of the main roster.
Thirdly, it’s a chance for ROH to receive the ECW treatment. Despite what countless documentaries and anniversary shows would tell you, ECW wasn’t as big a deal as WWE have made it out to be. It too was a relatively small company putting on cutting edge wrestling, not too dissimilar to ROH. I’d love for ROH to receive the same amount of reverence through the WWE marketing machine, especially because their legacy is a lot less harmful than ECW’s.
And finally, this would give WWE access to the PPV name War of the Worlds, the perfect name for the WWE vs. New Japan PPV.
So those are my changes. This turned into a bit of a marathon, but hopefully it outlines how, with just a few changes, WWE can climb out of this hole it finds itself in. I really do hope, whatever they chose to do, WWE uses this unexpected opportunity to hit the reset button to really bring about positive change.