Over the last weekend, my son and I set up a couple of tables at the local biannual flea market to sell sports cards, old toys and other various items. At the front of one table sat a bin of Mattel and Jakks WWE figures of which my kids had duplicates or just no interest in. Included in that bin were about half a dozen John Cena action figures.
By the end of the weekend, my son and I had chatted with hundreds of different people. I would guess – without exaggeration – that 95% of those people picked up a Cena figure and knew exactly who he was. Football fans who were looking for cards and weren’t into wrestling items. Young kids who love wrestling. Older ladies who had no interest in anything we were selling. Teens and twentysomethings who are ardent wrestling fans. Thirtysomethings who haven’t watched wrestling since the Monday Night War.
Several people who recognized Cena didn’t know the Undertaker, Triple H or Roman Reigns. But they all recognized Cena, and they all had something to say about him.
“Are you flipping kidding me?” asked one older gentleman. “Half the figures in here have to be John Cena.”
“That must be John Cena,” said one older lady, who blushed a little as she showed the figure to a friend.
“Here’s that guy who’s always on Nickelodeon,” one man said to his kids. “John Cena.”
“Oh this is that one guy, what’s his name … John Cena? He’s badass. He used to be a marine,” said one guy in his early 30s.
“And his name is John Cena!” shouted two preteen boys in unison.
Everyone recognized John Cena. And by the end of the weekend, my son and I went home with every John Cena item we had brought with us.
One little boy bought action figures of Mark Henry and Kofi Kingston. Another wanted Johnny Nitro and Joey Mercury. A twentysomething ardent fan purchased figures of Eddie Guerrero and the Undertaker. But we didn’t sell one John Cena figure.
Several people were drawn in by a box of Topps poker-style chips on the corner of our table that featured wrestlers, NFL players, Star Wars characters, baseball players, Walking Dead zombies and more. One little girl jumped up and down excitedly as she found one of the Undertaker, but was dejected that she couldn’t find a Randy Orton. One 12-year-old boy with a dollar to spend immediately grabbed a chip of Doink the Clown. But we didn’t sell one John Cena chip.
Several people – mostly men in their 20s – were drawn in by a Ronda Rousey trading card we had displayed in a glass case. Several people stopped to look at cards of Finn Balor, Dean Ambrose and Charlotte. But not one person bought a John Cena card.
I didn’t even realize that we hadn’t sold any Cena items until the final day of the flea market was wrapping up. I texted a friend of mine to tell him about it.
“I think you just cut the greatest promo ever on Cena,” he joked.
That certainly wasn’t my intention. I just found it odd that so many people recognized Cena and took the time to make a comment, but we didn’t sell one item of his. But the more I thought about it, the whole experience was somewhat symbolic of Cena’s tenure as WWE’s top star. Everybody who looked at my table knew Cena. But when it came down to it, the people who cared enough to spend money on a wrestling item that I was selling wanted something else.
Cena has been WWE’s top star since 2005. And ever since then, WWE’s audience has – judging by TV ratings – gotten smaller.
The prevailing wisdom among some wrestling experts has been that, since becoming that top star, Cena has been the only legitimate draw in pro wrestling. He’s sold more T-shirts than anyone else in the last 10-plus years, and when he worked house shows, attendance was usually higher for the shows on which he appeared.
But other astute wrestling experts, like PWTorch contributor Todd Martin and MLW Radio’s Mister Saint Laurent, have a different take on things: Sure, John Cena sells more merchandise than anyone else, but WWE has lost a significant portion of the audience it had before anointing Cena the top star. When it came to previous top stars like Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin, fans who cared enough to pay for a ticket, merchandise or a pay-per-view event willingly spent their money on the “Hulkster” and Stone Cold. But with Cena, a sizeable portion of the WWE audience who cared enough to spend money took their wallets elsewhere.
There are certainly other measurements than TV ratings, and more reasons for WWE’s decline than just Cena as the top star. He’s been the face of WWE during Vince McMahon’s worst creative efforts, the Benoit family tragedy, the rise of UFC, the expansion of Raw to three hours and the WWE’s war on its own fans, to name a few. But as Martin has pointed out, for more than a decade WWE has shown a complete ineptitude for picking the right top stars – first Cena, then Reigns.
John Cena is a star. He looks great. He’s well-spoken. His public image was very carefully crafted and has been very dutifully protected, by Cena and those around him. He’s a great spokesperson for WWE and a great ambassador for the company to roll out to its corporate partners. You see him in commercials. You see him in movies. He’s the hardest working man in show business.
Thanks to WWE, everyone recognizes John Cena. But when it comes right down to it, a lot of people with money to spend have just walked right on by when they’ve seen him.
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PWTorch Collectibles Specialist Michael Moore can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMooreWriter.