SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
There’s no denying the WWE Network has been a groundbreaking achievement for not only professional wrestling, but also for any sports entity. While there’s a mounting pile of evidence that points to Vince McMahon being out of touch when it pertains to what audiences want to see unfold in the ring, one can’t deny the fact that the Network is way ahead of the curve when it comes to emerging streaming technology.
Yet, despite all the network offers in the form of pay-per-view events, NXT, documentaries, thousands of hours of classic wrestling spanning every era, and a steady stream of original content, the WWE has struggled to add subscribers or keep the ones who do sign up. Without further ado, let’s look at a few things the WWE could do to make the network even better.
Trim the fat…
Running a Raw and a Smackdown event each month with the rosters only combining for one of the “Big 4” has put a strain on talent and storylines already spread too thin. I get why they want to do it. At $9.99 a month, the WWE can pitch fans that they’re saving $100 a month over what the old PPV would cost in the pre-Network era. Serving up more events should increase the perceived value of the WWE Network, making it a no-brainer for fans, especially given the fact that the first month is free.
However, between three hours on Mondays, two hours on Tuesdays, an hour of NXT each week and an additional six hours split between two Sundays a month, the creative team and the talent just can’t fill all that time with enough compelling television for fans to invest their time and energy in. Between splitting the rosters and the inevitable injury bugs that put top level performers at the least opportune moment (we miss you, Finn Balor), fans end up watching the same pairings over and over and wind up losing interest. Angles that come up just short of catching fire end up either petering out with a whimper, or even worse, face backlash when fans feel they’re on minute eighteen of the old fifteen minutes of fame.
Running a model of 12 to 19 pay-per-view style events waters down the product, burns through feuds and angles at too fast a rate and makes these Sunday night events feel like a continuation of free TV instead of the larger than life events we came to expect from the Royal Rumbles, the Wrestlemanias, the Starrcades, and the Great American Bashes of the past. While there may be short term pushback and the loss at the gate if Vince decided to pare back the number of PPV style events each year, it could have a long term net benefit. Creative would have more time to plan out feuds and storylines and devote more attention to nailing the little details that when done correctly, can elevate pro wrestling to a heightened art form.
In its current form, the WWE PPV slate is a lot like the Old Country Buffet. For $10 one can wander into your local OCB and stuff yourself silly with every kind of food imaginable. The problem is it isn’t good food. In fact, it’s actively bad food, the kind of food that sits in your belly like a rock for hours and makes you question every life decision you have ever made while pushing out a ten pound turd at three in the morning. Too often in the network era, the quality level of the PPVs feel like that greasy, cardboard pseudo feud you get at the all you can eat buffet.
Along with the big four, keep the Money in the Bank event (about which one could make a solid argument that it already surpasses the Survivor Series in importance) and add one event I’ll talk about below. Do away with every other event and don’t run brand exclusive pay-per-views. Throw everything you have at making these six events come across as must-see events and make sure every Monday and Tuesday night show builds towards these events. As it stands, there’s too many PPV events that feel slapdash and perfunctory.
Keep plugging away on Network exclusive events…
In order to make up for chopping the number of PPV events by two thirds, make exclusive Network events a bigger priority. Think back to the July 4th house show broadcast from Tokyo. How cool was it to wake up at a stupid hour of the morning in order to get a pro wrestling fix? That event, along with the occasional house show broadcast from Madison Square Garden, had a tonally different feel from a Roadblock or Backlash event. From the way the ring was lit to the scaled back entrances to the unique pairings on the card, fans felt they were getting something different and special.
Add events like the Cruiserweight Classic, which became an instant hit by presenting itself as a sport and brought in some of the best pure wrestlers from all over the globe. Fans were invested in the tournament and the wrestlers involved. It was pro wrestling at its best, despite the fact that the crusierweight division has struggled on Raw. Along with NXT, special events like this help attract a different type of hardcore fan who may have little to no interest in the core product of Raw/Smackdown/WWE PPV events.
Double down on the Women’s Division…
The nearly concluded 2016 has been an incredible year for the women of the WWE. For the first time in history, women headlined a WWE PPV event when Charlotte and Sasha Banks banged skulls at Hell in a Cell. Along with The Boss, burgeoning stars Bayley and Becky Lynch are as over with the fans as any of the male talent while Alexa Bliss continues to exude charisma and grow into her role as a cocky heel. Between the two brands, there’s a deep enough bench for WWE to try something way outside their comfort zone that would no doubt garner the mainstream attention they chase after.
Why not book a one-time, all-women PPV that combines the talent of both rosters. Charlotte has proven herself to be a genetic marvel that can go thirty plus minutes if needed (and if push came to shove, I don’t doubt she could do daddy proud and go full Broadway if they needed her to for one night only). There’s enough talent between the two brands to carry a two and a half hour PPV between 7-8 bouts.
Run with the hot hand…
You have to wonder if it drives Vince mad that despite pouring time and energy into original content for the Network like a reality show for Mick Foley, a sketch talk show for Edge & Christian, adult-themed animated shows (and don’t get me started on how the most mature programming on the whole network are freaking cartoons), and behind-the-scenes specials that the most talked about original show wound up being a post-game roundtable for the “B” show Smackdown. Yet somehow Talking Smack turned itself into must-see television.
Part of the appeal is it has allowed the performers to deviate from script. Rather than recite canned promos, the show gives the talent a chance to work off a guideline and then speak from the heart. This loosening of the restraints has led to a handful of the most talked about and shared moments of the year such as the heated exchange between Daniel Bryan and The Miz. Credit where credit is due, The Miz delivered one of the best promos in years and built on that moment to go from a bland mid-card heel to one of the best acts going on Smackdown this year.
WWE should take the heat they’ve garnered with this show and build on it. Instead, they’ve inserted 205 Live as a buffer between the end of Smackdown and the start of Smackdown Live. Don’t get me wrong. I would love the new Cruiserweight Division to survive and thrive, but there’s no reason this show couldn’t run on a thirty minute tape delay after SDL goes off the air. NXT tapes shows weeks in advance and we still love it like it was our first born child. Pushing the start of Smackdown Live back an hour kills off the enthusiasm and “gotta see it” now vibe the show has. That one hour in between sends a lot of would-be viewers off to bed or Netflix.
As it currently sits today, the WWE Network represents a stupid good value for fans. That ten bucks a month should be a no brainer for the three million or so that tune in to Raw every week, and its archives should pull in at least some of the millions of people who gave up on wrestling when ECW and WCW closed their doors. It may be a case of it being too much of a good thing. More likely though is the thought some fans have that it’s little more than an extension of what’s offered on free with nifty archives thrown in. By throwing in some little tweaks and solidifying what’s made it a success, the WWE has a chance to grow their base by a massive factor in the near future.
CHECK OUT SNOONIAN’S PREVIOUS COLUMN HERE: WWE’s missed golden opportunity to shake things up by going through with a Sami Zayn trade