On the surface, professional wrestling may seem like a joke, filled with theatrics and larger than life personalities. However, after a closer inspection, it’s a business that has been profitable for over 100 years in this country. From the days of the traveling carnivals to the now sweeping promotional work of World Wrestling Entertainment, wrestling has always found a way to survive. In spite of that, the sport has fallen on hard times recently, with less of half of its audience from 1998 still watching today. How did this happen?
These pieces helped me come to the realization that many of the fans that watched the sport during its apex in the late ‘90s don’t watch anymore for a bevy of reasons. If the promoters directly responsible for what is shown on TV don’t change course soon, the show may continue to lose more viewers.
The book “Ring of Hell” by Matthew Randazzo V goes into depth about the suicide of professional wrestling icon Chris Benoit, but it also draws extensive parallel to the harsh working environments many of the athletes must death with on a day to day basis. It also shows how much the sport changed from the late ‘80s when Benoit first got involved, going from simulated athletic competition to more pageantry and entertainment. This facet is easily the biggest reason why fans don’t watch anymore.
However, the fans have been leaving in droves after the end of the “Attitude Era,” a time from 1996-1999, when the company ran raunchier storylines and had some of the top young stars in the business. In “WWE Ratings Need Return of Austin and McMahon,” which appeared in The Toronto Sun in 2002, we see the beginning of what the industry is now. In 2002, the company was desperately trying to shake up its stories, to no avail. As a matter of fact, they were causing ire in the wrestling community, as legend Hulk Hogan took his time returning to the company after they had a necrophilia storyline run on their flagship show. Storylines like this and less wrestling have eliminated fans that want actual wrestling powered by storylines they can believe, rather than outlandish and shock TV.
The problem of stories that were provocative was only one problem. With so many stars either retiring, dying or doing into other genres of entertainment, the WWE had to create new stars to take their place. That process has never fully taken shape however, as many wrestling fans feel the newer wrestlers lack the same magnetism of the stars of the ‘90s. In “WWE Feels the Pain; Wrestling stumbles and looks for a new star brute,” in Broadcasting & Cable, by Paige Albiniak in 2003, it’s apparent that with the loss of household names such as The Rock and Hulk Hogan, the WWE has had to develop new stars and hasn’t been able to. Ironically, this is still the case eight years later. Albiniak also states that ratings, at that point were down 41 percent from the late ‘90s. At the same time, she gets sources to admit that wrestling has always been cyclic, as with the entrance and exit of new stars, the ratings should adjust accordingly. However, nearly a decent later, the ratings still aren’t back to where they once where.
Four years after in 2007, Variety’s John Dempsey wrote “WWE in ratings decline,” which addresses the continued dip in ratings, this time coming from the suicide of legend Chris Benoit from apparently roid-rage. While the ratings were already beginning to dip before this moment, many believe this incident was the catalyst for many loyalists to leave. If anything else, the company lost its best technical wrestler and was forced to begin to change their programming methods. Another point Dempsey makes is that this is the moment where the WWE should have begun to help their workers deal with the stress of the sport, but has not begun that process.
With a lack of new stars, an inability to write storylines and a declining audience, the WWE is in trouble of losing even more of its once stronghold on pop culture.
Nevertheless, the company is attempting to solidify its presence. In addition to launching a film brand in 2006, the company also plans to start its own network by 2015. It has also addressed the concerns of its fans to recruit new and engaging talent.
In a business wire release in April, company PR announced In addition to focusing on the expansion of the company, the company announced it “will bolster its core business with the launch a new talent development department headed by Paul ‘Triple H®’ Levesque. The new department will put a greater emphasis on worldwide recruitment, training and character development to identify future WWE Superstars and Divas. The first recruit acquired under Levesque’s new department was the signing last month of future WWE Superstar, Sin Cara(TM), formerly known worldwide as Mistico.”
There’s no way of knowing if these new ventures alone will save the sport and rekindle it to its former glory. It’s obvious however by their zest and ability to try new methods to attract fans that they’re not looking to go down for a three count.