The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
The internet community loves to complain about WWE, in fact, complaining about the largest wrestling company in the world is the very backbone of the Internet Wrestling Community. I had no problem saying this, the WWE product has been objectively not very good since I began writing these columns in January of 2013. Why is that though? There are countless explanations for why business in WWE is down and why people feel like the product is worse, some of which such as an heightened sense of cynicism in modern culture and an increase in the quantity of general television have nothing to do with WWE.
The argument that is always brought up when people question the quality of WWE is always "Why do you watch?" The logic being that if WWE was so bad that all you did was complain about it, why watch it? The answer, at least in my own personal theory, is that we watch WWE because we have for years and it is a big part of our lives that we don't want to give up. Even if WWE is bad right now, there are still parts of it that can be entertaining. At any time, the company may spring back into performing at a high-level, making it a worthwhile endeavor. It is just like watching a baseball team over the years. The team might be bad right now and you can complain about their poor play, but you are still going to follow the team and watch them; maybe their is a player you like who just happens to play on a losing team. Eventually, the losing team could get a few good players and a new coach and suddenly start playing well again, just like WWE could hit on a few big stars and some hot storylines. I never bought into the idea that you can't both be a fan of WWE and also be highly critical of the product.
If I was to pick the main reason WWE's current product felt subpar, and why the general wrestling community finds it to be lacking, the answer would be a lack of big stars. Ask any casual fan or someone who stopped watching the product years ago and they will likely tell you that nobody stands out the way wrestlers in the past did. The numbers will reflect that, as much as we may all like Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and AJ Styles, the cold hard truth is that when it comes to TV ratings and house show attendance, they don't move the needle that much. The only stars in WWE who seem to do that consistently are John Cena and the part-time wrestlers, like Goldberg, Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker.
If you ask former wrestlers or old wrestling curmudgeons, some of them will take stances that are frankly outdated and nonsensical. They will say the new guys don't know "how" to get over or that since there is no territory system, wrestlers are getting the development necessary to get it the way guys in the past did. That is baloney; for starters some of the big names in WWE that actually affect business, like Cena, Goldberg and Lesnar never came up through the territory system and actually received monster pushes early in their careers, so it isn't like they toiled away in anonymity perfecting their craft. When it comes to guys like Owens, Rollins, Styles, Ambrose, Zayn or whomever, they may not have worked the old territory system where they ran arenas every week, but it isn't like they just became wrestlers when they appeared on RAW. They worked for years in different territories in the US, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Europe, cutting promos, working crowds and refining their in-ring technique. The fact that they don't have the experience to get over is laughable.
So if there is nothing wrong with the current crop of talent that is coming into WWE, what is the problem? The issue, and this is the largest problem WWE has as a company, is that the television product does not get the wrestlers over. This is contradictory to what the goal of television is supposed to be; the more the stars are highlighted the brighter their star will shine. The opposite is actually true, the more someone is exposed on television, the less popular they seem to become. The reason that none of the current group of main event talent are true movers and shakers when it comes to financial numbers is because of the way they are booked on television.
WWE's for a while struggled with the inconsistent booking of their television shows. From 50/50 booking, to Vince McMahon famously changing the script at the last second, to an over-exposure of talent due to RAW being three hours long, the average episode of WWE TV often leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. If a talent is on WWE every week, chances are every once and awhile they are going to do something completely nonsensical or look like idiots, or a face will come off as a heel and vice-versa. The writing simply is not good or consistent enough for any long-term character to get over with the audience to the degree that stars of the past did; pure talent and skill can carry them to a "main event" spot on the roster and maybe get them a few world-title reigns, but at the end of the day they are just cogs in a machine that can be replaced by someone of a similar skill-level.
Let's take a look at Seth Rollins and how he has been booked over the past year. After heroically returning from an injury he remained a heel, even though fans were clamoring to cheer for him. That wasn't really that big of a deal because Rollins was still a great heel. The error was that he was then changed to be babyface and during his (scripted) promos, he was becoming a "good" guy only because The Authority were no longer assisting him in cheating, a psychology that doesn't make any sense and made fans not want to cheer for him.
Let's say that you have an acquaintance who you carpool with. Every day this guy speeds and gets pulled over by the cops, but he is really friends with all the cops and they always let him off the hook even though he isn't following the rules. One day he gets pulled over and the cops don't let him go; they got a warning from the State and they have to give him a ticket. Now every time you are in the car with this guy he complains endlessly about how the cops are giving him tickets now for speeding. Would you feel sympathetic towards that person? Of course not! If anything you would despise them even more because now all they are doing is complaining about being treated the same as everybody else.
That has basically been the story of Seth Rollins for the last nine months. He has called out Triple H for months without Triple H responding, so he shows up at NXT and tries to confront him but gets hauled away by security. The next night he is banned from the Royal Rumble so he doesn't appear on the show at all; keep in mind this is the second biggest event of the year for WWE so you would think they would try and get one of their babyfaces on the show. The next night on RAW, Triple H came out for the first time in months and talked for about 5-10 minutes. Rollins, who had been dying to get his hands on Triple H since August, took 10 minutes to come out while Triple H cut a babyface promo on what a loser Rollins was. Then when he finally came out, Samoa Joe came out and kicked the s--t out of him, injuring his surgically repaired knee and putting his prospective WrestleMania match against Triple H in jeopardy.
The sad thing is, Rollins has been one of the most prominent characters on WWE television over the last several months. WWE clearly wants Rollins to get over at the main event level, and in their opinion this is the best way to do that. If you examine Rollins' actions over the last year and look at what he does on a week-to-week basis; you can deduce that Rollins isn't over the way someone like The Undertaker, or Goldberg is and it isn't because he didn't work the territories or doesn't know how to get over. It is because he has been given a complete s--t souffle to work with, and consistently looks like a geek and a loser. The people don't cheer him and I don't blame them; nobody wants to support that kind of guy. He will still get cheers from fans who are educated enough to appreciate his natural talent, but that isn't enough of the viewing population to make a significant difference in business. As much as people want to say that kayfabe is dead, the company needs to at least organize their storylines in a way that makes people want to cheer (or boo) for the character.
Need another example of why the writing on television is the biggest problem? Look at who the most over people are on television; they are always the people who don't show up every week. Goldberg, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, they remain popular figures partly from nostalgia but also because they are not on RAW consistently enough to get their character screwed up. Lesnar has been involved with the company since 2012 and yet hasn't really lost any momentum. He has even been squashed by Goldberg on two separate occasions and is still over, and that is because they protect him really well and put care and effort into his storylines. If he was on RAW every week they wouldn't have the creative acquity to do that, and eventually he will look like an idiot enough times that his character would slowly lose momentum.
Something that poor television writing and planning has taken away from the company is the organic climb to achievement. In the 90s WWE had a very successful formula to building stars; look at Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. Both men started out as tag team wrestlers, eventually split with their partner and solidified a spot in the mid-card. Later, after slowly building momentum through important storylines (Hart vs Piper, Michaels vs Diesel) they became main event stars and helped carry the company. Triple H, The Rock and Steve Austin took similar routes, starting off not in the main event but slowly working their way up the card. That doesn't really exist anymore, and the reason for that is because WWE can't afford to leave guys in the midcard for that long because there writing is so bad that midcard guys are almost always made to look like losers, even more so than a guy like Rollins. This is why career mid-card guys like Dolph Ziggler struggle when they get put into the main event role, they have been booked to look so poorly over the years that fans can't possibly buy him as a legit top star.
Think about the top talent that has debuted on the main roster over the last five years, chances are they didn't come in as part of a mid-card tag team and work their way up. The Shield came in and were an immediate main event act, Owens worked with Cena and then Zayn worked with Owens. Styles came in, worked with Chris Jericho and then was world champion a few months later. When WWE needed a new top babyface for RAW, they did not look at their own mid-card but instead brought up Finn Balor from NXT. They did this because Balor is really talented, but also because they needed someone that hadn't been reduced to looking like a loser in the mid-card; they needed someone fresh because those are the only people whose careers' feel salvageable at this point. It is the same reason Samoa Joe came out and attacked Rollins--that role could have someone like Rusev, but we would have rolled our eyes and not taken it that seriously because Rusev has been a comedy act for some time now. It being Samoa Joe, someone that hadn't been booked to look weak, we all stood up and clapped because it was something genuinely exciting.
We can all hem and haw about what WWE needs to do--some of it is fair while some of the criticism might be unjust. Until WWE realizes how to consistently book their regular talent each week, we won't see much improvement in the product. We can still see the occasional great match and segment, but a long-term storyline that excites the fanbase, increases business and creates new stars is beyond the current system's reach. Until WWE takes what makes booking guys like Lesnar and Goldberg successful and applies it on a weekly basis to their own stars, they're really just going to be spinning their wheels and avoiding creating any new glory days.