Public backlash to WWE, Royal Rumble

A Brave New World
January 29, 2015
By: Daniel R. Browne, Wrestleview.com guest writer

Social media was about for a good while before WWE realised its potency. However, once revealed, the response was adroit and energetic. WWE has sought to reinvigorate itself and evolve within this brave, new world of instantaneously shared opinion. It now has more immediate access to the public – be they legitimate fans or browsing curios – than ever before. Problem is though, those same people are now infinitely better placed to spot the cracks, judge the decisions and torpedo the best of intentions. It is a symbiotic exchange between fan and product, occurring at a near-geometric rate. Vince McMahon believes he has discovered the 21st century wellspring: the essential ingredient necessary to ensure the continuing vitality of the WWE brand, and the preservation of his familial legacy into the years beyond his own demise.

To older generations, the technology behind this new ideal is akin to a post-science fiction dreamland. We now live in an age where a single portable device can connect an individual to millions of their contemporaries, through digital communication alone. This encompasses words, music, video and photography, and it occurs twenty-four hours a day: constantly and instantly. The wrestling industry remains a fundamentally conservative beast, and the initial attitude of WWE to the rise of the people’s internet confirms this assertion. Just a few years ago, WWE employed a plethora of individuals, tasked with rooting out any internet-based copyright infringement. YouTube, in particular, was a profound menace. Whilst WWE was busy re-writing history and polishing memory, YouTube was preserving the raw reality. Remember Scott Steiner’s profane request for a microphone upon his WWE debut? The parentally-guided WWE would really rather you didn’t, having excised his excited utterance from every subsequent replay and re-release featuring said event. Alas for WWE, the labyrinthine scope of YouTube’s streaming videos meant that for every one example discovered and removed, ten more versions were uploaded; the principles of private ownership and free speech run rampant. It was a battle WWE was never going to win.

For all the company gets wrong though, WWE is an ancient elephant of a corporation. Vince McMahon has ignored but seldom forgotten. There are times for warring and correspondingly, moments to make nice and learn a new trick. After wasting time and money attacking YouTube, Twitter and countless others, WWE smartened itself up. These forums were offering unlicensed snippets, grainy mementos and very little else. Though WWE wasn’t getting paid, the company was still being discussed in an open context by a compelling mix of well, everyone. One-time fans of the Attitude Era, who transcended wrestling as a source of entertainment, were suddenly on the receiving end of a vicarious ‘Stone Cold’ Stunner. They were talking, remembering and smiling. And there were millions of them. If this group could be reached casually, perhaps they could be recaptured formally. WWE grasped the wisdom of allowing the travelling masses the hint of what once was, in the hope that they might choose to embrace the present (and future). The copyright hunts were discontinued, and wrestling remained a major topic of interest and discussion on the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

This writer believes that it was in this moment, that Vince McMahon first realised his long-held desire for 24/7 WWE television was actually feasible. Ironically though, the medium that had played such a colossal role in building the original World Wrestling Federation, would be superfluous to the development of the concept we now know as the WWE Network. WWE wasn’t the only entertainment-based entity to suddenly become savvy. People in Hollywood began to ponder the viability of instant streamed access, but of complete programming and, in lieu of advertising, a subscription fee. The ultimate result of this corporate whimsy would sound the death toll for physical mediums such as DVD (which admittedly, isn’t dead just yet). It would also transform small, prescient entities like Netflix into billion-dollar, corporate-owned industry standards. WWE – and Vince McMahon – witnessed this rapid evolution of an industry and saw all their dreams coming true. By using this model, WWE could make a play for the hearts and minds of the attention deficit generation, whilst controlling every facet of programming shown. It was to be the future of wrestling.

As anyone reading this is probably aware, in wrestling (as in life) the road to prominence is seldom without obstacles. Vince McMahon demonstrated his everlasting hubris in so bluntly alienating the American cable and pay-per-view industry. Partners since the very inception of Wrestlemania in nineteen-eighty-five, the numerous cable companies were understandably outraged by the utter absence of warning prior to the original Network announcement. They responded by unceremoniously dumping WWE programming in droves. More problematic still were the dealings with BSKYB – British Sky Broadcasting – the longstanding British TV partner of WWE. Even Vince McMahon knows you can’t kid a kidder, and in Rupert Murdoch he was potentially jousting with the biggest dog in town (not to mention bitterest: Murdoch is a proper, ruthless bastard). After an infuriating game of bait-and-switch and a model bout of appeasement, Sky accepted new terms in exchange for the Network’s visibility, and the largest overseas market in the WWE business model gained access to the WWE Network.

Your writer dutifully signed-up for it, and it’s undeniably fabulous. I would’ve happily parted with my soul fifteen years ago for something vaguely on this level. WWE has finally granted extensive (if not totally comprehensive) lease to its gargantuan video library, and the result is the most exciting professional wrestling compendium in existence. Add to that some genuinely intriguing exclusive content, all the monthly supershows and the proverbial icing on the cake, Wrestlemania; all for £9.99 a month. WWE apparently has no concept of a monetary exchange rate, but even so it is – for a wrestling fan, at least – tremendous value. At this point though, I can hear one of my idols, the late, great Oliver Reed, remarking to me (and not Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins): ‘There’s the rub’. It’s all great, good and glorious, but I’m already a confirmed wrestling fan. It’s one thing to allow YouTube to eradicate an afternoon at no obvious expense. It is however, quite another to convince the long-departed journeymen to lay down roots and invest in programming – however much of it there might be – on a monthly basis. At the time of the original announcement, this was seen as the test and perhaps even, a gaping flaw in the proposed model. To wit, the growth of the Network has been somewhat tempestuous thus far. That’s putting it mildly.

WWE has apparently now reached one million subscribers, according to figures released in the last few days. It was originally claimed that an additional four-hundred-thousand domestic subscribers alone would be required to offset the hatchet job WWE inflicted on itself, apropos the US cable companies. This all needed to happen within the first year. That year is rapidly approaching its end, and the signs are still difficult to fully quantify. The Network is definitely growing, but it must now expand internationally whilst continuing to develop domestically. The initial response in the UK is not statistically known as of the time of my authoring this piece, but the anecdotal reaction seems to be positive. The aforementioned rub will be in keeping people signed-up when the slightest impulse – be it boredom or finance – may compel a person to cut their losses and cancel. This leads us rather nicely onto Sunday and the Royal Rumble.

WWE has made a bold, aggressive move into the foremost technological domains via its apps, mobile games and the Network. It has spent a fortune informing and achieving ubiquitous access to its content. WWE has seemingly embraced the new horizons that explicitly posit professional wrestling as a knowing, post-modern gladiatorial drama. Long gone are the days of steadfast Kayfabe and the zealously maintained principles of illusion and performance. Simple ‘suspension of disbelief’ is now the appropriate veneer of participation. It’s a ‘wink-wink, nod-nod’ arrangement: born of a desperate, McMahon-fuelled desire to be more than “just” wrestling and to achieve a cool, relevant, pop-culture status. The quality of the production is utterly mind-blowing. It is a machine of staggering finesse and control, and the packaging is truly seductive and impossible to ignore. But underneath it’s the same, old WWE mentality. The conservatism inherent to wrestling may have been somewhat vented by default (WWE is the only major gig around these days), but the paranoia and lust for absolute control remains. The McMahons are utterly convinced – and not without justification – that they built the global concept of professional wrestling. As such, they believe they have a blueprint for perpetual success and as a publicly-traded corporation, ‘success’ needs to remain married at all times to the sustained, perpetual and continuous.

If WWE was still answerable only to the McMahon bottom line, then John Cena would’ve likely hopped the fence many years ago. Vince McMahon knows that risk engenders reward, and he would have chosen to risk all those fluorescent t-shirt sales in the hope of capturing NWO-sized lightning in a bottle. Kids are a consistent source of cash, but they are fickle. They also have the temerity to grow up. As such, a genuine pop-culture icon is an enduring prize. The symbols of the Monday Night War – Austin 3:16; D-X ‘Suck It!’ and NWO 4 Life etc. – have become post-modernist expressions of nostalgia and longing. They have outlasted the era that birthed them, and now serve to inspire a powerful requiem to times long departed. And they are all still adding to the WWE bank balance circa two-thousand-and-fifteen.

The continued mistreatment of Daniel Bryan is symptomatic of that need for absolute control. These days, an aging Vinny Mac fears anything outside of the accepted domain, whilst paradoxically celebrating (and profiting from) the very monuments to a time when he took his boldest chances. Daniel Bryan has consistently upset the apple cart, essentially by not subsequently fading from view. He is a more earnest and less intense person than his most obvious parallel: Phil ‘CM Punk’ Brooks. Punk came to realise that the combination of ingrained, institutional arrogance and corporate fear was, for him at least, insurmountable. He elected to walk away, with injury his ultimate pretence. Daniel Bryan has received the same peculiar treatment. Much like Punk’s Pipe bomb persona, WWE was prepared to acknowledge the blending of fact and fiction in the rise of Daniel Bryan’s Yes Movement. As was the case with Punk, the rise of the Bryan phenomenon constituted compelling evidence of an overwhelming public desire for change in the face of established conventions. Herein lies the biggest test of resolve for Vince, Paul, Stephanie and WWE itself.

The WWE hierarchy has very reluctantly succumbed to the wishes of the people, whilst simultaneously resenting every second of the apparent necessity to do so. Daniel Bryan is not their choice. However far one wishes to pursue this question of an active “anti-Bryan” agenda, no permanent or current main eventer in company history has been treated as disposably as Daniel Bryan was, during the Royal Rumble. It is practically scripture that if a topliner is in the Rumble they are protected, either by circumstantial elimination or placement in the inevitable finale. Bryan was quite literally dumped on his arse in as unceremonious a fashion as one could imagine being possible to get away with, short of sparking a full-blown riot. The Philly fans – a raucous bunch at the best of times – proceeded to murder the match after Bryan’s elimination. It is important at this point to discuss the reasons for their behaviour, as a greater nuance exists than might’ve been immediately apparent. They were obviously annoyed that Bryan was gone, but it was the smugness of the booking that so enraged them. So arrogant was the structuring – from Bryan’s elimination onwards, and at the expense of several other performers favoured by the crowd – that many fans have assumed there must be a deliberate plan at work. No entity so dependent on fan approval could possibly be that wantonly ignorant and vindictive, right?

That’s the question to be answered. WWE has seldom encountered such an instantaneous public backlash, and the victory of the bland, uninspiring ‘next big thing’ Roman Reigns only served to pour kerosene on a raging inferno. He was not really to blame for the treatment he received, but he will remain the target for vitriol going forward, because WWE is now reaping the consequences of the open universe it has so greedily sought. It is an era where the illusion depends entirely on participation, and the irony crowd – as Damien Mizdow would attest – do not struggle to make themselves heard. These fans are knowledgeable and they can spot the differences between those deserving of the acclaim, and those being spoon-fed their stardom. Roman Reigns is simply not ready. He has “the look” but he is still developing as a character and worker. The potential is unquestionably there, but at this time he is just not the fans’ choice. They see him for what he is: the conservative, image-conscious, corporate heir apparent.

The brave new world has enfranchised even casual fans with the weapons and means to learn quickly and accurately, and to let millions at once know their feelings, positive or negative. They know that Daniel Bryan has been consistently denigrated by his employer; essentially just for being a well-travelled veteran before ever stepping foot in a WWE ring, and for not looking the part. He is diminutive and ungainly; sans the “superstar” look. He isn’t fantastical or possessed of an Adonis-like countenance. He looks like a scrawny wrestling fan come good, and said wrestling fans love him for it. Even when he is jobbed out, saddled with crappy dialogue and placed in foolish scenarios, the fans blame WWE. The company’s methodology, superficial preferences and nepotistic impulses are now – thanks to the world the company itself has helped to create – common knowledge. Last year’s Boo/Blue-tista phenomenon rather handsomely attested to this. It’s something of a pity that WWE apparently failed to notice.

Roman Reigns is a handpicked, genetically well-endowed ubermensch, and the fans are tired of such vacuous, obviously-designed shit. They feel insulted by it, and the spontaneous Network boycott campaign that rapidly emerged on Twitter is proof that such feelings are potentially very dangerous to WWE. Fans want something they can touch, feel and claim as their own. Another man enjoyed just such a connection with the fans once upon a time. You can still find him on YouTube, more often than not flipping the bird to his boss. On Sunday night in Philadelphia, a rather vocal section of the WWE paying public did exactly the same thing to said boss. The Network; Daniel Bryan; the post-Vince McMahon future… It’s all interconnected. In embracing the world that has given him his network, Vince McMahon opened a Pandora’s Box, and despite all the glitz, glamour and strong foundations of WWE, day can transform into night if the voices of the masses are not heeded. It is the oldest adage in entertainment: Give the people what they want. The Universe has spoken, and they don’t want a new Roman Empire. On the contrary, they want to watch their show and see their champion and as wrestling fans in unison, simply say ‘yes’.