Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: The Irrelevancy of WWE’s Stars

There exists a common criticism today that WWE has become lazy, and the booking of its product shortsighted. Many point to the fact that WWE has not created new main event stars in almost five years with few exceptions (CM Punk), that because of this the top of the card is nearly irrelevant since it’s the same performers month-after-month, and that even the midcard is completely irrelevant since there is no room for upward mobility. Many seem to believe that the company is clueless about what is happening on its own program and has no real plan on where it intends to go with its next generation of stars.

As a response to this, it should be pointed out that these criticisms completely misjudge or outright ignore the intentions of a company well in control of its future. These criticisms are ignorant of the fact that today WWE sells itself and its shows not on the power of its stars but rather on brand identification. In a strange sort of way, the only thing irrelevant in this entire argument is WWE’s stars.

While WWE had humble beginnings as a small regionally-based wrestling promotion in the northeast over the past three decades it has expanded into a multinational corporation with offices in countries all over the world. Today, WWE is no longer a wrestling company. It can’t even be considered an entertainment company. It’s a media conglomerate that owns a lucrative brand name and knows how to market it.

In the past decade alone the company has seen its peaks and valleys of popularity level off into a consistent state that rarely fluctuates. Its flagship television program, Monday Night Raw, consistently draws in the the same range from week to week and is consistently the highest rated program on cable. It biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania, consistently pulls in around 1 million buys regardless of the hype preceding the matches on it. For all intents and purposes, WWE’s business rarely changes for better or worse, which presents an interesting argument: WWE’s stars are irrelevant to the actual success of the company.

If the company continues to succeed in spite of terrible programming and a lack of star power, two attacks frequently leveled at it, then that means WWE has a core audience that identifies solely with the product as a brand name and has little care for the actual quality behind it. This would similar to a demographic that buys a brand name product such as a brand name cereal even though the cheaper, generic version is of a similar quality or better. The company itself has to be aware of this occurrence which would lead back to the early criticisms mentioned: that of the poor booking strategy.

The biggest criticism of WWE’s current booking strategy is the inconsistency with which it features new talent, constantly pushing and then depushing a star, thereby making it extremely hard for the crowd to identify with said star. Many seem to believe it’s just a scattershot, confused act on the part of WWE’s writers who have trouble maintaining interest in any one performer for extended periods of time.

As an ancillary to this idea, many also argue that even when stars do get pushed the stars that are chosen seem to be picked from a generic mold causing every new star to look the same so that a Ted Dibiase looks like a Randy Orton who also resembles a Cody Rhodes who bares a similarity to John Cena who vaguely resembles a Darren Young. Most often, these stars tend to be sculpted, attractive white males who come across as boring at worst and inoffensive at best. Their move sets also reflect this homogeneity to the point that many of their matches look the same with only a few trademark moves altered.

These criticisms both actually do hold a good deal of truth to them, although, the interpretation tends to be a bit off. The two play into each other in a unique way as each has a direct bearing on the other. WWE does follow an erratic pattern for most of its new stars, heavily pushing and then depushing them over time but this is done for a specific purpose: to maintain control over the popularity of a performer to prevent them from becoming too big. While this may seem counter-productive, it does actually hold valid reasoning behind it.

It’s not a stretch to imagine the company got burnt out on having stars like Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash use their star power, star power they obtained while working for WWE, against it to help rival organizations like WCW. And while that may have hurt, it was probably an even bigger blow to the company when The Rock completely abandoned it after becoming bigger than the company itself. Of course, the final mitigating circumstance in this behavior would likely have to be the one-two punch of Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley both jumping to MMA after WWE turned them, or attempted to turn them, into massive stars. Given MMA’s current ascension to heights much higher than that of wrestling at the moment, losing two of their top performers to it had to have instilled a sense of paranoia over how quickly stars should be pushed.

This then explains both the erratic booking strategy for new stars and the generic nature of those stars. With the former, its to maintain card position, and with the latter, the comapny created a bland, generic template for its stars so no one could become bigger than the business and hurt the company in the long run.

Essentially, WWE has gone out of its way to make its own stars irrelevant to the success or failure of its future. If the company can maintain itself as a successful business on the merits of its brand name then creating stars is both a waste of time and a risky proposition. Creating a new star requires time, effort, and money. Doing so also requires a strong commitment on the part of the performer. Until the company absolutely feels it needs to create a new star there is no point in doing so. WWE isn’t a wrestling company that relies on the drawing power of its performers; it’s a media conglomerate that owns a lucrative brand name and knows how to market it.

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