Caught in the Ropes- Why Hardcore Fans Don’t Matter…to the WWE

So, a few months ago I wrote a column critiquing Eric Bischoff’s comments regarding hardcore wrestling fans. Considering some recent developments in the world of wrestling, I felt that it would be worth discussing the matter from a different point-of-view, namely that hardcore fans as a group are neither as large or important as they may believe. I don’t know, consider it a thought exercise. I think it’s worth talking about how hardcore fans fit into the giant WWE equation rather than assuming that they make up the majority of the audience.

Let me reiterate: hardcore fans don’t matter…to the WWE. Telling hardcore fans, like those in the IWC, that their opinions and input aren’t important to their niche fandom is to ask for a pedantic, emotional firestorm, so I won’t begrudge anyone for not agreeing with me. It’s a controversial issue: to what degree do hardcore fans matter? If you’re discussing Ring of Honor, then the answer to that question would be, “A great deal.” But for big-time promotions, just as it is for big-time publishers or movie studios, the answer is, “Not a whole lot.” There’s been a lot of angry chatter on the internet about the direction the WWE is headed in, and I’ve been a part of it. However, the reality is that to the WWE, what we think, like, and hate about wrestling is unimportant insomuch that hardcore fans lack the numbers to really make a difference to their bottom-line, and what hardcore fans do support doesn’t necessarily appeal to the lucrative “casual” market.

Last week’s episode of Raw drew in an average of nearly 4.5 million viewers. That’s a lot of people, generally speaking. Now, how many so-called “hardcore” smark fans are out there in internet wonderland? That’s a sticking point in this kind of argument because there are no solid numbers to look at. Page views, forum numbers, and any other web statistic one can measure aren’t useful here. A number of people out there would claim that the number is larger than we think, due to the widespread proliferation of the internet today. However, that assumes that anyone who watches a pro wrestling video on Youtube or reads an article on PW Torch is a hardcore fan. I think any writer here on Inside Pulse Wrestling will tell you that not all of their commenters are hardcore fans, especially when the point of discussion centers around a popular star or promotion, like John Cena or the WWE. Being online doesn’t automatically equal “hardcore fan”, and in this kind of debate few will acknowledge that there’s an echo chamber effect with the internet. When hardcore fans are surrounded by chatter from other hardcore fans around the world, it creates the illusion that the community is massive, when in reality it’s relatively small.

Really, the notion that the act of discussing something online makes that individual a hardcore fan is an archaic idea that needs to go away. It’s a holdover from ancient times, when using the internet was considered a difficult undertaking primarily attempted by nerds, what with their insidious computer knowledge, so that they could flock to Usenet and the like to discuss various esoterica. The internet has now been simplified and popularized to the extent that the barriers to entry are relatively low, and the ability to discuss something online is no longer limited to the geek minority. So, in lieu of hard data, I’ll assume for the sake of this argument that the term “10%ers” is accurate and that hardcore fans only make up ten-percent of the viewing audience. Many will argue to the contrary, but there’s nothing out there that shows the hardcore-to-casual differential in wrestling to be any different than it is in other mediums.

Even in theory, the belief that the IWC community constitutes a large percentage of the viewership for the WWE is flawed. That’s like saying that the hardcore sci-fi fanbase is huge because Avatar raked in over $760 million dollars domestically or that the hardcore comic book fanbase is massive because 130,000 people attended Comic-Con in 2010 alone. The biggest and most popular event or franchise within a certain medium isn’t necessarily indicative of the number of dedicated fans. No, the number of fans attending indie shows in small, local venues is probably a better indicator. That’s the rub; the difference between a “casual” fan and a “hardcore” fan is a matter of degrees. The number of people within any medium willing to devote a significant portion of their free time to following, supporting, and interacting with said medium is always going to be small. Most fans can watch a show once or twice a week, sparsely attend live events, and occasionally check out something online if they’re curious enough. Hardcore fans need to consume as much as possible, even if they don’t like the product specifically, because one of the compulsions of hardcore fans is to accumulate information and form opinions on almost everything they can. Even if said fans don’t watch WWE programming, most of them will read spoilers or reviews, check out specific matches, and engage in a dialogue about the product. For a casual fan, that’s a lot of time and energy spent on something they’re not engaging with. Not so for hardcore fans.

Since hardcore fans spend so much time consuming information and building opinions, they’re often far more locked into those opinions and are therefore more difficult to sway. See, the WWE knows that there are hardcore fans out there who will watch every minute of their programming they can, and there are those that won’t watch any of their programming no matter what they do. It’s hard to get a hardcore WWE mark to admit that their pet promotion is flawed, and it’s just as difficult to get that promotion’s detractors to admit when they’ve done something right. Generally speaking, the hardcore fans who like the product are going to stick around no matter what they do, and the hardcore fans who hate it aren’t going to turn around and embrace it either. So not only is the hardcore fanbase small in size, it’s also rigidly divided, and most discussions regarding the worth of the promotion or its stars becomes almost ideological. Look at some of the recent discussions regarding the worth of Mark Henry’s championship reign. The dialogue is often hostile or combative, which results in largely unproductive discussions that only manage to widen the schism between these opposing groups.

Well, hardcore fans might be small and divided, but they provide loads of free marketing, right? Not so much. To frame the issue, let’s look at one of 2006’s biggest box office disappointments: Snakes on a Plane. Regardless of the film’s quality, which is another issue entirely, this was one of the first films where pre-release internet buzz and con-attending nerd promotion became central to its marketing. When the movie was first greenlit, New Line figured the project would end up being a mildly successful, moderately budgeted horror movie. It wasn’t until internet fans and hardcore nerds picked up on the movie’s ridiculous title that things really started to take off, and New Line thought they might end up with a surprise smash hit. That didn’t happen, and while the movie didn’t lose money per se, it failed to perform up to the hype, and that leads to the big issue with hardcore fans marketing a product.

What hardcore fans want is not what casual fans want, by and large. Hardcore fans, since they consume more of a product and interact with it to a greater degree than casual fans, develop specific tastes and want those products to meet certain goals. Many hardcore fans on the internet took to Snakes on a Plane primarily because it appealed to their somewhat tiresome appreciation of “ironic” humor. They saw a potential goldmine of ironic comedy, but casual audiences just saw a silly-sounding movie. In the same way, hardcore wrestling fans love great in-ring work, hence the widespread popularity of guys like Bryan Danielson among members of the IWC and their ilk. But if you look at the one uniting characteristic that ties most, if not all, of wrestling’s most popular mega-stars together, it’s not wrestling. Hulk Hogan, in a recent interview, said that getting a character down verbally is more important to getting over than anything else, and for once he’s totally right. If the WWE wants to return to the salad days of professional wrestling, they need charismatic talent that can talk up a storm, the kind of men and women who are capable of crossing over into mass-media and pop-culture rather than just appealing to the already established base. More casual fans will flock back to wrestling to support guys like Stone Cold, The Rock, Hulk Hogan, or Ric Flair regardless of how well, or poorly, they wrestle.

Back in 2009, the WWE announced that Raw had its best summer, ratings-wise, since 2001, averaging around 5.7 million viewers per episode. If you take a look at a couple of paragraphs earlier, you’ll note that current ratings are down more than a million viewers, on average, from two years ago. When you hear the WWE complain about ratings, buy-rates, or attendance figures, they’re not talking about hardcore fans disappearing, they’re talking about casual fans. Hardcore fans are more likely to stick with a product through bad years, whereas casual fans are easily bored and willing to jump ship if the product isn’t keeping their attention. The money is in the casual fanbase, not the hardcore, and I think hardcore fans need to understand that. If one looks at some of the prescriptions (some, not all) hardcore fans prescribe to fix what’s ailing the WWE, they’re built out of parts that appeal to the hardcore fans themselves, and not what appeals to casual fans. But let’s be honest, that’s not what the WWE is concerned with.

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